Power, Control, and Transcendence in the Modern World: The Case of Totalitarian Art

Totalitarian Art in Saddam's Iraq

The title of this post could be the title of a very thick book.

I am prompted to these brief reflections by a review of a recently published work by Igor Golomstock, entitled “Totalitarian Art.” The review appeared in Foreign Affairs (an excerpt, and the link to the full review, appear below).

The mistake of totalitarianism– from a religious perspective– is the way that it lays claim to possessing the one overarching, all-encompassing narrative of what is real, thereby precluding any alternative. Totalitarianism works by systematizing– and therefore controlling– all facets of life: economic and political life, as well as cultural and religious life. Because the human spirit, by nature, is creative– and because reality itself, in its essential mystery, repels being captured and contained in a human system– totalitarianism inevitably has to resort to fear and violence in order to maintain itself.

Critics of Christianity will not need to work too hard to find examples of totalitarian-like words and deeds in Christianity’s history– even in its recent history. That said, the essence of the Biblical narrative– from Genesis to Revelation– is anti-totalitarian. The God of the Bible is continually redeeming and renewing; continually creating new possibilities where new possibilities seem highly unlikely, if not impossible. The God of the Bible is against systems of human power that control and dominate; the God of the Bible is for life in its wild, abundant, surprising, uncontrollable diversity.

Totalitarianism has to suppress authentic religion– and censor genuine artistic expression– because both imagine and evoke a reality that the totalitarian system cannot contain and control. Authentic religion and genuine artistic expression open intolerable alternatives to the dominant, official story.

Below is an excerpt of the review of Golomstock’s book, and the link:

Totalitarian Realism: A Closed System

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….”

via What Is Totalitarian Art? | Foreign Affairs.


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