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Fleurs du Mal

North Korea’s ghastly art, on display in Vienna.

Aug 30, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 47 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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If “Flowers for Kim Il Sung” depicted North Korea as it actually is—with its forced labor camps, crushing political conformity, politicized starvation campaigns, international brigandage and hostage-taking, illicit nuclear proliferation to fellow rogue states, and so on—it would not be so objectionable. The MAK is counting on visitors to possess independent knowledge of this reality and to realize that the exhibit wouldn’t exist at all unless the sponsors had been willing to adopt a “see no evil” attitude toward the mercurial North Korean government. “I think we’re all aware of the situation in this country as far as we know,” Bettina Busse, the curator of the exhibit, told me. 

The press materials tiptoe around these questions: “In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea art assumes a social function and is subordinate to the revolutionary process,” a press release states. As to why there is no biographical information about the artists, the museum explains: “In general, there are so many different painters that no single one of them really stands out.” That says as much about the largely undifferentiated quality of the artwork on display as it does the crushing anti-individualism of the North Korean regime.

Like most socialist realism, this “art” is devoid of complexity. Whatever talents the North Korean painters may possess are tragically subordinated to Stalinist politics and stultifying adulation of the Dear Leader. The descriptions of the artwork underline its utterly bland, primitive, and unenlightening character: “The leaders’ closeness to the people is repeatedly emphasized,” reads the press release. “Red, internationally recognized as being symbolic of socialism, is employed most frequently.” My tour guide’s attempt to distinguish the works from those produced in other Communist societies by labeling it “Idealistic Realism” only underscored the lengths to which the MAK has had to go in order to justify the exhibition.

The promoters of “Flowers for Kim Il Sung” are braced for criticism, insinuating that it is Western audiences, and not the North Korean regime, that need more cross-cultural understanding and artistic enlightenment. “Our society need not fear [the art of North Korea],” says Noever in an informational video. In endorsing the exhibit and calling for further such cultural exchanges, Frank scolds those in the West who would portray such initiatives as supportive of the regime, explicitly likening the critics to the mass murderers in Pyongyang. “Such a painful process is necessary if we want to escape the trap of propaganda, no matter where it may originate.”

Could one imagine, in the 1930s, an English gallery featuring Nazi art in such undiscerning fashion? To mount this exhibition, there was an implicit understanding between the curators and Pyongyang that thorny issues like human rights and constant threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” would not be addressed.  “It was clear that you can’t do a show and open up a political discussion,” Busse told me. “Of course you can’t involve human rights. For such a show, they would not accept it.” The MAK was therefore confronted with a choice: Either swallow these conditions and show the art, or proudly refuse and come home to Vienna empty-handed. 

But is sacrificing the ability to present information truthfully in order to display propaganda—posing as art— worth the moral price? It would be one thing if the pieces in “Flowers for Kim Il Sung” had been smuggled out of North Korea by defectors, in which case they could be presented to audiences honestly—as artifacts of a totalitarian system—all the better to expose the horrors that are attendant upon a lack of political freedom, a controlled economy, and a closed society. But the situation at the MAK is the opposite: The museum worked in close collaboration with North Korean authorities, and the exhibit’s opening event featured a speech by the head of the regime’s National Gallery. Moreover, the MAK has gone out of its way to condemn what it characterizes as the philistine, imperialist fear-mongering of Western media and governments, spouting a softer version of Pyongyang’s own paranoid and xenophobic worldview.

“All art is propaganda,” George Orwell once wrote. “On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.”  It is unfortunate that the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art has apparently lost sight of the distinction.

James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor to the New Republic

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