Friday, May 26, 2006

Arundhati Roy says...

From this week's Democracy Now! interview with Arundhati Roy:
AMY GOODMAN: [What is] the role you see of the artist in a time of war?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, I think the problem is that artists are not a homogenous lot of people, and some of them are as rightwing and establishment as they can get, so the role of the artist is not different from the role of any human being. You pick your side, and then you fight. But in a country like India, I'm not seeing that many radical positions taken by writers or poets or artists. It's all the seduction of the market that has shut them up like a good medieval beheading never could.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think artists should do?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Exactly what anyone else should do, which is to pick your side, take your position, and then go for it.
I wholeheartedly agree. During the discussions following my solo concert in The Hague in November and the duo concert with Rafal Mazur in Kraków in April the question was repeatedly raised. The emphasis would vary...

What should artists do? What should artists do? What should artists do?

...but the problem questioners had was the same. There is this bad idea--most certainly fostered and encouraged by the State, by educational methods, and by the entertainment industry--that artists should just "do their thing". The Dixie Chicks should just play country music. George Clooney should just act. I should just make music (it has been suggested once or twice).

Yes. And politicians should just lie, and corporations should just pollute, and military personnel should just follow orders. Hey, what's an F-16 for, but to use it!

No one is exempt from taking sides in crises such as the ones that have engulfed the entire planet now. By "taking sides" I don't mean--and I don't think Arundhati Roy means--embracing an ideology or maintaining somebody else's position. I mean taking the side of people and the planet. But beware: if you take the side of people, of living things, you will almost always be setting yourself up in opposition to large corporations and the governments that cover for them.

I can already hear some people saying: but there have always been these crises and there always will be. Fair enough. Then: no one was ever exempt from taking sides, and no one ever will be. Perhaps there will always be affronts to social justice, to peace, and to environmental sustainability. But can anyone honestly believe that as a consequence people should ignore such affrontery?

"Exempt" implies rules, or authority, and is therefore an unfortunate word choice on my part. Everyone is "exempt"; there is no single moral code, and I (like you perhaps) simply do not trust the makers and executors of laws, disembodied, corrupt, and unable to reference in their work what it feels like to be human. And yet: failure to take sides is a taking of sides. How can an artist (or an accountant, or an architect, or an advertiser...) not take a position when confronted with the dangers and injustices of the world? How can that position not manifest itself in an individual's work?

Let me correct myself: not the dangers and injustices of the world, but those of one's own culture, and so, to some extent, one's own making.

It seems to me that the person who asks "but what can I do?" has yet to realize the need for something to be done.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Albert Camus says...

The following passage from a 1957 interview of Albert Camus relates closely to my previous post and the discussion that followed. It is published in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death (Vintage International, New York: 1995). In general, I support Camus' view.

INTERVIEWER: The notion of art for art's sake is obviously alien to your thinking. That of "commitment" as it has been made fashionable of late is equally so. Taken in its present meaning, commitment consists in making one's art subservient to a policy. It seems to me that there is something more important, which is characteristic of your work, that might be called inserting that work into its time. Is this correct?

CAMUS: I can accept your expression: inserting a work into its time. But, after all, this describes all literary art. Every writer tries to give a form to the passions of his time. Yesterday it was love. Today the great passions of unity and liberty disrupt the world. Yesterday love led to individual death. Today collective passions make us run the risk of universal destruction. Today, just as yesterday, art wants to save from death a living image of our passions and our sufferings.

Perhaps it is harder today. It is possible to fall in love every once in a while. Once is enough, after all. But it is not possible to be a militant in one's spare time. And so the artist of today becomes unreal if he remains in his ivory tower or sterilized if he spends his time galloping around the political arena. Yet between the two lies the arduous way of true art. It seems to me that the writer must be fully aware of the dramas of his time and that he must take sides every time he can or knows how to do so. But he must also maintain or resume from time to time a certain distance in relation to our history. Every work presupposes a content of reality and a creator who shapes the container. Consequently, the aritst, if he must share the misfortune of his time, must als tear himself away in order to consider that misfortune and give it form. This continual shuttling, this tension that gradually becomes increasingly dangerous, is the task of the artist of today. Perhaps this means that in a short time there will be no more artists. And perhaps not. It is a question of time, of strength, of mastery, and also of chance.

In any case, this is what ought to be. There remains what is; there remains the truth of our days, which is less magnificent. And the truth, as I see it at least, is that the artist is groping his way in the dark, just like the man in the street--incapable of separating himself from the world's misfortune and passionately longing for solitude and silence; dreaming of justice, yet being himself a source of injustice; dragged--even though he thinks he is driving it--behind a chariot that is bigger than he. In this exhausting adventure the artist can only draw help from others, and, like anyone else, he will get help from pleasure, from forgetting, and also from friendship and admiration. And, like anyone else, he will get help from hope. In my case, I have always drawn my hope from the idea of fecundity. Like many men today, I am tired of criticism, of disparagement, of spitefulness--of nihilism, in short. It is essential to condemn what must be condemned, but swiftly and firmly. On the other hand, one should praise at length what still deserves to be praised. After all, that is why I am an artist, because even the work that negates still affirms something and does homage to the wretched and magnificent life that is ours.