BAD ART: The Iraq War Out of Context
The Disassociated Press, Taipei, November 7, 2006
By Eric Mader
"The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life."
--Walter Benjamin, 1936
I thought I'd seen the headline of the year when I picked up the paper last Thursday:
Bush Tells Iraqis that Patience has Limits
Sometimes a headline speaks volumes. This one says more than enough: the depressing ironies of the war, the blindness and arrogance of those who led us into it, the complete disconnect between reality and White House fantasy--they're all bound up in this seven-word title. Patience has limits indeed.
This week I'm hit by another headline to be jotted down in our ever-burgeoning Compendium of Orwellian Locutions. There again on the front page I read:
Iraq is a "Work of Art in Progress," Says US General
Surely the only reason this title made it front page is because our journalists, or some of them, retain a sense of linguistic decency. They're as offended by the general's art metaphor as you or I, and they want to make clear again the sick depths to which our war rhetoric has sunk. These journalists realize the pass to which things have come: editorials are hardly necessary any more. To make the Bush administration and its minions look like idiots, all you need do is report what they say.
The story under the headline, reported in The Guardian, reads in part:
A US general in Baghdad called Iraq a "work of art" in progress on Thursday in one of the most extraordinary attempts by the US military leadership to put a positive spin on the worsening violence.
On a day in which 49 people were killed or found dead around the country, Major General William Caldwell, the chief military spokesman, argued that Iraq was in transition, a process that was "not always a pleasant thing to watch."
"Every great work of art goes through messy phases while it is in transition. A lump of clay can become a sculpture. Blobs of paint become paintings which inspire," Caldwell told journalists in Baghdad's fortified green zone.
"The final test of our efforts will not be the isolated incidents that you report daily, but the country that the Iraqis build," he added.
Perceptions of how the war is going have become a central factor in next Tuesday's congressional elections, which could determine US President George W. Bush's freedom of maneuver in his last two years in office.
Reading this I couldn't help but recall the widely condemned remark on 9/11 by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Before the smoke had even cleared, the composer was recorded in the German press as calling the WTC attacks "the greatest work of art ever."
In fact Stockhausen's remarks were taken out of context and misconstrued by initial reports. The composer wasn't praising the 9/11 attacks as something to be emulated, but was rather trying to stress the Luciferian intensity of those who carried them out. He was comparing the mental preparation of those who planned the attacks to the mental preparation of artists. Such a comparison was careless and in bad taste, no doubt, and Stockhausen's words were quickly reprinted and attacked in newspapers around the world--the composer's unwanted fifteen seconds of global fame.
Doubtless many in America who read the press accounts considered Stockhausen's words just another example of European anti-Americanism. It had to be either anti-Americanism fueling such sentiments or the deranged anti-humanism of the avant-garde. The remarks struck a nerve because for many they sounded familiar in a distasteful way: they fit a type. Regardless what the composer was trying to say, the quote was instantly newsworthy because it was so feasible. After all, wasn't it likely that some loony from the "art world" would come forward and call the 9/11 attacks a "work of art"? Isn't that the kind of sick thing artists do to get attention?
On a deeper level, Stockhausen's remarks struck a nerve because aestheticizations of violence are a part of Western history. The quote reminded us of things we'd seen and heard before, in particular the aestheticization of war and destruction that was a crucial part of Nazism. In this register Stockhausen's quote also has consonance with the characterization of al Qaeda as a kind of "Islamic fascism," a characterization I find apt. The purity of the kind of Islam bin Laden wants to see established--a purity of political organization more than anything--and the racial/cultural purity of the fascist order the Nazis tried to create have much in common. Both Nazi theorists and al Qaeda zealots see populations as malleable matter to be violently reorganized; individual lives matter little to them. If it takes carnage to get the process going, so be it. Carnage, part of the final work, is more than justified: it becomes actually beautiful. For bin Laden it is not only beautiful but holy.
And this is part of the reason I find the American general's words so sick. In their homespun, dopey way, they echo an attitude to war that is characteristic of fascism. If Americans are repelled by the gruesome results of their government's attempt to remake a Middle-Eastern country (and if, moreover, a congressional election is just around the corner) this general thinks it is somehow advisable to rechristen the endless carnage of the breakup of Iraq as "a work of art."
So we've been "artists" in Iraq all along, and didn't even know it. Yes, our labors are actually a long Work in Progress--one that began with our support of Saddam and continued with the recent invasion to overthrow him. Sometimes, as the general says, the genesis of a great work of art is "not always a pleasant thing to watch."
