Monday, February 11, 2008

Art in Wartime

I've seen two performances recently that have not only compounded and focussed my concern and agitation about our, my, complicity in this appalling war which is destroying us all from outside in and inside out-- but have also compelled me to revisit my understanding of the politics of representation and search my commitments and shelves for Lenin on aesthetics and my own ancient Menshevik and Trotskyite tendencies, once passionate then uncertain then ideological then preening; as I have squirmed in my seat and felt shame and pity and outrage and: what now?

Exhibit #1
Today I went to an East Village matinee of Taxi to the Dark Side.

Sparce audience (cold weekday afternoon); yet everyone sat still and silent through the credits, and it wasn't to demonstrate insider cred (I think imdb has historicised that behaviour by now anyway).

We have all seen the photos from Abu Ghraib. We all know that the US is engaged in an unjustifiable overt and covert war that is not only ruining the lives of individual civilians and combatants but also making mincemeat of the values, principles, cultures, civilizations by which we and our allies and enemies live and profess to live our sorry lives.

So a film like this is what, a tighter noose around our necks?

It wants a movement. We want a movement.

Exhibit #2:
Last month, I went to the preview of Betrayed with a conversation after with George Packer and Omer Salih Mahdi. The theatre was full and no one left this time either. By now there have been a lot of reviews. I don't want to rehearse the play or the responses. But Mahdi was there, on the program, with almost no explanation. On stage at the end of the performance, soft voice, soft eyes, soft body-- it emerged that he was a prototype for the characters: interpreter, journalist, friend. Some one in the audience asked if he were concerned that his appearance might jeopardize his own or his family's safety. He answered, gently, that he had already lost his father and so much more, and was left with so little to fear.

When I got home, I googled Mahdi, and discovered just how understated, and indulgent, his response had been.

I enjoyed these performances, because they were well done and the polemic neither dominated the aesthetic nor challenged my own views. Surely this is a contract on which the success of both film and play depend.

Remember the term: 'consciousness raising'? I am sure that just about everyone in the audiences of the two performances I note here would. (Except for a few younger media types and refugees). And I am pretty sure that even before the curtain went up, we had already received enough information to have been aware of malfeasance in our involvement in and conduct of this 'war on terror', and the costs in human terms as well as in terms of the principles and values the US purports to represent.

Which invests us with a greater responsibility, to act on the information, lest we become seduced by the image and complicit in the aestheticization of this horror. I can't believe I'm quoting Adorno, and I'm not such a modernist, but his analysis of the culture industry does bear consideration in this connection:

Pleasure always means not to think about anything, to forget suffering even where it is shown. Basically it is helplessness. It is flight; not as it is asserted, flight from a wretched reality, but from the last remaining thought of resistance.... Even when the public does--exceptionally--rebel against the pleasure industry, all it can muster is that feeble resistance which that very industry has inculcated in it. Nevertheless, it has become increasingly difficult to keep people in this condition. The rate at which they are reduced to stupidity must not fall behind the rate at which their intelligence is increasing.

So: one step forward, two steps back. On the forward column, I will follow up and also offer a few suggestions:

The List Project

Center for Constitutional Rights

Tear it Down

The other point that concerns me is how the political debate--including obviously the presidential debate-- around the complex issue of our involvement and implication in the international community and Iraq & the middle east in particular is being reduced to the question of whether you're in favor of getting out now or staying in longer. Now that we're in, I think the real issue becomes what are we doing there and how are we doing it; not how many troops we should withdraw on what timetable. That really has to follow from the objectives and performance metrics. But that's a thornier question.

I heard George Packer talk about the essay and play on a New Yorker podcast and he mentioned that Hillary Clinton has been helpful in calling attention to the plight of Iraqi--collaborators (my own use is neutral but the pejorative sense is what endangers them). I was glad to hear this. Personally, I think her record on the war reflects an honest effort to pursue ideological goals (this term, too, I use neutrally, although 'ideology' is popularly used as a synonym for unreasoned prejudice) while resisting the vanity of idealism, or willful ignorance of the practical constraints on her incremental objectives. I think it reflects some honest mistakes, too.

But this is a topic for another occasion.

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