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