In the most repressive societies in history there was still art, but usually it was a shadow of what’s found in pluralistic countries. Too many people today have never heard the story of what passed for art in fascist and communist states in the 20th century. In single-party dictatorships, art is usually co-opted by the state and used as one more means of manipulation and control of the populace. Propaganda value becomes the primary factor in deciding what will be presented as art, as colossal statues of heroic figures drown out all sense of subtlety, much less humanity, or heart.
During the Third Reich, artworks of a certain kind were given great promotion. It was stressed that the fuehrer himself was an artist. In fact, the empty cityscapes Hitler painted in his youth (rarely with any people in view) were precursors to what he would later mandate for all of German art. The images had to be hard realism devoid of any fanciful or dreamlike qualities, and overtly heroic, if not militaristic. Gigantic, imposing stone buildings were put up to house the artistic culture of the new Germany, and make passing individuals feel small.
A vision of a pure society of bygone times was also concocted, and became a big part of the pitch. Healthy, robust Aryans were seen in poses similar to those of Greek statues, and any old German folklore was recycled as subject matter for “great art.” It is fascinating to see the similarities between blood enemies Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union in regards to art. State approved art was essentially all there was in both countries, and it was often strikingly similar in the two otherwise polarized states. Soldiers, and heroic muscle-bound farmers and laborers prevailed. Both camps also shared a horror and violent rejection of what they termed “decadent” art, which meant art that explored the limitless possibilities of the human mind, as real art is supposed to do.
Pretty much any art that wasn’t actively promoting communism was decadent in Soviet Russia. In the Nazi regime the word decadent was more associated with modern art. The first abstract expressionism had emerged in Germany, from people like Wassily Kandinski, who then fled the Nazis and inspired the artistic movement that blossomed in New York City after the war. Hitler linked modern art to Jewish influences, and big city licentiousness. The regime always showed a definite preference for “healthy” rural, provincial culture, over multicultural cities.
The art of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany is not sought after today, except maybe by collectors of historical propaganda or devotees of their political theories. No art collectors want it. The art hasn’t stood the test of time. Psychological manipulation and mind control made up its raison d’être. Apart from that, it was mostly a heap of soulless stereotypes, if not outright kitsch. This pattern is not limited to grim dictatorships, but can be found anywhere the artistic impulse is subsumed beneath a dominating message. Hence those bumper stickers that say “Corporate Art Sucks.”
We can see that a vibrant, imaginative art scene is one indicator of a healthy society. Real art has to be “art for art’s sake.”