Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dictator Kitsch

When former President Bill Clinton was in North Korea to rescue former Vice President Al Gore's wayward reporters, he was photographed with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in front of a huge and garish mural.

It's dictator kitsch, writes, Eric Gibson in the Wall Street Journal this week:
"'Kitsch' has become a byword in the culture for anything over-the-top or tacky. In art, it’s meaning is more specific. It refers to works trafficking in facile, base or false emotions—most often sentimentality—and whose imagery is off-the-shelf and formulaic, a debased version of a once-original aesthetic idea. Need to conjure that warm-and-fuzzy feeling? Cue the fiery sunset. Looking to express fragile innocence? Bring on the shoeless urchin carrying the bird with the broken wing."
Later in the article there's a great anecdote about a Russian artist who was employed by the Soviet Union as a creator of Socialist Realist art. After the fall of the Soviet Union, his transition was clumsy: "so ingrained were his earlier habits that every time he painted the face of Jesus, he wound up with a likeness of Lenin."

In fact, there isn't so much difference between religious kitsch and kitsch employed in the service of totalitarian regimes. Take this poster of Moroni, a character from the Book of Mormon. Aside from the fact that it looks computer-generated, like something out of a late-90s era video game, the rays of sun could just as easily indicate religious themes as socialist ones.

Perhaps a better example, one from the same company Real Hero Posters, is this one of the Bible character Ruth. Here, we see a proud agricultural scene, complete with dramatic sunlight, sheaf of wheat, and a low perspective that makes the figure look large and heroic. This looks positively Soviet, yet it's quite the opposite.

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