Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Art and the leash

Note: I'm re-posting the following in light of the resumption of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. How long these military actions will continue is anyone's guess; however, I think it's worth seeing them as part of a larger continuum that includes the final foreign policy decisions of the Bush administration -- that administration's "echoes", so to speak -- and divisions within Israeli and Palestinian societies themselves, as militaristic and pro-negotiation factions vie for supremacy.

Obviously, this continuum could be extended outward much further still: to Arab/Israeli history, to the effects of British colonialism in its waning days in the Middle East, to the advent of Cold War politics and its effects on those states in the region (all, until the Iranian revolution) which found themselves acting, to some degree or another, as proxies whose actions either advanced or diminished the geopolitical interests of superpowers.

The Cold War is over now -- at least, as we traditionally understand that term. But its dynamics remain in place. And of course, art cannot "change" any of this. Nevertheless, it can still engage with some of the complexities of the world in an informed way; art does make differences.

One can apply this rule of thumb to many regions that have seen their fair share of suffering -- South Korean literature and cinema come to mind for me. Therefore, even though it's understandable that the last thing the world needs is another tritely written novel, short story or poem which tells us the bloodying obvious about politics at its least restrained ("war is bad"), contemporary literary art is culpable of a "virtual triteness" when it pretends -- this is the correct word -- that events Over There will not have an eventual effect Over Here.

p.s. If you'd like to see the original post with a pertinent comment by Zachariah Wells, please click here.


I spend a lot of time -- perhaps an inordinate, shameful amount of time -- surfing the lit-blogosphere. This is partly the result of my living overseas and needing some way to keep in touch. It's also a reflection of a belief the lit-blogosphere matters, and that the Internet, despite its many short-comings, represents one of the best paths for literature to save itself.

One thing that has recently struck me, however, is the near-total silence surrounding the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I'm speaking of course of silence in the lit-blogosphere; there's no shortage of coverage -- and opinion-expressing -- elsewhere. And maybe this is partly the result of disaster-fatigue: a seemingly interminable state of strife between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the war two-and-a-half years ago between Israel and Hezbollah (in fact, a war whose territory covered most of southern Lebanon), and half-acknowledged "low-intensity" conflicts in Darfur, areas of the Congo, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand are now coated by the thick patina of domestic, economic disaster. Numbness is a natural response to this much in the way of interesting times.

But it's not simply numbness, I think, that inspires the litblogosphere's silence on politics; it's also a belief specific to the West that politics and art cannot, by their very natures, mix, and that to attempt to do so is to mark one as a tiresome ideologue at best, an artistic all-thumbs at worst. Furthermore, the argument of arguments -- the ur-argument of the institutions of the literary establishment -- is such engagement by artists is futile. This is a truth apparently discovered after the end of the Romantic Movement and during the bloody middle of World War One. Poetry can't change the world because it can't change human nature.

But what happens in a world without poetry? That is, what happens to a world that lacks politically aware poetry when the age itself is political? What happens to art in times when history, to use a paraphrase employed by Jan Kott, is "let off the leash"?

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right to suggest that the absence of political commentary on lit-blogs has to do with the idea that art and politics ought not mix. However, at least when it comes to most of the American litblogs I'm familiar with, I'd personally prefer they stay quiet, because when they have gotten political, it's been unfortunate. American litbloggers, in my experience, are generally a blandly liberal group. This is just one reason why I've felt closer to the British blogs like This Space and Ready Steady Book (and the now-defunct The Sharp Side). Unafraid to be political, and left-wing.