Earlier this year, the government of Iraq, in a misconceived act of outreach to the country's once dominant Sunni community, began restoring a dilapidated monument in Baghdad. Originally constructed in the late 1980s as a celebration of Iraq's supposed triumph in its war against Iran, the Victory Arch was partially dismantled in 2008 by Sadrist elements who were eventually stopped by orders from the Iraqi prime minister. The monument consists of two sets of giant forearms and hands brandishing swords, draped with a net containing a gruesome collection of enemy helmets. Conceived by Saddam Hussein himself and carried out by the Iraqi sculptor Mohammed Ghani Hikmat using casts of Saddam's own arms, it is such an outstanding example of totalitarian kitsch that I used it as a lens through which to view the degradation of culture in Iraq under the Baathist regime in my 1991 book The Monument.
An Iraqi Soldier passing the Victory Arch in Baghdad, June 2008
But what exactly makes something totalitarian art? In his important and encyclopedic tome on the art produced under the twentieth century's four most brutal political systems -- the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People's Republic of China -- Igor Golomstock makes it clear that he is writing not about "art under totalitarian regimes" but rather about "totalitarian art," a particular cultural phenomenon with its own ideology, aesthetics, and style. This type of art did not arise because of common threads running through Soviet, German, Italian, and Chinese culture; the cultural traditions of the countries, Golomstock holds, are "simply too diverse" to explain the stylistic and thematic similarities among totalitarian works. He collects these similarities under the term "total realism," a genre that has its roots in the socialist realist art of the Soviet Union after 1932, when Stalin decreed it the only type of art acceptable.
One cannot think of a more perfect example of the totalitarian artistic impulse than Saddam's insistence that a cast of his own forearms be used as the mold from which the Victory Arch was to be The Morning of Our Fatherland, had to undergo the same transformation as Stalin's version of history, to be turned into what the writer Milan Kundera so eloquently referred to as "the beautifying lie." To make this point even more explicit, in this new edition of the book (it was first published in 1990), Golomstock has added a postscript on totalitarian art in Saddam's Iraq. Although the art of that era was produced in a largely Arab and overwhelmingly Muslim culture, it still fits into the same paradigm as the art produced in Maoist China. As Golomstock argues, the similarities within totalitarian art demonstrate "the universality of the mechanisms of totalitarian culture."
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