Totalitarian recall

<strong>Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State</strong>

Steven Heller


What exactly was "totalitarianism"? Purporting to describe regimes that exercised total control over their citizenry, with a seamless apparatus of surveillance and mass conformity, the term was originally coined by Italian anti-fascists, and later taken by Mussolini as self-description. Gradually, it became a convenient Cold War insult, transcending nominal political boundaries: a conceptual version of the conservative canard that the far left and the far right are really just different versions of the same thing. Yet, in its Cold War usage, the totalitarian thesis became palpably absurd: what did the direct democracy of the Petrograd Soviet have in common with the corporatism of Mussolini's Italy? Or the anarchic brutality of the Chinese Cultural Revolution with the coldly efficient killing machine of Nazi Germany?

Here, if nowhere else, we can say: as in politics, so in art. The prolific American designer and critic Steven Heller's Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State lumps these four regimes together, assessing how each created its own propaganda "brand". In the 1930s people talked about a "convergence", wherein corporatist regimes, irrespective of their professed politics, were united by public works, militarism, the use of mass media and the taming of laissez-faire capitalism. Convergence theories encompassed the US of the New Deal, but Heller avoids anything so provocative, sticking to four horror stories of all the bad things that can happen if we reject liberal capitalism. The whiff of cheap thrills given off by the title is carried over into the book's design. Covers of The Little Red Book and a Nazi manifesto are encased in a heavy plastic sheath, with thick black stripes offering just enough of a teasing flash of the fetishistic images below. As if this weren't enough, the text is full of such adjectives as "diabolic" and "heinous".

This is a shame, because Iron Fists initially promises an illuminating angle on images that have mostly lost their power to shock, much less seduce. Heller's introduction sketches a narrative in which branding in the corporate sense was utilised by dictatorships, and his use of marketing terminology puts an adman's spin on the old slogans. This is never really sustained, and it soon becomes a disingenuous picture book with running commentary. Occasionally, Heller can be quite erudite - on Nazi design, he sharply outlines just how eclectic Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were about their iconography, here taking the form of the festivals of the labour movement (dropping the content) and there borrowing the ideas of Anglo-American First World War propaganda. Yet elsewhere, a certain dilettantism shows through, with historical inaccuracies, oversimplifications and misunderstandings (for instance, conflating Trotsky's notes on formalist literary criticism with the later, Stalinist use of the term "formalism" to refer to all avant-garde art and aesthetics).

So it is as a picture book that this stands or falls. At best, Heller adopts a welcome focus on the everyday objects of the regimes in question, a microhistory of stamps and children's books. The picture research is often excellent, and some of the mundane artefacts Heller finds are extraordinary. There's a spread on the Organisationsbuch der NSDAP, Robert Ley's awesomely anal catalogue of daily iconography, covering everything from epaulettes to pseudo-scientific tables of racial genealogy.

Anyone who expects Nazi aesthetics to match Susan Sontag's percussive analysis of how "the colour is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty" (et cetera) will be surprised at just how kitschy and folkish much Nazi ephemera is. However, Sontag's association of fascist art with art deco is far more apposite for the poster and product design of Mussolini's Italy. Powerful, dynamic works were created for Italian Fascist organisations by artists such as Fortunato Depero and Xanti Schawinsky, or the streamline moderne designers of the Fascist youth magazine Gioventù Fascista - smoothing futurism into a superhuman stylishness in which "bodies become logos".

The totalitarian thesis is here undone by the contradictory nature of the book's own artefacts. Soviet examples concentrate mainly on the constructivist avant-garde of the 1920s, dismissing official "socialist realism" with cursory examples. So, absurdly, Soviet culture in its most pluralist phase outweighs the art of the terror. Similarly, the idea that totalitarian art is monolithic looks unconvincing when appraising the tat of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: figurines that are worthy of an advert in the Daily Mail's colour supplement next to the Red Guards' strident, lo-fi lithographs. Meanwhile, one of the images assembled in the "Nazi" section is a poster for a 1936 exhibition of degenerate art, parodying El Lissitzky's "Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge". A few pages on, we find the original (1919) pos ter in the "Soviet" section. Are these both products of "totalitarianism"? Or can one employment of art for political ends be qualitatively different from another?

As an epigraph, Heller misquotes Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction": "Fascism is the aestheticisation of politics." The argument is more complex than this: the danger of Fascism, for Benjamin, is that it takes aesthetic pleasure in humanity's own destruction - something familiar in today's apparently "democratic" art. Naturally, Heller also omits Benjamin's next sentence: "Communism responds by politicising art." To include it would confuse the grisly tale. Intentionally or not, the response of Iron Fists to these conjunctions of design and power is not to politicise, but to reassure. The book is dedicated to the author's son: "may he always live in a democracy". There are a great many people, in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, who would not find this quite so comforting.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis