Why Dictators Love Kitsch

By Eric Gibson, Wall Street Journal

Bill and Kim Jong Il

This week the world’s eyes were on the extraordinary photograph of former President Bill Clinton seated next to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il—an official picture taken at the end of talks that led to the freeing of two imprisoned American journalists. Mine, I confess, were elsewhere, continually diverted to the photo’s dramatic backdrop, an enormous mural of crashing seas and fluttering birds rendered in lurid greens and brilliant whites.

On the one hand, a run-of-the-mill seascape, the kind of visual elevator music one finds in public spaces the world over, where the aim is to decorate but not offend. Yet there was something about the picture that wasn’t quite right and that kept drawing me back to it. For one thing, there was its vast internal scale. The waves were bigger, even, than the figures posing for the photograph, and they so dominated the foreground as if ready to break out and drown the assembled dignitaries.

Then there was the picture’s bizarre disunity. Two opposing visions of nature are combined, a benign one (the luminosity and fluttering birds), and an angry, violent one (the heaving seas and crashing waves). Just as strange, the painting’s various elements seem at war with each other. For instance, the rhythm of the breaking waves leads our eye from left to right, yet at the bottom right-hand corner—just to the right of the woman in the official party wearing a white jacket—a flock of birds, facing to the left, abruptly halts and reverses that momentum. A more accomplished artist would have found a way to integrate the various elements more harmoniously and lead our eye around the canvas more smoothly.

Then I realized: This is no ordinary painting but art with a purpose. What seem to our eye as limitations are the result of deliberate intent. It’s a piece of political propaganda. As such it belongs to a subspecies of kitsch known as totalitarian kitsch, where art’s sole raison d’etre is to bolster a dictatorial regime and glorify its leader.

Baghdad's Hands of Victory

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin: action man at play

By James Sturcke

Up a tree in camouflage green, bare chested on horseback and one can only guess at his state of undress as he carves his way through wild water – the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has once again starred in a series of macho poses, this time on holiday in Siberia.

While many international counterparts will be hoping to escape the long lenses of the paparazzi at their holiday villas, and Gordon Brown tries hard to look at ease in front of the cameras while doing community service in his Scottish constituency, Putin has positively sought out the photographers and invited them to reinforce his muscleman image.

The latest snaps come after the judo black belt spent part of last weekend in a submarine exploring the bottom of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, where he descended 1,400m below the surface to inspect potentially valuable gas crystals. He resurfaced after the four-hour dive to extol the virtue of Russian submersible technology and question whether any other country could match it.

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See a gallery of pictures here.

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