Art vs War in Barcelona: Courtesy of http://yanceybasses.com/europe/art_war.jpg
The above headline is a crucial and legitimate question that emerges on the surface whenever a cultural or artistic life of a country is threatened. The threat can have many origins from poor socio-economical conditions to insecurity, in addition to a particular type associated with despotism and dictatorship. The latter gives birth to the worst artistic and cultural life assassin: Self-censorship.
Shall we remind ourselves at this point of the state of artistic and cultural energy in the Stalinist and Post Stalinist Soviet Union, unless when they were at the service of the regime?
At that time, the principles behind the Bolshevik Revolution that created the former Soviet Empire were inspiring millions around the wealthy Western Europe. There, the young bourgeois of the so called “glorious thirties” were dreaming of building a better human, social and fair future with a music instrument in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.
As a counter example and diving deeper into history, back to the European Renaissance of the late 12th century, the position of Italian cities (like Venice) as great trading centers made them intellectual and economical crossroads. Trade and cultural exchanges brought wealth to Italy where private and public artistic projects could be commissioned and individuals had more leisure time to study.
In our present Arab World, precisely in the Gulf, art and culture are said to be booming. France and Abu Dhabi signed a deal last year to build a branch of the renowned Louvres museum in the UAE. The Sharjah Biennial has established itself as a regular event and millions are spent each year to guarantee its success (it seems money can buy it all). Finally, the renowned Parisian Sorbonne University opened a branch in Abu Dhabi. There is little doubt that political stability is strengthening this artistic and cultural direction in the Gulf, at a time when the whole region is sitting uncomfortably over a barrel of gunpowder (and oil).
Hundreds of kilometers away, Syria celebrated this year Damascus as the Arab capital of Culture. A Culture which appears the hostage of the security logic in a country where an intellectual who speaks his mind in a newspaper or on a political talk show can simply be apprehended by the security services and disappear (if he’s lucky just for a couple of days).
The purpose being, to inoculate in him the genes of self-censorship which guarantees respect for the government and security for the country.
Neighboring Lebanon is as always slightly different. After 15 years of bloody civil war and despite an incomplete peace since 1990, the heart of intellectual and artistic Beirut had started beating again. It was, once again, inspiring Arab writers and poets, performers and intellectuals who missed its vibrant life during the years of war. But this was short-lived.
We are back to square one again.
The newspapers are counting the number of foreign investments pulling out of the country while passports, visas and emigration are in the heart of most discussions among young professionals and students who feel that every new morning in Beirut is a day closer to a new civil war that seems all but unavoidable.
Life has left the building… replaced by survival. And because art and culture are, in the best of times, perceived by the Arab common sense as “luxury”, it is now back to “basic instincts” in Beirut, a specimen of a highly flammable Middle East.
* This post was inspired by the following article published in Time Magazine in September 2007: “Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll in a Failing State, By Andrew Lee Butters interviewing Charbel Haber, lead singer of “Scrambled eggs”, a Lebanese rock band. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1658111,00.html