Normally, I’m not a terribly articulate person (as those of you who follow my insane ramblings can surely attest) nor am I a particularly political person. But as I watch the news from Paris unfold here from the comfortable hole in which I sequester myself from the manifold dangers of the world, the tragedy that has occurred in Paris weighs somewhat heavily on my mind. I realize that it is already being covered to death, and that in writing about it now (on Sunday) I am rather late to the, ehm,
I worry, though, and I can’t alleviate some of that without yelling into the void a bit. I am not much of writer, nor am I very learned on the incredible complexities inherent in warfare (I don’t think “conflict” or “police action” are adequate words to describe what’s happening) but I do like to think I know at least a few small things about art, and so that is what I’m going to write about.
It’s a cinch that people will compare ISIS to the Nazi party; after all there are people who compare presidents and roommates to “The Fuhrer” himself. But the parallels are actually quite stunning, at least on a cultural basis. There is of course, the genocide, the slaughter of innocent and undeserving citizens, and the speeches railing against systems the leaders deem to be oppressive. There is also the dogma set free of the leash, the barking of orders, the pack mentality, etc. We know all of this is Hitler-esque, albeit on a smaller scale and more focused on acts of terror.
What is most interesting is the cultural mentality that ISIS carries. Hitler never spoke for all the Germans (the political parties, as I understand were very fragmented, and Hitler only needed a small percentage of the vote) and of course ISIS does not speak for all of Islam. In fact, I would suggest that the majority of Islamic people would rather not be represented by violent maniacs. ISIS is separate from the Muslims and akin to the Nazis in its rejection of the future. There has been some railing in ISIS propaganda against “moderns” and there is, I think a yearning for a past that never really was. Hitler had a similar attitude toward ancient Greece. Not the real ancient Greece, of course, but the one he saw in touched-up Roman statues of beautiful white people throwing discs and driving chariots. In fact, he took Athens and Sparta for his models of society, and built neo-classical monuments, which sorta puts a new twist on the Lincoln Memorial. The man despised Modern art (expressionism, cubism, what-have-you) and made it his mission to destroy or sell it off. Most of you have probably heard of his “Degenerate Art” show, in which gallery-goers were encouraged to laugh and gawk at what was a sort of cultural freak-show.
This is where the parallels with ISIS become more obvious. One of the most discouraging things for me is to see that ISIS is destroying monuments and art from ancient civilizations. Not only does it feel like a personal affront, but the way in which they destroy what is nailed down, and loot the rest to sell to the outside world (and apparently Hobby Lobby) for funds is almost exactly what the Nazis did. Except this time, it’s the past they’re erasing. All of this is to perpetuate the myth of the “Golden age”, a time when all people were happy, food was abundant, and rainbows flowed forth from drinking fountains. Every culture has a “Golden Age” that seems to vary every time someone talks about it. For Hitler it was the age of Greece. For America, it was the post-WWII period. Every person on the planet is implicit in such mythologizing of the past, and every person errs when they do so.
This is why art is important.
Never mind the grand narratives and idealization of Renaissance and Baroque Europe, however wonderful and nuanced they might be; what I mean to say is that world art, the Japanese print, the African sculpture, the Australian rock-carving, and yes, Saudi Arabian Calligraphy are all important because they humanize these cultures. And it’s hard to kill people that you think of as humans. This is why ISIS chooses to destroy art and reject outside ideas. These activities empower their dogma. Totalitarians cannot let in outside influences, nor can they tolerate alternate ways of life. They must construct reality. What they are doing is a kind of performance. Through grand and horrible actions like these, they breed fear and violence. When they attacked France, France retaliated, giving them yet another reason to lash out. And to a certain extent, the Occidental countries have bred this sort of hostility. Those of us in the West have, whether we are aware of it or not, participated in their culture. I don’t intend to say that it was one person’s fault or another.
Violence begets violence, and people are prone to it in the first place.
There was an essay by George Orwell, called “Some thoughts on the Common Toad” in which he discusses the importance of Spring:
“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.”
This, of course, is what I want to be true. In “1984” Orwell suggested through Winston and Julia’s actions that taking pleasure in what one enjoys is, in itself, a political action. By thinking of ourselves as individuals and not cogs in a political machine, we render the shouting of despots and terrorists irrelevant. By looking at art we can sharpen our critical thinking skills, and our understanding of other culture. Art makes it much more difficult to dumb down human experience into one single doctrine, political view or belief system; and religion, in my opinion, enters very often into the realm of art, if only for being written down and distributed as literature. I can’t tell anybody to stop fighting ( Even Gandhi said “Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence”) but I certainly don’t want more to happen. All I can do is observe, and hope that people engage with Islamic art, culture and people in an attempt to unify against the destruction of human lives and human history.
And I can waste time writing sentimental paragraphs.
See you Wednesday.