The New York Times has an intriguing story about an major art exhibition in Vienna of over 200 pieces from the North Korea Art Gallery Pyongyang. “North Korea you say … what art do they have ? -Its is all propaganda.” And you would be right as this slideshow demonstrates – the picture above is one of 100 distressingly familiar examples of how art as well as life in North Korea is molded to a state view.
So why have the exhibit in the first place?
This is the question raised by the NYTimes. They explore the motives behind the exhibit in Vienna Museum of Applied Art and its director, Peter Noever . On one hand, Mr Noever is given credit for being astutely clever in his exhibits. On the other, he is implicitly criticized for the scale of the show, the lack of real dialogue as the North Koreans will discuss the show only once at its end, and none of the North Korean artists were allowed to come to Vienna to see and/or discuss their artwork. Inevitably, the show has garnered some varied but also harsh criticisms. Given North Korea’s chequered history, such critiques are not unexpected.
The recent history of totalitarian family rule in North Korea has been totally despotic. Kim Il-sung had his sone Kim Jong-il installed and now the recent belligerence of the North Koreans including the torpedoing of a South Korean coast guard ship with 46 sailors killed – is the handiwork of Kim Jong-un as he grasps for power. But the despotism has had terrible consequences including developing and spreading nuclear weapons, military expansion helping to trigger a lethal famine, known as the Arduous March in North Korean propaganda parlance. This famine left 2-3 million dead in the late 1990s and continues to have nutritional and health repercussions in North Korea. The night time picture taken by satellite to the left sheds light on the economic depredation of North Korea relative to China to the North and South Korea on the lower half of the Korean peninsula. The art exhibition absolutely whitewashes the stark realities of North Korea during the era when they were painted/created.
However, Jane Portal of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts defends the exhibit –
“However much we may think of it as a joke or odd,” she said, “we’ve seen it all before in terms of communist and totalitarian societies — from the Soviet Union to the Nazis to China. This is the last remnant of that, the last bastion of this kind of thinking that’s bound to disappear. That’s why it’s so important for it to be seen and collected for posterity.”
Takethe5th thinks all of the above could be accomplished by a much smaller exhibit of perhaps 15-25 pieces with an ongoing lecture series and other scheduled exhibits on “national art” under different political regimes. In sum, if you must show the propaganda art, show it in context.