Friday, August 29, 2008

Heller good

There aren't too many things that are great about living under dictatorships, as even Julie Burchill is starting to realise, but one of them is that they're pretty good at marshalling ranks of citizens in the service of a huge nationalistic spectacle, as was demonstrated in Beijing last week to great effect at the closing ceremony for the Olympics. European democracies, however, with their pesky pluralist ideas and their relativist philosophies, tend to get queasy at the thought of large nationalist rallies. Which in some ways is fair enough; you don't have to be AJP Taylor to know where that sort of thing can lead. But I just wish sometimes that we could put aside our qualms and just create a big f-you spectacular on a par with China, or Russia, or the US (which isn't a dictatorship ["...yet!"-Kevin Turvey] but is far less self-conscious than Europe about promoting its virtues).

I'm thinking, of course, of the abject handing-over ceremony that Britain put on immediately after China's spectacle. After the Lord Mayor's show that was the Chinese party, the British effort looked like a garden fete presided over by a Soho ad agency. Instead of fireworks, synchronised movement, colour, shape and noise, the world was treated to the sight of a lollipop lady, a zebra crossing, 20 umbrellas, and a dance routine for 30 people that could have been choreographed by Action Image Exchange. The musical equivalent soon made itself apparent: Jimmy Page and Leona Lewis (standing on frickin' astroturf) miming to a bowdlerised version of Whole Lotta Love, the sort of pairing only Alan Yentob would think was a good idea. As my wife asked "When is the mini-Stonehenge going to come on?" She's got a well-developed sense of timing; at that moment a stylised skyline of London (possibly made to resemble topiary) became visible on the sides of a double-decker bus. It must have been all of thirty-six inches in height. Remember, folks, this was in a stadium holding some 91,000 people. The whole event would have been risible in most contexts, but to put on such a feeble show after the breathtaking Chinese spectacle immediately prior just compounded the embarrassment.

This isn't just a British thing though, of course, we do make a virtue of amateurism and whimsy. I'm sure if the Dutch (for example) had been curating a closing ceremony it would have featured wheels of cheese, windmills and It's A Knockout figures, and would have been equally as bathetic.

All of which brings me to Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State , a comprehensive look at propaganda art. From Mussolini's Italy to Stalin's Russia to Mao's China, Steven Heller's fantastic and weighty tome illustrates the point that demagogues of all stripes were past masters at branding their product. Colour, language, typefaces and logos were all subordinated to the state. Of course, the downside was that competing art forms weren't given a look-in; the Nazis in particular were hostile to anything that fell outside the official state-sanctioned definition of art. Which was bad news for the Bauhaus, Otto Dix and others. But good news if you liked mass rallies of like-minded people.

Now on the whole I don't like those sorts of things (mass rallies, I mean). And you don't have to be reminded of how Bryan Ferry was dropped by M&S (for pointing out that the Third Reich wore nice clothes) to realise it's a short, slippery slope from looking at the past from an art history perspective to being accused of harbouring Nazi sympathies. So let's not go too far down this path. But, just for a moment last Sunday, like Steven Heller, while I'll continue to abhor the politics of totalitarianism, I was full of admiration for the aesthetics.

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