November 22, 2004

A (Highly Selective) Take on the Iraqi Art Scene!

The good folks at the Guardian have been kind enough to give us a tour d'horizon of the Iraqi art scene. But, er, it's a highly selective one. After all, you might think that, after decades of being forced to churn out "state art;" Iraqi artists might be spreading their wings a bit in varied directions. But the Guardian instead chooses to focus on three works of art: 1) a piece comparing the Americans to the Mongols; 2) one simply called "Fallujah"; and 3) one series titled (you guessed it) "A Man From Abu Ghraib."

In a dark corner of a dingy courtyard, four stocky warriors with disproportionately tiny heads and huge, muscular arms stand with their backs against the wall. They wear thick vests - like flak jackets or breastplates - decorated with circles and strips, and knee-high boots with metal caps. Weapons dangle from their waists. One wears a two-horned helmet and carries a round shield. A huge crescent-shaped sword rests against his shoulder.

They look like a jihadi group posing for a beheading video or the latest fashion show in an American sex shop; in fact they are 10cm-high bronze figurines called The Invaders, the latest in a series of sculptures produced by an Iraqi artist trying to come to terms with the everyday realities of his life in Baghdad. "The first three are American marines, the fourth is a Mongol warrior," says Karim Khalil, 45, an Iraqi painter-sculptor. "They have all occupied Iraq and destroyed its culture. But while the Mongols were primitive savages who burned the libraries, the Americans, who call themselves a civilised nation, stood watching as the Iraqi museums were looted."

Artists are emerging from the atrophied, censorious Saddam years, from the distortions of taste provoked by state patronage and control and the horizons foreshortened by sanctions, and are beginning to document what is around them [emphasis added] [ed. note: Translation, for those of you less versed in Guardian-speak. Under Saddam--there was patronage of the arts--something the crude Yanks don't do back in Jesusland].

In the courtyard of his small house in an impoverished Baghdad neighbourhood, where kids play around open sewage drains and electricity is as scarce as security, Khalil, chubby, bald and sweating like a boar, sits at the bottom of the stairs and paints another of his war scenes: a burning tank surrounded by red, orange and green flames applied with childish strokes on canvas. "A burning tank on the outskirts of Baghdad one day in May inspired me to do this," he says.

Another painting, showing a jet fighter dropping bombs and called Falluja, lies in a corner, next to marble blocks and unfinished statues, under a laundry line strung with towels and underwear. In another corner a big plastic barrel used to store water during shortages sits next to an outdoor toilet and more paintings and statues. His wife has to step over piles of brushes and paint on her way to the kitchen.

There, in the middle of all that domestic chaos, Khalil has produced his best work, A Man From Abu Ghraib: a series of a dozen 20-30cm-high marble and bronze figurines. A marble figure of a man, classically sculpted, at first reminds you of Michelangelo's David; it's only later that you realise he has a marble sack on his head. Another figurine - of bronze - depicts one of the more famous Abu Ghraib pictures, a man also wearing something like a sack over his head, standing on a box, with electrical wires attached to his fingers.

Think the Guardian will at least emphasize, out of a sense of basic fair play, that Iraqis now have the freedom to pursue their artistic visions--wherever they lead them--whether towards Mongols, Fallujah, or Abu Ghraib? Well, not really. The piece concludes thus:

The art of satire is something new in our country," said Jalal Kamil, the leading Iraqi actor and director who is behind this series, "and the potential is great. For the first time we can work without fear of the censors." He went on and on about this great potential, the great drama that can be found anywhere in Iraq these days. Then, as he left he turned and said, "What I have learned, however, is that I am not allowed to make jokes about the Americans or to criticise the occupation."

You can't make this stuff up. But it gets worse. In another Guardian piece, terrorist beheading videos are called "theatre." Well, in an evil, grotesque way they are, right? But note the despicable moral relativism that runs throughout the piece:

The videos are one of the most shocking elements of the war in Iraq. Scores have now been released by Iraqi insurgents. To many the terrorists' use of the media seems a radical innovation. It isn't. The Iraqi videos are part of a genre of propaganda tools developed over decades. This is simply the moment that the terrorist film-makers have started to reach a mass audience. In the longer term, the videos are rooted in the essence of the militants' project, which is the project of all terrorists - dramatic spectacle. Or, put another way, theatre...

...The intense competition between groups for airtime and attention goes some way to explaining the savagery of the acts committed to film by insurgent groups in Iraq in recent months. In the past two weeks, all over Iraq and particularly in the area where Mrs Hassan was killed, there has been violence of an extraordinary intensity. The insurgents know that for a single, small group of men, lightly armed in conventional terms, to grab the attention of their audience they need to do something utterly atrocious...

...The terrorists have become auteurs, mini film directors. Early on, in the Eighties, their videos were basic, consisting of little more than the speeches of radical leaders spliced with news footage of the war in Afghanistan against the Soviets. They were, however, effective. Many of the militants I've interviewed have described how they were first inspired by seeing one of the crude recruitment videos in circulation at the time...

...The execution videos in Iraq combine all the tried-and-tested elements of the genre. They are dramatic productions. There is the main subject centre stage, there is a carefully designed set and backdrop and there are carefully chosen props, such as the cage that Kenneth Bigley appeared in, that send particular messages to particular audiences. In recent videos, there is even a script, carefully drafted statements that have to be read out by victims, often in a hideous duet with their killer.

Auteurs! Competition over airtime! Innovation! Genre! Backdrops and stages! Scripts! Sounds like a production set in L.A.--not a spate of barbaric beheadings.

Oh, and then this whopper:

The risk is that we will become desensitised. Over the period that jihadi videos have been developed as a genre by the terrorists, hardcore porn sites and major release films and video games depicting graphic, if fictional, scenes of mayhem have also become far more common. There is a parallel in the proliferation in the pornography of violence and that of sex. Have a look at any number of American websites where 'rape videos' and clips of road and train accidents are available alongside dozens of the hostage and execution videos released by the insurgents over this year. When you subscribe you get access to both. Once, you may remember, images of life-taking were very rare.

"If fictional." Much of the perils of post-modern relativism can be summed up in how the author of this piece breezily uses that one little phrase.

UPDATE: Some readers appear to be struggling with what all the fuss is about with regard to the "if fictional" formulation. Read comments--particularly this helpful soul:

"Do you guys really not understand what's wrong with the inclusion of this phrase?...Let me break it down for you.

The Observer author's point is to make a moral equivalence between Harrison Ford movies and VIDEOS OF REAL TERRORIST DECAPITATIONS. He's saying that Hollywood movies and porn, IF FICTIONAL, are really gruesome and therefore contributed to the barbaric war crimes.

The argument about violent art's influence on real violence is complicated (and not one that the Observer writer is even beginning to get into), but surely one of the basic presuppositions is that there's a fundamental category distinction between art and reality.

The dismissive, parenthetical way he mentions this CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE reveals that in his imagination there really is no moral difference between art and reality. He lives in a world of moral relativism where everything seems as real as everything else. Like our boy said, it's the pyrrhic victory of postmodern moral relativism when well-meaning people are so blind to the difference between truth and fiction that they blame Hollywood for the barbaric atrocities of terrorists.

Clear now?"

Thanks, Chris!

P.S. The people who routinely imbibe this claptrap wrote us letters about whom to vote for in the Presidential election? Spare the poor Ohioans the indignity, please!

P.S.S. FYI, I should also note that the author of the piece on the Iraqi art scene is a combat photographer. He worked in Fallujah during the U.S. offensive--doubtless at great personal risk--not as a U.S. embed but with the insurgents. Some of those pics can be seen here (go to page 5). He's got guts and some talent--but unfortunately his Guardian piece is risibly biased in its anti-American slant.

Posted by Gregory at November 22, 2004 11:03 PM
Comments

"P.S. The people who imbibe this claptrap wrote us letters about whom to vote for in the Presidential election? Spare the poor Ohioans the indignity, please!"

Give the Ohioans some credit. Clark County, Ohio (the county to which the Guardian urged its readers to send letters) was the only Ohio county that voted for Gore in 2000 but switched to Bush in 2004. I'd like to think it was just to spite the purveyors of that claptrap.

Posted by: Al at November 23, 2004 01:00 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What kind of art are the Iraqi's supposed to be creating? Pigtails and flowers? Life certainly wan't peachy, or free under Saddam, but what utopia do you think this occupation has created?

In order to "save" the country (so to efficiently exploit the economic potential), we are killing civilians at a rate Saddam would be jealous of, and we've destoryed what was the most "developled" infrastucture in that region... do you really expect Ali Q. Public to be drawing pictures of roses?

Posted by: Dave at November 23, 2004 02:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Dave,

Got any source whatsoever (besides the pixies in your shirt pocket) for the "killing civilians at a rate Saddam would be jealous of" remark? When, exactly, did the Americans hit the 1 million mark?

...Or is this Michael Moore using a sock puppet?

Posted by: Alex at November 23, 2004 03:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

er...you argue that the Guardian was selective, but I don't see any evidence that more important art is being created in Iraq at the moment.

Posted by: Edward at November 23, 2004 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Alex,
Fyi, "rate" is not the same as "total." If the current figures are projected over the same period of time that Hussein was in power, it could very well reach the same figures. It's unlikely that this will happen though.

Posted by: Reg at November 23, 2004 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Maybe I've missed what your trying to get at, but this reads likes a messy diatribe.

It is your response to the second article quoted that has me wondering whether I should take on board your observations as a scathing but accurate commentary, or dismiss them as myopic cant.

As I've said, I may have missed your point with regard to post-modern moral relativism, but what is the problem with stating that some video games and movies are becoming increasingly graphic even if, at the same time, fictional?

These graphic works constitute part of the body of media into which the Islamo-fascists are injecting their vile propoganda. They do not exist in isolation.

It seems obvious, imho, that the when these fanatics are making their video propaganda that there will be shared characterisitcs between their bile and other works which operate within similar media. How is this moral relativism, if the author of the 'Guardian piece', is reporting the truth of the matter?

The terrorists are using certain forms of media to 'aid' their cause so it is inevitable that they will use previously successful techniques to produce their propaganda. This is a fact, not moral relativism.

I think the fact that the piece you commented on is not even a 'Guardian piece', but from the Observer, yet you use it as a means to bash the Guardian about the letters to Ohio, suggests to me that your piece is closer to myopic cant, than a scathingly accurate commentary.

Posted by: Bob Hope at November 23, 2004 03:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Perhaps Edward hasn't digested the good news continually posted by Chrenkoff and just reads the news from the Guardian, the BBC, the NY Times and Al Jazerra:
http://chrenkoff.blogspot.com/2004/11/good-news-from-iraq-part-14.html

Posted by: Frank Kushner at November 23, 2004 03:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"If fictional"--
The author was not suggesting for a moment that beheading videos are fictional. Mr. Djerejian: please explain how this phrase sums up "much of the perils of post-modern relativism".

And to readers-- the Guardian pieces are quoted very selectively here. Read them in their entirety to see what else they say.

Posted by: Tom at November 23, 2004 04:01 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yes, our brave artist might be a dishonest turd for asserting that he can't "criticize the occupation" after proudly displaying his Abu Ghraib and Americans-as-Mongols masterpieces. (Really, what do you expect from an artist?) And this particular Guardian reader may be too dim to acknowledge the contradiction. But before dismissing the notion of beheading videos as "theatre," I would recommend that you read Lee Harris's "Civilization and Its Enemies" and what he has to say about this violence-as-theater concept and the role it plays in what Harris calls "fantasy ideology."

Posted by: Howard Stern at November 23, 2004 04:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

well, I too found Mr Djerejian unconvincing here. I see no reason to suppose that the reference to "state patronage" means what you say it does, and your selected emphases fail to make any particular point at all, as far as I can see.
If one of the artists says he's not allowed to criticise the occupation, why shouldn't we take him at face value?
Whatever else you can say about them, the videos can and should be regarded as theatrical productions, produced by people who are gaining increasing sophistication in their understanding and deployment of propaganda. By noting that fact, we might begin to get a better understanding of them. But simply noting the fact isn't "anti-American."

Posted by: orin at November 23, 2004 04:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

These are some interesting comments--good, bad, and otherwise

We should take the artist at his word that he can't criticize the occupation when the whole point of his inclusion in the article is his criticism of the occupation?

I think the point about "if fictional" is that there was no real judgment in the aritcle until we got to the stuff that's fictional--stuff, of course, that's American. The real killing of innocents in Iraq doesn't become a problem until it becomes associated with fictional violence produced by Americans. That seems like pretty serious bias to me.

Posted by: Ignatius Byrd at November 23, 2004 05:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Interesting post. One nit to pick, though: I think you misinterpret the "if fictional." I think the author means something like "depictions of violence, even though they are (mostly) fictional, are increasing." I don't think the author is questioning the factuality of the beheadings.

You do very well, however, to point out the slippery slope of relativism vis a vis the snuff film as artistic statement.

Posted by: Pete at November 23, 2004 05:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Frank Kushner writes:
Perhaps Edward hasn't digested the good news continually posted by Chrenkoff and just reads the news from the Guardian, the BBC, the NY Times and Al Jazerra:
http://chrenkoff.blogspot.com/2004/11/good-news-from-iraq-part-14.html

There's no question that there are good things happening in Iraq, but I've yet to see anyone prove the Guardian was selective in its choice of artists. Nothing on that site you link to even mentions specific artists from what I could see.

To prove the Guardian was selective, you would need to list other, arguably better, artists who it ignored. I'm not seeing that.

Moreover, you can emphasize all the good news you want, but it's not attracting the best artists in the country, you can't force them to make art about it. Hussein could, mind you, but we're supposed to be changing that.

Posted by: Edward at November 23, 2004 05:57 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"We should take the artist at his word that he can't criticize the occupation when the whole point of his inclusion in the article is his criticism of the occupation?"

Good point, of course, and I should have been clearer. What I took the artist to be saying is not that such criticism is literally not allowed to take place -- obviously it is -- but that there's a clear atmosphere of discouraging it, or hostility to it. And I don't see why we shouldn't believe him on that. But I can see how his quote, without further context, can be read more than one way.

Posted by: orin at November 23, 2004 06:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

To prove the Guardian was selective, you would need to list other, arguably better, artists who it ignored. I'm not seeing that.

Ahem. It could be you're not seeing it because the Guardian ignored it. Bit of a poser there, eh? You're right, of course, that there's no evidence of art that welcomes the Americans, or even rejoices at the downfall of Saddam. Thirty years of Baathist rule, and no artist cares to celebrate, or mourn its victims. Sure, it's possible. After all, Abu Ghraib was a children's playland under Saddam.

There is, of course, other art like this (scroll down). But, darling, how gauche. You really can't expect the Guardian to notice a thing like that.

And, Orin? When a Hollywood airhead says she's "not allowed" to criticize Bush, it means that she's afraid of getting nasty letters from those awful Red States. But an Iraqi who has lived under Saddam ought to really know what "not allowed" means. If he says he's "not allowed", and he clearly is, then his "word" is somewhat suspect.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at November 23, 2004 07:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"We should take the artist at his word that he can't criticize the occupation when the whole point of his inclusion in the article is his criticism of the occupation?"

Good point, of course, and I should have been clearer.

CLEARER? YOU WERE PERFECTLY CLEAR - YOU SIMPLY ACCEPTED THIS STATEMENT IN THE CONTEXT OF A DIRECT EXAMPLE OF THE EXACT OPPOSITE TRUTH
THE ONLY QUESTION IS "why"

What I took the artist to be saying is not that such criticism is literally not allowed to take place -- obviously it is -- but that there's a clear atmosphere of discouraging it, or hostility to it. And I don't see why we shouldn't believe him on that. But I can see how his quote, without further context, can be read more than one way.

HIS QUOTE WAS LIKELY ENCOURAGED BY THE REPORTER

IN ANY CASE - ITS HARD TO FIND FAULT WITH THE CoW IF THEY WOULD PREFER THAT CRITICISM OF THEM DURING THE EFFORT TO GET IRAQ FUNCTIONING AS A DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDST OF EFFORTS BY THE TERRORISTS TO CREATE A NEW THEOCRATIC DICTATORSHIP SHOULD NOT BE ENCOURAGED

ONE FINDS IT ODD THAT SO MANY OF THE USUAL APOLOGISTS FOR TERROR ( IE: THE GUARDIAN ) CAN FIND TIME TO CONDEMN THE SITUATION IN IRAQ FOR NOT BEING A MIRROR IMAGE OF LIFE IN SURREY - WHILE AT THE SAME TIME TAKING A CONSISTENT POSITION THAT LIFE IN IRAQ WILL NEVER BE LIKE THAT IN SURREY

Posted by: Pogue Mahone at November 23, 2004 07:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

re: djerejian being selective, per this commenter: "To prove the Guardian was selective, you would need to list other, arguably better, artists who it ignored. I'm not seeing that."

er, click on the links in his post "spreading their wings" and "varied directions"...aren't those, at least arguably, better artists wholly ignored by the guardian writer?

