“Art and Propaganda”

Deutsches Historisches Museum

To historicize and culturally process authoritarian thinking can be seen as a form of mimesis—a therapeutic enterprise that provides the means to transfigure pain into amusement through representation. But the remedy may also be the poison—an ambiguity captured in the Greek word pharmakon, and a notion that should be kept firmly in mind when considering the imagery exhibited in “Art and Propaganda: Clash of Nations 1930–1945,” which surveys the phenomenon as it was manifested in the United States, Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The exhibition was divided into four sections: the image of the leader, images of the individual and society, images of work and development, and images of war, with each section offering a comparative viewing of the theme’s handling by the selected nations.

American propaganda, as shown here, is largely limited to the rhetoric of a “we-presentation,” as in works from the WPA Federal Arts Project and Seymour Fogel’s The Wealth of the Nation, 1938. Here, proletarians are no longer, as Marx put it, “estranged from . . . intellectual potentialities,” thanks to their joyful interaction with a scientist and an architect. As for Italy, much of its art produced under Mussolini was modernist (e.g., Futurist) in form and fascist in content (often with direct reference to Il Duce, or his war machine). Both characteristics are evident in Gerardo Dottori’s Il fondatore dell’Impero (The Founder of the Empire), 1936.

The majority of the German works in the show come from the permanent collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum. The American government allowed for a partial restitution of most of these works in 1986, holding onto four hundred items deemed “potentially dangerous” and another fifty as “trophies of war” still hanging, according to the exhibition catalogue, in the offices of top generals in the Pentagon. What remains unanswered is whether Nazi art can ever be safely museologized. One has no way of really knowing whether its venom remains potent, and those who regard it as neutralized probably need a reality check.

Among the apt choices made by the curatorial team (Hans-Jörg Czech and Nikola Doll) was the decision to exhibit Paul Klee’s Von der Liste gestrichen (Crossed Off the List), 1933, displaying a black cross pasted onto a human head to signify Klee’s defamation by the Nazis. He made it the year he immigrated to Switzerland—a move that would have been far more problematic if he had lived in Russia. In the early ’70s, a friend of mine told me that Henry Kissinger struck a deal with Leonid Brezhnev, who agreed to give exit visas to 20,000 Jews in exchange for an American car, a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. On April 29, 2000, after dinner at the American Academy in Berlin, I asked Kissinger if the story was true. He confirmed it, but added that the car was a Cadillac, not a Chevrolet.

In the Soviet Union, those in power must have believed that having their portraits made would extend their dominion on earth beyond the boundaries of natural life, semi-immortalizing them, as it were. This imaginary immortality, granted to the signifier on the basis of its resemblance to the referent, is a triumph of mimesis. Nothing else can explain the widespread predilection for portraying the dead “Father of the Country” as a living man. In America, it is George Washington; in Russia, it is Lenin, depicted in Boris Iofan’s project for Dvorets Sovetov (The Palace of Soviets), 1937–40, in which the enormous statue of the dead leader stands on top of an equally huge skyscraper.

In 1929, Nikolai Chuzhak introduced the notion of factography, factuality that speaks for itself. Despite its phenomenological bias, this concept was widely used or referred to by many Marxist theorists, from Sergei Tretiakov to Walter Benjamin. Regardless of who takes responsibility for drawing the line between “truth about lies” and “lies about truth,” the criteria governing factographic discourse have never been clear-cut. “Art and Propaganda” can be discussed in similar terms, insofar as the representation of facts is often confused with the fact of representation. Given that myth is the mimetic instrument par excellence, it needs to be dealt with in order to break the code of cyclicality and prevent mimesis from transforming into a political power that is capable of affecting our lives.

Victor Tupitsyn