The Monument: Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq
by Samir al-Khalil
University of California Press, 153 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Culture, History and Ideology in the Formation of Ba’thist Iraq, 196889
by Amatzia Baram
St. Martin’s, 196 pp., $35.00
Saddam Hussein is now, so long as he holds power, the insecure dictator of a crippled and only partly industrialized third world nation of seventeen million souls. Hitler and Stalin, the rulers of great, powerful nations, may once have served as his models, but they can no longer do so. It is a good moment to consider the relationship of Iraq and its dictator to the West in an unfamiliar setting, that of the public arts.
The Iraqi who writes under the name of Samir al-Khalil has already, in his book Republic of Fear, published an impassioned account of how Iraqi politics came to terminate in the absolute rule of the Baath party and its leader, Saddam Hussein. The Monument, his new book, is a brilliant and moving essay on the propaganda of Iraqi public architecture, and on the political use of the arts by Saddam Hussein and the Baath totalitarian regime. His essay centers on the Victory Arch, a structure consisting of two enormous intersecting swords, brandished by outstretched arms, which Saddam Hussein erected in the center of Baghdad as a monument to the supposed victory of Iraq over Iran in their bloody eight-year war. A year ago a British TV program was based on an early draft of Khalil’s essay: the text has now been published together with some handsome and fascinating illustrations.
The subtitle of Khalil’s book, Art, Vulgarity and Responsibility in Iraq, points to its main thesis. Khalil maintains that the members of the artistic establishment in Iraq were gradually but wholly corrupted by the ruling Baath party, and that a once flourishing group of artists and architects was reduced to designing public monuments of pure kitsch—not, as might have happened with Western artists, because they subscribed to an ironic postmodernist view of kitsch as an artistic idiom, but because they had to accept the naive philistinism and vulgarity imposed on them by their ruler. Irony, Khalil says, is a concept virtually unknown to Arabic thought, and indeed it is a word hardly possible to translate into Arabic. The wit and irony needed to interpret kitsch as a form of high art are not publicly present in Iraq. In Iraq kitsch remains only kitsch.
Khalil makes much of the fact that in constructing the Victory Arch Saddam Hussein’s own arms were used to make the plaster model from which the immense version in bronze was cast. The dictator’s hugely enlarged arms in their metal version were anchored in the parade ground to hold the two monumental swords of the monument. A photograph in the book shows a construction worker on site, virtually in the palm of Saddam Hussein’s hand. To Khalil—understandably—this monstrous magnification of part of the ruler’s own body is peculiarly repellent. “The knowledge that in every little bump and squiggle [of the arms] which can be seen, felt and maybe even stroked, these were, are and will always remain. His arms is [sic] mesmerizing …