Election Section

Art of Engagement by Peter Selz: A Samizdat For Our Time By Claire Kahane Special to the Planet

Friday January 13, 2006

Something significant has been happening in the last several years. While the political discourse of the mainstream media has skirted the scandalous actions of the Bush administration, regurgitating the administration’s rhetoric rather than attending to the dubious actions taken in the name of “the American people,” a vigorous political criticism has increasingly been voiced in the arts. 

In films, plays, the visual arts, music, poetry and novels, contemporary politics is being either analogized or symbolized in scarcely disguised form. It seems to me no accident, for example, that Peter Selz’s Art of Engagement has just appeared, the first serious examination since 1945 of politically engaged art.  

Focusing on California, though not exclusively, Selz moves through the second half of the 20th century looking at art that has emerged from political struggle, from the Nazi death camps, the Free Speech Movement of 1964, the farm workers’ labor movement, the Black Panther Party in Oakland, the women’s movement, ending with the recent responses to Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq.  

Today one has only to tour Bay Area galleries to find proliferating examples of visual art fiercely critical of the unholy alliance of politicians and corporations that have created chaos in Baghdad and beyond. 

Indeed, we are seeing a sort of samizdat for our time and place: acts of passionate political engagement embedded and articulated in the arts rather than in the inhospitable political arena, in a manner once associated with what went on under the repressive Soviet regimes. 

It seems that, the Internet aside, and with the exception of a few challenging journalists on the op-ed pages, the arts have become the cultural bearers of political ideas and ideals that challenge the Orwellian rhetoric of our politicians and their echoes in the mainstream media.  

This political infusion is perhaps the one bright light in these dodgy dark times, reinvigorating the arts themselves as well as their audience. Think of John Adams’ recently performed anti-nuclear opera, Doctor Atomic. Based on Richard Rhodes’ book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Adams’ work with a libretto by Peter Sellars, focuses on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and the project he led--the creation of the first atomic bomb. 

This is not Adams’ first foray into political opera; as he noted in a recent interview, “if opera is actually going to be a part of our lives ... it has to deal with contemporary topics.” But as the threat of nuclear proliferation becomes more of a reality under this administration, so does the shadow of an impending nuclear holocaust. Not if, but when, as someone recently commented. Adams’ latest work confronts our nightmares about the future and explores the complex psychology that allows a humane and learned scientist to think and, even more strikingly, to make possible, the unthinkable end of human civilization. 

On a less operatic scale, there is Charlie Haden’s new Liberation Music Orchestra concert now touring the country with “Not in our Name.” This extraordinary grouping of musicians perform compositions that play riffs on familiar musical themes and iconic American songs such as America the Beautiful, opening them up to expose, through improvisational flights and musical changes--from major to minor, from dominant to 7th, from harmonic to atonal—the violence done to the ideals that the songs originally celebrated. As if each musician in Haden’s brilliant group, using the improvisational space that jazz allows each, were asking in the words of another lyric from another time—“What is America to me?”—each musician expresses his outrage, despair and sadness about what has been happening to the American dream celebrated in these songs. But each also seems to discover and convey to the audience the ecstatic possibilities of the ideal, as if through a musical articulation he could recover its hope. 

From music to words: so many works of fiction have appeared that eloquently forge a pact between politics and art. My own recent favorite is Ian McEwan’s Saturday, which pits the influential power of poetic discourse against the more empirical understanding of cause and effect in dealing with violent human impulses. Narrated through the consciousness of an acutely sensitive neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, McEwan’s novel subtly represents his detailed observations of his material circumstances on a Saturday in London—the day of one of the largest anti-war marches in recent European history as well as a day on which he is able to divert a personal violent assault by understanding the medical condition of his assailant and responding cleverly to it. 

But although his diagnostic abilities seems to give him a confident mastery over the adverse contingencies of modern urban life, he is confused by the more ambiguous aspects of human interactions: by the political complexities of the war on terrorism as well as by the internal subtleties of literature. At the novel’s climax, he finds himself helpless to deal with a violent threat to his family while his daughter, a poet, prompted by her poet-grandfather to recite “Dover Beach,” captures the imagination of the assailant, himself soon to die, and renders him no longer dangerous.  

