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Revolutionizing art

Wandering the streets of downtown Cairo you may have noticed a change in the tone of much of its street art over the last three years. A certain kind of playfulness has been lost giving way to a form of art dominated by script — a political script. Strewn over Mohamed Mahmoud Street and neighboring streets are images of political violence, tributes to martyrs, murals celebrating defiance of the regime and its security apparatus, as well as satires of political or religious figures. Initially, I was enthusiastic about the exploding creativity of Cairo’s street art, no less because of its timing. It seemed to mimic, or even confirm, the realization of those who participated in the revolution of their capacity to act and to create an actuality in sharp contrast with the monotone of the Hosni Mubarak regime. It was a happy moment when art and politics brought chaos to a world that needed to be shattered.

Yet, a year or so ago, I became disillusioned when I began to notice the overly political content of much of the newer street art. Far from the playful, ironic and investigative spirit of earlier works, much street art had become almost reducible to political manifestos. In one way or another it was related to grand narratives of revolution and perseverance. In other words, much of Cairo’s street art is now politics disguised as art; its publicity seems to invite the viewer — and here I invoke Milan Kundera’s (in)famous remarks on kitsch — to be moved “together with all humanity” by the visual narrative of violence, loss and martyrdom. Art has lost its internal, visual logic. The image is there for something else. It illustrates, commemorates, or even allegorizes the political struggle. It is an invitation to experience the collective.  

My disenchantment with the current state of street art in Cairo, and with the unsophisticated sloganeering of much revolutionary art in general, prompted the following reflections on Kundera’s take on art and politics. My intention is not to recommend Kundera’s aesthetics, much less to infer his possible reaction to Cairo’s street art. Rather, I outline one possible way to think and make art at a critical distance from politics.  

Art and politics

Kundera is known for being allergic to political art, and by that I mean art that derives its aesthetic sensibility, subject and motivation completely from politics. He paid the price of the imposition of social realism on art and literature by Russian authorities in occupied Czechoslovakia. His books were banned in the 1970s and 1980s and he was stripped of his Czech nationality. Yet Kundera’s work is not apolitical. Far from it. “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” mixes the personal and the political with ease. Forgetting, as a theme, is traced out across politics, art and intimate histories. The heroine is confused about the source of her sadness: is it the memory or the forgetfulness of her late husband? Kundera describes the Russian occupation of Prague as an operation of “organized forgetfulness,” dubbing the Russian-imposed President Gustav Husak as the “President of Forgetting.” He also describes pop music as pertaining to “a state before the first questionings.” It is music’s forgetfulness of its own history. The lives of the novel’s four main characters (five, if we include Karenin the dog) are weaved into the story of Soviet occupation of Prague and the regime under Czech communism. Sabina’s paintings enact an aesthetics that surreptitiously parodies regime-imposed social realism; her art is fundamentally shaped by this opposition.

Kundera knows there is no escape to a happy world outside of politics and that the desire to escape is, in a way, suspect. Yet that does not mean collapsing art into politics. In fact, much of his aesthetic sensibility is derived from opposition to social realism and the kitsch of the “grand march” of history toward a triumphal state of existence. By kitsch, Kundera does not necessarily mean the standard dictionary definition: art that is garish, simplistic or sentimental. Kitsch is a more elaborate category of art and literature that is not only direct and sentimental, but also confirms the preconceived world of the viewer, listener or reader, offering them a triumphant sense of security in one way or another. Kitsch “denies shit” and seeks to banish individualism, doubt or irony altogether.

Kundera’s condemnation of social realism surely sounds alien to us due to its historic distance. There is no longer state-directed art. No longer do state officials urge artists to join the “struggle against formalism.” There may seem to be no analogy between the state-imposed aesthetic vision of the Soviet Union and the revolutionary art of today’s Egypt. However, there is an equally oppressive demand on contemporary Egyptian artists to produce a particular kind of political art, not through any external pressure, but internally, in the name of being attuned to the exceptional moment of the revolution, of commitment to it, of abandoning art’s supposed disconnect from “the real world.” In other words, Egypt’s political art has internalized what was mostly external, state aesthetic vision under social realism.  

