"Terror Is Glamour" (Originally Posted 9/11/2008)

Glamour can sell religious devotion or military glory as surely as it can pitch lipstick or island vacations. All promise a way to transcend our everyday circumstances, to experience more and become better than ordinary life allows.  All invite us to imagine escape and transformation. 

From Achilles and Alexander to "national greatness," the glamour of battle is remarkably persistent. So is  the glamour of martyrdom, as any trip through a Western museum or perusal of a Lives of the Saints (or its Protestant equivalent) will demonstrate. Nor is martyrdom's appeal to Christians merely historical, as Eliza Griswold reported in this 2007 TNR piece.

Glamour appeals to our desires, whatever they may be, and Jihadi glamour offers something for everyone: from historical importance to union with God, not to mention riches and beautiful women. Consider this excerpt on the glories of martyrdom from the Egyptian cleric Hazem Sallah Abu Isma'il (transcribed and translated by MEMRI, my ellipses, video here):

The martyrs are the ones who have changed the course of history. They are the ones who have changed the course of human life. The course of human life proceeds this way, until a martyrdom-seeker collides with it, changing and diverting it. Whenever a martyrdom-seeker collides into it, he restores the course of humanity to the path planned by Allah....

The [martyr] does not lose anything. He does not die. All of a sudden he ascends to the angels and lives next to Allah. He pleads on behalf of 70 of his family members....The Crown of Honor is placed on his head. The gem in this crown is more precious than the whole world. He is married off to 70 black-eyed virgins. If one of these virgins were to descend to this world, her light would extinguish the light of the sun and the moon. That's how beautiful she is.

It's a compelling vision. Of course, traditional martyrs--Muslim or Christian--don't deliberately blow up innocents (though religious wars are hard on civilians).


Watching the excellent new movie Traitor, I was struck by another aspect of terrorist glamour: how much it resembles, at least in fictional portrayals, the glamour of heist movies. (Don Cheadle is an explosives expert in both Traitor and the Ocean's 11 movies.) In both, you have a secret and intricate plan in which every team member is important and the goal is to outwit authorities and commit a crime. It's not hard to imagine how appealing that might be to a bored and impressionable person.

As Rushdie suggests, of course, glamour always leaves something out, in this case the literally gory details of the act (and I wouldn't bet on eternal life or crowns and virgins). And in most of its incarnations, glamour proves perishable. Either aspirations change, entropy and boredom set in, or the audience learns too much, destroying the mystery and grace on which glamour's beautiful illusion depends. The question for this September 11 is, How do we puncture the glamour of Jihadi terrorism? The first step is recognizing that such glamour exists.

Mao On Red Velvet: A Communist Twist On Kitsch Iconography

Icons from Jesus and Elvis to Steve Jobs and Monica Lewinsky have gotten the black velvet treatment. But, as these posters up for auction at Swann Galleries demonstrate, even when it came to kitsch techniques, Mao’s east was red.

 Velvet mao Velvet mao2

All the red is velvet. From the Swann’s catalog: 

In an unexpected example of one Cultural Revolution borrowing visual cues from another, the Chinese co-opted some of the best, and some of the worst, American poster design concepts. A cross between a Velvet Elvis, a black light poster and Red Army propaganda, the result is as kitschy as its Western counterpart; a Velvet Mao!

Dance Week: Ballet And The Distant Capital

Bolshoi ballet poster Moscow
This is a Soviet-era poster, auctioned by Swann in February. (It sold for $600.)  The caption reads, “You can only see this in Moscow,” and the building in the upper right is the Bolshoi Theater.

The poster seems less like an ad for the Bolshoi, however, than for Moscow—propaganda presenting the ideal of a cosmopolitan capital of grace, beauty, and high culture. For whom was it intended? Not foreign tourists, certainly, since they wouldn’t have understood the Russian. Yet to a provincial Russian, the poster’s glamour would have presented a cruelly tantalizing prospect. Under Soviet rule, movement to Moscow was strictly limited, and even today internal passports restrict free migration to the capital. “You can only see this in Moscow” is the promise of life somewhere over the rainbow, ideal but unattainable.

What Happens To The Posters After Election Day?

Obama-hope-shelter Like Batman or the Virgin of Guadalupe, Barack Obama's face has become an icon of popular devotion--unusual in American politics. As long as the election campaign is still going on, the Obama imagery is inspiring but innocuous, combining the escapist glamour of a tween's Hannah Montana bed linens with the fan enthusiasm of a Tony Romo jersey. While Obamania may seem excessive to outsiders, so do Comic-Con and Clemson tailgating parties. Besides, some of the merchandising is just that--an entrepreneurial way of playing to the passions of the moment. "Yes We Can Cola" is all in fun. (And Jones Soda did make other campaign colas.)


