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Artists vs merchants: A friction that society needs

In situations where the artists and the merchants are clearly defined, they have contempt for each other. Both sides claim superiority, even moral superiority. But what matters is the conflict, the friction, which often leads to something useful.

columns Updated: Dec 28, 2014 21:46 IST

There is such a thing as a national retardation. Most nations exhibit it and it is hard to hide. Even North Korea, which is a black hole, cannot conceal it. The State is so far gone that it does not realise that the carefully approved photographs it releases reveal its tragic-amusing mental state. When the infant-faced ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-un speaks to his senior officers, an act that is usually described as imparting ‘guidance’, the officers are always taking notes. Scores of women who stand in geometric formations often wail upon seeing Kim Jong-un, in ecstasy probably. Children swoon when he walks by. Such things used to happen to his father, Kim Jong Il, too.

The full extent of North Korea’s retardation is the backdrop of Adam Johnson’s novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013. The novel begins with the State speaking to the masses through a loudspeaker. “While the Dear Leader lectured to the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day.”

The novel shows a North Korea where its people are so impoverished that they are in awe of advertisements and night lights in Japan, and when a character slips into South Korea on a mission he chooses not to see its prosperity because, “….he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who’d gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing.” And, the novel mentions a prison in North Korea deep in the earth where, “there are no guards inside, no doctors, no cafeteria, no toilets. You just dig in the dark and when you get some ore, you drag it to the surface to trade through the bars for food.”

Very few outside North Korea can endorse the authenticity of the novel. One critic who was approving mentions the description of a rusted bucket on a ship as evidence. But like other works of art, The Orphan Master’s Son is a powerful portrayal of North Korea as unhinged and its ruling class as psychos. Yet, what North Korea decided to attack was a collegiate film, which showed, if anything, American’s retardation.

In the alleged comedy, The Interview, a television host and his producer are invited by Kim Jong-un to Pyongyang to interview him. The American government entrusts them with the job of assassinating the rogue dictator. The Interview has been created by the type of men who find parts of the lower body funny. The film’s trailer does an excellent job of dissuading people who love good cinema from watching the film. But the notoriety of The Interview has inadvertently performed a valuable service. It has laid bare a complex, ancient, but unsung battle in the society. The artist versus the practical types.

After a cyber attack on the film’s parent studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the corporation behaved like a corporation. The American government said that the attack was launched by North Korea in response to the film’s portrayal of its dictator, and Sony Pictures’s top executives decided to junk the film out of fear. They claimed that most big theatre chains and online video-on-demand companies, too, were afraid to have anything to do with the film. These companies and vendors imagined they had much to lose if they were hacked into.

Among regular people, most of whom are not artists, there were many who viewed Sony’s response with pragmatic understanding. As corporate executives they would have advised their own companies to act with such caution. But the more newsworthy response was of disgust and artistic outrage.

There were online campaigns against Sony for sacrificing its right to expression and for not protecting ‘art’ against thugs. US President Barack Obama was disappointed with Sony. He said, “I wish they had spoken to me first.” The writer Paulo Coelho offered to purchase the rights to the film for $100,000 so that he can resurrect the film despite the risks. “So live with fear or live with shame? Better to live with fear,” he said.

In the end, artistic pressure forced Sony to release the film. It is a different matter that art is insulted every time The Interview is called that. The Interview, too, is insulted. It is a business venture.

What is art is most of The Orphan Master’s Son. Art is largely, not entirely, uncompromising. Its commercial success is a hope or an accident, never the reason for its existence.

In many spheres of human activity there is a conflict between the artistic way and the practical way. Film writers and film executives; chemists and the management of pharmaceutical companies; journalists and ad-sellers. But this conflict can also exist inside a single mind. There is an artist and a pragmatic inside most people. Sometimes a person reacts like an artist, other times like a merchant. Sometimes we wish to be free; other times we have too much to lose to choose freedom.

In situations where the artists and the merchants are clearly defined, they have contempt for each other. Both sides claim superiority, even moral superiority. But what matters is the conflict, the friction, which often leads to something useful. It is only in an unnatural system, often a barbaric system, where such a rich conflict is totally absent. Such a society would neither have art nor commerce. North Korea, for instance.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel The Illicit Happiness of Other People

The views expressed by the author are personal