Sometimes a book comes along which defies classification; and although you love it and find it fascinating, stimulating, thought provoking and the like, you find it really hard to write about. Today on the Ramblings I’m featuring one such book, and you’ll have to bear with me a bit while I try and marshall my thoughts about it!

That Picasso once painted a portrait of Stalin at the request of Louis Aragon. Make of it what you will.

The book in question is “The Art of Great Dictators” by Joshua Rothes, who’s editor of Sublunary Editions, its publisher; he was kind enough to offer a copy to anyone interested on Twitter, and I was very intrigued by the title so stuck my my metaphorical hand up and said “Yes please!” Well, there’s likely to be a Russian connection, isn’t there? Sublunary is a fascinating small press which focuses on issuing short texts – stories, novellas, poetry, fragments – which in our fractured world is certainly very appealing, although it would be a mistake to think that short texts = easy reads!

The Art of the Great Dictators is not an unfinished book; it is a book never earnestly begun, utterly amorphous and orphaned, notes and fodder for a thesis that, brought to bear, would not suffer the faintest of blows.

Anyway! “The Art of the Great Dictators” presents as a series of notes for an actual book of that title which was never written, by an art critic who (presumably) didn’t exist. The scope of the work was intended to be wide-ranging, taking in the artistic ambitions of dictators from Hitler and Stalin through to Caeusescu (though interestingly Castro, often reckoned to be one of that body of rulers, doesn’t get a mention.). The notes explore all manner of aspects of art and power, mixing in uncredited quotes, musings on history and politics, and instructions to the author as to how to write the book; which if these notes are anything to go by, would have been a mammoth undertaking…

History in the years since has turned empirical; much like the hard sciences, it seeks models and explanations rather than facts. A working knowledge is what is important. Can one apply the model and get results? It is not only fair to say that the atomic bomb and the horrors of the Gulag must be given credit for postmodernism. There is no abstraction without annihilation. Something must be given over

Initially, it’s hard to quite work out how you should read something like this; a book of notes is not necessarily going to cohere into a whole, particularly when there are quotes and references which may be real or invented, something guaranteed to throw you off guard. However, as I kept reading I became more and more involved in following the narrator’s musings on their subject and the book of notes almost seemed to morph into a book of aphorisms, which was quite fascinating.

The danger is always in seeing in yourself the potential to be an agent of change; the natural end of this is totalitarianism, or else madness.

A portrait of Comrade Stalin 1937… (Isaak Brodsky / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The pieces raised all kind of thoughts about the value and function of art, its place in the world and the eternal debate of art vs money – which I guess, in the end, may be what the author intended! The dictator as failed artist is a trope that runs through recent history, most obviously with Hitler; and here Rothes explores that much more interestingly than I’ve seen before!

The dictator stands as the embodiment of all social guilt, the worst of our nature become flesh, the reification of our demons ruling over us; they are what we deserve, and what we nonetheless must resist.

As you can see, I ended up with a *lot* of post-its sticking out of this little book, and I could have stuffed this post full of quotes from it. “Art…” is a very clever piece of writing, and the notes often hint at the (fictional?) author’s cheeky wish to fool their readers: “Something must be said, of course, about the stolen art of the Nazis, though not what they might think.” I could share with you more than I already have, and I’ll add one final quoted quote below; but instead I’ll encourage you to seek work out. It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking book where almost every paragraph makes you want to stop and think – fascinating!

“It is impossible to be an artist without simultaneously being a utopian, and there is no room for utopia yet; we bear a burden for the past, and utopian thought denies this by skipping the process of struggle and restitution for an end goal that the artist feels we are somehow deserving of.”

(Book kindly provided by the author, for which many thanks! You can find out more about Sublunary Editions here.)