Art Articles Featured

Hamilton and the Iconoclasts of Tomorrow

This week, 216 years ago, one founding father killed another in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. On that early July morning, the vice president of the United States squared off against the former secretary of the treasury. As virtually everyone in America now knows, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton didn’t survive the shootout with Aaron Burr.

At the beginning of this month, Disney released the film version of Miranda’s blockbuster musical, Hamilton. So, I could finally see this extraordinary synthesis of history, biography, music, and dance.

As a musical, it’s riveting.

As political commentary, however, it’s surprisingly dated.

America’s Musical

Hamilton debuted five years ago, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term. Just as Obama was daily reimagining the American presidency, Hamilton reimagined the American Revolution and the creation of the United States.

By casting people of color as the Founding Fathers — Washington, Jefferson, Madison —  the musical speaks to the universality of that eighteenth-century struggle and visually links the oppression of Americans at the hands of British colonialism to the oppression of people everywhere. It’s both a projection backward of Obama’s breakthrough and a lyrical version of an Obama speech.

Hamilton is radical in form: the casting, the incorporation of rap. The content, however, is quite mainstream. Aside from a couple references to slavery and the interests of wealthy bankers, it celebrates the spirit of 1776 in a way that Americans of all political persuasions can embrace.

And have embraced. On November 18, 2016, only a week after that gut punch of an election, Mike Pence attended a show, which prompted the actor portraying Aaron Burr to say at the close, “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”

It was a message from one rogue vice president to another.

Pence “appeared to enjoy the show and applauded liberally,” NPR reported. And for the next three years, he ignored the remonstration. Pence and Trump, too, portrayed themselves as revolutionary underdogs — rather than the reactionary overlords they really were — who wanted to be in “the room where it happens.” They, too, were not going to throw away their shot.

Now, in perhaps the supreme designation of mainstream status, Disney has made Hamilton available to the masses. How times have changed.

In 2020, thanks to the coronavirus, live theater seems impossibly risky (why are the performers touching each other? How can the audience sit so close together?). And, with protesters on the street challenging Washington and Jefferson over their slave ownership, the musical suddenly seems behind the times, though not nearly as backward as Aunt Jemima and the soon to be former Washington Redskins.

As A.O. Scott recently pointed out in The New York Times, “There’s been a bit of a backlash from the left against what’s perceived as an insufficiently critical perspective on slavery (and also on Hamilton’s role in the birth of American capitalism). At the same time, the extent to which Miranda celebrates America’s political traditions has been taken up as a cudgel against the supposed illiberalism of the statue-topplers and their allies.”

Miranda himself has acknowledged the criticisms from the left. History doesn’t stand still for anyone, not Thomas Jefferson, not Alexander Hamilton, not Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The Great and the Not-So-Great

What’s remarkable of course is the speed with which the political temperament has changed. In a few short months, statues have fallen throughout the United States, and not just those dedicated to the Confederate cause.

Also torn down or relocated are statues honoring figures associated with the genocide of indigenous people (Christopher Columbus), with slave-owning (Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler), and with racist policing (former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo). Statues connected to colonialism have fallen in the UK, Belgium, and elsewhere. Everything, it seems, is up for debate, even monuments to the heroes of the American Revolution.

We fully expect books and plays written in the 1950s to seem dated. Ditto those produced in the 1970s or even the 1990s.

But 2015?

The critiques of American failings — slavery, colonialism, racist policing — are not new. What’s changed is that the powerful have been forced to listen.

Perhaps Hamilton, despite its slighting of slavery and reverence for the Founding Fathers, even played a role in preparing the powerful for this shift. But let’s be real: the destruction of images — literally, iconoclasm — is a lighter lift than the transformation of structures. It’s one thing to take down Confederate statues, and quite another to remove racism’s grip on housing, education, and employment. Likewise, it’s more politically palatable to recast a play about the Founding Fathers than to grapple with the ugly truths that accompanied the founding of this nation.

At a deeper level, the musical and the statues share a common veneration of the Great Person. History, we are constantly reminded in art and monuments, is the product of founding fathers, great conquerors, kings and presidents and prime ministers. Campaigns are launched to diversify those numbers to include women, people of color, perhaps even an activist or two like Martin Luther King Jr. But the focus remains on the individual, not the countless people who turned the gears of history, planted the fields of history, occupied the streets of history, and ultimately changed the course of history.

As Hamilton acknowledges, Great Persons are always a product of their time and place, and they’re always flawed in some way or another. Sometimes those flaws are of an individual nature, like Hamilton’s adultery (or, more recently, the sexual harassment charges against Park Won Soon, the progressive activist and former mayor of Seoul who committed suicide last week).

More often, the famous personages are as blind to their faults as most everyone else in their society. Transforming society requires a collective effort to shine a light on these blind spots, as the Black Lives Matter movement has done, at home and abroad, around police violence, racist iconography, and the legacy of colonialism.

