Reading to my daughter “The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse,” Eric Carle’s homage to the expressionist artist Franz Marc, reminded me again — in the unsettling arena of a children’s book — the peculiar yet consistent need for repressive governments to dominate aesthetics.
Marc, a German who died with pockets-full of sketches during World War I, was later denounced as a degenerate artist under National Socialism. The Nazis’ “Degenerate Art” exhibition is easily the best-known attempt to delineate a political aesthetic, and the popular (and comforting) narrative is that this effort backfired quite spectacularly. After three million visitors crammed into the tiny sideshow spaces found first in Munich to shame the art and artists on display, the infuriated Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels realized his error and shut down the exhibition.
Many people remember the infamous book burnings and still others know Hitler’s obsession with “German” aesthetics, epitomized by Leni Riefenstahl’s kinematics and Albert Speer’s abortive Germania gigantism. Fewer people, unfortunately, know about the wholesale persecution of artists who did not conform to this bland, heroic, traditional notion of German art. They are lost in the wholesale horror of the Holocaust and the war, but they should not be forgotten because they were exiled, shot, harassed or driven to suicide simply for their desire of creative expression.
The Soviet Union, and through its Communist satellites, followed the Nazi political aesthetic for dominating all means of expression in order to extend state control over the body politic. Nothing escaped domination by the Center. Nonconforming artists (and plenty conformed, as Czeslaw Milosz argued in The Captive Mind) were persecuted or forced into exile. Marc Chagall (denounced by Stalin’s archnemesis Hitler) fled a deprived Belarus; Oscar Rabin found his work bulldozed and was tried and exiled. Others, like Oleg Tselkov, Vladimir Yankilevsky and Dmitry Krasnopevtsev were harassed and left unable to display or sell their work.
Other repressive states similarly dominate creative expression. After the revolution, Cuba essentially crushed out of the son musical tradition, associating it with politically inconvenient American jazz. Before Saddam Hussein’s Harlequin Romance tastes were revealed and mocked following the invasion of Iraq, his vulgar monumentalism was dissected seriously by the dissident architect Kanan Makiya. The Taliban suppressed and destroyed virtually all forms of non-religious human expression to include music, singing, dancing, and kite flying, leaving famous descriptions of broken cassette tape billowing like black streamers in Kabul’s streets. In Burma, the military junta went on a pagoda-building spree, constructing one larger and more gilded than another. Similarly, the once-ascetic sacred site of Mecca has been overtaken by a sort of a gargantuan Islamic Disneyland under the solemn guidance of the Guardian of the The Holy Places, the Saudi government.
The greater innovation by these regimes, if it can be called that, is that this was no mere censorship, no simple intervention by a government bureaucracy to monitor for taste on behalf an easily aroused, shocked or shamed society. That was (and remains) the norm for some democratic countries during decades if not centuries and well-known in monarchical states to guard against mob sensibilities and insurrection. Freedom of expression, the press, and conscience, then, still meant something in those environments.
Such values mean very little in comparison to entire states predicated on domination of all creative, moral and political commons. It is the artistic corollary of the Kantian moral universe: there can be no truly creative expression without innate human freedom to achieve it; insisting on less censorship when the means to create, express and transmit human creation are controlled by the state is like demanding to distribute plastic water bottles during a drought.
Western writers have been diligent in championing individual writers and artists in and out of China. But they still seem both shocked by the lengths to which Chinese authorities will go to control expression, which is particularly evident when Western reporters are censored. They think only Chinese are worthy of censorship? Of course China controls and censors all foreign sources of information, which is why the outside Internet is so expertly filtered. But this control extends to every means of domestic communication as well.
So concerns about censorship and creative freedoms in a country where the government controls all news media, all publishers, and the entire Internet are essentially meaningless. The idea that the artist and architect Ai Weiwei freely designed the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the Beijing Olympic Games is absurd. He was no more “free” to design the Bird Nest as he was to make political comments for which he is serving house arrest.
But this impressive, daunting, frightening effort at central control of information reveals a few truths about the purposes of propaganda, state usurpation of the political space, and the public’s ability combat the government that dominates everything it touches.
First, Beijing may have control and authority over expression but it does not have power over it. Indeed, the political imperative to maintain control and authority over expression demonstrates how little real power flows from official Chinese control. Goebbels harnessed all means of expression, the exclusive ends of which, he clearly told Party members, was “state control”. We should take this seriously and understand its implications. It is not for power but in the absence of power that repressive states dominate the aesthetic arena.
Second, this means of control and to control all creative expression is inherently political. There is nothing aesthetic about it at all. Because control is understood and accepted as given, what the state chooses to communicate is not received by the public as an argument or pure creativity. Propaganda need not be “plausible,” it need only be easy to understand. Because the purpose of state propaganda is to delineate clearly the lines of what is acceptable to think and do. In the case of pure aesthetics — for example the “Bird’s Nest” — the explicit message communicated is a political aesthetic, the asserted and accepted official notion of beauty.
Third, this consistent need to dominate and control aesthetics — to wield it as another means of the state apparatus — reveals what has been clear for a very long time. It reveals the state’s penultimate weakness. This is not a sign of the state’s strength but of its fear and vulnerability. It is as such another arena in which people can mobilize to attack the regime. In fact, because aesthetics is not overtly “political” — it is difficult, in other words, for the central authorities to justify a crackdown on mere art — it is the easiest and widest space for people opposed to the regime to attack it. Despite the clear delineations, despite the obvious threat of reprisals, it is the clearest weakness of the existing regime and the easiest arena in which — to apply a principal from Gene Sharp — people can refuse obedience to the central authorities.
We can stop asking countries like China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Belarus to end their censorship of artists and writers. Because their regimes’ rule over these countries is predicated — in fact perpetuated — by control over what people see, read, think and feel. Censorship is just one small tool in a giant kit that maintains total control over the means of mass communication, which — as Goebbels in his swine genius articulated — enables the state to control the population.
We need to talk about freeing art, unchaining letters, liberating language — written and visual — from the fetters of state control. Because only when we begin to do so will we be honest and direct about what is happening in countries like these: cultures enslaved by their own governments.