Posted by: deka at November 23, 2004 07:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Congratulations to the Guardian! A new low! A strikingly deeper level of inane blithering nonsense discovered and conquered by the Idiots of Fleet Street.

Posted by: Right Brain at November 23, 2004 07:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Re: "if fictional"

Do you guys really not understand what's wrong with the inclusion of this phrase? How thick are you? Let me break it down for you.

The Observer author's point is to make a moral equivalence between Harrison Ford movies and VIDEOS OF REAL TERRORIST DECAPITATIONS. He's saying that Hollywood movies and porn, IF FICTIONAL, are really gruesome and therefore contributed to the barbaric war crimes.

The argument about violent art's influence on real violence is complicated (and not one that the Observer writer is even beginning to get into), but surely one of the basic presuppositions is that there' s a fundamental category distinction between art and reality.

The dismissive, parenthetical way he mentions this CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE reveals that in his imagination there really is no moral difference between art and reality. He lives in a world of moral relativism where everything seems as real as everything else. Like our boy said, it's the pyrrhic victory of postmodern moral relativism when well-meaning people are so blind to the difference between truth and fiction that they blame Hollywood for the barbaric atrocities of terrorists.

Clear now?

Posted by: chris at November 23, 2004 07:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Angie Schultz writes:
Ahem. It could be you're not seeing it because the Guardian ignored it. Bit of a poser there, eh?

No. Bit of an art dealer with artists friends and reporter friends fresh back from Iraq who tell me the art scene there is dismal...but feel free to offer more snark in response.

You're right, of course, that there's no evidence of art that welcomes the Americans, or even rejoices at the downfall of Saddam.

That would support the headline here yes.

There is, of course, other art like this (scroll down). But, darling, how gauche. You really can't expect the Guardian to notice a thing like that.

According to your source, that work was commissed by the US military. Not exactly spontaneous expression.

My point remains, to justify calling the Guardian article selective, one would need to point to noncommissioned artwork they willfully chose not to report on.

Posted by: Edward at November 23, 2004 08:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

deka writes:
er, click on the links in his post "spreading their wings" and "varied directions"...aren't those, at least arguably, better artists wholly ignored by the guardian writer?

I saw that article a while back, and although at the time I believed it represented hope for the Iraqi artworld, my understanding is that even that little scene has been broken up by the increase in violence there.

Having said that, the artwork pictured is not in response to post-Saddam Iraq. The work the Guardian is talking about is. For the article to be "highly selective" you'd have to compare apples to apples here. Other work by Iraqi artists in response to post-Saddam Iraq that didn't focus on the violence, but rather on the improvments, that the Guardian willfully chose not to report on.

Posted by: Edward at November 23, 2004 08:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

So. You do know terror is directed at the US and UK citizens sitting at home watching CNN, right? Gruesome beheadings turn our stomachs so that we demonize all Iraqis and muslims and demand horrible things of our leaders.

I wasn't the only one thinking we should just nuke the mid-east on 9/11. As I calmed down much later, I realized what a horrible thing it was that I'd been thinking. What if our leaders had been as un-level headed as I'd been? America would have demonized itself in the eyes of the Arab world.

It's of upmost importance that in the face of terror, we not run rampant with our emmotions. If we had done something like nuke Kandarhar, the terrorists would have scored a double whammy: 1) americans with hands so stained in blood would have lost their nerve and put pressure on the government to pull back from the world, and 2) terrorist recruitment would have reached record highs.

Our reaction to terror is what terrorists seek. It's a wicked head game they play.

So an analogy to film works. The difference: when you go to a movie, you're willingly suspending disbelief. None the less, you let your emotional strings still vibrate. Anyone cry during Schindler's List? That's the analogy: viewing something horrific strikes a chord.

The effectiveness of terrorism, like the effectiveness of theater, relies on the strength of an empathetic response. In the case of 9/11, the strength came from its immediacy and its magnitude - everyone loves NYC and everyone's connected by only a few degrees to someone in those towers. There was no "extra drama" needed that day. In the case of the Iraqi insurgency, the immediacy is lesser and the scale is smaller: the victims are so far away and the shock of the events are dulled by the time they take to reach us. To make up for this loss, the insurgents increase the barbarism - gruesome beheadings, and mutilations - and make sure they document it as best they can so that our repetitive 24 hour networks can describe the events over and over and over...

