The Art of the Strongman: In Which I Mock Kim Jong-Il

I nearly split my sides laughing yesterday upon learning the news that North Korea has inaugurated a new, gigantic equestrian statue of its recently-deceased dictator Kim Jong-Il, galloping alongside his father.  Anyone who is familiar with what that plump, myopic, utterly unheroic person looked like – something like the Korean version of Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time” – would no doubt feel the same way.  Of course, the tens of thousands of his own people whom he killed, whether through violence or neglect, make the history of what he has done not amusing at all.

Now, before we get too far into a consideration of this topic, gentle reader, let me assure you that I am not in a position to say whether Kim Jong-Il, or Lenin, or Hitler are now residents of Hades or somewhere else.  I personally suspect that they are, but since I am most emphatically not the Lord, I am not going to presume that they are; nor, as it happens, should you.  Of course, that is a discussion for another time.

Yet at the same time as we have to be careful about dealing out judgment, we can and should mock murderous leftist regimes through the art they create to honor their leaders; this, it would seem to me, is a healthy reaction, rather than to simply throw up one’s hands in horror.  In its way, this equestrian monument to North Korea’s previous dictator is as ridiculous as the work of other socialist regimes, such as the stuffed corpse of Vladimir Lenin decomposing in his Snow White-style crystal coffin on Red Square, or the famous painting by Hubert Lanzinger of Adolf Hitler dressed as a Teutonic knight in shining armor.  With respect to the latter, I’ve always thought that in that particular image Hitler looks like a midget, who has somehow managed to put on backwards a spacesuit costume from the old “Battlestar Galactica” or “Buck Rogers” television series of the 1970’s.

History is replete with examples of strongmen commissioning heroic, colossal images of themselves.  For example, some believe that the lamussu, or winged lions with human heads from Assyrian mythology, from the outer gates of the city of Babylon, represent King Nebuchadnezzar II – a conqueror familiar to most of my readers from The Bible. The list of such things goes on, all the way from the Egyptians and Romans, such as the various monumental statues of Ramesses II or the now-destroyed colossus of the Emperor Nero, down to the present day in North Korea. Some of these works have great artistic merit, and some are simply terrible kitsch.

We should ask the question then, whether this type of art serves any beneficent purpose, other than to glorify the person represented for future generations. The portrayal of a human being in a work of art is problematic in many religions, of course, out of a concern that such objects encourage idolatrous practices. Whereas the Babylonians and the Egyptians, as devout polytheists, tried to identify their ruler with their respective concepts of the divine in order to grant divine status to their otherwise mortal ruler, in the case of modern, atheistic regimes, such as those of North Korea, Soviet Russia, or Nazi Germany, the worship of the state, in the person of its leader, is meant to supplant the worship of God, in the minds and hearts of the people who happen to suffer under such governments.

This is why a true understanding of a work of art created for public purposes cannot take place in a vacuum, based solely on personal feelings and impressions devoid of an understanding of history. Imagine someone looking at the Statue of Liberty, for example, and knowing nothing about the object other than what he can see with his own eyes. Without knowing the historical context in which the monument was erected, such a person could be forgiven for thinking that it was meant to honor some great queen of antiquity who had once ruled over this country, rather than symbolically representing the history of the American Revolution, the friendship of the American and French people, and their common appreciation of the benefits of freedom, among other things. Taken out of context, the image may have an entirely different meaning than that intended by those who created it.

In the case of North Korea, one hopes that this new, monumental monstrosity will eventually be melted down, and used to create a monument to the incalculable number of people who starved or froze to death under Kim Jong-Il’s rule. Until such time as that happens, however, let us content ourselves with mocking it, for not only is it emphatically ugly and ridiculous from an aesthetic perspective, but it also reminds us that no strongman, however powerful he may be in his own lifetime, is preserved from mortality. That fact ought to give us, and hopefully the Korean people, the opportunity to reflect on the fact that an unjust ruler is only a human being, and only as strong as the fear of those over whom he rules; if they can overcome their fears, they can overcome their dictator.  So perhaps, that means that there is a beneficent purpose to this sort of art, after all.

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