Benoit Symposium: Practice and Praxis of Cultural Production in North Korea: A Virtual Symposium on Production, Authorship, and Tone

By | September 25, 2013 | 3 Comments

Kim Jong-un, the leader of state that engages in cultural production so different and so radical that it demands a whole new vision. | Image: KCNA

Kim Jong-un, the head of a state that engages in cultural production so different that it demands an entirely new vision of what cultural production itself means. | Image: KCNA

It’s been a year since Sino-NK undertook its last exercise in de-spatialized academic connection, in the form of a highly successful symposium on environmentalism in North Korea. This virtual meeting of minds generated great interest online, brought the participants themselves together at various real-world conferences and symposia in 2012/2013, and provided a good platform for revealing some under-exposed areas of research.

2013 has seen an expansion of Sino-NK’s ambition, represented not least by this snazzy new virtual home, the launch of the Jangmadang and Yongusil, and some further developments that have yet to emerge into the public arena. 2013 has also seen interesting developments in North Korea’s own cultural connections: from the sporting, cultural and political exercise in trans-Pacific diplomacy of Dennis Rodman’s visits to Pyongyang, to the intriguing positionality and travails of artists such as the Moranbong Band and Unhasu OrchestraNorth Korea has also seen success on the film festival circuit with the Belgian/British/North Korean co-production “Comrade Kim Goes Flying,” in which the authorship and histories of those involved is quite overt.  

This has not always been the case, however. In fact, authorship and the generative process in North Korea have often seemed like an analytical black hole. Which is where this Symposium comes in. Benoit Berthelier, who contributed a well-received piece on North Korean epic poetry vis-à-vis the “Baekdusan Generals” last year, will captain this ship. During its course you will be treated to panoply of analysis and academic consideration of the cultural realm, questions of authorship, generation and aesthetic practice and praxis the like of which is very rare in this field. Later today (EST) we shall publish the first essay in the “Benoit Symposium,” a fine piece by Berthelier himself; in the meantime, we are pleased to introduce the captain. – Robert Winstanley-Chesters, Director of Research

Practice and Praxis of Cultural Production in North Korea: Introduction from the Symposium Editor

by Benoit Berthelier

As Larry Shiner argued in his 2003 book, “The Invention of Art,” despite being relatively recent inventions, the idea of high art and the image of the artist as a non-conformist aesthete have become the cornerstones of the aesthetic system of the modern capitalist world. One only needs to look at the depiction of artists in recent South Korean movies like Im Kwon Taek’s “Chihwaseon (Painted Fire)” to see that these representations are as vivid in the East as in the West. Enlightenment philosophy and the romantic image of the artist have shaped our idea of “Art with a capital A” as distinct from the low or popular arts, and established an artificial dichotomy between artists and craftsmen, inspiration and technique, Art for Art’s sake and commercial art…

In turn, the way we interpret and evaluate literature, painting or film heavily relies on these categories. We understand art through the prism of individual freedom by valuing qualities that emphasize a break from traditional models or the common rule: originality, creativity or inspiration. Art becomes inseparable from the Artist, a piece of art being the expression of the unique personality of a single creator. On the other hand, compromising the purity of art through collusion with economic interests or political power instantly raises accusations of kitsch, propaganda or selling-out.

It’s easy to see how these assumptions about the nature of art have influenced the reception of North Korean cultural products outside of the DPRK. With its socialist realist ascendancy, North Korean art has always been far removed from the ideals of pure or “bourgeois” art and poses a challenge to our aesthetic paradigm. Of course, we could wonder whether there might be some aesthetic value in an art that is so subservient to political necessities and historical vicissitudes. We could try to look behind the political content for something artistic to salvage. But we would then merely be projecting our own aesthetic preconceptions onto something that they are unable to describe.

Understanding art in the DPRK first requires understanding the North Korean’s notions of what art is and ought to be, and of what an artist’s place in society can be. But just when we feel we have a grasp of the North Korean aesthetic consciousness, we are bewildered by symbols and themes that seem to contradict the very notion of Juche socialism. The predictability of North Korean propaganda is called into question, and we are challenged to interpret what we see both through the lenses of what we think we know about the DPRK and our own (perhaps capitalistic) cultures as well. The three articles in this Symposium look at North Korean literature and film beyond beauty and ugliness, and attempt to understand what makes art and artists within the socio-historical context of the DPRK.

Writers working for the state in order to appeal to the masses, a tradition of collective authorship and government mandated themes; the North Korean literary scene seems more like a bureaucratic industry than a freewheeling bohemian coterie. In Invisible Stars Tatiana Gabroussenko explores the image of writers in North Korean society and explains why writers are kept out of the public eye despite being acknowledged for their crucial role in the political system. Through a comparative historical analysis of the social role of intellectuals in the USSR and the DPRK, she argues that the political risk of a highly-visible intelligentsia is what pushed the North Korean government to keep writers out of the spotlight: for fear that authorship could translate into authority, individual writers are dissociated from their most politically significant writings.

Looking at the recent rise of adult sci-fi stories in North Korea, I myself try to understand how this new genre was received by the literary world and how it positioned itself within the established notions of what literature is and should be. Comparing works of sci-fi with the canonical works of the Immortal Guidance series, I outline some of the political and stylistic conventions of literariness in the DPRK. Underlining the way the country distinguishes between popular and literary fiction, I argue that sci-fi might still gain significant appraisal from the average reader even if it never reaches the level of institutional recognition enjoyed by other genres.

Finally, the intriguing, especially in light of its ascension to the status of national treasure under Kim Jong-il, realm of North Korea’s cinematic output is considered by Sherri L. Ter Molen. Using the 2006 film The Schoolgirl’s Diary as an exemplar, Ter Molen examines the ideological terrain embedded within North Korean films, investigates any internal aesthetic prescriptions as to how its citizens “should look, feel and behave,” and analyses perplexing capitalistic and individualistic symbols and themes that are interwoven within a story that tows the usual party line.

3 Comments

  1. The aesthetics of North Korea’s culture? No frontiers between fiction, propaganda, and information. Goebbels dream.

  2. Interesting piece. The link to the “well-received piece on North Korean epic poetry vis-à-vis the “Baekdusan Generals”” is dead though, could you guys let us know where to access it?

    Thanks in advance

  3. Hi Julien! That piece will be restored sometime in the next week. We’re currently updating some of our older pieces (not changing the text–an administrative/technical update it is!). We’ll let you know once that has happened.