Iconoclasts of the Future, Unite!

So, perhaps it’s time to conduct a thought experiment. We’ve seen how quickly culture has moved on and left the blind spots of Hamilton more readily visible. How will future generations condemn us for our blind spots as they tear down today’s statues tomorrow?

I can almost hear our children gathering in the street to pull down the statues of the famous as they chant, “Carbon hog!” For will not contribution to the destruction of the planet ultimately be seen in the same light as colonialism, as the plunder and robbery of future generations?

Emancipation of slaves was a radical act in eighteenth-century America. The Polish revolutionary Tadeusz Kosciuszko berated his friend Thomas Jefferson at length to free his slaves, and Jefferson ignored him because, just as Pence shrugged off Aaron Burr, he could. Jefferson certainly had mixed feelings about slavery, but he was able to maintain the contradiction in his life of slave ownership and sentiments like “all men are created equal” because popular opinion, as opposed to Kosciuszko’s opinion, allowed him to do so.

Future generations may feel the same way about our simultaneous recognition of the perils of climate change and our car ownership, air travel, and use of air conditioning. Greta Thunberg, our generation’s Kosciuszko, similarly berates world leaders, and with as little immediate impact.

Future generations may also look askance at our nationalism. Why do we believe that we owe debts of obligation to strangers who live within certain borders and not strangers who live outside those borders? How could we countenance the return of desperate migrants and refugees to, in many cases, their certain death?

And what about all the statues raised to military leaders? It seems rather ridiculous to honor men who oversaw the slaughter of others just because they were on the winning side. Future generations may well look at all the celebrated generals as so many mass murderers.

Speaking of mass murder, how will future generations feel about the millions of animals that we kill every day for our own consumption? Or even the millions that we own as pets?

The list of potential blind spots is long indeed, and there are plenty of motes in my own eye. History is constantly evolving. There is no timeless art; there are no timeless values. Everything reflects the moment of its production, from the American Constitution to the latest iteration of Hamilton. We are engaged in a long, collective conversation enlivened by a soundtrack of insightful speeches, catchy tunes, and the rising roar of street protest.

As for those future statues, I dearly hope that they are pulled down, defaced, disgraced. Because that would mean, in a future of superstorms and nuclear threats and periodic pandemics, that at least there are still people around to take them down.

FPIF, July 15, 2020

Art Articles Featured Human Rights

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

Candide is the first and most amusing example of the powerlessness of positive thinking.

In this 18th century novel by Voltaire, the naïf Candide suffers one misfortunate after another – kidnapping, torture, earthquake. Still he adheres to the philosophy of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, who insists that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Never has there been such a mismatch between philosophy and facts on the ground. Only at the end does the chastened Candide reject the Panglossian worldview, adopt some measure of realism, and narrow his focus to cultivating his own garden.

Donald Trump is the anti-Pangloss. Even as he personally enjoys all the perks of being a billionaire and a president, he constantly reminds Americans that they face the worst of all possible worlds. As Trump pointed out in his inaugural address, America is a land of “carnage,” thanks to the policies of his predecessors. The world beyond America’s borders is scarier still and requires walls, travel bans, and even a new branch of the military to patrol space. Trump promises to make America great again, but the “deep state,” the fake media, liberal Hollywood, and Lebron James are preventing him from doing so.

About one-third of America believes in Trump’s dystopian vision of the world. Everybody else believes that Trump himself is dystopia incarnate.

Even if you take Trump out of the picture (please!), it still seems as though the world is lurching from one tragedy to another: financial crisis, rising temperatures, super storms, horrific wars, peak refugees, another Ebola outbreak, failed states, rampant corruption, political and economic polarization.

Who on earth could possibly think that this is the best of all possible worlds?

Well, Steven Pinker, for one.

Enlightenment Now

Six years ago, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argued that, contrary to conventional wisdom, violence is on the decline: fewer people dying in war, in dictatorships, in criminal acts, even in disputes at home. He made a powerful case, though he slighted the violence committed by democratic states and by business. As I wrote in my review of his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature:

Pinker is an Enlightenment liberal, and he lavishly praises “civilization” throughout his book. He seems to have forgotten that “civilization” often replaces one type of violence with another. The violence of the civilizing empire, the violence of the civilizing state, and the violence of the civilizing economy push aside more localized violence. The different tribes of Native Americans didn’t exactly live in harmony before 1492, but the bringing of “civilization” to the natives raised the magnitude of violence from skirmishes to genocide. We can acknowledge the overall reduction of violence over the centuries even as we remain clear-eyed about the wages of civilization.

Pinker is back and this time with a full-throated defense of the Enlightenment and its version of civilization. He is expanding his argument about violence to argue that everything is getting better. In Enlightenment Now, he laments that our noses are too close to life’s grindstone to see this bigger picture.