Kitsch and ideology never cease to haunt art. We live in a world inextricably immersed in ideology — I take this to be one of Slavoj Žižek’s (and before him, Theodor Adorno’s) most compelling arguments. In the administered world of high capitalism, individualism itself has become kitsch because it seeks to turn a blind eye to forces that, while engulfing the very basis of individuality, reify individualism and uniqueness as appendices to mass-consumer products and culture. To some extent Kundera is aware of this. When Sabina goes to America in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” she is dismayed by the attempt to romanticize her as an artist struggling against totalitarianism. “My enemy,” she responds, “is kitsch, not communism.” Kundera seems less aware, or less troubled, by another kind of “grand march,” a liberal capitalist vision of an end of history with its complacent, self-congratulatory attitude, its alleged empowerment of individuality, its reduction of questions of politics and economics to management puzzles for experts. But his aesthetic vision is worth pondering because it points to a possible way of going beyond the impasse of Egypt’s political art.

What is the logic of art for Kundera? In “Testaments Betrayed” (1993), a non-fiction essay collection, Kundera takes readers on a journey through writers like Kafka, Musil and Hemingway, composers such as Bach, Debussy, Stravinsky, Janáčekand Messiaen,and, to a lesser extent, painters like Klee and Dubuffet. Perhaps against Kundera’s wish, we can read “Testaments Betrayed” as an attempt at offering an aesthetic theory, a theory of aesthetic modernity to be precise. I say against his wish because Kundera has no pretention to philosophize. However, he examines modernist literature, music and art in bold strokes as a single phenomenon; he links Stravinsky’s music to Kafka’s fiction to Picasso’s painting, placing them within the “generations of great innovators” that make up modern art. This presupposes, at least implicitly, a theory of modern aesthetic sensibility, or an insight into its most decisive features. Equally interesting is how Kundera sees his aesthetic program as a variation or extension of this trend.

Modern aesthetics and the art of ellipsis

Modern art is characterized by various techniques and practices of ellipsis, of condensation, of stripping away the unessential. If, for Adorno, art’s autonomy is a negative category — art’s freedom from resembling the world and functioning as a critique of the world as it is — Kundera sees autonomy as the denial of the authority of form, of the stupidity of preordained forms. Not that modernism is positively a project of “purity,” but it is one of expressing the essential, even if on comic or playful registers.

For modern painting this is seen in the break with imitation and representation of the world. Kundera sees modernist composers as resolving, or rather exploding, a fundamental contradiction between form and content in classical music. The raison d’etre of classic and romantic music is to express emotions, yet musical forms (sonatas, concertos, symphonies) demand fillers: bridges, codas and development sections. A pedantic fidelity to forms, which makes music a studied exercise, made Debussy, one of Kundera’s modernist heroes, caustically remark that Brahms and Tchaikovsky were “competing for the boredom monopoly.” In contrast, Janáček’s late music was an attempt to make every note indispensible, and Bartók and Messaien exploited the fundamental ontological problem of music’s relation to noise. In literature, the modernist novel sought to capture the concreteness of situations. Kafka’s novels offer no religious and philosophical messages to decipher; they are unconcerned with the struggle of ideologies personified as characters, much less with customary fillers such as character development  and description of scenes and places. Rather, they seek to dissect the existential nature of situations in which characters find themselves. Kafka’s “The Trial” is undeniably about the labyrinthine world of bureaucracy, where people lose their way, but it is also about the dark comedy, and sometimes the horror, of being culpabilized. The implausible situations of Kafka’s novels are not meant to provide an escape from the world, the way aesthetic romanticism prescribes, but to comprehend it better. Kundera’s own experiments with narrative structure, variation as a literary strategy, and implausible situations (I think of Book Six of “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”) betray an affinity with such modernist practices of ellipsis.

It is common to think of modernism as a radical break with the past. Kundera shows how, consciously or not, modern art is inextricably related to its history, for it is only in history that great works can be born. Only from inside the history of an art can we see what is new and what is repetitive. Instead of the simplistic understanding of modern art as a complete negation of the past, a vision sometimes shared by modernists, Kundera understands it as an interlocutor with its history. Stravinsky’s music, for instance, is a vast reappraisal of the history of music going back to Bach and beyond. His attempt to bring back musical themes and techniques from oblivion did not stem from a fetish for retro, but from the desire to broaden and redefine music after what he saw as the impasse of 19th-century music. Kundera takes Adorno’s critique of Stravinsky positively: Stravinsky’s work is “music about music,” a vast and purposeful project of “eclecticism.” Similarly, it is a mistake to read Kafka solely through the microcontext of his biography, or as a religious thinker, as a novelist of religious and philosophical allegories, as Max Brod — the inventor of Kafkaology — does. For Kundera, Kafka should be read in the large context of literary history, for only then does his place in modern literature and his connection to other novelists become clear; only then can we understand the literary caesura that is Kafka.     

