Totalitarian kitsch rides back in (Wednesday 12 August 2009)

compiled by Niamh Dunphy
An official photograph of a poker-faced Bill Clinton, seated next to North Korean president Kim Jong-il, was taken at the end of talks which led to the freeing of two journalists last week. Behind is a giant painting of crashing waves and flying birds.
 Photo of former US president and Korean leader Kim Jong-il together in Pyongyang last Tuesday, 2009; image held here
Photo of former US president and Korean leader Kim Jong-il together in Pyongyang last Tuesday, 2009; image held here

Taking the above image as his starting point, Wall Street Journal Arts and Leisure editor Eric Gibson recently wrote an article on totalitarian kitsch, which he defines as: "where art’s sole raison d’être is to bolster a dictatorial regime and glorify its leader."  Kitsch is official art for authoritarian governments used as a means to control through propaganda.  To paraphrase Gibson, the painting's imagery presents Kim Jong-il's regime as a powerful, natural force that is ready to face any opposition.  It also offers promise of happiness by suggesting the existence of an idyllic paradise under his rule - cue the happy birds in the painting.

According to Gibson, recent pics of Russian President Vladmir Putin also also flirt with the 'totalitarian kitsch' category.  Official photographs were released last Tuesday of Putin enjoying his summer break in the remote Serbian landscape.  'Pin-up Putin' - chiselled and occasionally shirtless - rides horses, swims in rivers and rests majestically on tree branches.
 Putin displays more than just his equestrian skills, 2009; image held here
Putin displays more than just his equestrian skills, 2009; image held here

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'Action-man Putin' on holiday in Serbia, 2009; image held here

Here we have the Russian leader as a superhero, as an iconic leader, embracing the vibrant and unspoiled landscape. Just as the grandiose backdrop used in the photo of Clinton and Kim Jong-il, strong connections to nature and an idealized Utopian world attempt to glorify the state in a controlled, superficial way - through the recycled and tacky style of kitsch.
Sources: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/5972026/Bill-Clinton-meets-North-Korean-leader-Kim-Jong-il-in-mission-to-rescue-US-reporters.html,http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8185524.stm,http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204908604574336383324209824.html#articleTabs%3Darticle, http://www.exodusmd.com/blog/post.php?postid=48&d=200604