Two Cheers for Totalitarian Art

Some of it's good, and the rest is ripe for mocking

The propaganda art of totalitarian countries falls into three rough categories. At the lowest level, there are the ubiquitous portraits of the Beloved Leader -- Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung -- that come bundled with a personality cult. A small step up from that are the kitschy orthodoxies of socialist realism and Nazi architecture: iconic, "heroic," and never, ever degenerate.

And then there's the genuinely inventive stuff. Authoritarianism and individual expression do not generally walk arm in arm, but there have been times and places where they did: in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s, for example, or the lively posters of Castro's Cuba. The latter are on display in Revolución: Cuban Poster Art (Chronicle Books), a colorful collection assembled by Lincoln Cushing, a librarian at the University of California at Berkeley. This art represents a paradox, particularly when its bold designs are attached to clumsy, grating slogans: "Pull Together With Efficiency and Quality," "Anti-Imperialist Unity Is the Tactic and Strategy for Victory," "We Advance, Inspired by the Beautiful Socialist Cause." It's as though the lyrics to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony were drawn not from Schiller's Ode to Joy, but from a rather severely written instruction manual.

The tension does not disappear when the slogans are absent. Aside from some film posters, these are propaganda pieces; their political purpose is inescapable. This is disturbing even when the cause being advanced is itself unobjectionable. There is a difference, after all, between an American poster protesting the Vietnam War and a poster produced in Cuba for the same purpose. The first expresses one artist's dissenting opinion. The second expresses the official view of a regime with little tolerance for dissent. It brings to mind not just the cause on display but the causes that are absent: There are posters here protesting the U.S. presence in Vietnam but not the Soviet presence in Afghanistan; the mistreatment of blacks in the United States but not the mistreatment of blacks in Cuba; the persistence of imperial rule in Africa but not the persistence of imperial rule in the Baltic republics.

In short, this book isn't exactly a testament to artistic freedom. Cushing's running commentary is sympathetic to Castro's revolution, but even he notes that "almost every designer has anecdotes of creative work thwarted by political inappropriateness or bureaucratic thickheadedness."

Yet these are delightful posters: playful, colorful, sometimes remarkably abstract. Shapes morph into one another: a flag is also a crowd, a chess piece is also a grenade, a map of South America is also a fist. George Jackson, a Black Panther slain in a prison shootout, bleeds star-spangled red, white, and blue. It's not hard to see why even an apolitical American might want to hang reproductions of these pages on his walls.

Indeed, there's a substantial demand in the U.S. for the artifacts of Red rule, a market that extends well beyond that small segment of the population with Marxist sympathies. It also extends well past material that has indisputable artistic merit. The Western appropriation of communist kitsch thrived during the Cold War, for purposes both earnest and ironic, and it has not abated since then. If anything, the fall of the Berlin Wall has unleashed a flood of art from East to West: from the sculpture of Lenin that now stands on a Seattle street corner to the equally Bolshevist statuary at Red Square, a proletarian-themed restaurant in Las Vegas.

All this has prompted much aghast commentary, usually from professional conservatives. Michael Medved denounced Seattle's statue on his radio show, while FrontPage published a 1,500-word rant against it. (Its conclusion: "Enjoying the aesthetic quality of Lenin's images, therefore, is a luxury that communism's victims can ill afford.")

It's hard to take such critiques seriously. True, there's a cadre of Castroites who will buy Cushing's book for its politics, along with nonsocialists who merely like the pictures. But that clearly isn't what's happening in Seattle or Vegas -- it's obvious that those statues are jokes. You could argue, I suppose, that tyranny shouldn't be a joking matter. But the people who actually lived under communism made wisecracks about it all the time, and I don't see why the rest of us should be left out of the fun.

Ideologues will still cluster around art that is defensible on its own aesthetic terms, like the posters in Revolución. The rest is up for grabs, and there's nothing anyone else can do about it -- not Medved, not FrontPage, and not poor Vladimir Ilyich, once master of Russia, now reduced to loitering by a Seattle taco joint.

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