Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-century Totalitarian StateBy Steven Heller
Designed by Adam Michaels of Project Projects
I went to Tate Modern a few years ago with a Polish friend who had grown up during the last years of Communism in eastern Europe. Looking at a Soviet poster from around 1930 featuring a beaming Stalin, he issued a loud and irritated snort. ‘I bet they’d never put Hitler up there.’
It seemed to him – to paraphrase Orwell – that in the minds of Tate curators ‘all dictators are equal but some dictators are more equal than others’. Iron Fists, Steven Heller’s new book, puts Stalin, Mussolini and Mao in the dock alongside Hitler. Its premise is that the commercial practice of branding today shares the same characteristics as the design and management
of images in the major dictatorships of the twentieth century. Heller’s approach is to pull out common themes in each society, such as the production of national symbols or the cults woven around the figure of the leader.
The branding analogy does not, however, quite add up to an argument in the sense that Heller does not draw significant conclusions from his homology. How should our understanding of the effects of branding be changed knowing that the leadership in the Third Reich were pioneers in the field? How does a rhetorical question like ‘What were the Führer, Il Duce, Comrade Lenin and Chairman Mao but a kind of ideological trade character?’ add to our understanding of their brutal rule?
This book is built on two concepts. The first one, ‘totalitarianism’, is explicit in the subtitle: the other, Modernism, is offered as its antithesis. Most – if not all – contemporary historians working on regimes such as the Soviet Union have given up on the first term. In stressing the impotence of individuals in the face of the total power of the state or a leader, this relic of the Cold War does little to sharpen our understanding of resistance or the subtle ways in which power is distributed throughout society. Heller’s use of it is a little strange, as Heller is a liberal with a genuine sense of commitment to freedom: it runs through his writing. And in Iron Fists, he expresses strongly his disdain for regimes that turned to design
to promote distorted values and camouflage brutality.
For Heller, Modernism is a force for good in the world. This argument falters when he runs up against a ‘totalitarian’ image that seems to display the hallmarks of Modernist style, for example, a 1932 National Socialist election poster, which, in its stark minimalism and use of sans serif typography, ‘could easily be confused with Modernist design’. What stops it being so is not very clear. In fact, after the first, and best, section of the book on Nazi Germany, the Modernist / totalitarian distinction on which Heller bases his study evaporates. Almost half of his discussion of the Soviet Union, for instance, reviews the familiar output of Modernists such as El Lissitzky and Gustav Klutsis, a victim of the Great Purges. The question of the relationship of Modernism to power is not a new one. Much of the best recent writing – on art, architecture and design in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union under Stalin – has tried to grapple with it. In the most dramatic examination of this relationship, writers such as Peter Fritzsche, on Hitler’s Germany, and Boris Groys, on Stalin’s Soviet Union, have claimed that far from extinguishing avant-gardism, these dictatorships embraced the totalising impulse of Modernism, which, in its most ambitious forms, took the wholesale transformation of life as its aim. This means conceiving of Modernism as much more than style.
Heller writes with pace and verve, which makes Iron Fists a readable book. It does, however, contain errors of fact, loose expressions and contradictions that diminish its appeal. What makes this book worth picking up are the illustrations: Heller and his picture researcher, Jeff Roth, have gathered a really remarkable set of images, many of which have not been reproduced before. Some are truly chilling: pretty porcelain figurines were made in Mao’s China during the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, depicting acts of denunciation, a very public and sometimes violent form of humiliation licensed by the Great Proletarian Revolution. Strangely enough, one reading of this kind of object is that, in use, it offered a form of self-defence: to design or
even just to display this kind of object was to shield oneself from attack. But this kind of reflection points to a more complicated and ultimately messy picture of ‘totalitarian’ design than Iron Fists offers.