One of the sillier lines deployed to take the wind out of a cultural boycott of apartheid Israel is ‘art is above politics.’ It’s not an argument, just a line. To see how far from an argument it is, just substitute Israel with something we all agree is unacceptable. Would it have been a good idea for an artist to travel to Auschwitz while the chimneys were pumping, not to witness but to entertain the Gestapo? What about singing for Stalin during collectivisation? Or dancing for Pol Pot as he filled Cambodia’s fields with corpses? O, but those were atrocities! They were criminals! Which brings us to the nub of it. Those false liberals and mercenaries who proclaim the nobility of their ‘engagement’ with Zionist colonialism believe that Zionist crimes are ok. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the caging of the refugees, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the annexation of the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, the savage, repeated bombardments of Lebanon, the cheerleading for the destruction of Iraq – none of it matters much, because ‘art’ floats high above it.
Art, if it’s worth anything, doesn’t float above reality. Art is part of reality, and reality is part of art. Art should help us see reality more clearly. Art grows out of and reflects reality and, in some indefinable way, creates and shapes reality too. The greatest artists, whatever their politics, know this. Tolstoy, Mahfouz, Marquez, Bellow, Grossman, Pinter, Coetzee – writers whose work stands on its own feet, who therefore never needed to weave an illusory mystique around ‘art’ – understood this.
Because it is so inextricably entangled with other aspects of reality, because it is so inescapably part of the way in which human beings see and hear, because it is so tightly rooted in our human nature, art is powerful. It has nothing in common with a high-buffetted lonely cloud. Art can be powerfully dangerous. It can – and often does – determine who gets killed.
See above Jackie Salloum’s short film response to Jack Shaheen’s book Reel Bad Arabs. Shaheen’s study of Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs over more than a century shows how racist assumptions do not just sprout spontaneously in Western minds. They are systematically planted. And – like commercial advertising – this dehumanising imagery works. Arabs? What are they about? O yes – they’re woman-hating, Jew-hating, irrational, violent, anti-Western, animalistic, dark and fanatical. How I hate them. I hate them all. Let’s kill them. Let’s kill them now. “Let’s turn the whole goddamn Middle East into a glass crater” (as a New Yorker said half an hour after the World Trade Centre collapsed, before anybody knew what had happened).
But perhaps I’m over-reacting. Perhaps I should ignore all this and focus on my higher, purely artistic nature. Perhaps (and I fear some of us are intimidated in this way) I show people my crudeness, my lack of refinement, by insisting that art lives here on the messy earth. I will tie myself to poesy’s rocket and inhabit the outer ether. It’s a shame those barbarian Muslims, those Philistines in Gaza, can’t do the same. Peace and love, brothers and sisters…. Keep artistic… Keep it unreal…