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  • Modern Dictatorships and Their Art Worlds
  • Maria Alina Asavei (bio)
Art and Politics under Modern Dictatorships: A Comparison of Chile and Romania, by Caterina Preda, Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 319 pages, $139 (hardcover), ISBN 978-3-319-57269-7, $109 (e-book), ISBN 978-3-319-57270-3

The relationship between art and politics during dictatorial regimes is both contested and fraught, despite many academic and artistic attempts to disentangle this issue. At the same time, facing modern dictatorships’ impact on cultural production and producers is not without political and theoretical weight. Caterina Preda’s book Art and Politics under Modern Dictatorships: A Comparison of Chile and Romania explores the cultural policies of two contrasting modern dictatorships: Chile under Augusto Pinochet (an instance of authoritarian, right-wing military regimes) and Romania under Nicolae Ceauşescu (a totalitarian, left-wing communist regime of Eastern Europe). As atypical and seemingly disparate as these case studies might look at first glance, Preda’s comparison of two diametrically opposite political regimes illuminates the topical roles culture (and art) can play under dictatorship both in supporting, as well as in resisting, the status quo and its cultural policies.

The complex role of culture within these contrasting regimes is encapsulated by two of the examples Preda engages with in the book: both the National Folkloric Ballet (BAFONA) and opera were promoted by the Pinochet regime in Chile on the grounds that culture and art should be linked to private corporations’ agenda. Thus Chilean classical music, opera, classical theatre, and ballet were supposed to educate the masses in line with a cultural program that emphasized an elitist, traditionalist, conservative, and antiforeign political agenda. These cultural-political directives were easy to follow by a highly educated public. BAFONA’s performances were regarded by the authoritarian regime as a “cultural [End Page 259] embassy” whose grand merit was that it reinterpreted and “re-dignified” Chilean folklore (115). Similarly, the Madrigal, the state-owned Romanian choir ensemble, was considered a shop window for the outside world during Ceauşescu’s national socialism. Although the Madrigal choir performed exquisite classical music pieces outside communist Romania, the Ceauşescu regime demanded internal production and consumption of “authentic Romanian folkloric songs” (184). Unlike BAFONA, the Madrigal choir was supposed to appeal to everyone’s taste, irrespective of the public’s education level.

By comparing such instances of cultural production, the research question this book astutely answers is whether art and politics are put to different ends in two contrasting modern dictatorships. Through a thorough engagement with the literature and meticulous analysis of art pieces that epitomize the interface between art and politics under cultural terror, Preda outlines the common strategies oppressive regimes rely on in consolidating and legitimizing their hegemony through cultural production. As she argues, the artistic renderings of life during dictatorship convey new meanings of what political art might connote either during communism or during anticommunism. At the same time, this book brings to the forefront a “model for comparative analysis of art and politics in dictatorships” (303–17).

Currently senior lecturer and researcher at the Department of Political Science, University of Bucharest, Preda has published extensively on the relationship between art and politics, the impact of cultural memory in transitional justice processes, and the cultural production of ethnic minorities. In addition to her academic activities, Preda is also a visual artist who occasionally exhibits her paintings. Her artistic background facilitates an experiential knowledge of how the world can be rendered aesthetically and politically. The claims of her book are substantiated with an impressive variety of primary and secondary sources ranging from literature, film, theater, dance, photography, and painting, to archival material, cultural press, memoires, official decrees, and exhibition catalogs. The book’s main argument is unpacked in seven chapters. The first chapter is dedicated to methodological and theoretical considerations. It elaborates on the importance of studying modern dictatorships from the perspective of art and politics. This chapter also tackles the methodological risks the author is keen to take in addressing the thorny issue of comparing two diametrically opposite case studies, relying on comparative qualitative research methods and grounded theory (Glasser and Strauss 1967). The second chapter is devoted to...