Reading Promotional Art
by Alex Katz

In the United States, social distinctions are formed as much by haircuts and clothes as by anything else. People dress to make themselves attractive, to present an image that announces who they accept socially and who they do not. And one tends to associate with people who have similar tastes.
If one paints people, it seems a shame to generalize about these distinctions. People should always be presented in their correct social position. Even though we live in a society of great social diversity, we are not dramatically separated by economic income. We are almost a socially classless society and yet we are clearly separated by taste. Painting today should and does make these distinctions.
From Akhenaten and Nefertiti to our time, the only similarity official portraits have to each other is that social position is absolutely clear. Some portraits are interesting, some are not. When Augustus had his image adjusted to the status he wanted portrayed, the works became primarily promotional.
Can promotional portraiture be art? If one wants promotional material to be unequivocal, it must have no ambiguity, no subtlety. Art only gets in the way. Such images are meant to be read rather than looked at. Interesting paintings are sensed quickly and then they become very ‘slow’. Their meanings are multiple, as in poems. The way a painting is constructed reveals itself slowly. The style relationship, historic and contemporary, appears. More complicated painting requires looking and thinking. Promotional art is, instead, initially slower, because to understand it, one has to read it, it has little connection to visceral perception. Once one has read it, it becomes an inert object, at best, a passive decoration.
Political and military leaders often wear clothes that assert their social position, Alexander the Great in gold on a white horse, Darius in purple. Napoleon and Wellington had high, opposing styles. They engaged in a sartorial war as much as physical battle. In the end, English elegance won out over French precision. I saw a coat of Napoleon’s in the Louvre. It once was an unbelievable mesh of fabric, line, and workmanship worthy of Charles James.
Like the ancient Romans, Mussolini tried to emphasize his torso for power. Think of Tiberius. His legs are not important, it’s his arms and torso that matter. Given Mussolini’s build, emphasizing his torso wasn’t a bad idea, but it was not a complete success either. His arms just didn’t appear as strong as his torso, and his form-fitting, highly decorated clothing did little to help.
In Greek statues, the ass and thighs were the things that counted. Romans emphasized arms and chests. As a matter of fact, we cannot leave out balls. The Romans used balls as a symbol of boundless energy. The Diocletian Baths have an excellent display of this interest.
Hitler also counted on military outfits for an image of power. The military were successful with coats, less so with jackets. German military clothes were extremely elegant and functioned well on the tall, thin German bodies for which they were designed. But Hitler never rid himself of the Lederhosen jacket, and his haircut was out of sync with the rest of his outfit and with the effect he desired.
Gandhi went from military to traditional religious dress. His combination of body type, haircut, and clothes was perfect. Gandhi projected power. Mao wore an egalitarian outfit and proclaimed himself of the people. This was, again, an excellent use of traditional clothes.
Stalin presented himself in military clothes. He did away with bourgeois ties and jackets, but kept the shined shoes. He used the military without excessive embellishments, unlike Mussolini and Hitler. He did not use his body to project power like they did. Instead, he projected himself as being above personal vanity. The severity of his clothing was complemented by his haircut. His clothes presented a man who was comfortable with his body and with being a man. He had a superbly convincing style. The harmony between his clothes and his hair not only expressed his cultural and social positions in the world, but it was also original and of the time, fashionable. It was a pity he could not conceive of an art to match his style. Napoleon also had great style and the taste and brains to use David and Canova to celebrate his reign. Louis XIV created a new clothing and architectural style to separate himself from Italy and the Vatican. Somehow Stalin did not have the taste or knowledge to accomplish this.
So, Stalin gave us a lot of paintings in which the message is the message. They are similar to much of American culture at this time. Broadway musicals and plays, TV, big commercial movies, and a considerable part of contemporary art offer no layers, and there is no mystery. They are not meant to have any ambiguity. In painting, one reads it, one doesn’t see it. It’s tell before show.
The dictators of the twentieth-century never had the opportunity or the inclination to be visually literate. They used visuals in a simplistic manner. I think they are as decoratively correct as most of our politically correct art is today. There are but a few of our political artists who do not have good decorative taste. Portraits and paintings of Stalin could ultimately fit into dull rooms as a kind of decoration that would disappear, offending no one.
Stalin era paintings differ from contemporary politically correct art in that the styling is more passive and nothing is sexy. On the other end of the political scale, Franco’s tomb takes the cake for no sex. I suppose any vitality and style in regards to him were thought to be in conflict with the message.