So, this peice you rant against is a cogent response to how we, the CNN viewing audience the terrorists want to reach, react to terror.

There is no tie between this peice and cultural relativism. It's would be one thing to say "The beheadings are the Iraqi's quant form of self-expression, much like Hollywood's `Die Hard'." That kind of account would deserve the abuse you threw at this article.

But this article, instead, unblinkingly examines the terrorist's strongest weapon. Your criticism is unwarranted.

Posted by: Andrew at November 23, 2004 08:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

edward, go read deka's comment above. then click on djerejian's links as he suggests. your point is crumbling around you. perhaps your "artist friends", fresh from the front, missed these offerings?

Posted by: amber at November 23, 2004 08:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I did amber. Please read my response to deka.

Posted by: Edward at November 23, 2004 08:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

if you click through the original post's link "spreading their wings" it deals with post-saddam iraq. are you saying, edward, that if the art doesn't depict abu ghraib--it's not responsive to post-saddam iraq? the art linked through the click-thru is post-saddam, at least arguably better than the stuff the guardian piece goes on about, and is certainly an 'apple to apple' comparison. of course, there is no mention of fallujah, abu ghraib and/or mongols and i know that dissapoints you. i know YOU don't feel, therefore, that it CAN be a valid depiction of post-Saddam Iraq. except it is. so please don't mislead those quickly combing thru this thread with your biases and distortions.

Posted by: amber at November 23, 2004 08:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You don't know me at all amber, so "there is no mention of fallujah, abu ghraib and/or mongols and i know that dissapoints you" is pure ad hominen speculation on your part, but that aside, if you click through once more from that site you'll see more of the work there. As it notes there is only one "overtly political piece." So if you wish to compare it (a dove crucified on a cross) to the work in the Guardian you'd have an apple-to-apple comparison here. Otherwise, you don't.

Posted by: Edward at November 23, 2004 08:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm sure I'm on the wrong side of this, so advance apologies. Also let me be clear that I think the article on the "theater" of beheadings is abusrd and offensive.

But . . . I still don't get the scandal over the "if fictional" line (the comment above notwithstanding). When reading the whole piece it seems to me that his point is:

(1) These videos are being made, and people are watching them (witness Jim Kramer, who swears he watches them "every day" to stay "focused" in his anger).

(2) There are also fictional renditions of extreme cruelty in Western popular culture. And given the examples he offers, I don't think he's talking about Harrison Ford movies - more like snuff films, rape porn, etc. - which are deeply disturbing, albeit fictional.

(3) So the very point he is making is that these fictional renditions (which, again, are well outside the Western mainstream) may diminish our collective horror at the unquestionably non-fictional beheading videos.

All in all it seems a fair point to me. I'm extremely put off by the "fictional" renditions of torture, rape, murder, whatever that are available on the internet. On the other hand those things are "fictional," so we need to avoid confusing the harm done by evil people with cameras from the harm done by eveil people with knives.

But I don't object to the general distaste for the article.

Posted by: quixote at November 23, 2004 08:58 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Chris said
"The Observer author's point is to make a moral equivalence between Harrison Ford movies and VIDEOS OF REAL TERRORIST DECAPITATIONS. He's saying that Hollywood movies and porn, IF FICTIONAL, are really gruesome and therefore contributed to the barbaric war crimes."

This is exactly where you a wrong.

The author's point is that terrorists seek to impact US civilians and that they succeed by presenting graphic horror. The point of this paragraph is that people burn out on horror. At some point, their gruesome atrocities may fail to pluck our sympathetic nerves. It's just a fact that you desensitize yourself to horror the mor you surround yourself with it. This article foreshadows a problem for the terrorists: at some point, terror will stop working.

You've misread the article. I think in trying to read between the lines, you missed the content of the lines. Re-read it. I think you'll see.

Posted by: Andrew at November 23, 2004 09:10 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Angie, I take your point, and my defense of whoever-the-Iraqi-artist-is really was not intended to be more than lukewarm. But if you take the quote literally, it seems to me you have to attribute some kind of severe cognitive disorder to the guy, because then he has been going on about the new existence of critical art and then suddenly denying it exists. That would be not just pompous or wrongheaded, but pathological. So I was trying to be charitable (and yes, I expressed that very poorly in my first post. Mea culpa.).

