Monday, July 31, 2006

Art During Wartime

There's an excruciating duality to the reality of art during wartime. On one hand, the context and often the pretext required for consuming/making art during conflict or catastrophe makes the effort seem insultingly silly (the example of the quartet being forced to play as the lifeboats were loaded on the Titantic comes to mind). On the other hand, in the midst of the madness, sometimes art is the only thing that can give a truly reassuring glimmer of hope.

I note this in response to a heartbreaking
story in the NYTimes this morning about the sense of loss throughout the Lebanese cultural community:

The war in Lebanon is now in its third week, freezing life in mid-flow. A summer season that looked as if it would be highly successful for tourism was suddenly interrupted, as were numerous music festivals, theatrical and movie openings and, because this is Beirut, wild parties. For Lebanon’s burgeoning cultural scene, the conflict has put a stop, at least for the moment, to the patient work begun after the civil war ended in 1990.

Now some movie theaters are opening their doors to refugees, artists are signing manifestoes against the war, commercial stations have turned into 24-hour news channels, and most restaurants and bars are closed. What was supposed to be Beirut’s first break after last year’s traumas — including the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister — has been shattered.

“This was to be a turning point for us after years of hard work,” said Mr. Abdel Baki, 36, whose label produces both 10th-century Andalusian music and modern fusions of bossa nova and Arab rhythms. “But in 24 hours your life is suddenly turned upside down. Even if this stops now, who is going to have the energy and the stamina to produce music, organize a concert or even attend a show?”
That sentiment (that this was supposed to be a turning point) is echoed repeatedly by the participants of the arts community quoted in the article:

“The city was thriving,” said Ramsey Short, the British editor in chief of Time Out Beirut, a four-month-old publication that had become an indispensable tool to navigate Beirut’s busy cultural and entertainment scene.

The July issue, with its cover story on Lebanon’s summer festivals and its 114 pages, has become a memento of a time that never happened: all the events and shows have been canceled. The next issue has been postponed until further notice.

“Just like that, it’s all gone,” Mr. Short said. “And I don’t think we’ll return to that world any time soon.”


“I feel stupid because I was so optimistic,” said Carole Ammoun, a 27-year-old actress who had been performing in a local version of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” called here “Hakeh Nesswan,” or “Women’s Talk.” The play, which was originally scheduled for five nights, had been extended for three months straight.
The image at the top is from the blog of a Lebanese artist, Mazen Kerbaj, who offers a truly gut-wrenching diary of what it's like to try and make art during the ongoing carnage. In one post where he gives notice that he doesn't want to be contacted anymore for interviews, because "everything i am asked is already on the blog" he tries (a little in vain, I think) to separate his art from the politics of what's happening in his country:
Still, in her art-house movie theater which, tragically, had its grand opening just the day before the war started and which now serves mostly as shelter for refugees from the bombed-out suburbs, Hania Mroué is making the most of it and trying to screen films at least earlier in the day:
Last Monday she decided to reopen the theater to the public for daily screenings at 6 p.m.: early enough, she said with grim Lebanese humor, so the audience can go home before the bombing begins.

“It’s important to be able to talk about other things than Israel and Hezbollah,” said Ms. Mroué, 31, whose soft features belie her steeliness. “We will have all the time to analyze, to argue and even to cry about all this later. This is why theaters like this are important: so that you can live, even during a war.”
We take the "art world" so deadly serious in certain circles, treating relatively inconsequential set-backs and such as if they were somehow catastrophic, often losing site of the fact that it's really only the art that matters, not the the acclaim or celebrity or the money or the petty positioning. Among those things, only the art can make any sense of the savagery, providing some reason to dare to dream again.

I see this morning that
Rice is suggesting a cease-fire is within reach. May God grant those making the decisions the wisdom to make it so.


Blogger Tyler said...

Whenever I read about artists working under bombardment, I remember the remarkable work (drawings) Henry Moore made in the London Tube during the Blitz.

7/31/2006 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Tyler said...

In fact I'm thinking about it so much I'll post about it on MAN later today!

7/31/2006 09:13:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

It's so sad what is happening there. God help them :(

7/31/2006 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Here's an example of one of Moore's Tube drawings (Shelter Scene - Bunks and Sleepers, Henry Moore 1941)

As the Blitz continued, more and more people in London began to use the Underground stations for shelter. The government originally banned the use of the Underground for sheltering for fear that people would not come up again. Once the Blitz began, people bought a ticket and then just refused to leave. The government eventually gave up trying to stop people and nearly 63 million people sheltered in 79 of London's Underground stations at some point during the war. While early conditions were basic, as the raids continued improvements were made. Canteens and libraries were set up and performers entertained underground. The Salvation Army and the Women's Voluntary Service went from station to station delivering food and drink.

