Why do dictators always love enormous, ostentatious and self-aggrandizing art?
They’re lost in an endless orgiastic embrace of it, especially the Marxist variation of tyrannical, officious autocrat. Is fondness for it a sign we would be wise to heed when pondering the vote? Deciphering this may create an entire new social science: a forensics, psychology, political science and art-history mash-up.
Since monumental political art is no longer avant garde, dictators in training would do well to find something more subtle and a bit less alarming to the populace. But it still continues to work its sorcery.
Nebuchadnezzar required prostration before the toes of his looming likeness, and tree-like shins of potentates rest in peace in many museums. But for sheer scale, shock and awe, nothing beats the 20th century for art in service to the cult of personality and state.
Lenin, Stalin and Mao are gone, but their portraits are still being scraped off Russia and China. Some Kim family member takes up residence on virtually every vertical surface of North Korea alongside a 75-foot tall statue and more than 43,200 rooms and obelisks dedicated to their glorious beings. Unfortunately, it continues unabated. Kim Jong-un, the newest snake on the throne, recently put up a 1,840-foot long propaganda sign, lest they dare forget.
Which brings me to the current administration and their fondness for huge heads … of Obama.
Last December diplomats with London’s U.S. Embassy were lavished with unusually large portraits of Obama by the famed artist Chuck Close. Described as “tapestries,” the black and white portraits are woven from Polaroid photographs. At 8 feet tall and more than 6 feet wide, the POTUS projects powerfully into the space. It could be considered intimidating, but the attitude is something his diplomats have learned to live with, or perhaps enjoy.
It’s not uncommon for Close to do these mega-portraits, and he has been immensely popular in the art world with celebrities clamoring for portraits. In fact he is so successful that he refuses to take commissions at all. But he has a soft spot for Obama and has worked to produce art for his campaigns relentlessly.
In the president’s defense, he apparently appreciates Close’s work and collects contemporary art. Fine and dandy, but it’s extremely helpful to employ the talents of an artist whose paintings work as ponderous political memes as well as art.
There’s an Orwellian element here that can’t be missed. As expected, left-wing bloggers mocked anyone who noted the anomalous paintings and found them a little peculiar under the circumstances.
Close’s portrait is ringed by Presidents Washington and Lincoln in smaller, somber traditional oils. Obama greets viewers straight on with head as large as his predecessors’ bodies. For anyone other than a powerful ruler, the huge, static grin would not be nearly so intimidating or what most found “creepy.” Slightly reminiscent of a mental hospital inmate who happened to find a nice suit, I thought. Or a Jack-in-the-Box.
Most unsettling is the incongruity of his expression with the officiality of the place, which many viewers found distasteful. At least conservative viewers. Liberals find little distasteful except conservatives and the Bible.
Perhaps it’s just artistic expression, but the State Department and the president approved it. They had the choice of another more solemn piece by Close, which would have worked at least a little better – in my humble opinion.
There is a marked difference between the giant visage of a movie star and self-portraits of a reigning political personality. Everything changes because of the history and the cultural meaning understood by the public through historic precedent.
The psychology here is: I’m watching you. I’m bigger than you. I’m the alpha dog in this political pack, and I can take your money to make these monuments too.
Massive public art dedicated to non-political luminaries exude none of this implied threat. Celebrities, city fathers or General Custer have no opportunity to control, limit, imprison or execute you.
Cult leaders may apply the Happy Face artifice. Still on a grand scale, here the Leader is benign and compassionate. Scenes of adoring children are common props, reminiscent of Jesus and the little ones. And even Kim Jong-il is always grinning blithely in a field of daisies to derail complaints.
Then there’s the Father of the State theme and variations with coat flying in the wind, a concerned, far-seeing look and outstretched hand. A good example of this is the art litter left behind by Turkmenistan’s former leader Saparmurat Niyazov. Such was his megalomania that he renamed names of months after his family, but in the defense of art, we might consider his decrees against gold teeth and lip-syncing in the U.S.
If the POTUS/Imperator look in art were the only congruency Obama shares with worrisome leaders, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. Unfortunately it’s not.
A generation of Americans have been raised to only see surface similarities, miss underlying threats to freedom and fail to realize when it’s taken from them. This plays into personality-cult dynamics perfectly. Such regimes dish up visual propaganda, sound bites and celebrity sycophants who myopically “see no evil” as far as their favorites are concerned.
So “most of the people are fooled most of the time,” spoke the prophet Lincoln, or something close.
America hasn’t plastered Obama’s face on currency, textbooks or federal buildings … yet. We don’t bow, send him mandatory birthday presents or laud him as “Sun of the Nation,” but that’s the small stuff. They’re merely the outward efflorescence of the darker motives to control thought, loyalty and belief. Big stuff. And that’s where we find ourselves in America now and why the big heads matter.
Mocking North Korea’s buffoonery is easy, but overt parallels are cracking through shields of denial everywhere. Failure to show respect or criticizing the regime in Pyongyang may bring you a bullet, but openly criticizing this administration is getting increasingly dicey.
Case in point: Michigan Rep. Gary Peters is so pouty over ads attacking Obamacare that he threatens to deny licenses of the television stations that ran them. Penalties for free speech are soaring in the U.S.
“Exactly like we do back home,” Kim Jong-un could say admiringly.
The FCC was recently forced to back down from exhortations for “fairness” in an effort to promote Obama-compliant views in the remaining holdouts of conservatism. State run television, radio and press – it’s the totalitarian dream!
“Autumn of the Patriarch,” a novel by Gabriel García Márquez, imputes the madness of all despots through his vile caudillo or “Patriarch.” Images are horrific and impossible but clearly relate to historic and current political evil. Márquez follows the patriarch as he mesmerizes and wins the heart of a nation before devouring them. Hiding behind doubles, he appears invincible and eternal. Surrounded by submissive subordinates, the old leader builds false realities so strong that he is allowed (through literary license) to cut up the sea and sell it.
Márquez doesn’t lay all the blame for the national tragedy at the foot of the proto-dictator. The people are willing accomplices as they are portrayed here: “The only thing that gave us security on earth was the certainty that he was there … dedicated to the messianic happiness of thinking for us, knowing that we knew that he would not take any decision for us that did not have our measure.”
Isn’t that really the essence of contemporary, progressive thought? To relieve yourself of all personal responsibility in exchange for your soul and those of your neighbors? Literature is revelatory in a way mere facts and history may not be – especially to those who never bothered to learn them.
And this is why the arts must remain free of political manipulation and control. Artists who are flattered and conscripted into serving the state under the cult of personality make themselves victims to the lie they work to create.
“The regime wasn’t being sustained by hope or conformity or even by terror, but by the pure inertia of an ancient and irreparable disillusion, go out into the street and look truth in the face.” – Gabriel García Márquez