Index: Art & Totalitarianism


Lives of Others

MoranbongMembers of the State Merited Chorus and the Moranbong Band from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea arrive at a railway station in Beijing. More thoughts on the unsettling ratio of beauty & the dead weight of the state in an earlier post, here, regarding photographs of North Korea by documentary photographer Tomas Van Houtryve. Photo by Jin Liangkuai / CORBIS

Tomas van Houtryve

Viewing these shots by documentary photographer Tomas Van Houtryve is a complicated experience. They pull powerfully at two distinct psychological strands – on the one hand they are thoroughly, almost voluptuously, gorgeous. On the other, they are deeply unsettling. In each shot, intermingled with the beauty, you can palpably feel communism’s total soul-crushing weight. They are all drawn from Van Houtryve’s ongoing project to document the last tattered communist holdouts – among them North Korea, Moldova, Laos, and China. The project is but a part of a deeply impressive body of work, all motivated by a deep, philosophical and humanitarian approach, under-girded by a superb sense of aesthetics. His work can seen here. He is also a gifted writer, and the stories behind the photographs, told on his blog, are fascinating. Start with his account of infiltrating North Korea, part one of which is here. (Hat tip Ashley Gilbertson, whose new project, Bedrooms of the Fallen, documenting the bedrooms of soldiers killed in Iraq & Afghanistan, is also well worth your attention.)

The Art Imperative, Part I

The Lives of Others is among my absolute favorite films – every time I see it I dwell on its themes and implications for days. In light of a recent viewing, three interconnected posts: this appreciation, an appeal, and some verse.

The flick is about many things: The mechanics of loyalty under duress, the immutability of human corruption, the tragedy of moral compromise, the perverse bond of the spy to his quarry. It has the scaffolding of a tightly wound Cold War thriller and the drapery of a melodrama.

At its core, though, is what it has to say about art and its role in society and, ultimately, to the human condition.

Art, it makes clear, is far from ornament – it is fundamental and necessary. It is the power to reorder our world, to interrogate it. It is a question and an answer. It allows us to explore the topography of our lives and society, the edges of what is permissible or possible. Art gives the idea of freedom where to buy vicodin in los angeles shape, tangibility.

It’s why, when oppression looms, art becomes an imperative – an act of bravery and service. Art forms a haven where freedom can pool, exist, be tended to, shepherded, and protected. It becomes elevated ground from which to fight back.

The entire film frames a simple, gigantic, sobering question – What would we do? This dilemma is what throws the three main characters into sharp relief; the surveillance drone and true believer softened by by prolonged exposure to art and the vitality of life; the self-assured, savvy director galvanized to bravery; the wreck of an actress who’s collapsing under a slurry of accommodations, addictions, compromises and betrayals. Their situations serve the plot, yes, but taken together they provoke an implicit challenge, especially to those who live by and for the arts today. What would we do?

(art by Claudia Varosio)


The Art Imperative, Part II

The mere existence of Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan’s beloved independent rock band, is an emphatic answer to the question posed in The Lives of Others. To rock in Afghanistan is brave and important work. By recording, by performing, they are carving pockets of freedom out of a very harsh and hostile landscape.

My pal Jim Daniels is campaigning to help fund their first international tour. Jim is deployed with the 344th Military Information Support Operations Company, formerly known as Psyops. He’s doing deeply good work there, among many things helping shore up the essential building blocks of society: literacy, art, order vicodin online forum & culture.

The campaign for Kabul Dreams is being done in conjunction with Dart Music International a nonprofit organization based in Austin, Texas. DMI works to introduce the general public in the United States to the modern face of countries and cultures from around the world.

Art is more than an act of resistance. It is a solvent, and it dissolves away the deadening of the human spirit that oppression requires to thrive. Please support this effort. You can read more and donate here, and on Facebook, here. More on Kabul Dreams here, here, and here. Thank you.

The Art Imperative, Part III

The Power of Taste
Zbigniew Herbert

It didn’t require great character at all
our refusal disagreement and resistance
we had a shred of necessary courage
but fundamentally it was a matter of taste
…Yes taste
in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

Who knows if we had been better and more attractively tempted sent
rose-skinned women thin as a wafer
or fantastic creatures from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch
but what kind of hell was there at this time
a wet pit the murderers’ alley the barrack
called a palace of justice
a home-brewed Mephisto in a Lenin jacket
sent Aurora’s grandchildren out into the field
boys with potato faces
very ugly girls with red hands

Verily their rhetoric was made of cheap sacking
(Marcus Tullius kept turning in his grave)
chains of tautologies a couple of concepts like flails
the dialectics of slaughterers no distinctions in reasoning
syntax deprived of beauty of the subjunctive

So aesthetics can be helpful in life
one should not neglect the study of beauty

Before we declare our consent we must carefully examine
the shape of the architecture the rhythm of the drums and pipes
official colors the despicable ritual of funerals

Our eyes and ears refused obedience
the princes of our senses proudly chose exile

It did not require great character at all
we had a shred of necessary courage
but fundamentally it was a matter of taste
…Yes taste
that commands us to get out to make a wry face draw out a sneer
even if for this the precious capital of the body the head
must fall

(art: Pax Sovietica Polish Solidarity Movement Poster, 1980s, © Stapleton Collection)