Culture and Imperialism

A version of this first appeared in The National.

During the Cold War there was an attempt by both major powers to instrumentalise art as a means of ideological domination. The artistic landscape was fraught with political landmines. Artists had to navigate this terrain with caution. Some became willing instruments of policy, some were coerced into it, some made expedient compromises—but many were snared unwittingly.

The eastern bloc’s means of control were explicit, hence better known. They were exemplified in the persecution, fear, and exile suffered by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mendelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. They have also been fictionalized in popular films like Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others.

Less known however are the means that the ‘free world’ used to engineer a favourable intellectual climate. Decidedly more tolerant of dissent than its eastern counterpart, the west developed a system of rewards and exclusion to amplify favourable voices and marginalise critical ones.

This vast apparatus was orchestrated and conducted by the analytical wing of the CIA, which in its halcyon days relied on Ivy League recruits, often with backgrounds in the humanities. Erudite and urbane, these recruits were seen as the ideal candidates to erode the seductive appeal of Soviet communism. They could counteract it through a strong anti-communist line that emphasized the western ideals of freedom and openness.

finks_cvfFinks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers is Joel Whitney’s riveting account of the CIA’s machinations to enlist some of the world’s leading writers in this ideological contest. Part literary history, part investigative journalism, the book unravels hitherto unknown details about the CIA’s vast cultural offensive.

Whitney’s story pivots around The Paris Review, a highly regarded literary publications best know for its series of interviews with literary giants such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, Thornton Wilder, and Vladimir Nabokov, and fiction and poetry from the likes of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Philip Larkin, V.S. Naipaul and Philip Roth.

But in 1953 when it was launched, one of The Paris Review’s three co-founders, the novelist Peter Mathiessen, was working for the CIA and using the magazine as cover. George Plimpton, the Review’s other co-founder, was also aware that the magazine’s benefactor, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), was heavily funded the by the CIA. The CCF sustained The Paris Review by mass purchasing its copies, syndicating its content, and paying extra for material that aligned with Cold War imperatives. The CCF also tried to influence the magazine editorially. This despite the fact that the Paris Review wasn’t even part of the large stable of magazine’s that CCF directly funded and controlled.

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Drawing Blood

mollyThis review was published at the National.

Molly Crabapple’s “Drawing Blood” – “the story of a girl and her sketchbook” – is at once memoir, reportage, literary description, aesthetic enquiry, road novel and romance.

Crabapple’s painting, lying somewhere between Toulouse Lautrec and surrealism, is increasingly celebrated. The surprise here is that her best writing is as provocatively beautiful as her visual art. Her prose is sweet and sour in equal measure, the eye she watches with is both refined and raw. Very often she watches herself. The comfortable clash in her personality of cynic and idealist, highbrow and lowbrow, recalls Saul Bellow’s early characters. Like Augie March, a young Molly shoplifts high-canonical texts and reads them on the elevated trains which pass above slums.

Native of New York, of a stimulating Puerto Rican (Marxist) and Jewish (artist) background, Molly nevertheless hated being a child. School diagnosed her with “oppositional defiant disorder”; by twelve she’d become a goth-punk. At seventeen she was travelling in Paris and Morocco, an American on tour – “nothing but an eye, soaking up the world” – but one seeing a freshly unexotic vision.

“When you draw you are performing quietly,” she writes, “inviting strangers to engage you.” Strangers engage her, of course, wherever he is, whether she’s drawing or not, simply because she possesses (or is possessed by) an attractive female body. This she finds to be both a power and a vulnerability. The financial power leads her to pose for photo shoots. “When I thought of every proposition and threat that I got just walking down the street in my girl body, I decided I might as well get paid for the trouble.” And so she became “rendered into image, untouchable yet tradable.”

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TERRORisms: Israel’s Colonialist Dialogue Comes to the Oslo National Theatre

TERRORisms inaugural conference  in Oslo 2013
TERRORisms inaugural conference in Oslo 2013

There’s drama stirring in the Oslo National Theatre, but not the kind most cultural institutions expect. Under the auspiciousness of The Union of Theaters of Europe, the Oslo National Theatre has committed to a two-year project titled “TERRORisms”:

From 2013 to 2015, theatres from Oslo, Stuttgart, Belgrade, Tel Aviv, London and Reims will get closer to their TERRORisms. They will elaborate different points of view, exploring different aspects likely to determine fundamentally our societies… dealing with the issue of terrorism and its appropriation by artists.

I’ve just come back from Oslo, and to be honest, Norwegians- as individuals and as a society- didn’t strike me to be particularly “determined fundamentally” by “their” “terrorisms”. Admittedly, I’m not an expert on European contemporary art, but it doesn’t seem to me like there’s a lot of  artistic appropriation of terrorism being done in the European cultural sphere, and the notion is rather- let’s just say- foreign.

The Union of Theaters of Europe: The New Propaganda Front for Israel’s TERRORisms

Continue reading “TERRORisms: Israel’s Colonialist Dialogue Comes to the Oslo National Theatre”

Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy Talk Science and Art

Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss suggests that science and art ask the same fundamental question: Who are we, and what is our place in the universe? He is joined in the conversation  by Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy. (Don’t miss Herzog reading a passage from McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses at 38:00).

(via the indispensable Open Culture)

More on “Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir”: India and Zubin Mehta’s Psyop Concert in Indian Occupied Kashmir

We appeal all sections of Kashmiri society to join the Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir event to express their solidarity with the resilience and suffering of people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Live Aid, Live Ammo: India and Zubin Mehta's Psyop Concert in Kashmir
Live Aid, Live Ammo: India and Zubin Mehta’s Psyop Concert in Indian Occupied Kashmir

Organizing Committee, Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir

Press release, 5 September 2013

On 22 August 2013, the German Embassy, New Delhi, issued a press release that Zubin Mehta would be conducting an orchestra on 7 September 2013, at the Mughal Garden, Shalimar Bagh, in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. On 26 August 2013, civil society members of Jammu and Kashmir – from lawyers and businessmen to poets and scholars – registered a strong protest against the proposed concert and concerns were communicated to the German Embassy and the people of Germany – from political representatives to artists and activists.