If Obama is elected president, however, the man in the pictures is no longer a symbol of identity and aspiration. He's the boss, "Leader of the Free World." He has power. Ubiquitous images of his face take on a creepy Dear Leader quality, implicitly commanding obedience. As Kaelan Smith wrote in an article about Shepard Fairey's famous Obama posters: 

Obama posters

“Can anyone think of a time,” I asked, “when a presidential candidate used an image of himself as a primary campaign logo?” None of us had been alive during the Great Depression or the subsequent Great War, so we agreed unanimously that we hadn’t. Then a woman at the table said, “I suppose you see pictures like that of Castro in Cuba.” That reminded me of a trip I’d taken recently to Jordan. When I walked across the border from Israel I’d seen the huge, benevolent faces of King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah II. In fact, they had been everywhere, from the small, goat-herding villages along the highway, in Petra on a wall near my hotel, and in every shop throughout Amman.

In the United States there are not laudatory images of Bush hanging in stores or in living rooms, at bus stops or on billboards. But if Obama gets elected in November, thanks to Shepard Fairey’s efforts, his face will already be a ubiquitous, public image; I hesitate to, but must say, like the monarchs of the Middle East and the dictators of the remaining autocracies.

In an interview Fairey assured Smith that his imagery “anti-propaganda propaganda” that, he suggested, is “coming from a position of moral integrity.” In other words, he believes it, or at least believes it's in a good cause. The Obama posters were, of course, based on the famous propaganda image of Che Guevara. John McCain may suggest that Obama is a socialist. Fairey, a man of the left, literally paints Obama as a communist--which may involve as much wishful projection as the belief in other quarters that the candidate is a secret free-trader.

Although campaign posters are surely a form of propaganda, the Obama imagery is so empty of specific exhortation that we do better to think of it as a manifestation of the candidate's glamour--a seductive illusion in which the audience sees whatever they themselves desire. Glamour is manipulative, but not coercive. It requires the audience to suspend its skepticism and the object to maintain his mystery, a tacit form of cooperation. Give the object the power to compel devotion, and glamour is suddenly neither sustainable nor necessary.

German Poster Art--Too Poisoned For Display?

Referring back to the Norton Simon's poster exhibit,  I'm a big fan of WWI poster art, but I'm also intrigued by  the poster art of the period between the wars, especially the German ones .

But can anyone really collect and display these without horrifying dinner guests?  While the graphics are great, the caricatures repel many. 

On the left  is a 1933 poster from Munich, advertising an African themed party at the Deutsches Theater.  Held during Fasching, the German version of Carnival, the party was sponsored by the  the Reich (African) Colonial League.


The party was still going in 1935, but the imagery got cruder.


During the Nazi years, the Reichskolonialbund
stopped throwing jazzy parties and concentrated on
reclaiming Germany's overseas colonies.

Jazz was officially considered degenerate and the imagery reflected that.


Lars Hasvoll Bakke has more on German propaganda posters.

So, can these images be enjoyed? I confess to liking the strong colors and playful spirit of the first two posters.  But is the pain they might cause people I respect too great?  I'd love to know your thoughts.

The Art Of War


Inviting the viewer to identify with its mother-heroine, this 1943 poster looks a lot like a movie ad. Of course, it's actually pitching domestic support for the war effort--in effect, casting the viewer as a heroine in a real-life saga.

The poster is one of 33 U.S. war posters on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena through January 26. Covering both world wars, they range in style from realistic illustration to stylized graphics. With a few exceptions (notably the famous Uncle Sam recruiting poster), most address not actual or potential troops but civilians at home. The goal is to imaginatively enlist the general public in the greater cause: heightening sympathy with allies, strengthening antagonism toward enemies, and giving everyday hassles like recycling cooking grease a grander significance.

Can such propaganda create social solidarity? Or does it merely reinforce and direct existing feelings?

Watch a slideshow. Download a podcast on the exhibit. Read an illustrated essay.

Kim Jong Il: Alive, Robust In Art

Kim Taking a leaf from Generalissmo Franco's political playbook, North Korean semi-strongman Kim Jong Il might be sick, might be dead, might be stuffed.  He missed the country's 60th anniversary parade, leading to increased message traffic at Langley, no doubt.

But he's got the strength of 10,000 tigers, if the official art of North Korea is accurate. In fact, the whole country is good looking, strong, brave and energetic beyond belief.

North Korean posters are ubiquitous, with strong graphics, bold colors and relentless cheery exhortations, inviting the passer-by to join in:

LET'S EXTENSIVELY RAISE GOATS IN ALL FAMILIES! (Los Angeles is on board with this.)


David Heather is the foremost authority on these posters, writing:

As important tools in the mobilization of the masses, posters have to have an instantaneous impact on the viewers' understanding and their desire to act upon this understanding. Their message has to be accessible, clear and direct; informative and explanatory, as well as exhortative. The link between contemplation and action is crucial.

The stylization of the figures turns them into instant icons--almost too perfect to be real, but as familiar pop singers in the West. The soldier, the scientist, the farmer are remote, benevolent and courageous, and urge the viewer to forget petty everyday cares and join them in the adventure of building North Korea.