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How can anyone say anything about anything?

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Recently, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in working with the musician PJ Harvey.  The museum has previously commissioned war artists, sort of artists in residence who create work in response to current or past conflicts.  Now they are interested, after the release of Polly’s album ‘Let England Shake’, in working with her as a war song writer.  Let England Shake is phenomenal; a subtle, angry and loving response to not only England’s past and present wars (especially the first world war) but also the ‘decline’ of England, the loss of empire, and what it means to be English – and a reflection on her own identity in the context of the earth shattering changes that England has experienced in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Although Harvey claims she isn’t ‘political’ of course that is exactly what she is.  Even the instruments she has chosen to play allude to the constant cultural flux that makes post-imperial England so unique. Have a look at her playing a song from the album on the Andrew Marr show last year in front of an uncomfortable looking Gordon Brown.  Watch this video – Polly manages with image and sound to capture a sense of english identity (something I believe to be almost impossible) with pathos, sensitivity and humour, whilst singing about the carnage a soldier experiences on a battlefield.  And it features one of my favourite places in the world: Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

Watching this video made me think about how it can be possible to respond authentically to the big things in life like war, death, national identity.  Politics and philosophy fail us here, I think mainly because their language is too specific and, well, too motivated. One way to describe what I mean is that political language or discourse and often philosophical language too is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  Words in politics are weapons, they are used to  persuade, to convince, to win arguments. Conversely, the language of art has no structure or restrictions.

That’s why art is so hard to talk about – what does it really mean to say you like or don’t like something, that an artwork is beautiful, or great? A major branch of philosophy from Hume onwards addresses this issue and never really gives us a satisfactory answer.  This suggests that philosophy shouldn’t be wasting it’s time trying to answer questions that can’t be, and don’t need to be answered.   The Germans in 19th and 20th Century philosophy look at art slightly differently, and in a more interesting way, as a means of responding to and engaging with life that can radically impact on the way that we think about life, the world and ourselves. This makes more sense to me.  If you are interested, you might want to have a look at this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Aesthetics-Politics-Radical-Thinkers-Theodor/dp/184467570X/ref=pd_sim_b_2

or this: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Romanticism-Critical-Theory-Philosophy-Literary/dp/0415127637/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1298123811&sr=1-7

Art can do or be anything, and in fact (as the philosopher Adorno might say) it fails when it tries to convince us of anything – overtly political art is important, and I am a massive fan, but as art it can lack aesthetic truth because it is merely the medium of a message.  So what about artists that are ‘political’ (as if any artist isn’t…).

One of my heroes is Steve McQueen, who I have mentioned in previous posts, here he is below.  Actually he is linked to Polly Harvey through The Imperial War Museum. There are similarities in their work, in the way that they try to authentically respond in their art without being overtly political to the big things in life that make us who we are. Steve McQueen began as primarily a video artist, he represented Britain in the Venice Biennale in 2009.  In 2003 he became the Official War Artist at the Imperial War Museum.  McQueen went to Iraq and his subsequent project was about the British soldiers who have died there. He produced  photographs of a number of soldiers who died in Iraq on postage stamps and began a campaign to get the Royal Mail to have them as official stamps but they blocked his attempts, and unfortunately it has never happened. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/mar/18/steve-mcqueen-iraq-soldiers-stamps.

And then he made the film Hunger, about Bobby Sands and the 1981 Irish Republican hunger strikes.  What a brave and inspiring piece of film making.  I watched the film at a special viewing with Seanna Walsh a senior republican who was on the blanket protest.  He was amazed by the the beautiful look of the film and also how realistic it was.  I was moved by it’s loving and careful attention to detail, the truth in the film, the way that it spoke for those who didn’t have a voice.  For me, apart from inspiring an obsession with understanding the struggle of the Republican movement (British people, I believe, will never be told the truth about what was done in Northern Ireland in our name and it is up to us to ensure we understand our complicity in the suffering of the people there), this is what art should do on the very deepest level that it operates.  Art should try to say what can’t be said, even though this is impossible,  it should speak for those who can’t and should explore what this means.  This doesn’t mean art can’t be fun, frivolous or ironic. It needs to be fresh and relevant in order to connect with people.  You may think I am giving art a hard task, but that is, I believe, what we need it for. Both McQueen and PJ Harvey are there on the cutting edge – exploring the complex but very exciting relationship between art and politics.