The people of Jammu and Kashmir take immense pride in our rich history of resisting oppression. We also have historically cultivated a sublime tradition in, and love for, music. Music – which appeals to the higher values of love, justice, dignity, and peace; which genuinely acknowledges the long-suffering, yet bravely resisting, Kashmiris; and which is performed for the actual public – is wholeheartedly welcome.

However, legitimizing an occupation via a musical concert is completely unacceptable. Art as propaganda, as abundantly documented in history, is put to horrific use across the world. Art as propaganda in Jammu and Kashmir is unacceptable. The Zubin Mehta concert is organized and controlled by Government of India and the German Embassy, with extensive corporate sponsorship. It serves to build on the State narrative that seeks to dilute the reality of Jammu and Kashmir and peoples’ aspirations. It seeks to promote an image of a “peaceful” and “normal” Jammu and Kashmir. The pain, suffering, courage and bravery of the resistance will find no place in this concert. Indian State operations that seek to support the occupation must be resisted. To build this Statist narrative of Jammu and Kashmir, an estimated Rs.100 crores [INR 10 billion or USD 16 million] is reported to being spent, and invitations have been sent to corporate India (Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis, Bajajs, CII, FICCI..), the film world (Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, Katrina Kaif…) and sportsmen (Sachin Tendulkar, Boris Becker…). It is most condemnable that the Government of Germany has chosen to be party to the Indian States’ continued political machinations in Jammu and Kashmir. So far Indian army and various Indian institutions have been organizing psychological operations which are termed by Indian military as Sadbhavana Operation. We protest German government’s joining the efforts of Indian army. It appears an attempt by the Indian State to outsource its military psychological operations to the international community. Continue reading “More on “Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir”: India and Zubin Mehta’s Psyop Concert in Indian Occupied Kashmir”

Of Occupation, Resistance and Music: An Appeal

We submit that it is incumbent upon the people of Germany to put pressure on the German Embassy to immediately recognize the reality, the horrifying context, within which this proposed concert is to take place, issue a statement that accepts the disputed nature of Jammu and Kashmir, and recognizes the pain and legitimate political and legal struggle of its people. Crucially, pressure must be put on the German Embassy to withdraw its support to the concert.

"Zubin Mehta, Indian Army, and Kashmir" by Mir Suhail Qadiri
“Zubin Mehta, Indian Army, and Kashmir” by Mir Suhail Qadiri
September 2, 2013
To                                                                                                       
The People of Germany
(Political Representatives, Civil Society, Artists, Activists and Citizens)
 
Of Occupation, Resistance and Music: An Appeal
 
1.      On 22 August 2013, the German Embassy, New Delhi, issued a press release that Zubin Mehta would be conducting an orchestra on 7 September 2013, at the Mughal Garden, Shalimar Bagh, in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir.  The press release stated that the concert was “a wonderful cultural tribute to Kashmir,” and intended “to reach the hearts of the Kashmiris with a message of hope and encouragement.”  “The ‘Kashmir Concert’ is part of a broader engagement,” it further stated.
2.      On 26 August 2013, civil society members of Jammu and Kashmir – from lawyers and businessmen to poets and scholars – registered a strong protest against the proposed concert. To date, the German Embassy has failed to respond – privately or publicly – to this letter of protest.  Faced with this unforeseen and complete apathy from the German embassy, we believe it is incumbent upon us to reach out to the people of Germany to express our serious concerns with a concert that seeks not to entertain, but to subtly control the political message from Jammu and Kashmir, i.e. manipulate it into a message of “peace” and “normalcy” that ignores ground realities. For example, even as we write this appeal, Jammu and Kashmir Police are conducting door to door searches and identification exercises at the homes of the residents in and around the Shalimar neighborhood, the proposed venue of the concert.  Surely this exposes the rot at the core of the much-touted “peace” and “normalcy.”  
3.      The people of Jammu and Kashmir take immense pride in our rich history of resisting oppression. We also have historically cultivated a sublime tradition in, and love for, music. Music – which appeals to the higher truths of love, justice, dignity, and peace; which genuinely acknowledges the long-suffering, yet bravely resisting, Kashmiris; and which is performed for the actual public – is wholeheartedly welcome.
4.      However, legitimizing an occupation via a musical concert is completely unacceptable. Art as propaganda, as abundantly documented in history, is put to horrific use across the world. We are sure you will understand that we cannot welcome anything even remotely analogous in Jammu and Kashmir.  In a state of affairs where the poets and musicians of Jammu and Kashmir, such as Ghulam Nabi Sheikh, well-known Kashmiri national singer, Inayatullah Bhat, a guitar/harmonium player, and Ali Mohammad Shahbaz, a poet from Handwara, have themselves been victims of the violence of the Indian State, it is but obvious that there needs to be a political understanding of the uses and abuses of art.  Given this sordid context, which cannot be naïvely wished away, we must then ask this crucial question of the people of Germany, and the world citizenry at large: Should we, as people of conscience, support art which not only does not highlight the sufferings of an oppressed people, leave alone which offers balm to its pain, but instead which, through its setting within the particular landscape of power, actively serves to silence and obfuscate our appeals to the rest of humanity, and thus furthers oppressionContinue reading “Of Occupation, Resistance and Music: An Appeal”