Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Can Art Survive in a State of Survival?

By Bachir Habib

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


Anonymous said...

Dear Bachir H.,
I agree that self-censorship is a plague, especially in our Arab World, and unfortunately, u see some of the so called “moubdi3een” bragging about their “high sense of responsibility” (since everything is becoming these days a “Threat to the national security”), and their immaculate sense of self-censorship…
Yet, I have some remarks:

1. In some cases, social and religious taboos became a subliminal power to overcome obstacles, and transcend the idea to a higher esthetic and symbolic level (e.g the Iranian Cinema, the Modern Iranian poetry that integrates beautifully the ancient Persian mythological and pagan heritage in their present, and mind u that a real artist can surpass all the Nos, so even the Soviet era was marked by some classical cinematographic masterpieces).
2. I think that one of our terrible problems in Lebanon, is that most of the people don’t take advantage of the amount of liberty given to them and READ BOOKS, wlik READ ANY DAMN THING. I was chocked when I read a UN report saying that we, Lebanese, are one of the poorest readers in the world ! the Syrians, since u’ve mentioned them, however, they read more then us, and as their avant-garde say:”Beirut prints, and Damascus reads “.
3. As for u mentioning that the cultural scene as “booming” in the Gulf, well, with all do my respect to the Gulf intelligentsia, I don’t see it booming on the popular level, I’m telling u this because I live their… this is all an attempt to give a cultural reputation to this region… not long ago, the spectacle of Marcel Khalifeh was banned in Bahrain… the restrictions here are still numerous… anyway, this doesn’t undermined the efforts that are being made by the governments, but it’s for the peoples to grasp these multiple cultural opportunities .

This doesn’t stop me from hoping that this cultural buzz or rumor in the Gulf will become for real, and then spread into the entire Arab world.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sirine,
Yes you have a point, i totally understand what you mean when you mention the iranian cinema or poetry or some artisic masterpieces produced in the USSR. The main question behind this article is actually the ideal environment where art can prospere and inspire and how much difficult conditions can reduce art to the state of survival. but still art survived during civil wars, it's still surviving under each and every dictatorship and will keep on doing so. And you are right, sometimes the difficult conditions themselves are source of inspiration. But history teaches us that art booms with prosperity and freedom. And i think that the art scene would have been much more different and colorful in teheran for example, if the social and intellectual conditions were different. Same for many other countries. Regarding the Gulf countries example, I'm convinced that money cannot buy it all!... but funding the art scene can provoque an artistic booming, this in my view will have to be sustained by a receptive environment on 2 different levels: the public and the art community.
and of course on the state abandoning its "control-freak" behaviour when it comes to art!

Anonymous said...

Freedom obviously but I am not sure about 'prosperity'. Prosperity and wealth can also numb artistic creativity and vulgarise it. A more accurate description would be: It is in the struggle for prosperity and Freedom that Art booms.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bachir H. & Joseph,
Briefly, i think that Art needs creative minds and souls (the artistes) to produce it, and people who enjoy Art and see it as the "Messiah" of the human condition (an eager public who is willing to receive it, taste it, and if possible, collaborate by analyzing it or even criticizing it), and these two poles can definitely be affected by the environment (oppression, poverty, freedom, prosperity), but i don’t see this 3d component as a “condition sine qua none", as a decisive pole for the artistic flourishing, especially that every era has its own characteristics, as Dante is a great poet of love in a period of stability and prosperity, and Mahmoud Darwich, is another great poet of the “Siege”, of a turbulent existence, yet, above all, a great poet of daily life, of love, under the “Siege”, but also, above it, surpassing it..