Saturday, December 15, 2007

(New York) Philharmonic Agrees to Play in North Korea [New York Times]

New York Times Permalink

On Tuesday, December 11, the highest ranking North Korean diplomat in the United States went to Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic. The purpose, to announce that the New York Phil will go to Pyongyang, North Korea, and play a concert. A concert that will be televised to a nationwide audience. And the New York Philarmonic will choose the program.

Now, some background. North Korea has the nickname of the 'hermit kingdom,' the most closed society on the planet. It has spared no effort to keep news of the outside world from its citizens, even the elite. Cell phones are officially banned. Its diplomats are required to leave family behind. News of even its neighbor South Korea is heavily regulated. And even the exchanges are heavily monitored (there is a presumption that the North Korean participants in the family contacts are well screened.) And in the midst of this, a world where culture and the arts are viewed as purely tools for promoting the political party, the New York Phil is going, and they will "play great music."

The commentary on the New York Times website is divided. Those that think that the New York Phil is pandering to a dictatorship by providing entertainment for the elite (one of the more interesting quarantines has been a quarantine of luxury items such as iPods, because it strikes at the elites instead of the general population.) There is precident. The Philadelphia Orchestra went to China in 1973, a country that was previously viewed as closed. And the Boston Symphony went to the Soviet Union in 1956, is the midst of some of the darkest days of the Cold War.

So, is this pandaring to a dictatorship? And if you have the view that the arts are pure entertainment that makes people feel good, this would be a good argument (see Orwell 1984 or Huxley Brave New World for another example). But there is another arguement that the arts also talk about what it is to be human. The tendency of closed societies such as the communists (when they really were communist) of the Soviet Union and PRC, the fascists of WWII era Germany, and numerous petty dictators over the years follows that belief. But to talk about what it means to be human goes beyond a political and economic identity.

Now, some biases. I am a product of western civilization and somehow I have built for myself a liberal education in its classic sense. I believe that the western classical arts have value and are used in communication of values and ideas (even if unaccompanied by words) (note: Pittsburgh people know me as a enthusiastic promoter of traditional asian performing arts, and I was a sometimes practitioner.) I believe in its underlying values, its strengths that are the product of centuries of learning from all cultures it comes in contact with and taking the values and ideas of those cultures and including them in the ongoing dialectic (thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis).

So, what do I believe happens when one of the shining stars of western fine arts, a product of centuries of experimentation, a globally based history, and tradition enters a closed society that has explicitly viewed the arts as a vehicle for political values. That society will see arts that tell a story, not of kings and armies and struggles, but of living a life of joy ("An American in Paris"), a people discovering a world (Dvorak No. 9 "From the New World"). And there is a belief that these are self evident, even without the words (although Mehta will present some exposition. With numerous Koreans on staff at the New York Phil, we can be assured that the translation will be accurate.) And, they will hear one of the greatest ensembles in the world play the North Korean national anthem. And by tradition, while the audience is still standing, the United States national anthem.

What is happening? The North Koreans are regularly reminded of American and Japanese atrocities in their education and museums. They are armed and drilled for what is understood to be an inevitable
invasion. One estimate is that 50% of the population of Pyongyang (the capital) have denounced someone a traitor (who then disappears). (these come from Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, written/drawn when Guy was a french animator working with a North Korean contractor).

And they will see a side of the outside world, that is not actively trying to conquer, rape and pillage. And this is something they have never seen. Will this be world changing? Who knows, there is noone who says that the visit of the Boston or Philadelphia symphonies to Moscow or Beijing in 1956 or 1973 changed the world immediately. But there is a strain of thought (that I subscribe to) that believes that when working with a closed society, all exposure is good. For that reason, exchanges with the old Soviet armed forces were always welcomed, Chinese Peoples Liberation Army - Navy ships are welcomed to Hawaii and Japan for port visits. And yes, the west was fully aware that these visits were occasion for espionage, but the glimpse of our world that those from closed societies got, and seeing a non-political part of the societies of the west (I'm obviously including Japan and North Korea in this) probably affected the old Soviets and Chinese more then any information they got. And there is a hope that the North Koreans will join the rest of the world some day, hopefully without self-destructing along the way. Every contact with the outside makes that easier.

Who knows, the North Koreans may even be told that the New York Phil is visiting their happy cousins to the south afterwards. That, of course, is highly unlikely.
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