criminal

October 17, 2010 1 comment

Recently I have been reading and thinking about the remarkable bravery of the men in my previous post. They died during a protest which they knew would end in their deaths. Their aim was political status, simply for recognition from the British Government that they were not ‘common criminals’.  They failed, but succeeded in their goal of showing the world how brutal the British government was towards the people of Northern Ireland. I want to be able to say something about this story, but feel that it is very hard to do the protest justice without romanticising it, being a bleeding heart liberal. I also want to acknowledge the brutality of the British state in this series of events, which is not a surprise to me, but what I find uncomfortable is the fact that on a daily basis we all tacitly consent to a system capable of such brutality (and worse).  What does this say about us?

The magnitude of the story of the 1981 hunger strike has never really been fully appreciated here in the UK. The republican protest of the late 70s and early 80s, including the blanket protest and the hunger strike is such a sensitive subject and I am not sure whether we, who stood by while it happened whilst being fed biased news reports, are ready to face up to the more degraded, immoral behaviour of our elected representatives and the British state. We all know it happens, but we don’t want to know that it does. This particularly dark period of modern British history is a painful reminder of what we tacitly agree to when we pay our taxes, vote or do nothing to change what is.  Essentially Thatcher – who was Prime Minister at the time when the British Government was doing battle against the republican movement in the North of Ireland (whilst having secret talks with them to end the stand off)  – let Bobby Sands, a member of the British Parliament, die of starvation because she refused to acknowledge that there was a political problem in Northern Ireland. Essentially Bobby S died because the Thatcher government refused to reinstate political status to the protesting prisoners.  Many at the time thought the government would give in at the last minute but they did not. It was truly shocking.

I was seven years old when this story exploded round the world. I remember seeing the H blocks and the blanketmen on the news, and seeing reports when Bobby Sands died. I remember asking who he was, and why there were people living in their own excrement in prison. But I have had to seek this story out myself. This story is not something that Britain would like in its national consciousness. Perhaps one day there will be an apology / reparation of some sort from the British Prime Minister, but this will not happen for many years because it is for many reasons still clearly politically sensitive. We should be ashamed. It was Thatcher’s 85th birthday this week and David Cameron threw a party for her at number 10.  The ‘great and the good’ were there, including Kelvin Mackenzie, as former editor of the Sun (1981 – 1994 – interestingly around the time of the hunger strike) one of the great opinion formers of the last 30 years (he was interviewed for the news outside no.10 looking slightly worse for wear) I have tried to get hold of the guest list for that night as it would make an interesting post but it isn’t available.

I wonder if any of the people at the party thought of Bobby Sands or of the other hunger strikers, or their families, or of how the people in the north of Ireland have suffered because of the UK’s policies towards them.  Unlikely.

In my mind it is very hard to write about the 1981 Irish republican hunger strike.  I have been meaning to for a while but haven’t ever found the words. I am not an expert on the politics of the situation, or the history of Ireland and its struggle with the British and am afraid of retarding the story with over-emotion and cliché, failing to do even a small amount of justice to the people who suffered. So perhaps it is a mistake to write anything at all and I should have just let the pictures in yesterday’s post speak for themselves.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus the philosopher Wittegenstein writes ‘What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence’ (‘Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen’).  Wittgenstein is essentially saying that some things can’t be said and is making a point about language and the ultimate meaninglessness of philosophy here. However, I think that it is easy enough to view what Wittgenstein says in an ethical light, and as such the phrase reminds me of TW Adorno’s much-hyped and misunderstood claim that there can be no poetry after Auschwitz. What Adorno means is how can we possibly do justice to the victims of the holocaust in art, or in language?  For instance think of the holocaust films that Hollywood is so fond of – the stories that these films tell can never articulate the horror of that period of Europe-wide industrial mass killing.  All they really do is dilute its magnitude.  We will never be able to attend to the suffering of the victims or do justice to their memory with words (or films), as there are no words to describe what they experienced, there is no way to explain it or talk about it, or even respond to it at all.  And as such Wittgenstein would say we should pass over it in silence because we can’t speak of it. However if we don’t speak of it, we fail to do justice to the victims – we fail to give them a voice, the horror is forgotten, and where is the impetus to keep it from happening again?   I think that the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin captures this dilemma very well.  It is a truly sensitive and thoughtful piece of public art. http://www.stiftung-denkmal.de/ (well done Berlin Town Planners for allowing that valuable piece of land to be used for a public memorial rather than sold off for development).

