No doubt, at some level, politicians are artists. Whether we use broad definitions or narrower definitions that say art involves scenario-building or vision of some kind, politicians build a kind of art. We may not admire their art. Indeed, we may be terrified of it — coming out of a century of industrialized murder (Stalin, Mao, Hitler) — it’s easy to feel that way. But it could still be a kind of art. Unfortunately, that would lend some kind of aesthetic credibility to that hack of a human being Kim Jong-Il, who still runs concentration camp gulags in the Hermit Kingdom.
Apparently, the New York Philharmonic has accepted an invitation to play in North Korea. From one perspective, this performance occupies an important role in scenario-building: one of engagement, understanding, and unity. This is history, from the NYTimes article:
The Philharmonic’s trip, which has generated some controversy among orchestra musicians and commentators, will follow a venerable line of groundbreaking orchestra tours that have played a role in diplomacy, the most famous one, perhaps, taking place in 1973, when the Philadelphia Orchestra traveled to China soon after President Nixon’s historic visit and amid what came to be known as Ping-Pong diplomacy. In 1956 the Boston Symphony was the first major American orchestra to travel to the Soviet Union. The New York Philharmonic, under Leonard Bernstein, went three years later.
There certainly will be critics with very good arguments. There are artists who would much rather play for dictators in North Korea than leaders of the free world. The author of this blog is a strong proponent that North Korea remain on the list of state sponsors of terror. Its bombing of Korea Airlines flight 858 could no sooner be forgotten than North Korea’s wanton axe slaughter of American servicemen in 1976. I support any and all artistic engagement with the regime, so long as it is done with open eyes. The New York Philharmonic appears to be on top of things, again from the NYT article:
[The conditions for performance sought by the Philharmonic] included the presence of foreign journalists; a nationwide broadcast to ensure that not just a small elite would hear the concert; acoustical adjustments to the East Pyongyang Grand Theater; an assurance that the eight Philharmonic members of Korean origin would not encounter difficulties; and that the orchestra could play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
A US functionary of dubious honor, Christopher Hill, said that he thinks the conditions have been met. If he’s right, but only if he’s right, this would make performance an acceptable and honorable political act. Nothing will change the fact that the ruthless dictators of North Korea will brainwash its citizens (and American tourists, including a once-dear friend of mine) into thinking that the Pueblo Incident was America’s fault. Nothing will change the fact that the murderers of Pyongyang tell their citizens America is responsible for them not having any power, despite the fact that Pyongyang was once the capital of the industrialized half of the Korean peninsula. During the Japanese occupation, the Empire only allowed development far away from Japan as they viewed the peninsula as a dagger pointing into Japan’s heart. Forty years later, the situation was drastically reversed.
No, nothing will change any of that. But at least we can say that we acted in good faith and shared our art with them. Maybe one person will stop and say that heart-felt beauty like this could not possibly come from a terrible imperialist nation. We may gain something, however small, and at no cost whatsoever.