In retrospect, as the novel suggests, there is an ironic analogy between the war against which the marchers demonstrate and the urban violence which the man of reason confronts. In both instances, a command of rhetoric is key. The peace marches did not stop the aggressive acts of the U.S. government and its British backers in great part because the rhetoric of the powerbrokers turned political uncertainty into certainties that overwhelmed the doubters. Indeed, McEwan’s novel shows that language matters, that the pen is still mighty, though the sword has grown to apocalyptic proportion. Can the literary arts politically sway hearts and minds enough to disarm those wielding that sword? Can the arts really change consciousness?  

Certainly that seems to be the hope in British theater of the past several years. Last fall’s London season was particularly rich in political theater that directly or indirectly commented on the policies and politicians of today, and much of it traveled to New York this past year. Michael Frayn’s Democracy anatomized the duality of the politician’s psyche and his precarious isolation through a dramatization of the career of Willy Brandt. David Hare’s Stuff Happens, a dramatized account of the cabals that led to the invasion of Iraq, portrayed Bush as a forcefully committed though naïve politician who, backed by religious certainties, too easily overwhelmed a feeble Tony Blair’s frustrated attempt to assert a more sophisticated British position. 

Significantly, Hare’s play did not caricature Bush and his cohort, but allowed them sufficient humanity so that the play’s politics would evoke more than comfortable assent. As the Guardian reported, “the caricatures of the players we think we know all too well—George Bush, Tony Blair, Colin Powell and the rest—talk back, often stirringly, against our first impressions.” Yet the dramatic irony of history that inhabits their speeches—their future is now our present—drives the play toward the war that “happened”.  

Given this past year’s revelations about Abu Ghraib and American renditions of “suspects” sent to secret prisons for interrogation, the re-appearance of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden in London last year seemed especially prescient. The play, about a woman who has been subject to torture and revenges herself when the opportunity accidentally presents itself, starkly illuminates the moral issues and psychic consequences of torture. And again, no doubt provoked by widespread doubts about the war in Iraq, this season in New York saw another play of Dorfman’s, The Other Side, which raises questions about the nature of identity and love under conditions of war. Taking place in a war torn country, it presents a man and a woman who survive by identifying and living off the casualties. Paradoxically when peace finally arrives, their predatory world falls apart.  

Dorfman has talked about the vital element that drives his plays: his belief that we must confront what we know but want to look away from, that political crimes be acknowledged even if they can’t be undone. If they are buried, as he points out, “Something submerged will always come up, like the bodies come out of the river in Widows. They come from the imagination, from the past, from the human soul. They come from the bad conscience of the military, they are conjured up from the mind, from history which says ‘do not forget’. And until we have put them to rest, have buried them well, we cannot solve the problem.”  

This seems to me a fitting description of what drives all the contemporary artists who are producing political art in our time. Until recently, when Bush’s popularity, or rather his numbers, began to fall, too many American newspapers buried in the back pages or the neutral middle what needed to be highlighted on page one. It has become the task of today’s literary writers, filmmakers, playwrights and artists to insure that political memory is not buried, nor political outrages covered up. To this concern, Harold Pinter in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech spoke clearly and luminescently words that burst through the spin much of the press tried to impose on them, words that it had avoided for too many years—words that themselves reflected upon the power of words, and thus, on the power of the media.  

The majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed. As every single person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes, bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with al Qaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York of Sept. 11, 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the world. We were assured it was true. It was not true. The truth is something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody it. 

From his blunt repudiation of official justification for the invasion of Iraq, Pinter went on to identify a deeper, more disturbing, yet only very rarely acknowledged problem with the media-sustained American mindset.  

Listen to all American presidents on television say the words, ‘the American people’, as in the sentence, ‘I say to the American people it is time to pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the American people to trust their president in the action he is about to take on behalf of the American people.’ It’s a scintillating stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay. The words ‘the American people’ provide a truly voluptuous cushion of reassurance. You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion. The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical faculties but it’s very comfortable.” 

When the politicians and the pundits have so deliberately and unconscionably set about degrading and destroying language for their own careers and questionable purposes, no wonder that those who truly care for words and images, who wrestle with their difficult meaning and power, become prominent in the pursuit of truth.