Iron Fists, the new book by Thoughts on Democracy co-curator Steve Heller, was just published yesterday, but has already received attention for its bold comparison the political propaganda of some of the world's "worst" dictators - Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, and Mao Tse-Tung - and modern corporate branding. Although focused on much darker subject matter, Iron Fists relates to the Thoughts on Democracy project in its examination of how art and design has the power to impact politics.
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To read Christopher Benfey's review of Iron Fists, visit Hellerbooks.com, or keep reading...
Iron Fists: The insidious side of brand loyalty
by Christopher Benfey
Iron Fists Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State By Steven Heller Illustrated. 223 pages. Phaidon Press.
How did a practice as vile as branding become so valued, indeed, the very mark of value? Officials in the past have branded slaves and criminals - remember Milady's fleur-de-lis in "The Three Musketeers"? Samuel Maverick didn't brand his cattle, but dictionaries are vague about whether he was the first maverick or his cows were.
Today, cities and colleges have joined toothpastes and soft drinks in the battle for "brand loyalty." Steven Heller's "Iron Fists" makes a sophisticated and visually arresting comparison between modern corporate-branding strategies - slogans, mascots, jingles and the rest - and those adopted by "four of the most destructive 20th-century totalitarian regimes": Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and Mao's China. As he pursues his four "case studies," Heller, by means of unsettling images and shrewd analysis, amply restores the vileness to branding.
"Iron Fists" has the dimensions and dazzling illustrations of a coffee-table book, but its subject will fit uneasily among Monet's waterlilies or Fabergé's eggs. Heller, who was a senior art director at The New York Times for many years and now writes the Visuals column for the Book Review, brings a graphic designer's perspective to these disturbing proceedings. He is aware that comparing supposedly "benign" corporate brands with government-disseminated propaganda may seem a stretch: "A popular brand of frozen food or laundry detergent is not forced down the consumer's throat with an iron fist." Still, as he notes, "the design and marketing methods used to inculcate doctrine and guarantee consumption are fundamentally similar." His aim is not to diminish the insidiousness of the regimes under scrutiny, but rather to reveal why they were so effective.
Three of Heller's dictators considered themselves artists and eagerly participated in marketing their brands. Mao fancied himself a poet and master calligrapher; Mussolini wrote a pulp novel and portrayed himself as a hypermasculine sex symbol. Hitler was an aspiring architect and avid watercolorist before adopting what Heller calls his "sociopolitical art project." The Führer sought to control all aspects of the Nazi brand, from the swastika "logo" to his own image, with mustache but without glasses. Heller argues that Mao with his "Mona Lisa smile" and Lenin with his proletarian cap functioned in much the same way as "trade characters" like Joe Camel or the Geico gecko, putting "a friendly face on an otherwise inanimate (or sometimes inhumane) product." Like modern corporate competitors, these leaders borrowed freely from one another, with Hitler taking the straight-armed Roman salute from Mussolini and Mao adopting Socialist Realism from the Soviets.
Some of the most interesting pages in "Iron Fists" explore the ambiguous place of avant-garde art in rigidly designed societies. Mussolini and Lenin were more accommodating of Modernist impulses than Hitler, who declared war on "degenerate art" while making an exception for the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's "paradigms of heroic branding." The temporary "fusion" of Fascism and the technology-embracing art movement known as Futurism led to some terrific pro-Mussolini visual design before Il Duce settled for neo-Classical "Roman" kitsch instead.
The early years of the Soviet Union provide some of the best examples of art flourishing amid utopian hopes for a new society - in Rodchenko's posters (including his famous promo for "Books" in 1924), El Lissitzky's remarkable children's books and Eisenstein's films. All four regimes ended up suppressing individual creativity as a threat to the total control they sought. When the regimes fell in turn, their brands were retired.
The swastika, an ancient symbol whose meaning, Heller says, "was forever changed when the Nazis co-opted it," is now banned in Germany except for "artistic, scientific, research or educational purposes." Mussolini's body, so central to his national image, was hung from an Esso gas station, an inadvertent premonition, perhaps, that oil companies would henceforth rule the world.
For the most part, Heller's prose is as clear and uncluttered as the graphic design he admires. He takes no ideological position and does not distinguish between repressive regimes of the right (sometimes called "authoritarian") or the left. Nor does he advance any overarching theory about the destiny of art in totalitarian regimes, though he leaves no doubt about the grim fate of ordinary citizens. Given his dark subject, he can be forgiven for abusing adjectives like "infamous," "horrific," "diabolical" and "heinous," though such words lose some of their power with the third or fourth repetition. They also obscure the continuity between branding campaigns of the past and our own battles over flag pins and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Heller makes no claims to a comprehensive survey, but one wonders why Imperial Japan, at least as "infamous" as Fascist Italy and with an interesting record of artists roped into the cause, was spared. One might also cavil about the material's organization, which places the Nazis first, according them a third of the book, even though Lenin's revolution and Mussolini's Fascism predate Hitler's rise.
Still, as Heller makes clear, the Nazis were the supreme masters of branding, both at the figurative level, in the vicious propaganda campaign he calls the "branding demonization" of the German Jews, and in a literal sense, as the Nazis "resorted to the most degrading branding technique imaginable." My German grandparents, with a big "J" stamped across their ex it passports, were among the lucky ones. Those less fortunate, as Primo Levi wrote of the inmates of Auschwitz, were branded with an indelible tattoo: "This is the mark with which slaves are branded and cattle sent to the slaughter, and that is what you have become. You no longer have a name; this is your new name."