A North Korean propaganda poster

NORTH KOREA

All In the Name of Art. 1978. South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok is bundled onto a ship leaving from Hong Kong’s docks. It is destined for Pyongyang, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. On arrival, Kim Jong-il, Supreme Leader proudly reveals his vast VHS collection: many thousands of Hong Kong action films, several copies of each James Bond, and taking pride of place, Rambo. Shin is told he has access to $2.5 million to make movies for the Dear Leader. The result: the Socialist Godzilla masterpiece, Pulgasari.

As for fine art, a strict programme must be followed by aspiring artists in DPRK. After around a decade in a Fine Art University, in which one is taught various techniques for producing Socialist Realist art (for which ‘landscape’ is a recently-approved subject), if one is not chosen to be ‘sent to work’ in the hinterland, one will spend the rest of one’s life producing artworks glorifying the Leader and his regime.

In every room, on every floor, of every building in North Korea, there is a portrait of Kim, and his father Kim Il-sung. Direct sunlight must not hit the portraits, nor must they be defaced in any way. Frequent floods afflicting North Korean countryside have killed many thousands of workers; it has been claimed that many of the deaths can be attributed to people trying to save their portraits from getting wet. All In the Name of Art.

 

CHINA

Think of art and communist dictatorship, and it doesn’t take long for certain images to spring to mind: big, block-colour propaganda posters, and the singing of hearty revolutionary songs. Both were of course widespread in China under Mao.

Yet the relationship between art and the dictatorship was arguably deeper and more theoretical in China than in Russia. As early as 1942 Mao had expressed his views in his Forum on Literature and Art: art was either capitalist (bad) or proletarian (good), and the function of the good sort should be to "educate" the people, and "obliterate" the enemy. Thus all art was to be entirely subservient to the theories of Marx, Lenin and Mao himself. This was true even if it used traditional forms, like the popular yangko plays, or the Chairman’s own poems, widely distributed (and naturally adored) in his home country.

Not only was censorship rigorously enforced, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) held as one of its explicit aims the destruction of ‘Old Culture’. This entailed everything from the destruction of centuries-old temples and mosques, to the suppression or destruction of classical writings by figures such as Confucius. It was meant to be a clean break – China’s incredibly rich pre-revolutionary artistic heritage was seen as contaminated and worthless. The long-term effects of such a drastic move have yet to be fully understood.

SOVIET RUSSIA

"Art is just a word". Perhaps. But for Soviet Russia it became an envelope for messages of love, respect and thanks to Soviet leaders and socialism itself.

Now displayed in a vast exhibition, gifts sent from Russian workers countrywide to their leaders range from intricately decorated china to dolls made in the local tradition, to a portrait of Lenin made from human hair. Not merely aesthetic interest, but desire to show gratitude and to ignite some sense of intimacy with their lauded leaders drove such excessive creations of patriotic art. Not dictated then, but empowered, workers’ gifts of local craft served to raise their profile to the eyes of those dictating their lives. Minute patriotic details on teacups of industriously farming peasants reveal how such art succeeded to qualify firstly for this sense of connection between worker and leader, and later to achieve national display. It is the emphasis and glorification of the everyday, and the public’s ‘dictation’ of these gifts of art, that demarcates such art from that of a regular gallery. Always an ambiguous category, art being valued here through love not materiality, awarded it an agency utilised by the workers that leaders had no reason to condemn. Furthermore, these artworks being given everyday importance engineered a sense of debt on the part of the leaders, thus throwing into question the solidity of Soviet dictatorship.

UGANDA

Art, like the rest of Uganda, suffered immensely under Idi Amin Dada’s dictatorship. A large number of respected members of the Ugandan art community moved to Nairobi. Two Ugandan artists, Henry Lutalo Lumu and David Kibuuka, refined batik art (textile based art that uses resist-dyeing techniques) here, paving the way for the Modern Batik style.

Government sanctioned art was the only artistic form that flourished under Amin. In 1974, French director Barbet Schroeder created a documentary film General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait displaying the dictator in all his jocular barbarity. This film, candidly showing Amin’s military in action, appeared in two cuts; a shorter one for release in Uganda and an extended version for global release. Amin, displeased with the extended version, forced Schroeder to make additional cuts by holding 200 French citizens hostage.

After Amin’s fall from power, Ugandan art began to blossom again, albeit with a political focus; contemporary Ugandan artists are currently campaigning for more recognition for the Gulu holocaust.