But consider our artistic dedication. The medium we work in--the Iraqi populace--has been finessed over the years by much dedicated artistry. There was, for one, the more Neoclassical artistry of the Bush, Sr. administration, which encouraged the Shiites to rise up against Saddam, then cynically let them get slaughtered when they did. That seems a long time ago now, but was it? Never mind. Great artists think of the work ahead, not of what happened the day before yesterday.
Neoclassicism is a thing of the past. With the fall of Saddam under Bush, Jr., our aesthetic paradigm changed abruptly. The Iraqis were directed through a sort of quick Impressionistic period: first looters destroyed much of their social infrastructure, then ill-prepared American appointees (much artistic will but no concrete plans) arrived to make a shoddy show of rebuilding. Think of Monet's Water Lilies in cement and burnt out power grids.
Impressionism was followed by a kind of Symbolist movement. No surprise there really. With the failure to find WMD, the Work in Progress could only become grander and more esoteric in scope. It's true esotericism often scares away patrons, but our artists didn't have to worry. Generous contributions from the American taxpayer, a more or less captive patron, ensured that the Work continued as unscheduled. Unscheduled? Yes. Great artists must not be rushed.
When the insurgency began to rear its head--when it became clear that it wasn't simply a matter of a few "foreign elements" mixed with Baathist dead-enders--it was time to shift decisively to a Surrealist paradigm. According to this new aesthetic, Iraqi cab drivers and vegetable vendors were artistically molded by the trained hands of our Abu Ghraib interrogators, who'd gotten their MFAs on the quick by visiting profs from the Neocon School of Fine Interrogation. Scarcely has new work gained so much international press coverage as those memorable pieces: "Man With Black Hood Holding Wires," "Smiling Troops with Stack of Naked Iraqis," "Muddy Man on Leash." So you see our patronage has paid off: the whole world appreciates our artistic accomplishments.
It's true the Iraqi elections, hailed as one of the high points of the Work, proved a somewhat duller part of the creative process. The elections never really fit into the exciting categorizations of art history--the categories I refer to above. What happened actually? The three mutually hostile ethnic groups of Iraq predictably elected three mutually hostile political groupings, the dominant Shia grouping, again predictably, looking more toward Iran for its ideas than toward the artistes whose war had brought them to power. This instance of the unwieldiness of our material (those Shiites are behaving just like, well, Shiites) has just begun. But as our general said: the Great Work is still in progress, so we shouldn't judge too hastily.
The problems with evoking art as a metaphor for political violence are many, but what should most concern us is the necessary arrogance of anyone who would do so. Human populations are not clay to be molded by the hands of an artist. You cannot smooth down a bump here and cut off a section there to make the work fit what you want. Human populations, unlike clay, each have their own long history, which means they will go where they will. Any attempts to shift them in a radically different direction can only end in failure.
Aestheticization of politics is one of the major themes taken up by social critics of the last century: especially by critics of the major totalitarian movements. That we in Iraq are trying to build a democracy (or were trying: I don't think anyone is seriously hopeful any more) means that the case is somewhat different. But it isn't acceptable to find one of our military spokesmen resorting to grand metaphors about a "work of art" to explain how we are (supposedly) slowly guiding Iraq's people to stand in the configuration we want. Given that tens of thousands of people have died, many of them horrible deaths, as a result of our misguided policies, any comparison of ourselves to artists is distasteful at the very least. It becomes more distasteful if the person speaking such words about the Great Work to come knows they are simply not true: if, for example, the general knows that almost none of our goals have been met in Iraq and that, come a year or two, we will most certainly be scaling down our involvement in what has become a vicious civil war between enemy tribes. And I suspect the general knows this, and that his words are mainly just pre-election spin, which makes them, given the stakes, nothing less than despicable.
Whole peoples are not to be molded like clay according to blueprints thought up thousands of miles away by officials with little knowledge of the cultures they intend to mold. America, with its great universities and thousands of dedicated scholars, should know better. From now on Americans should leave it to grander "artists" like Hitler, Pol Pot or bin Laden to dream of remaking peoples according to the dictates of political fantasy. Lifted too much off the ground by the (oil-) pipe dreams and delusions of the Bush administration, America needs badly to return to reality.
On Karlheinz Stockhausen's 9/11 remarks:
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