Thursday, April 29, 2010

The war of the arts

What do war and the arts have in common? They are both capable of fostering that amorphous thing called 'national identity'. Countries around the world use the commemoration of military events as rallying calls that serve to cement a single dominant national identity. And arts and cultural policies around the globe almost all include a line about how the arts foster that same national identity. So national
Identity is supposed to consist of shared memories and myth-making about past military exploits mixed with some deep-seated pride in our arts. Sport is the other big ingredient. 

Why are arts and cultural commentators so keen to embrace such company? Do we really think that artists are motivated by a desire to 'create for the fatherland'? Is their greatest go to defend the artistic homeland against invasion? Yes, there have been artists who espoused nationalist views and there has been no shortage of politicians who have exploited the work of artists for political ends. But the art of nationalist artists is not usually any good as art. And in fact much great art has come from the spring of international exchange. Crude nationalism is the enemy of good art.

Image: John Singleton Copley, The death of major Francis Pierson 6 January 1781, 1783, Tate Gallery      

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Memory and art

Bernhard-Henri Levy recently wrote an article on the 'real and potentially dangerous revisionism' of films such as Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Levy notes that 'the truth is that Nazism is becoming a new playing field for the amusement of the bad boys of Hollywood' and that 'Art comes out on top. Not memory'.

The delicate balance between 'memory' and fictional narrative is one that has always been at the heart of the storyteller's calling. Homer's Iliad - written around 2800 years ago - tells of the great Trojan wars of the ancient world. We will never really know what happened so long ago, but we can safely assume that Homer had his allegiances and his prejudices that shaped his account of history. Shakespeare was also a great 'revisionist'. Or did you think that Henry V was a balanced and factual account of the battle of Agincourt?

Art is not science. History does its best to serve 'memory', art does not claim to do so, nor should it be required to. Tarantino is not a documentary filmmaker. Slowly the people who personally experienced World War II are passing away and our 'memory' of it is becoming entirely 'mediated'. It is formed entirely by books, films, site visits and the education system. This is a natural process that has also happened to every war and major historical event. Time marches on and the events of the past become the stuff of fiction. In an age old process, memory and narrative become one.

Image: The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali