Art For Tyrants

by Brendan James

Iraqi army MIA1 Abrams tanks march under

Kanan Makiya reviews Igor Golomstock’s Totalitarian Art, now updated with a new section on Makiya’s homeland of Iraq:

One cannot think of a more perfect example of the totalitarian artistic impulse than Saddam’s insistence that a cast of his own forearms be used as the mold from which the Victory Arch was to be made. But in general, depictions of the leader, perhaps the most common subject of total realism, had to be mythologized. It would not do, for example, for a Soviet artist to depict Stalin as the short, pockmarked, bandy-legged man that he really was. His physical attributes, as in F. S. Shurpin’s portrait The Morning of Our Fatherland, had to undergo the same transformation as Stalin’s version of history, to be turned into what the writer Milan Kundera so eloquently referred to as “the beautifying lie.”

He takes issue with Golomstock’s dismissal of art under Saddam:

Totalitarian art is only interesting when the best artistic talent engages in it, and this is what happened in Iraq.

Under Hitler, many of the best artists went into exile, continuing modernism on the more welcoming shores of the Unite[d] States. (The consequences of choosing not to flee can be severe: the poet Mayakovsky stayed on in Stalin’s Russia, which may have had something to do with why he shot himself in 1930.) In Iraq, by contrast, most of the talented artists of the 1950s and 1960s collaborated with the new regime. Ghani Hikmat and Khalid al-Rahal, two of the most promising young Iraqi talents in the 1960s, went on to carry out such total realist monstrosities as the Victory Arch and the Monument to the Unknown Soldier in the 1980s. They did so because their project of the reappropriation of Iraqi turath, or “heritage,” was hijacked by the Baath Party, which found it politically parallel to its own idea of a Baathist-led “renaissance” of Arabness.

It’s also likely that the lack of a coherent, monolithic ideology in Baathist Iraq allowed for more varied and interesting art. Iraq was always a totalitarian state in practice, but never really in theory: unlike its Stalinist and fascist forebears, it never sported a pure, overarching mythology on par with Marxism-Leninism or Hitler’s Nietzschean race theory—just a vision of brutal Arab nationalism with Saddam as messiah.

As a result, the state had no real literary or artistic doctrine to enforce and no need to purge the artistic class for ideological credentials. You either had the talent to glorify Saddam, or you didn’t. It seems much closer to the status of art under Mussolini, as described by Makiya:

Whereas Hitler and Stalin used both threats and rewards to co-opt artists, Mussolini used only the latter, and so pre-Fascist Italian culture was never laid to waste the way German and Russian culture were.

Of course, as Makiya also notes, the boundaries of Saddam’s hodgepodge ideology left no room for a true Arab renaissance. Under the interrogation lights, all art will eventually wither away, and before long, proper tributes to the president have to be designed by the president himself. Whether in Stalin’s imperium or a tiny Arab prison-state, the words of Czeslaw Milosz apply:

This way of treating literature (and every art) leads to absolute conformism. Is such conformism favorable to serious artistic work? That is doubtful. The sculptures of Michelangelo are completed acts that endure. There was a time when they did not exist. Between their non-existence and existence lies the creative act, which cannot be understood as a submission to the “wave of the future.” The creative act is associated with a feeling of freedom that is, in its turn, born in the struggle against an apparently invincible resistance. Whoever truly creates is alone.

And you’re never alone with Big Brother around.

(Photo: Iraqi army MIA1 Abrams tanks march under the victory Arch landmark during a parade to mark the 91st Army Day in Baghdad on January 6, 2012, weeks after US troops completed their pullout. By Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images)