Villains pull crowds: art and dictatorship. (Martin-Gropius Bau, Berlin, Germany; Hayward Gallery, London, England) - The Economist (US), Nov 4, 1995 v337 n7939 p94(2)

Two European exhibits, one in London and the other in Berlin, trace the connection of politics and art. The Berlin show, 'Berlin Moskau, 1900-1950,' deals with German and Russian avant-garde art, while the London show, 'Art and Power,' includes Spain, Italy, and France.

WILL a spunky curator somewhere please mount a show soon called "Art and Democracy"? There could then be "Painting and Proportional Representation" followed by "Art and Economic Underdevelopment" or perhaps "Plastic Values in Emerging Markets".

The idea that politics colours art has become so commonplace that it is easy to miss a rather obvious question. Why do museum curators, seized of the link between aesthetics and public life, fix so doggedly on two briefish 20th-century periods--Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia--which, everybody can agree, produced on the whole depressingly bad art?

Two big current shows in Europe raise that question in a sharp way. "Berlin-Moskau, 1900-1950" is at the Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin until January 7th; "Art and Power" is at London's Hayward Gallery until January 21st, whence it moves to Barcelona and Berlin. Each bursts with fascinating and instructive material, though given two shows on similar themes there are inevitable gaps and duplications.

The Berlin show includes German and Russian avant-garde art before Hitler and Stalin put on the frighteners, but stops, oddly, in 1950. The show's main aim is to trace cultural connections between Berlin and Moscow, particularly in the 1920s. In the early 1920s, 10% of Berliners were Russian. But, alas, the promising theme of Berlin-Moscow links before Hitler or Stalin soon gets lost.

Narrower in time, the London show is geographically broader, taking in Spain, Italy and, oddly, France (more Leon Blum's than Petain's). Sub-titled "Europe under the dictators, 1930-1950", it goes at its topic head-on. It avoids the error that there is something visually recognisable as "Nazi" or "Soviet" art. Modernism of a kind survived in both places, though more in Russia. It survived most in Mussolini's Italy, as is nicely emphasised. But the tentative explanation--that Mussolini's mistress admired Italian futurism--makes art's link to power thin. (Suppose Eva Braun had liked Kandinsky.)

"Art and Power" nudges towards the idea that there is nothing to choose between the kitsch of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. The show even suggests why: both regimes, keen to break with the immediate past, extirpated the modern art that had flourished in the Weimar Republic and, under Lenin, in post-revolutionary Russia.

A snag is that stirring, soupy art was common everywhere in the 1930s. His humour and left-wing views may mark him off, but Norman Rockwell's paintings are in style like works by Adolph Wissel or Paul Mathias Padua, Nazi favourites. Washington has plenty of buildings from the 1920s-30s similiar in inspiration to those of Hitler's architect, Albert Speer. In fact, by one of those regular changes of taste and generation, every country in the 1930s witnessed a counter-reaction to modernism.

There is a larger doubt. By almost any measure, the "total aesthetic product"--the teaching, making, trading, promotion, support and display of art--is vastly greater in America and Europe nowadays than it was in Nazi Germany or Russia in 1934-53 (the period of Stalin's unchallenged rule). Yet exhibitions on the politics of 20th-century art in America or democratic Europe, surely a rich and fascinating field, are rare or non-existent. It is a bit as if Gibbon, pondering the rot of the Roman empire, had focused not on Christianity but on gnosticism.

Germany and Russia were societies in turmoil and war. They had little time for art, let alone good art, which thrives on peace and pots of money. Wrenched from their settings, the more arty propaganda or the designs for monumental buildings can look as if they dominated all. But this is a trick of framing. Moscow in Stalin's day was a small, run-down provincial town with unpaved backstreets. The few buildings Speer actually built for Hitler in Berlin were soon reduced to rubble. If art mattered so much, one would expect more echo of this in the political debates and journals of the time. But, in politics and private life, people had much more urgent concerns: staying in power, staying alive.

Certainly, Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia "projected" strong images of their countries abroad. But Germany's was due to Alfred Rosenberg's vile newspapers and to clever German diplomacy, which played on Europe's fear of Bolshevism, Russia's to the great network of the Comintern. Art had almost nothing to do with it.

Leave aside that the wicked are often more fun than the good. One appeal of dictatorship-shows for curators is that they are less work. It saves time to assume that works get painted because Fuhrer or Party say so. With big buildings and official statuary, this is plausible. With other art it is doubtful. Also, the art in question is poor: works blend into each other. By an easy slide or just from weariness, you soon stop thinking about art-and-politics, and think only of politics. Good art, too, is shaped by its times, its patrons, its "consumers". But the links are subtle, tangled and hard to document.

Museum curators, art patrons, ministries of culture or arts endowments are big factors in America's and Europe's "total aesthetic product". Though there is probably nothing much here to hide, the relationships are delicate and, as a rule, a defensive silence reigns over the official art-world. This is a pity. Most of this century's great art was paid for in democracies by rich people or from tax money. When will there be a show which illustrates this truth?