How Art Reflects Dictatorships and Revolutions



The close connection between art and politics is never more apparent than in moments of revolution and reconstruction, when one regime replaces another. In these periods, the exchanging of the deposed regime’s art for revolutionary art becomes an urgent, vital task. It is not merely a symbolic propaganda exercise; switching “totalitarian art” for “revolutionary art” represents a real political change.

In August, the world watched Libyan rebels in Tripoli graffiti and tear down a monument of a golden fist crushing an American fighter plane, a symbol of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime violently appropriated by the rebel forces (Gaddafi had often been filmed and photographed in front of the monument). The destruction of Gaddafi propaganda and the creation of revolutionary art is a significant part of the story of the ongoing Libyan revolution.

This violence against symbols is familiar. In 2003, we saw an image of Saddam Hussein draped in an American flag and pulled to the ground. While this moment was not nearly as spontaneous an expression of popular Iraqi rage as it seemed at the time, it was nevertheless an important event in the Iraq war (and the international observation of the war).

Neither of these iconic moments of visual violence should be seen as merely symbolic, because totalitarian art is not just propaganda. It is an exercise of totalitarian government, and so its destruction is significant.

Gaddafi's taste in art — the manipulated portraits, the bizarre gold furniture discovered in the Bab al-Aziziya compound — was certainly a way for him to demonstrate his power and wealth, but it was not only a propaganda exercise. It was also aesthetically not unique.

Dictators have historically had a taste for the gaudy and obvious because of this dual functioning of their art as propaganda and as an actual exercise of control. The purpose of the dictator's art project is generally two-sided — to destroy and stop the production of dissident art and to control the creation of an art favorable to the regime. Because the goal of complete political and social control tends to be shared by dictators across history and geography, the art that expresses this goal and tries to contribute to this achievement looks largely, and eerily, the same. Traditional images of power, like the leader astride a horse, recur even when the conditions of modern life and governance make them absurd; Hussein did not rule for two decades by patrolling Iraq on horseback. But he did rule by performing that strongman image he disseminated in his art.

Totalitarian art tends to perish with its regime — the art of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany, and Mussolini’s Italy now attracts interest as a historical, rather than an artistic phenomenon, because our modern, Western definition of art involves ideas of freedom of expression, and these are just the values that the modern dictatorship seeks to destroy. It becomes difficult to discuss the golden fist in Tripoli as "art" because we are trained to think of art as the product of a creative individual (usually a dissident personality). And so the new art story emerging out of Libya is the surge of anti-Gaddafi street art in Libyan cities. The public creation of independent art on a new scale, however furtive and unfinished the products are, is a phenomenon that would have been impossible a year ago. This change in the appearance of Libyan urban life is not just reflective of a change in Libyan political life, it is also a concrete part of the ongoing revolution.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons