Tyrants, Art, And The Power Of Joy

Portrait of the tyrant as a young director.

As many people have noted, there’s something fitting about the fact that Vaclav Havel, the playwright who became a liberator, and Kim Jong-Il, the tyrant who used his power to force people to produce movies for and with him, died on the same day. Kim Jong-Il’s movie mania may seem like just another hokey obsession and claim to greatness in a life full of them. And while one of the characteristics of repressive governments is that they crack down on free speech and on artists who produce “subversive” works, he’s hardly the only dictator to seek validation through art he produced himself or through relationships with artists.

There’s Hitler’s collaboration with Leni Reifenstahl on Triumph of the Will, of course — he collaborated and starred in the movie, and was an executive producer. Who needs the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and mawkish watercolors when you can participate in the creation of a groundbreaking work of cinema? Stalin, too, dabbled in movies, keeping an eye on the production of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible movies. He also made socialist realism the official artistic movement of the Soviet State with a declaration entitled “On the Reconstruction of Literary and Art Organizations” in 1932. Saddam Hussein wrote cheesy historical romance novels that were meant to be metaphors for his own reign. Ferdinand Marcos hired actress Dovie Beams to play his love interest in a movie about his war exploits, had an affair with her that produced a sex tape scandal (which became an excuse to crack down on his political opposition). Before he ruled Egypt, Hosni Mubarak apparently cameoed in an Egyptian movie, Farewell at Dawn. A critical point in Juan Peron’s rise to power in Argentina was the fundraising efforts he lead in relief of the San Juan earthquake, which happened in collaboration with the country’s creative industry.

Cracking down on artists, and treating their speech as if it functions in the same way as other political speech is a first-level realization for tyrants. If you truly acknowledge and appreciate the particular power art has, of course you want to exploit it to your own ends. And if you’re creating a cult of personality or a cult of the state, it makes sense that you want your people to believe that joy and uplift emanates from the Leader and from the state. This is a reason that dictatorial art is bad, or sentimental: because it’s premised on an idea that isn’t true, that isn’t even really plausible.

Making movies about your own greatness, your historical roots, your role in upholding distinctly Filipino values, doesn’t actually make it so. Providing temporary distractions from the miseries you cause your people doesn’t ameliorate those miseries, or cause them not to matter. Vaclav Havel’s art worked in the opposite direction, becoming a crucible for refining the ideas and principles that informed his dissent, and later his governance. Unsurprisingly, truth makes for more humane politics, and for better art.