No doubt the guy is overly full of himself, as artists tend to be, but if, having lived through the versions of hell he no doubt has, he wants to speak up and say, e.g., "hey, Abu Ghraib was unacceptable coming from you self-styled 'liberators'," and then is made to feel -- by the people who claim to be bringing democracy and freedom of expression -- that this expression is in any way inappropriate or not encouraged -- well, if he decides there is something wrong with that, I am not going to presume to tell him he is wrong.

As for "if fictional," I read the writer as arguing not that there is a moral equivalence between fiction and reality, but that we are in danger of forgetting, or blurring, or weakening, a moral difference that we ought not to be losing sight of. But this has gone on too long already. Thank you for the discussion.

Posted by: orin at November 23, 2004 09:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My sister works in law enforcement. She is a big fan of horror movies, the messier the better.

Then one day she saw a video tape of the crime scene of a mass murder in Texas.

She said, there was no confusing that for a movie. It horrified her in ways that she did not expect--because she thought she was desensitized to violence. She discovered that she is only desensitized to PRETEND violence. Her law enforcement duties do not get easier, she says.

I've seen the videos of the beheadings--they are not art in any form, they are too absolutley immediately and absolutely real--and if the difference needs to be explained to you, than I really don't know what further to say.

Posted by: Gabriel Hanna at November 23, 2004 10:52 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I wrote:

It could be you're not seeing it because the Guardian ignored it. Bit of a poser there, eh?

To which Edward replied:

No. Bit of an art dealer with artists friends and reporter friends fresh back from Iraq who tell me the art scene there is dismal...

If I had meant "poseur", I would've written poseur, not "poser". I meant, "bit of a puzzle", or, "can you say 'tautology?' "

...but feel free to offer more snark in response.

I long to, believe me, but this is a high-class joint.

It's not clear from the link I cited that the artwork was commissioned by the military, but the part about them shipping the materials would suggest that. Other things I'd read about this work made it seem as if it were a spontaneous gesture of the artist's.

Meanwhile, Orin writes:

But if you take the quote literally, it seems to me you have to attribute some kind of severe cognitive disorder to the guy, because then he has been going on about the new existence of critical art and then suddenly denying it exists.

Oh, Orin! If I hadn't seen so many other examples of cognitive dissonance (e.g. the Hollywood fools who were all over the TV screen telling us that we don't have free speech any more) I might agree with you.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at November 23, 2004 11:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Angie,

If I had meant "poseur", I would've written poseur, not "poser". I meant, "bit of a puzzle", or, "can you say 'tautology?' "

Thanks for the clarification.

It's not clear from the link I cited that the artwork was commissioned by the military, but the part about them shipping the materials would suggest that.

That's how I read it.

Other things I'd read about this work made it seem as if it were a spontaneous gesture of the artist's.

Happy to consider them. Any links?

Posted by: Edward at November 24, 2004 02:59 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I love this selective anti-war outrage guy who wrote this article on the arts scene in Baghdad. And then I went to his photo store at Getty Art as per link provided. Go to page 8 or so. The posters he is selling at many bucks some depict maimed bodies of Iraqi children. Yes, these are horrific photos of the suicide bomber who blew up 35 innocent children celebrating a sewage treatment plant opening back in September. You can see their shoes that have been collected in a mound after their bodies were removed.

And this so-called anti-war guy is making a good buck from the maimed photos of these liitle children and their remaining shoes.

Moral relativism is a desease of these people and a desease of the fascistic left that has sold out to any fake nationalist or Islamist. On the one hand they will blast the US for liberating Saddam, and on the other hand they praise the suicide bombers destroying lives, and then they take pictures of the victims and the maimed ones, to make a few bucks on the side.

The moral relativism of the selective outrage crowd is condemned and exposed.

And I am a muslim and I say - MarhabA America keh een ke3var dAqdideh rA nejAt dAd - for liberating Iraq and giving them 158 political parties to choose from on January 30, and may the selective outrage crowd, wherever this morally relativistic animal may reside, have the courage to endure even one day in the life of a Saddam dungeon master.

Thank you America. Iraq will be a democracy soon.

Hossein Mofidi

Posted by: Hossein Mofidi at November 24, 2004 09:06 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Cool blogger angle. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad got his job at the Guardian through his buddy Salam Pax, the blogger who blogged the Iraq invasion and then had his blog published as a book.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0802140440/102-5042665-4632920?v=glance

Cool article in Slate about Salam Pax:
http://slate.msn.com/id/2083847/

Last place Salam Pax surfaced that I know of: http://justzipit.blogspot.com/

He posts on the fact the Ghaith was injured covering the uprisings in Sadr city.

