The German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote that one key difference between communism and fascism is that fascism aestheticizes politics while communism politicized art. Neither, however, was particularly conducive to producing "good art."
The Nazis had pretty good taste in the artists they hated. The "degenerate art" exhibit the German regime organized to mock the decadent, supposedly Jewish-influenced avant garde in 1927 was in fact, a pretty impressive collection of mid-century European modernism, including artists like Chagall, Ernst, Kandinsky, Klee, and Kirchner.
The early Soviet era produced some still renowned artists including Alexander Rodchenko and Kazmir Malevich, but they quickly found their work out of with the rise of Stalinism and Socialist Realism.
Much as we may like to glorify dissident artists inspired to combat authoritarian regimes, free societies have tended to produce more and better art. A paper by economist Christiane Hellmanzik for the European Journal of Political Economy attempts to test this proposition empirically:
This paper analyses the impact of the political environment on the value of artistic outcomes as measured by the price of paintings produced over the period from 1820 to 2007. The analysis is based on a unique dataset encompassing a global sample of 273 superstars of modern art born between 1800 and 1945, auction results of their paintings, and data on the political environment in the respective production countries. Controlling for a variety of economic and hedonic variables, there is a statistically significant, positive link between the level of democracy and the value of artistic output. Moreover, we find that democracy has a significant positive impact both on the density of superstar painters and the collective artistic human capital in a country.
"Superstar" artists are defined as those that garner at least 2.2. column inches in the Oxford Dictionary of Art. The artists are matched to a the country where they were active for each year -- so Germany and France would get Kandinsky rather than Russia, for instance.
Interesting, while France, followed by the United States, were the largest producers of art during this period, in terms of prices at auction, the top country was Austria, home of Egon Schile and Gustav Klimt. Norway came in second solely on the earning power of Edvard Munch. Hellmanzik found no correleation between GDP per capita and the value of artistic output.
I still wonder if this result has more to do with the politics of the era being studied than an actual correlation between art and regime type. As Benjamin's line suggests, 20th century authoritarian regimes meddled in the art world in not particularly helpful ways, but that hasn't always been the case -- the Medicis weren't exactly democrats.
I'm also curious to see what China would do to the sample if it were continued to the present day. Ai Weiwei notwithstanding, there are a plenty of increasingly popular Chinese artists who've been able to work without challenge from the government and international auction houses -- as well as a growing domestic market -- are taking notice.
Chinese-style authoritarian capitalism wasn't much of a factor in the years Hellmanzik studied. But like so many other things, it may require us to question some comfortable assumptions about democracy and art.
War of Ideas is a blog on the theory behind the practice of global politics. Foreign Policy associate editor Joshua E. Keating brings you the latest research, data, and intellectual debates from around the world.