The anti-lyrical

The modernist heroes of “Testaments Betrayed” share a certain kind of mistrust or distaste toward lyricism, sentimentalism and the cult of subjectivity. Kundera himself is well known for his rejection of “the lyrical spirit,” of sentimentalism that sheds a steady rosy light on the world — the kitsch of hope and progress. For him, lyricism and Stalinist terror belong together. In fact, that was a period of collective lyrical delirium. Kundera highlights a certain affinity between romantic aesthetic sensibility and Soviet-imposed social realism. Andrei Zhdanov, the Soviet Central Committee secretary and figurehead of the campaign against formalism in art (that is, against the autonomy of modern art), urged musical composers to express “the whole range of human feelings,” and was indignant that modernist music could not be whistled, something that became less and less possible starting from the generation of Debussy and Stravinsky. Similarly, the utopian dream of André Breton to live in a glass house, in utter transparency, to eliminate the difference between private and public, finds its culmination and true fulfillment in the police state. For Kundera, sentimentalism is politically suspect.

Given the current state of revolutionary artistic production in Egypt, it is tempting to think that we live in a new age of lyricism. Revolutionary literature collapses the distinction between the public and the private, revolutionary music offers a sentimentalized vision of the political struggle, and street art commemorates the grand narrative of revolution, loss and memory. 

For Kundera, modern art offers an antidote to its own lyrical tendencies. Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartók rejected what they saw as the excessive subjectivization of music that characterized the romantic period. Debussy poked fun at Wagner, quoting themes of Wagner’s grand Tristan and Isolde in a short piano piece about a clumsy rag doll. His experiments with scales, composition and Far Eastern music further moved his work away from long and elaborate romantic musical forms, sentimentality, and tragic and amorous themes. Stravinsky returned to Bach’s fugue to forget 19th-century music, seeing Bach as a contemporary. Bach’s music and its limitless variations bring us to contemplate beauty outside the subjective, to forget our moods and passions, the very opposite of what a romantic melody is supposed to do, which is to make us plunge into ourselves. Bartók explored the world of noise, and his night-music in particular, with its strange motifs, merges melancholic songs with animal tones on the same plane. The “soul’s sorrow” becomes “a noise among other noises.” Bartók’s music was influenced by his rigorous study of European folk music, yet never reproduced folk themes in conventional forms. Unlike much new and revolutionary Egyptian music that reproduces past musical repertoires, enveloping them in its own lyrical vision of the present, Bartók viewed folk music as an inspiration for revolutionizing music itself. 

Kafka’s writings betray the same irritation with hypersubjectivism. His language is particularly barren and his vocabulary consciously restricted. His metaphors lie on a level of abstraction capable at once of capturing a situation and its comic or dark ambiguity. His language expresses his trenchant anti-romantic intentions. In his diaries, he characterized Dickens’ novels as “heartlessness masked by a style overflowing with feelings.” For Kundera, this critique of sentimentality is aimed “not at Dickens alone but at romanticism generally, at its heirs, Kafka’s contemporaries, particularly the expressionists, with their cult of hysteria and madness; it is aimed at the entire Holy Church of the Heart.”

Seen in contrast to Kundera’s aesthetic vision, perhaps the biggest failing of Cairo’s revolutionary art is that it fails to see itself as art. It fails to reflect on and experiment with its aesthetic vision as aesthetics. Rather, Egyptian revolutionary artists have succumbed to the temptation of seeing their art as subservient to a higher cause, which neither really helps this cause nor offers anything artistically novel, thus unnecessarily limits them to an impoverished aesthetic vision. By way of this long detour though Kundera’s reflections on aesthetics and politics I am only expressing my wish for Egyptian artists to pay more attention to their art as art rather than as a running commentary, however witty, on political life. Instead of the facile aestheticization of the revolutionary moment and instead of political sloganeering, artists would do better to revolutionize the vocabulary of their art, which in no way precludes treating political themes in a more radical manner. Perhaps then will art do what it can actually do best: shake us away from the complacency of unthinking.

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Shehab Fakhry Ismail