Love them or hate them, they have both done some sterling work as reporters.

Posted by: Richard at November 24, 2004 01:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Chris,

First off, thanks for the petulant insult and secondly, for patiently explaining it all to us.

But you have missed the point. The author of the Observer piece is suggesting that graphic movies and games have the power to desensitise us, even if they are fictional.

Let me break it down for you, it doesn't have to be 'real' to have a negative effect on our psychology.

Now, you can honestly dispute this, but to claim that the author of the piece is somehow equating the immorality of the beheadings vidoes with Grand Theft Auto or Patriot Games is astonishingly dishonest. At no point does he do this.

Posted by: Bob Hope at November 24, 2004 03:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Any links?

You can Google as well as I can, if you're interested (I, at this point, am not). I fished up a few links for the initial comment, but they weren't any clearer as to the origin of the statue. I first read about it on a blog, long ago.

(I have to say the inclusion of the little girl in the statue is enough to give me diabetes. Bleah.)

Thank you, online gambling guy, for giving the squabbling commenters here a chance to unite in wishing you a hearty FOAD.

Posted by: Angie Schultz at November 24, 2004 07:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In school today we learned that when someone says something is like another thing in a way, that does not mean it is like it in another way too. It was a hard lesson but we got it in the end even if some of our mummies and daddies could not understand. Ralph's mummy said that if someone likes theatre and then there is a murder that is like a murder that happened in a play, and they say so, then that means they like murder and they think that murder in a play is as bad as real murder. I thought this was wrong because something can be similar to something in one way and someone can say so without them thinking that the first something is the same as the second something in another way. For instance, two things can be red without them both being round, like when a circle is red and a square is red. But Ralph's mummy and the other grown-ups in Conservative Club didn't see it that way.

Or to put it another way, stop spending your time searching for tenuous evidence of moral equivalence. You don't really believe there is evil here, if you look deep within yourself. But it pleasures you to think the enemies are liberal journalists, perhaps because it lets you stop worrying about the real, dangerous enemies for a while. The upshot of all this shouting at anyone who does any vaguely interesting, creative thinking about terror or war is the degeneration of all conversations into one side telling the other side they are complete degenerates on the evidence of a few tiny phrases or a misplaced comma. Look, we have seen you! Satan! Ignore the rest of what we have to say, yeah. Pick on a single phrase until any larger conversation is dead. Yeah, that's real smart. Most of the time we are not expressing ourselves at all--it's only in the 'slips' that you can really learn who someone is. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is important to listen listen listen, and exercise a bit of charity when interpreting a piece of writing.

Posted by: RS at November 24, 2004 08:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think criticism of the Observer article rests on a basic misapprehension of the role serious artists feel they play in society, at least since WW1. Their part is not to "celebrate" but to investigate underlying problems or cultural / psychological conflicts that are not fully articulated in the wider culture. Modern art is, essentially, interested in the negative, in what most people would rather leave buried.

Take South Africa. The fine art scene during apartheid was very active and surprisingly free (film, TV and literature were the media most heavily censored) with most serious art falling under the rubric of "Resistance Art". When apartheid ended, artists spent only the shortest time celebrating democracy. Right away, they moved to investigate what was being obscured by popular sentiment. They focussed particularly on the wounds of an uprooted, brutalised population, on the fragmentation of group memory, on crime, on the difficult task of creating a new national identity in a globalised world and with a shaky neo-liberal economy that perpetuates economic inequality. And this when South Africa had experienced a relatively painless road to democracy!

Iraq hasnít. Its cities are still combat zones, the future is highly uncertain. Itís grossly patronising to expect Iraqi artists to ignore the desperate state of their country now because one dictator is gone. Itís entirely understandable that Iraqi artists would focus on brutality, fear, instability Ė whatever your feelings about the Iraqi war Ė these things are still the daily experience of most Iraqis.

Any Iraqi artist who is painting epics of glorious emancipation is doomed to be irrelevant Ė both as a serious artist in an international art market and as a spokesperson for his or her people.


Posted by: Joachim at November 25, 2004 01:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I suppose we should be happy they are still using traditional materials to make their puerile art. In the west, avante garde artists are playing in their own feces.

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