DICTATORS ON DISPLAY
This afternoon I will be joining a panel of scholars at a colloquium organized and hosted by Miami International University of Art and Design. The event, Lead Us to the Water is designed to explore the ways by which totalitarian regimes have used (and abused) popular art in the interest of perpetuating their monopolistic hold on power.
Our museum has a truly incredible array of objects and artifacts documenting the rise of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes in Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany. We have thousands of propagandistic items in our galleries and storage facilities ranging from fine art porcelains, bas relief, paintings, tapestries, and sculpture, to “low brow” propaganda designed for mass consumption: collectible cigarette cards, certificates and diplomas, calendars, school notebooks, postcards and postage stamps, and propaganda photographs, posters, pamphlets, and leaflets.
In my own presentation I will be drawing on the theoretical construct developed by graphic arts educator and author Steve Heller in his Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State and using examples of art drawn from The Wolfsonian-FIU’s vast collection of political propaganda. As Heller argued in his book, even despotic dictators were dependent not only on brute force, but on harnessing “popular” support (or acquiescence) in order to preserve their monopolistic hold on power. Consequently, totalitarian regimes created, reproduced, published, and distributed images of “the leader” so ubiquitously as to transform these heads of states into venerated “brands”—as recognizable as commercial counterparts like the iconic “Quaker Oats” guy.
Of course, it was not enough to plaster posters of the leader’s face across the nation; the image of the leader had to be used in association with other symbols or resonant themes. The leader’s image was used to reinforce visually the idea that he—and only he—was the living embodiment of the “spirit” and “will” of the nation; a populist “man of the people”; a father figure to the nation’s youth; a visionary “builder”; a military genius; and a patron of the arts and culture of the revolutionary regime all rolled into one neat package. And as with all advertising “blitzes,” these dictators proved that with good design strategies and campaigns, you can “sell” and popularize even the worst possible product imaginable.