I would argue that sometimes, not always, but sometimes art, in this case cinema, can do justice to suffering.  I watched Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ a while ago and afterwards there was a talk by Seanna Walsh who was on the Blanket and he was utterly moved by the film – for him it captured the experience remarkably well.  Of course Steve McQueen is actually an artist and it would be interesting to see what he thinks about whether art can attend to suffering in any significant way.

Here is a trailer for Hunger, if you haven’t seen it I would recommend it:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZipYYoUteCw&feature=related

And here is an article by Seanna Walsh on Bobby Sands:

http://saoirse32.blogsome.com/2005/05/05/seanna-walshs-tribute-to-bobby-sands/

So although I find it very hard to write of the 1981 protests in any coherent way, I am doing it anyway, despite my inadequacies.  So why is it so hard to understand the actions of these men? They actually decided that if they had to they would die in order to expose the barbaric behaviour of the British state towards the Irish people. This decision was clearly not taken lightly, it was a last resort.  They had nothing to fight with, so fought with what they had left – their bodies. During this time, there were many men on the blanket protest.  With little support from outside they lived in their own shit, without any clothes, in cells with broken windows in the freezing cold, being beaten by the screws and subjected to constant harassment including internal examinations – all of this and more for up to four years. I just cannot conceive of this.  The men who were on the blanket talk of how tough it was, and how their camaraderie got them through, their Irish lessons, their political education, their gallows humour.  However it is beyond my comprehension how they stayed committed, strong enough to keep going. Part of their motivation was their bloody-minded determination to beat the British Government when they had themselves so many times been beaten and humiliated by its policies.

Although I am trying to say something about the protest, others can say it better, particularly with regard to why it happened. If you are interested in why, here is some background to the protest, from www.irishhungerstrike.com :

If you don’t want to read what follows, the point is that the political status of republican prisoners was taken away and the prisoners began the protest to reinstate their political status.

‘The events surrounding the prison protests, and culminating in the fast to the death of ten I.R.A(Irish Republican Army) and I.N.L.A(Irish National Liberation Army) volunteers began in 1976 when the British Government introduced a policy which was an attempt to portray Irish P.O.Ws as mere criminals. This policy became known as Criminalisation. From the 1st march 1976 any sentenced volunteer would no longer be afforded the rights of a political prisoner, a right that was won after a hungerstrike by Belfast man Billy Mc Kee in 1972,but would be treated like any other O.D.Cs(ordinary, decent criminals), as they were known. For the prisoners this would mean, wearing a prison uniform, doing prison work and a restriction in the amount of free association with their comrades inside.

This shift in policy by the British was seen by republicans as not only an attempt to criminalise the prisoners, but as an extension of this, a well thought out plan by the British government, to break the liberation struggle in Ireland. The prisons would be used as a breakers yard where the prisoners would be de-politicised, and therefore no longer a threat to the British state. The P.O.Ws had other plans. The first prisoner to be sentenced after the cut-off date was a nineteen year old Belfast man, called Kieran Nugent.He refused to wear a prison issue uniform telling the screws(warders)

“if you want me to wear a convict’s uniform you’re going to have to nail it on my back”.

His civilian clothing was thus taken away, so he sat almost twenty-fours hours a day wrapped in nothing but a prison blanket. The blanketmen, as they became known, were born. The tension within the H-Blocks soon heightened as more prisoners joined the protest, beatings became a daily occurence as the I.R.A and I.N.L.A volunteers refused to yield to the full might of the British state in Ireland.Their spirits were bowed but unbroken.

While all this was going on within the prison, the republican movement was piling on the pressure on the outside with rallies and protests in defence of the blanketmen. Rallies were organised throughout Ireland and further afield. On the military front the I.R.A had begun to target prison officers, killing several including a deputy governor.

