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Book Report
by Walter Robinson
Ah, North Korea. How fascinating is the idea of art in the super-Stalinist Hermit Kingdom, which values its Socialist Realist propaganda paintings so highly, according to collector Uli Sigg, that it almost never agrees to their export? Some day, in the post-Kim era, we’ll be able to get a good look at it. In the meantime, we have Art under Control in North Korea (Reaktion Books, 2005, $35) by Jane Portal, a curator at the British Museum.

Though Portal’s text reads like it has been cribbed from tourist manuals, the 192-page trade paperback, with its 135 illustrations, 72 of them in color, does provide an outline of the art world, such as it is, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

A little cant is par for the course but it’s positively unnerving that North Korea’s official communist party insignia adds a paintbrush to the timeless revolutionary duo of hammer and sickle – actually a calligraphy brush, representing the intelligentsia (calligrapher-scholars, that is, not Ab Ex painters).

The huge golden statues of Kim Il-sung seem almost prosaic by contrast, and the 170-meter-tall Juche Tower, built of white granite in Pyongyang in 1972 (or perhaps in 1982 to celebrate Kim’s 70th birthday -- the book gives both dates), well, any government might erect such a thing. Comically, Portal notes that it is one meter taller than the Washington Monument.

Presumably, for the vast majority of North Koreans, art is part of a relentless program of propaganda and social control, from the Socialist Realist billboards urging greater achievement to the Orwellian "portrait paintings or photographs of Kim Il-sung [that] hang on the wall in every home, issued by the state to every household." Party cadres in good standing, as well as schoolchildren, surely tour the National Gallery in Pyongyang, which is replete with mural-sized paintings like The Great Leader Kim Il-sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il Discussing the Plans for the Construction of the Juche Tower and the Arch of Triumph (1980).

The DPR elite must include art collectors of a sort, too, for who else could be the target market for such anachronistic delights as a fine porcelain vase of classic design, painted with a contemporary logging scene in a rough-and-tumble pseudo-expressionistic style? Many of the artworks reproduced in Portal’s book have a perverse appeal – admittedly, primarily as kitsch – despite their status as emblems of an unbearable despotism.

These kinds of "gray areas" where "the individual and the historical coincide" are also the subject of Thomas Eller, an artist and editor of the German-language Artnet Magazin who oversaw the publication of Shadows of War: A German Soldier’s Lost Photographs of World War II (Abrams, 2004, $35). This compelling book presents 250 photographs taken by Eller’s great-uncle, Willi Rose (1917-92), during the period in World War II that he served as a motorcycle messenger on the Russian front.

At first glance, the pictures -- snapshots, really – seem almost harmless. They are primarily casual pictures of soldiers playing cards or standing about, or with their weapons, marching, fording rivers or riding on tanks. Many photos show a taste for the picturesque, if with a gothic cast -- the deep ruts of a muddy road, a tangle of barbed wire in a field, or a landscape darkened by smoke. For war photos, they’re strangely bucolic. "From the perspective of this collection of images," Eller writes, "war seemed like a prolonged summer camp."

This young German soldier, apparently, wasn’t so bad -- he was just on the wrong side. But a handful of the pictures, as Eller points out, are more ominous. A civilian woman is flanked by two German military policemen, farmhouses go up in flames, French and German soldiers surrender or await their fate as prisoners of war. But why only "three swastikas and one dead body," asks Eller, "against an estimated 21 million dead Russians?"

In fact, the Nazi party encouraged amateur photography by soldiers, and considered such imagery part of its larger propaganda campaign -- "the unlimited and nationally important area of spiritual and mental labor of reconstruction," in the words of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. A subtle language of propaganda is everywhere manifest, as the art historian Petra Bopp points out in her essay.

Nazi photographs are taken from an elevated point-of-view, because the German soldier "was more highly developed and therefore dominated the scene." Lines of German soldiers advance from left to right, as on a map from Germany into Russia. Soldiers are seen struggling through a vast landscape as they conquer new territory.

Photos of executions, or the bodies of dead enemy soldiers, were prohibited. But one of Rose’s photographs, of a surrendering Russian soldier with his arms upraised, perfectly echoes Goya’s famous The Shooting of the Insurgents in Madrid on May 3, 1808 (1814). The snapshot, Bopp writes, is often followed by the pistol shot.

Eller explains that the photos were presented to him by his 80-year-old grandmother, who no longer wished to keep the collection entrusted to her by her brother, but didn’t want to destroy them, either.  Such a scene is now a familiar part of the history of post-war Germany’s baby-boom generation. Eller’s link to these images, and the history they represent, is personal and intimate -- a connection that he makes tangible in this book.

Communism, fascism – does capitalism have a place in this pantheon of art and ideology? Not really, though Johanna Drucker’s Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (University of Chicago Press, 2005, $40) promises to focus on the ways that contemporary art (from the 1990s till now) has surrendered to the temptations of sugary mass-market culture.

Pinups by Vanessa Beecroft and Lisa Yuskavage, heaps of consumer goods by Jason Rhoades and Jessica Stockholder, assorted engagements with media, technology, spectacle, identity, branding and the like -- artists have given up their stance of avant-garde opposition, Drucker says, and now just want to get along.

What’s more, she doesn’t think it’s a bad thing. "The unblindered gaze, willing to inquire into the complicit relation between art and its ideological condition (of production, reception, evaluation, effect, even formal composition and conception), will find a rich and fertile field."

Alas, her argument is ultimately unremarkable, though there’s plenty of fireworks along the way, some 292 pages of academic hash-slinging. A much-published author on artists’ books, Drucker is a former professor at Yale and now heads a media studies program at the University of Virginia. This view from the academy has two amusing consequences, amusing at least to those of us in the journalistic trenches. One, her range of artists wanders far from the A List (i.e., many of them should be so lucky as to be "complicit" with "capital"); and two, she spends much energy sparring with something that she calls "the October position," as if that superannuated journal still had any heft.

Is contemporary art just another branch of the culture industry, or does the avant-garde somehow pierce the veil of capitalist ideology? That question remains unanswered, though curiously, the cover illustration for Sweet Dreams is Gregory Crewdson’s "Ophelia" photograph from 2001, an X-Files-style image of a young woman in a white nightie floating in a flooded middle-brow living room, a picture that seems . . . ambiguous in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina. (Even worse, the weather service has picked Ophelia as the name for the next hurricane on the horizon.) Coincidence?

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.