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

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