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Totalitarian art


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A term which has been applied to art produced in the 20th century in authoritarian states that refuse to tolerate any form of expression that does not conform to official ideology. It is applied particularly to art in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia, so the 1930s can be seen as marking the peak of Totalitarian art (an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1995 was entitled ‘Art and Power: Europe under the Dictators, 1930–45’). There is a good deal in common between the artistic policies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, both of which fostered subjects that glorified their respective countries, depicted in a style of academic realism (see National Socialist art and Socialist Realism), but Fascist Italy was comparatively liberal in this respect: it had no official artistic policy, using both conservative and avant-garde styles for propaganda (see Futurism and Novecento Italiano). Igor Golomstok's book Totalitarian Art (1990) includes the People's Republic of China as well as Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. He identifies the cult of the leader as a common factor. The arguments of this Russian émigré art historian are controversial and even provocative to those who have continued to object to any equation between the dictatorships of the left and the right. Golomstok does, however, draw attention to many similarities in the kind of art which was demanded, especially in the insistence of the cult of leader, at times reaching a quasi-religious level, combined with the demand for aesthetic conservatism.

Reviewing the 1995 Hayward exhibition, the art historian Julian Stallabrass argued that the concept of totalitarianism as a blanket term to cover Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was primarily a product of the West's Cold War propaganda (Art Monthly, December 1995–January 1996). On the cultural front, at least, the perception of an equation precedes the Second World War. It was apparent in responses to the sculpture at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, at which massive figures by Joseph Thorak and Vera Mukhina were in confrontation, like prizefighters sizing each other up. Clement Greenberg's 1939 essay ‘*Avant-garde and Kitsch’ examined the relationship between dictatorship and the imposition of artistically conservative culture, which he saw as a means by which those who had little interest for the welfare of the masses flattered them by accommodating their tastes. It should be noted that neither Golomstok's nor Greenberg's arguments are entirely comforting to Western liberalism. For the former there are uncomfortable affinities between Totalitarian art and the avant-garde's demands for art as a tool for the radical transformation of society. Greenberg, writing at the time as a Trotskyist, saw the mass culture of America as just as much a manipulative force as the art imposed by the dictators.

Subjects: Art.


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