Friday, September 2, 2011

What Is To Be Done?

In a review essay in Foreign Affairs (“What Is Totalitarian Art?Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011), Kanan Makiya, Sylvia K. Hassenfeld Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis, asks, “But what exactly makes something totalitarian art?” This question comes up in Makiya’s review of the second edition of Igor Golomstock’s Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People’s Republic of China. He quotes Golomstock as saying that the cultures he deals with are “simply too diverse” to account for the phenomenon and characteristics that unite the art of the Third Reich, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union, and The People's Republic of China. “As Golomstock argues, the similarities within totalitarian art demonstrate ‘the universality of the mechanisms of totalitarian culture,’” Makiya writes. Makiya’s essay is fascinating not only because of the subject matter, but because of the biography of the writer he is reviewing, whose job was to lead children through the Pushkin Museum long before the words glasnost or perestroika became significant historical reference points. “He discovered that children who were well versed in the Stalinist art of the previous decades were unable to tell the difference between Nazi and Soviet works,” comments Makiya. It was in his capacity as a tour leader, experiencing this seeming aporia, that Golomstock formulated his ideas about art. Makiya’s review covers many fascinating elements of Golomstock’s apparently seminal work, including the ephemerality of totalitarian artwork, which “seems to be rejected once the political conditions that led to its creation are lifted.” The Victory Arch in Baghdad, alluded to in Makiya’s piece, and modeled from Saddam’s “own forearms,” is one of the most searing examples of such transience.

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