The Aesthetic Dictatorship

Franz Marc, Blue Horse I

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.

“They Are Writing about Us in Pravda” — Soviet socialist realism painting, set in 1930s Moldova at the same time as a massive famine and political persecution. (Springville, Utah, Museum of Art)

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.

A still from Marjane Satrapi’s film “Persepolis” (via Tumblr)

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.


Who Really Loses if Iran Gets the Bomb

Iran’s nuclear reactor complex at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. (Wikimedia Commons)

Unequivocal statements by President Barack Obama and visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron today about Iranian nuclear ambitions leave small doubt about the perilous path facing the West. The President was right to chide more hawkish supporters of military action against Iran and for choosing a variety of diplomatic and economic tools to isolate Tehran, but that may leave the country to embark on a crash course for the ultimate weapon.

I have little doubt Iran is pursuing that weapon (although that is a political judgment, not based on intelligence analysis or IAEA reporting) but it is not for the purposes that the doom-sayers — usually those who think this can be resolved with a well-placed BLU-109 — claim. While Iran’s rulers may be fanatical, they are not insane. The same rules of deterrence and mutual assured destruction that governed the Cold War and govern the balance of power among nuclear-armed nations would still apply to Tehran in a showdown with Israel. Moreover, attacking an Israeli city with nuclear weapons would isolate the already pariah state and would invite a terrible response the regime could never survive.

And regime survival is the dirty little secret motivating development of the weapon.  There is an important theoretical argument to make here which comes from Hannah Arendt’s On Violence.  She notes that weak or repressive regimes feel threatened by only two sources: war and revolution. It is no surprise, then, that these regimes invest so much in their armed forces and security services. And it should be no surprise that the countries that feel most threatened and can afford it — usually at the expense of the people’s needs — seek the ultimate weapon to stay the hand of intervention while they cudgel their people with another. We’ve seen this in Libya, Iraq, China, the Soviet Union, and to some extent other countries.

Decommissioned casings from South Africa’s nuclear weapons program. (Wikimedia Commons)

Iran’s situation today is similar to South Africa’s position in the late 1970s when Pretoria secretly built six nuclear weapons. Isolated by the international community for the crimes of Apartheid, surrounded by enemies (Soviet-backed post-colonial regimes in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, all of which were harboring or sponsoring anti-Apartheid partisans) and suppressing a population in revolt, South Africa  wanted the ultimate weapon to hold the outside world at bay and therefore contain turmoil at home.  (Fortunately, the country emerged under remarkable political leadership from the African National Congress and Pretoria, and the nuclear program was abandoned.)

Another analogy is the slow-motion tragedy of North Korea. Having held control for three generations and repressed all dissent, the Kim dynasty now brandishes its nuclear deterrent at its enemies: South Korea (reinforced by the United States), China, and Japan. The result has been isolation, poverty, and starvation since the end of the Korean War, an abject humanitarian horror we are now unwilling to risk nuclear war to avert.

But in both cases — I would argue in the case of the Soviet Union, and to a lesser extent, Israel, India and Pakistan as well — the bomb’s domestic political consequences have been ignored or simply missed for the far more exciting security ramifications.  Given concerns about escalation, rivals simply backed away. As a result, the bomb froze these countries in place and left unresolved fundamental political questions.  The Soviet Union and North Korea took complete advantage of that state of affairs to consolidate control.

Iran’s leaders are not irrational. They no doubt see similar outcomes if they develop the same wonder weapon. Beset at home by a restive population, isolated abroad, losing proxies against their enemies and surrounded by suspicious powers, it seems all but inevitable that the regime would pursue the bomb.

And because of the history of the Soviet Union and North Korea, we already know who will really lose if that happens: the Iranians themselves. Trapped in isolation, unable to call on friends abroad who fear provoking incidents and escalation, they will be left alone to face the cruel caprice of their rulers.


The Problem with Political Boycotts

Iranian women protest during the presidential election, 2009. (AP)

Iran’s opposition movement has called for a boycott of today’s parliamentary elections. Boycotts have a long pedigree as an effective tool to achieve political change. The most famous in American history was of course the Montgomery boycott that desegregated the municipal bus system. Visiting Robben Island in 2003 I was personally thanked (as if I had anything to do with it) by former inmates for the Western economic sanctions of South Africa that put pressure on the white regime to abandon Apartheid. Israel is currently the target of a nascent but growing international economic boycott to end its generational occupation in Palestine.

But these are separated from the Iranian experience because they are specifically economic countermeasures (Iran is also under increasing pressure from the United States and the European Union over its nuclear program). Economic boycotts and sanctions work because they decouple the relationship that makes economies work — the exchange of goods and services for money or other goods and services. Without this connection, economic relationships shrivel and die. Pain sets in and political leaders begin to pay attention.

Unfortunately political boycotts uncouple relationships but to precisely the opposite end. Political relationships depend utterly on power dynamics to perpetuate social change.  A boycott ends the political relationship with the public in the arena.  It closes the flow of power between a political group (for example, the opposition) and those it is trying to harness for its ends.

A boycott effectively cedes the political arena to your adversary, or in the case of Iran, your adversaries. With this election, not just the opposition will lose.  Others have a stake. Supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are locked in a fight. By refusing to contest these elections in some creative way, the opposition allows these two juggernauts to claim the mantel in the end — not against the opposition but from each other. By participating, the opposition could remain part of this process.

An alternative path to delegitimizing the parliamentary elections is to organize, participate, and flood the polls with opposition supporters. Pick the least worst candidate, organize a write-in campaign, protest at the polls in large numbers.  Even if they couldn’t name real candidates for fear of their safety, even by failing to win, the opposition could demonstrate, once again, that the election is rotten and corrupt. It would be another nail in the coffin of the regime.

Politics requires labor and it demands engagement — as boxers engage their opponents, at close quarters — to fight to win. Indeed, sports metaphors are apt here. A boycott abandons the field to your opponent; a forfeit may not be a loss per se but it counts as a win nonetheless. To stretch the metaphor, even a close loss or loss on a technicality (the referee makes a bad call or, in this case, was bought off), the spectators in the stand have a chance to judge how hard you fought. A moral win counts more with the viewing public and helps with home field advantage at the next fight. The power dynamic is played between the team and those watching the game.

Of course I hesitate to double-guess the organizers of the Iranian parliamentary boycott, who understand their own country and are taking extraordinary risks against a murderous regime. They believe that a mass boycott of an obviously rigged election will delegitimize the last vestige of democratic rule in Iran. There is obvious popular support for this path after the violent suppression of the 2009 Green Revolution.  And it is equally clear that the Supreme Leader fears low turnout could undermine his rule. But unlike in sports, the Supreme Leader controls virtually everything else that matters in Iran: the security services, the media, and perhaps most important, the metanarrative. If turnout collapses, he will simply claim it was due to intimidation by imperialist powers (Israel, the United States, Great Britain). It is difficult to underestimate how important this control is and how devastating it may be to the opposition.

But I believe my point still stands, in Iran and elsewhere. Political boycotts decouple the transmission cable necessary to power real social change. Opposition leaders should think hard about channeling their energies into negative organizing. Positive engagement, as risky as it may be, will lead to positive results in the end.