Again the situation inside escalated and because of the severe beatings and forced mirror searches, in which prisoners would be forced to squat over a mirror in order to have their back passages probed, the P.O.Ws refused to leave their cells, unless to use the toilet. The beatings, which often led to prisoners being left unconscious, and the mirror searches, were seen by the prisoners, as a further attempt by the prison authorities to degrade them and force them into submission. A further development came when the prison authorities refused to give the prisoners an extra towel to cover themselves when they used the bathroom facilities.

This led to the no-wash protest which later became the dirty protest when prisoners, because they were being severely beaten every time they left the confines of their cells, refused to come out even to relieve their bodily functions. As a result volunteers were forced to smear their excrement on cell walls and funnel urine out the cell doors. The screws would often come along with a mop and force the pools of urine back under cell doors soaking bedding material which by this time was on the floor because all the furniture had been removed from the cells as a further punishment. After many months of living in their own excrement in scenes which the primate of all Ireland, Cardinal Tomas O’Fiaich had described as “similar to the slums of Calcutta” the prisoners decided that enough was enough and that the only way to resolve the issue was by the age old Irish weapon of last resort, the hungerstrike’.

The hunger strike was staged in order to get maximum publicity for the aims of the strike and each volunteer would start when the previous one was at death’s door.  This is the list of the prisoners demands, the aim being to get political status:

1.The right not to wear a prison uniform

2.The right not to do prison work

3.The right of free association with other prisoners, and to organise educational and recreational pursuits

4.The right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week

5. Full restoration of remission lost through the protest

Bobby Sands, who became a member of Parliament for Sinn Fein during the hunger strike, volunteered to be the first and he lasted 66 days. Thatcher didn’t budge, despite condemnation from all over the world.  A further nine men died before the strike was called off. Eventually all of the demands were met, but the government never officially granted the prisoners political status.  As far as I am concerned this was truly criminal.  

In a sense it is the non-violent nature of this protest that makes it so significant.  Particularly since these men were IRA / INLA volunteers who would have known their way around weapons more instantaneous than their own bodies.

The question here is will I ever be able to understand the need to do something like this? Would I give up my life for the greater good? For a cause that may never win?  Would I ever fight like this? For instance like recent Iraqi ‘insurgents’, if my home were invaded would I would become an insurgent myself? Would I really? Would any of us?   We are the rich, the comfortable early 21st Century globalised middle classes who knowingly exploit the lives of those others whose hard work and short life expectancy make our comforts so immediate, so gratifying, so fun. We are terrified of losing what we have, despite knowing that what we have is corrupted by the suffering and exploitation that can be found all through the supply chain of the goods and services we consume.  We are sold a myriad of protections from chaos and death – insurance for this and that, beauty products that we are told defy the ageing process, we in the UK even pay for Trident because we (ok, some of us) choose to believe it is integral to the world’s perception of a strong Britain (without it we could be, or at least be perceived to be weak, not whatthe mightly Great Britain once was).  Our existence is essentially founded on a dialectic of comfortable conformity and fear that (without ever explicitly intending to, or without me really knowing it) the massive, complex system (TW Adorno calls it the ‘Verblendungszusammenhang’ – the social web of ‘blinding coherance’)  works to constantly reassure me and when it needs to it placates and distracts me. This happens because the very nature of things is that they perpetuate themselves.  There is no conspiracy – there is just continuation of what is. The fact that I am aware of the way in which my conformity works makes my cowardice even more obvious to me.

As human beings we are programmed at the level of our DNA to avoid death.  But these men stared death in the face, and gave in to it.  It could be argued that this was because they had nothing to lose – not so.  They had just as much to lose as anyone else, along with the constant temptation of giving in and being able to eat / have a clean cell/ warm clothes and so on,  but they never gave up.  And they did it for the greater good.  They did it to hold up a mirror to the British colonial machine and its practices. To shame the British state. Bobby Sands wrote ‘our revenge will be the laughter of our children’.

Despite the fact of the utterly inspiring courage of the republican prisoners, the fact that it is so hard to say no to the system that oppresses you is key, I think, to why so few people do it.  However, if we all took responsibility and said no, it wouldn’t be as hard. It is unlikely that this will happen however, with our many comforts, fears and distractions.  The system won’t let us go, and we don’t want to fight it. But it is our moral responsibility to honour the sacrifice of the hunger strikers and do what we can.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/21/northernireland-northernireland

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/may/11/cannesfilmfestival.northernireland