April 28, 2011


me (+ ME): Totalitarian art

I am around, but am still trying to get things done on my computer that take time and  energy, but here is something that struck my eye because I am interested in totalitarianism - the link is to my Philosophical Dictionary, and I quote its beginning to fix my use of terms and their meanings:

Totalitarian: Ideology or religion that is pretended to have final answers to many important human questions and problems and that is pretended to be thereby justified to persecute persons who do not agree with the ideology or the religion.

This is the usual form that every human ideology assumes - religious, political and otherwise, with science as the almost only partial exception.

The reason for the first property that defines a totalitarian attitude is apparently in part political and in part zoological:

One very important end ideologies and religions serve is to provide a human social group with a set of shared agreed upon supposed truths for the group and supposed ends of the group, and it is simply convenient and also seems to feel pleasant to most humans if these supposed truths and supposed ends simply are taken to hold for everyone, or at least for everyone who has the fundamental decency and human excellence of belonging to Us.

The reason for the second property that defines a totalitarian attitude derives from the first property plus the fact that ideologies and faiths of a social group serve to define and defend the group's territory and practices.

It usually takes the form of forbidding to think or argue critically about the fundamental assumptions of the religion or ideology and of insisting that following the religious or political authorities is morally good and socially rewarding, and that not following the religious or political authorities is morally bad and socially punishable.

So if that is what "totalitarian" means - and I defined it in my terms, but that is not very deviant from the accepted sense(s) - what is "totalitarian art"? Well, I use my Philosophical Dictionary again, and once more give only the opening:

Art: Skillful applications of conscious fantasy that aim at making experience more interesting, beautiful or pleasant.

Put otherwise: Art is the creation of interesting, beautiful or pleasant artefacts that arise from the imagination, and indeed technology (also art = techne in Greek) is the creation of useful artefacts that arise from natural knowledge.

Products of art tend to be more intense, more concentrated, more dramatic than the (supposed) reality they imaginatively represent or enhance.

What does totalitarian art have to do with kitsch, understood as art for the masses or the stupid, where all things artfully displayed are idealized, exaggerated, and presented as they should seem to be, according to some schema of values, all in a crude, blatant way that makes the meaning to be conveyed also easily comprehensible for the uneducated masses - for which reasons totalitarian art, kitsch and advertisement are rarely abstract, and usually "realistic", but with a kitschy sauce spread thick over it everywhere:

             F.S. Shurpin, The Morning of Our Fatherland (1948)
             (The Vojd, some 10 years after his Great Terror,
presumably enjoying a new dawn)

If the values are political or religious, and also often if not, for much advertisement also is totalitarian and kitschy in its stances, promises and techniques, though it tends to be less comprehensive in its totalitarianism than political and religious totalitarian art, it becomes propaganda (and again I quote my dictionary):

Propaganda: Slanted, biased, prejudiced or partial presentation of something that is meant to produce a state of belief that is not proportional to the evidence.

Most points of view people get exposed to are kinds of propaganda, whether political, religious or economical. And indeed, the last kind of propaganda, also known as advertising, is the most expensive and well-paid kind of writing or filming there is, and the sort of information most people are most exposed to.

Now what does kitsch (<-Wikipedia) have to do with totalitarian art and propaganda? A lot, if not necessarily because "all art is propaganda", as Orwell said, if only because some art is not propaganda. I quote from the last-mentioned wikipedia article:

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), defined it as "the absolute denial of shit". He wrote that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult with which to come to terms, offering instead a sanitized view of the world, in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions".

In its desire to paper over the complexities and contradictions of real life, kitsch, Kundera suggested, is intimately linked with totalitarianism. In a healthy democracy, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable consensus; by contrast, "everything that infringes on kitsch," including individualism, doubt, and irony, "must be banished for life" in order for kitsch to survive. Therefore, Kundera wrote, "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch."

Indeed - and I have arrived at the article that triggered the present Nederlog:

This is a review by Kanan Makyia of the second edition of the book "Totalitarian Art" by Igor Golomstock - and I quote from Makyia's review:

But what exactly makes something totalitarian art? In his important and encyclopedic tome on the art produced under the twentieth century's four most brutal political systems -- the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China -- Igor Golomstock makes it clear that he is writing not about "art under totalitarian regimes" but rather about "totalitarian art," a particular cultural phenomenon with its own ideology, aesthetics, and style. This type of art did not arise because of common threads running through Soviet, German, Italian, and Chinese culture; the cultural traditions of the countries, Golomstock holds, are "simply too diverse" to explain the stylistic and thematic similarities among totalitarian works. He collects these similarities under the term "total realism," a genre that has its roots in the socialist realist art of the Soviet Union after 1932, when Stalin decreed it the only type of art acceptable. 