I'm currently reading Ron Suskin's book about the thinking (or lack thereof) that went into making the decision to invade Iraq. It's an infuriating tale of out-of-touch morons in positions of unthinkable power. I'd like to see mandatory courses showing the people who make those decisions what war really looks like up close (especially those who pulled strings to avoid seeing it firsthand when it was their turn to do so).

7/31/2006 09:43:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

7/31/2006 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Assuming the next resident of the White House can't possibly be any worse, I think I'll start planning my party for that day now.

7/31/2006 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Dan Morehead said...

Thanks for this. I've written about art and war in a couple posts on my blog.

7/31/2006 12:39:00 PM  
Anonymous heather lowe said...

There is a comedian up in Seattle by the name of Tyrone Barnett (He served in the army in 1996.)
When asked in an interview:

"You were in the military for six years. Do you do any material about that experience?

He said: "No, 'cause I didn't really find anything in it that was funny. The last few years were so miserable, I just wanted to get out."

Art is a great leveler.

7/31/2006 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous a.s. said...

A summer season that looked as if it would be highly successful for tourism was suddenly interrupted, as were numerous music festivals, theatrical and movie openings and ... wild parties.

It's good to see that, considering all the death and destruction being rained upon Lebanese villages and its children, the culture staff at the NY Times is able to cut through the noise and remain focused on the real trajedy of the Israel/Hezbollah conflict.

7/31/2006 03:12:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I don't know, A.S.

It seems to me that if wild parties are an identifyable part of a culture, then it's a valid comment to note the conflict has changed that culture. A "culture" is not only defined by its the high-brow aspects. And the loss of any part of it seems important to include in the record, no?

I mean it would be a poor choice of observations among the details of the bombings on the front page, but certainly seems appropriate in the context of the cultural impact discussion.

7/31/2006 03:25:00 PM  
Anonymous danonymous said...

Just to say....there are horrors occurring all over the world and there are horrors occurring internally...all the time. I can't come up with any answers for myself or anyone else except to make art. No one even has to see it. But I do have to make it in order to survive. It's a great time to stay focused on ...something and not let go.
I am also reading ON THE ROAD (Kerouac). Every minute, something goes wrong but everything is tsill ok. I like that.

7/31/2006 03:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It will always creep in no matter what, whether someone directly addresses politics in work or not. Today is a dark day.

7/31/2006 08:05:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I'd like to see mandatory courses showing the people who make those decisions what war really looks like up close

It's a great idea. It could be called No Politician Left Behind.

7/31/2006 08:08:00 PM  
Blogger onesock said...

I am sure that to some peeps' perspective the entire western civilization is one big party.

Anyway, I can't remember who said that democractic governments can never win these types of wars (insurgent driven, guerrilla, etc) because the support of the electorate waiver so much that the type of full scale offensive needed to win could never be undertaken. Well it sounds like a hawk said it but I keep thinking about it and it rings true to me. But instead of the defeatist conclusion that democracies are inherently weakened and doomed to defeat on the battlefield, I say this situation results in an inability to arrive at other creative alternatives to war (which is also defeatist I now realize, oh well).

Bush said something amazingly telling about our incredibly messed up experiment during a press conference last week. He said that before our foreign policy was to maintain the peace by keeping disagreements and such under the rug and keep parties appeased and whatnot. So his bright idea is to get it all out in the open, ferment hostilities with the assumption that that will result in some sort of settlement. But the venting is all one sided, he is only interested in his position, only our concerns need righting. Essentially , it is a might- makes- right proposition

7/31/2006 11:13:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Great post, Edward. Mazen Kerbaj slices it correctly:


This is a beautiful, critical distinction. Politics is the set of forces criss-crossing the middle east: The Lebanon bone is connected to the Hezbollah bone, which is connected to both the "terrorist" bone, the Israel bone, and the community bone... complex. Intractable. Very important to understand this set of tactics and relationships, causes and effects, but it's not art.

Art is about a different set of relationships: how does the individual accomodate the effects of war (politics)? What does one do with all this horror? This fear? How does one see the totality of this madness--begin to describe it? What does a bombed building look like? What does shelling feel like? How can one remain a sensing human within all this madness?

To think of parties and art and culture--to see beyond politics into the effects of politics on experience--is to cling to one's humanity. It is anything but frivolous. MK is doing very important work in forcing that separation between art (understanding the experience) and politics (understanding which groups are doing what to whom), as is the Times in covering Lebanon's cultural outlets in these truly dismal times.

8/01/2006 07:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second what danonymous said. Part of the reason that art has to keep going is that artists can't survive intact without doing it. Henry Moore was compelled to draw. Any political statement made by the drawings was secondary to that primary act (which is why they are so good) .In the worst of times art is still a wellspring. (And I like what d pointed out about the book, too.Life and art combined.)

8/01/2006 08:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Striking to observe that what were supposed to be the most ...errr...modern or democratic countries of middle east are at war.

Middle east is cursed or what?

Cedric Caspesyan

8/02/2006 02:48:00 AM  
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