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IN CONTEMPORARY ART, anything goes. Anything, that is, except for art made explicitly at the behest of the world’s most authoritarian nations. Such “official art,” to follow this line of reasoning, cannot be contemporary, since it lacks any awareness of the present beyond that defined by an all-controlling state. But the path through which official mandates become realized on canvas or in stone is hardly straightforward. The resulting works often say more about the present than might otherwise be inferred from their seemingly identical subjects or styles. That so many paintings produced outside the neoliberal metropoles remain firmly wedded to socialist realism, for example, may be regarded less as a quaint anachronism than as a willful desire to stay deep within the time of Communism’s dawn—however quixotic such intentions might seem post-1989.

Then there are works whose creators

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