Why dictators love kitch

UPDATE: It seems the painting represents the struggle of DPRK to keep itself independent and the strength required to do so.


There is an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal this week analyzing the rather tacky painting in the background of the above picture of Bill Clinton and Kim Jong il.

On the one hand, a run-of-the-mill seascape, the kind of visual elevator music one finds in public spaces the world over, where the aim is to decorate but not offend. Yet there was something about the picture that wasn’t quite right and that kept drawing me back to it. For one thing, there was its vast internal scale. The waves were bigger, even, than the figures posing for the photograph, and they so dominated the foreground as if ready to break out and drown the assembled dignitaries.

Then there was the picture’s bizarre disunity. Two opposing visions of nature are combined, a benign one (the luminosity and fluttering birds), and an angry, violent one (the heaving seas and crashing waves). Just as strange, the painting’s various elements seem at war with each other. For instance, the rhythm of the breaking waves leads our eye from left to right, yet at the bottom right-hand corner—just to the right of the woman in the official party wearing a white jacket—a flock of birds, facing to the left, abruptly halts and reverses that momentum. A more accomplished artist would have found a way to integrate the various elements more harmoniously and lead our eye around the canvas more smoothly.

Then I realized: This is no ordinary painting but art with a purpose. What seem to our eye as limitations are the result of deliberate intent. It’s a piece of political propaganda. As such it belongs to a subspecies of kitsch known as totalitarian kitsch, where art’s sole raison d’etre is to bolster a dictatorial regime and glorify its leader.

The message of the painting, located in what appears to be the presidential palace [NKeconWatch: I think it is actually the Paekwawon Guest House], is a simple one: Kim Jong Il’s regime as a force of nature. The painting has a split personality because it aims to convey two distinct messages simultaneously: The soft light and gamboling birds conjure up thoughts of a natural paradise, an allusion to the “paradise” such regimes believe they are creating for their subjects. The crashing waves are a metaphor for the overwhelming power of the state and its Great Leader ready to crush all enemies.

No surprise there as to the painting’s purpose, but the author went on to elaborate on the style and its origins in the Soviet Union, borrowing heavily from Art Under Control in North Korea:

Totalitarian kitsch puts those ideas in the service of the state. It is the official art of authoritarian governments, aimed at extending state control through propaganda. Totalitarian kitsch exists to glorify the state, foster a personality cult surrounding the dictator and celebrate ceaseless and irrevocable social and economic progress through images of churning factories and happy, exultant workers. It does so using the corrupted language of academic realism—heavily muscled supermen and women and colossal scale. Pyongyang’s “Monument to Party Foundation” consists of three hands each emerging from a circular platform and holding, respectively, a hammer, a hoe and a brush. The hands alone are over 150 feet tall.

Such art isn’t produced by the proverbial starving artist in a garret but on an assembly line, like Mansudea Studio in Pyongyang.

“Mansudea is an ‘art-creation company’ as they call it, and it has over 3,000 workers in it,” says Jane Portal, author of “Art under Control in North Korea” and chairwoman of the department of Asian, Oceanic and African art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “They create with great speed. Artists at the Mansudea produce on average two paintings a month.”

Totalitarian kitsch got its start in the Soviet Union in 1934 when the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers ratified the principles of what became known as Socialist Realism. The first decades of the century saw the greatest innovations of modernism through Europe, and in Russia, artists such as Kazmir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko made seminal contributions to the language of Cubism and abstract art.

But under Stalin, the Party decreed that art must serve the cause of revolution, and it could only do so with imagery that was universally and easily understandable and possessed of a didactic purpose. So in 1934 modernism was banned as bourgeois and reactionary (Malevich, who died the following year, spent the remainder of his days painting bland pictures of peasants) and artists began churning out heroic images of Stalin and the proletariat, a classic example of which is Vera Mukhina’s 1937 “Worker and a Kolkhoz Woman.” A statue some 80 feet tall (currently being restored), it shows two strapping figures, a man and a women, breasting the wind as they surge forward, hammer and sickle held high.

In the decades following, Socialist Realism became the style of choice for dictatorships. The Nazis adopted it, as did Mao Zedong and Saddam Hussein. Mr. Hussein’s main artistic legacy is the 1989 “Hands of Victory” in Baghdad, consisting of enormous hands emerging from the ground holding swords that cross. It’s a classic of totalitarian kitsch, part personality cult—the hands are based on casts of Mr. Hussein’s forearms—and Orwellian doublespeak. They were erected to commemorate Iraq’s “victory” in the Iran-Iraq war, which, after eight years and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, in fact ended in a draw.

According to Ms. Portal in Boston, while North Korea’s version of Socialist Realism is typical—“The Kim cult is based on the Mao cult and the Stalin cult—personality cults where they’re regarded as gods,” she says—there are differences.

“One of the interesting things is women,” she says. In Soviet and Chinese art, women are shown shouldering as heavy a burden as men. In North Korean art, women aren’t shown working, and they wear makeup and dresses. “You never see them in pants,” says Ms. Portal. “This comes from Neo-Confucianism, which is traditionally Korean and very male chauvinist,” she says.

To an artist in a democratic country living the customary hand-to-mouth existence, working as a state employee might seem like a boon, even if it does mean doing the same thing day after day. But it too has its perils. Dictators fall and regimes go out of business. Worse than simply being unemployed, the artists might find themselves outcasts, symbols of a discredited ideology.

Some years after the collapse of Communism, I asked a Russian art critic what had happened to all the Socialist Realists in his country. He said they were still earning a living making other kinds of art, but that the transition hadn’t always been seamless. He cited the case of a painter whose stock in trade had been portraits of Lenin. The man was now earning his living churning out religious subjects. But, my friend added, so ingrained were his earlier habits that every time he painted the face of Jesus, he wound up with a likeness of Lenin.

Read the full article here:
Why Dictators Love Kitsch
Wall Street Journal
Eric Gibson


2 Responses to “Why dictators love kitch”

  1. Bill B. says:

    You know, isn’t that the same photo location (carpet and background painting) as this photo of Kim Jong Il with Kim Dae-jung?


  2. Cordelia says:

    There’s nothing sinister about this picture – you’ve got too much time on your hands… It’s just a mural! Pretty and cheap decoration.

    If I travelled to the USA I bet I could find lots of murals with patriotic or ideological messages. I’d find them sinister because I don’t like American foreign policy.

    tit for tat, this is no big deal! Possibly not the most stylish mural but who cares?