As Golomstock argues, the similarities within totalitarian art demonstrate "the universality of the mechanisms of totalitarian culture." 

Golomstock arrived at this insight in the late 1950s when he was working as a children's guide in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, in Moscow. 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. "It was then," he writes, "in the bowels of the totalitarian system, 'in the belly of the whale,' that I first had the idea of this book: it arose from an intuitive sense of the strange closeness between two artistic systems that were . . . ideologically hostile to one another."

Quite so - and having been born and educated in a Dutch communist family, the Soviet art and Stalin's enormous fondness of seeing his image everywhere in heroic poses was the first reason for me to start believing my parents might not have been seeing all things all the right ways - and I must have been 6-8 when this struck me, especially because of Stalin's fondness of seeing Stalin's picture everywhere, which to me at that age seemed rather childish and also quite odd.

But I have not read Golomstock's book, and I quoted from a review of it with which I don't quite agree, since it sounds a bit too postmodern to me - as e.g. in this passage, with my bolding:

The fundamental distinction that needs to be made here, one ignored by Golomstock, is between, on the one hand, an artist's rhetoric and the political ideas he or she holds (including the meaning given to his or her own work) and, on the other hand, the work itself (..)

which may be so, but misses or avoids the central point: That artists producing totalitarian art generally sold their souls - so to speak - to the dictators their art propagandizes. Indeed, here I am relatively kind to the artists, in that I rarely believe they did not know they were engaging in propaganda and lies, since their works is clearly propaganda for the masses, and clearly is articulating political or religious prejudices, for money or protection.

But the subject of totalitarian art - art as state propaganda, especially, in the 20th Century - is rather fascinating if also irksome, just because it is all so kitschy, stupid and pretentiously grandiose and bombastic. Here is a good picture gallery of it, mostly about Mussolini's, Hitler's and Stalin's totalitarian art:

And here is Il Duce Benito Mussolini - he of "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state", followed by a quote by Marly Silverman, who seems to like that manner of stuff, as indeed do very many people, though they tend to not let on unless there is a Duce, Führer or Vojd who may reward them for it:


One Voice, One Community, One Cause™ (Marly Silverman's copyrightTM, it seems, though Benito was there first, really: "One state, one people, one leader"; "One single heart, one single will, one single decision" and it seems not unlikely to me at all that he also gave voice to Marly's trademarked cri de coeur as well, in his native italian, before she or I were born - and see e.g. my me+ME: The Sacred Cow of Unity - a manipulative trope).

Anyway.... if you are interested in the topic of totalitarian art, the Werckmeister site contains an interesting gallery of pictures. It also illustrates wishful thinking, hypocrisy and the powers of groupthinking very well.

P.S. Corrections, if any are necessary, have to be made later.

And being fundamentally kind hearted and fair I hasten to add that Ms Silverman probably did not know any of the above - for if she did, the implications are not nice.

As to ME/CFS (that I prefer to call ME):

1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS (pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf)
5. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

6. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
7. Paul Lutus

Is Psychology a Science?

8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)

Short descriptions:

1. Ten reasons why ME/CFS is a real disease by a professor of medicine of Harvard.
2. Long essay by a professor emeritus of medical chemistry about maltreatment of ME.
3. Explanation of what's happening around ME by an investigative journalist.
4. Report to Canadian Government on ME, by many medical experts.
5. Advice to psychiatrist by a psychiatrist who understands ME is an organic disease
6. English mathematical genius on one's responsibilities in the matter of one's beliefs:
   "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence".
7. A space- and computer-scientist takes a look at psychology.
8. Malcolm Hooper puts things together status 2010.

    "Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!

No change, no pause, no hope! Yet I endure.
I ask the Earth, have not the mountains felt?
I ask yon Heaven, the all-beholding Sun,
Has it not seen? The Sea, in storm or calm,
Heaven's ever-changing Shadow, spread below,
Have its deaf waves not heard my agony?
Ah me! alas, pain, pain ever, forever!
     - (Shelley, "Prometheus Unbound") 

    "It was from this time that I developed my way of judging the Chinese by dividing them into two kinds: one humane and one not. "
     - (Jung Chang)


See also: ME -Documentation and ME - Resources

Maarten Maartensz (M.A. psy, B.A. phi)

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