Monday, February 5, 2007

Monday with McKenna: Art as Activism

As we noted in our week-ahead piece Saturday, the President is now calling for his puppet Maliki to show some spine or suffer the consequences. What consequences? The only consequences Maliki is probably worried about would come not from America but from his controller Mr. Al-Sadr, for if you show some spine to that guy, it's likely to be severed.

The fact is, Bush has not only run out of political and geopolitical capital; he's now as deeply in debt on that score as he's put the US Treasury over the past 6 years. So if you're looking for someone to show some spine, it's time to demand it from your new blue Congress. But as the Peace Team is pointing out, Reid and the Dems are already wavering. I recommend you use that link to remind them what you voted for last November.

Now onto Monday with McKenna, for the start of a detailed look at what art can do to further awaken the citizenry of our benighted nation.


Art as Activism, Part 1: History's Lessons

With the War in Iraq a complete disaster, perhaps it’s time to consider Iraq in a completely different way – as fodder for future artworks. For as the saying goes, if you’ve got lemons, might as well make lemonade.

But does art still matter? Yes, at least art that reaches the mainstream. So called high art is another matter – current “serious” art has been consigned to the ivory tower of the modern university. Its relevance to contemporary life is unclear.

Popular art still has the capacity to shape the popular will. In the era before WW1, young men’s hearts were stirred in favor of patriotism by poems and prose that glorified war’s majestic violence; as a result, when WW1 broke out, large numbers of earnest young men eagerly joined the slaughter. In the aftermath of the carnage, the popular images of war turned from heroic fantasies to realistic notions of horrific and pointless violence. Post WW1 art reflected the darker mood, thus Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (also an early popular sound movie). Post war German painters developed a particularly biting form of portraiture. The French in turn produced nihilistic DADA and then self absorbed Surrealism.

So in Iraq’s wake, we’ll require an art capable of grappling with Iraq’s lessons. But almost as important is the continual need to revamp our imagery in the face of an updated present. In the world before modern technology, images were rare and precious. Now they are not. Thus, when one can Google for a picture of a man being hung (just try Google images) the ancient images of death, like the "Dying Gaul" above, may have lost their power to stir emotions. For the student of Western art, this piece has long been studied for its prescient realism. But it also once moved viewers with its depiction of a noble warrior grappling with death. That lesson is gone.

To appreciate death today, we need images that can move the contemporary mind. This modern trend began with the art of the Civil War, as in the pictures of the dead of Antietam (here and here). Nobility has been replaced by meaninglessness, empty carnage on the scale of modern factory production. (The civil war era also produced images of glory, but these were hand-made images, and often seem stilted when viewed today; the photographs on the other hand have retained their power).

Shakespeare’s works have been updated continually since they were first performed. Updating is central to our being able to understand them. Not all contemporary producers go as quite so far as Richard Loncraine did with his 1995 movie of Richard III (this version took place in the 1930’s with very recognizable characters) – but in nearly all productions, changes are made to accommodate modern ears. Perhaps a future production of Macbeth will replace the witches with figures based upon Hannity and Colmes. And perhaps an updated Lady Macbeth will look like Condoleezza Rice - ever attempting to scrub away her sin.

So… what story will art hope to tell us about Iraq? Tomorrow, we'll attempt to find some answers.

--T. McKenna

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