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Monument Envy

By Steven Heller

What is kitsch and why do dictators love it so? An interesting article in the Wall Street Journal (via Joe Moran) uses the opportunity of President Clinton’s visit to and subsequent official photograph with Kim Jong Il of North Korea (above) to discuss this compulsion for excessive monumentality. If you saw the photograph of the ex-president and current glorious leader in front of a tsunami wave (above), you could not but be struck by its super-duper grandiosity.

“This is no ordinary painting but art with a purpose,” writes the WSJ‘s Eric Gibson. “What seem to our eye as limitations are the result of deliberate intent. It’s a piece of political propaganda. As such it belongs to a subspecies of kitsch known as totalitarian kitsch, where art’s sole raison d’etre is to bolster a dictatorial regime and glorify its leader.”


Leaders seem addicted to monuments and monumentality. They get monument envy, but, as Dr. Freud would say, sometimes a monument is just a monument. (Below from top: monuments for Sadam Hussein, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, The Shah of Iran, and Kim Il Jong.)


Read this for a somewhat related post by Edward Tenner on the latest attack on Obama’s symbolism.

About the Author

Steven Heller is the cofounder and the co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review and the Graphic Content blog for T-Style.  He is the author, coauthor, and/or editor of more than 120 books on design and popular culture, including the forthcoming New Ornamental Type (Thames and Hudson).

See all Daily Heller posts here.


Reader Comments

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"...in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love-they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” This is Harry Lime in The Third Man. What does it have to do with the subject ot totalitarian kitsch, read Steve Heller's Iron Fists for an answer. I just enjoy a good show. Would I rather be Bill Clinton sitting with Kim Il Jong in front of a monstrosity or Francis Levy gawking at Corbet's Creation of the World in the Met? One thing is for sure, I wouldn't step foot into Pyongyang unless I was Bill Clinton, Marinetti or Ayn Rand.

By philoctates@aol.com  August 13, 2009

 political yes, but why does Gibson call it kitsch?

By tviemeister  August 15, 2009 

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