ZIMBABWE

In 2007 the Harare International Festival of the Arts staged a daring rebellion against Zimbabwean oppression. Taking the form of a danse macabre, men dressed in dark suits and sporting glasses attacked a group of young actors in a moving and disturbing enactment of the murders executed under Mugabe. People shouted "March 11" from the back of the group, alluding to the savage attacks carried out on opposition activists. This attracted an audience of 6,000 exhilarated supporters.

Music played a vital part. A sultry female singer sang ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ as the lifeless actors were carried offstage, which then changed to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’. The Master of Ceremonies addressed the audience in a grim mockery of Mugabe’s addresses, saying: "Tonight I am your leader. I will tolerate no opposition."

During the festival, more anti-government uprising characterised Zimbabwe. The police mistakenly believed rumours about an ‘Orange Revolution’, beating and maiming street vendors they suspected to be selling poison citrus in a ploy to bring down the government.

ITALY

The Futurists were a movement dedicated to modernity: industrialisation, urbanisation and the power of machinery. They glorified the strong elements in society at the expense of the weak. An excerpt from their manifesto (1909) runs: "We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene...and contempt for woman." Many stress the link between Futurism and Mussolini’s Fascist party, which Futurism’s founder Marinetti helped create when they merged in 1919 (though a number of revisionist historians are these days questioning this traditional assumption, arguing that many Futurists were disabused of their love of machines by their experience of WWI, going on to found the ‘Vorticists’).

Whatever the case, much of the art and architecture commissioned by Mussolini was distinctly ‘futurist’ in style; in 1926 he defined the creation of a ‘fascist art’ that would be based on a cultural synthesis as it was politically "traditionalistic and at the same time modern". Nowhere was this link more evident than on October 28th 1932 at the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution, which the government alleged was so popular it was repeated in 1933 and 1934. Marinetti continued to play a key role in its propagation, accepting election to the Italian Academy in 1929. Many Futurists dreamed of a state-sponsored art which would help revolutionise decaying Italian society, but increasingly their artistic vision conflicted with Mussolini’s conservative political ideals, and some suffered considerable repression.

IRAQ

In 1958 there were only three sculptures in existence in Iraq’s capital, two of which were swiftly destroyed in the revolution. By the end of the Baathist dictatorship Baghdad was full of monuments. The most prominent of these are known as the Hands of Victory.

The triumphal arch, the ultimate emblem of imperialist architectural propaganda in use since the time of Caesar, was commissioned to celebrate Iraq’s victory over Iran. Completed in 1986, two years before the war finally ended in a stalemate, the monument is a virtuosic example of how art under dictatorship can become complicit in mythologising the history of a regime. The monument’s 140 foot long blades are composed of metal from the guns and tanks of Iraqi soldiers killed in the war, whilst five thousand Iranian helmets adorn the structure’s two supporting plinths. Grafting his image onto Iraq’s cultural landscape, the Hands of Victory were modelled on casts of the dictator’s own forearms and contains an impression of his thumb on one of the arches. Saddam Hussein’s micromanagement of monument development in Baghdad provides a window into his mind, reflecting his totalitarian attitudes to the exploitation of national art in order to consolidate his public image. The invitation card to the monument’s opening ceremony in 1989 said: "The worst condition is for a person to pass under a sword that is not his own or to be forced down a road that is not willed by him." A sentiment echoed perhaps by many artists and individuals who lived under Saddam.

GERMANY

Under Hitler’s Nazi dictatorship, brutal censorship was imposed. But culture and artistic expression did find an outlet as they merged with political aims and became part of the Nazi propaganda machine. Through the guidance of Goebhels, the Reich Culture Chamber exploited all forms of art and culture to strengthen the Third Reich and purify the nation. From films and posters, to the neoclassical architecture of the Olympic stadium complex, all emphasised the superiority of the Aryan race. Modern art was out, classicism and romantic realism was in. Paintings were to explore Nazi values of militarism and racial purity, depicting traditional pastoral scenes and themes of female childbearing. Art too was utilised to portray Jewish people as inhuman and inferior, while Nazi film The Eternal Jew followed maps showing the migrations of Jews with scenes of teaming rats. Jazz music was banned, but the music of composers like Wagner that alluded to Germany’s heroic past was sanctioned. Meanwhile painters such as Conrad Hommel and the sculptors Arno Breker and Josef Thorak were endorsed by the Nazi regime. As an official artist some of Thorak’s pieces reached sixty-five feet, emblematic of the attempted grandeur of a regime Hitler prophesised would last 1,000 years.

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