If the painting Kim Jong Il, the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, deeply concerned over the soldiers’ diet were all one had to go on, one would assume that Kim Jong Il is indeed deeply concerned about the soldiers’ diets. Inspecting a humongous piece of fish, the leader of North Korea smiles as two cheerful chefs and a military aide look on with admiration. In reality, of course, Kim Jong Il does not seem to be all that concerned about the nourishment of his military—with 1.2 million men under arms, the fourth largest standing army in the world. Numerous visitors to the De-Militarized Zone along the Korean peninsula’s 38th parallel have noticed that the North’s soldiers are shorter, skinnier, and weaker of frame than their southern counterparts.
The idea of art serving an end beyond the stimulation of the visual senses informs the exhibit “Flowers for Kim Il Sung: Art and Architecture from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” currently on display at the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art (MAK) in Vienna. The giant, fluorescent-colored fish picture is but one of 100 paintings and posters in the first exhibition of art from the hermit kingdom to be opened to the outside world. It’s all possible thanks to the cooperation of the National Gallery in Pyongyang and the Paektusan Academy of Architecture. Both institutions, like everything in North Korea, are state-run.
Viennese museum officials have been at pains to deny that there is any political motive behind the exhibit. Their mission is merely to provide a window into a society about which Westerners know very little. “‘Flowers for Kim Il Sung’ should in no way be viewed as a political statement, but rather purely as a unique opportunity to examine the idealizing art of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is hardly known at all,” says Peter Noever, director of the MAK, who was inspired to mount the show on a visit to Pyongyang seven years ago. “With this showing at the MAK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has broken through its isolation—at least in terms of artistic production.”
But a visit to the exhibit and a survey of the accompanying press materials and programs designed around it paints a different picture. “Flowers for Kim Il Sung” contains no works from before the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. It is not, as its promoters contend, a sampling of North Korean art, but a display of propaganda in service to the late Kim Il Sung and his son. By presenting it uncritically, the Vienna museum is subtly legitimizing the world’s cruelest regime.
Take the short essay by Rüdiger Frank, professor of East Asian economy and society at the University of Vienna, published in a pamphlet for an upcoming symposium entitled “Exploring North Korean Arts.” Frank decries the “picture produced by our media” of North Korea, which he claims “is limited to news about famine, human rights violations and a highly militarized state that defies attempts by the USA and its allies to prevent it from possessing nuclear weapons.” Apparently, nearly two decades’ worth of condemnations of the North’s blatantly illegal nuclear weapons program by the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency—both of which have headquarters just a few miles from the MAK—are nothing more than the result of American machinations. Juche—the Marxist-cum-personality cult ideology founded by Kim Il Sung, which stands alongside Muammar Qaddafi’s Green Book and Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book as a classic in the dictator-worship genre—“puts the human being at the center and argues that with the right determination, anything can be achieved.”
Moral relativism permeates Frank’s analysis, which whitewashes the regime’s internal repression and foreign aggression. “We know that reality is never the purest white or the darkest black,” he writes, something that the starving masses of the North Korean countryside might dispute were they given the opportunity. Of the aftermath of the Korean War—a conflict precipitated by a Soviet-backed invasion across the 38th parallel by the Communist forces of Kim Il Sung, resulting in over 2 million civilian deaths and the world’s most heavily militarized border—Frank writes blandly, as if there had been no responsible agent, “During the Cold War that ensued, [the Soviet Union and the United States] supported political forces that shared their respective ideals and interests.”
As to the causes of the present political stalemate, he is hesitant to say anything remotely critical of the leaders who have ruled the country in Stalinist fashion for six decades. “Despite hard work by its people, recovery has been slow. Natural disasters, political and management decisions, and a hostile external environment have all served to aggravate the situation.”
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.