Pinker marshals a good deal of evidence to back up his claim. Life expectancy has gone up. Extreme poverty has gone down. Scientific advances have made life easier. Liberal values of tolerance have become more widespread. The air, water, and soil have gotten cleaner (at least since the Industrial Revolution). Oh, and yes, violence has decreased.

Everything else is a blip, according to Pinker. The current threats to Enlightenment values – Trump, Putin, climate denial, the narcissistic super-rich, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – all these will pass. Pinker is not that much different from an early twentieth-century Marxist who believed that history would necessarily produce a radiant future. It just needs a little push in the right direction.

Ah, if only it were so.

Environmental Blind Spot

I imagine that there was a Steven Pinker in every past society on the verge of extinction. The Mayan Steven Pinker told his compatriots that there was nothing to worry about. Sure, there’d been a little less rain over the years, but the Mayan Empire was nearly 700 years old and life had been getting better and better. Surely, the rains would come and things would pick up…

The Angkor Wat Steven Pinker would have been enthusiastic about the heavy monsoon rain that fell over the Khmer empire, particularly since he and his kin had just suffered through their own devastating drought. Sure, it looked as though these heavy rains were destroying the very infrastructure of empire, but they’d rebuild again, wouldn’t they, just as they always had?

The Roman Steven Pinker would have praised the great accomplishments of the empire and its spread of characteristically Roman values all over the world. Sure, there were some restive tribes that occasionally swept down from the north to sack a city or two. But it was impossible to imagine that the edifice of civilization would crumble at the hands of disgruntled barbarians…

Likewise, today’s Steven Pinker scants all the signs and portents of environmental unsustainability. He downplays resource depletion, species extinction, and most importantly, carbon emissions. He does so not only because they complicate his relentlessly cheerful vision of the future but also because these environmental problems are the byproduct of his treasured Enlightenment notions of progress.

The environmental crisis, in other words, forces a reevaluation of all the sacred cows of modernity. These problems can’t be Panglossed over. As Joshua Rothman puts it in The New Yorker: “Pinker could be right in the short term but wrong in the long term. Maybe the world is getting better, but not better enough, or in the right ways.”

Perception Is Everything

When I travelled throughout Eastern Europe in 2012-3 to understand why Enlightenment values were on the decline in that region, I was always asking people whether they thought, nearly 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the glass was half-full or half-empty. The statistics suggested that they were better off: more prosperous, more democratic, healthier, more connected to the world at large.

And yet, many people in the region didn’t see it that way. Nearly half of Romanians, for instance, believed that life under Nicolae Ceausescu was better than at the time of their polling in 2014. Ceausescu! They somehow believed that life under one of the Communist bloc’s most repressive dictators was better than life within the European Union. Were they misremembering? Were they just thinking that life had been better when they were younger?

In some respects, of course, life had gotten worse in Romania. The media was full of news of corrupt politicians, widespread crime, poverty – which only reinforced what Pinker refers to as “negativity bias.” Moreover, many people in Romania were demonstrably well off, which created a great deal of resentment among those whose standard of living hadn’t budged much at all. And the spread of Enlightenment values of tolerance was generating a backlash among more conservative elements in society who were not thrilled about an annual Gay Pride parade.

Pinker would treat these perceptions as a mere speed bump. But perceptions, right or wrong, determine the outcome of elections, among other things. Illiberal leaders from Trump to Putin, in responding to (and reinforcing) such perceptions, offer a narrative for understanding why things fall apart. These storytellers can’t be wished away. They can’t be blithely disregarded simply because they’re not part of history’s progressive trajectory.

In a perceptive review in The Nation, David Bell puts his finger on another problem with Pinker’s worldview: his misreading of how social change happens.

Pinker seems to believe that progress has occurred almost by itself, as a result of whole populations spontaneously turning more enlightened and tolerant. “There really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” he writes. Almost entirely absent from the 576 pages of Enlightenment Now are the social movements that for centuries fought for equal rights, an end to slavery, improved working conditions, a minimum wage, the right to organize, basic social protections, a cleaner environment, and a host of other progressive causes. The arc bending toward justice is no mystery: It bends because people force it to bend.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you think the glass is half-full or half-empty. The focus should be on filling the glass – on struggling to make life better for those who are not well off, harnessing technology to improve conditions for everyone, and saving the planet from climate catastrophe. Some of the Enlightenment tradition will be essential in this struggle. But an eighteenth-century philosophy, unmodified, cannot solve twenty-first century problems.

Pinker’s Panglossian narrative will not vanquish the forces of illiberalism. Saying that this is the best of all possible worlds does not make it so. Even a leading Enlightenment thinker like Voltaire would have been the first to tell the good professor that.

Foreign Policy In Focus, August 15, 2018

Art Articles Featured

The Politics of Paper

Appropriation is a tricky issue from a legal point of view. You can’t use someone’s name or image for commercial purposes, without his or her permission, or risk a lawsuit. You can’t use someone’s words without attribution or risk charges of plagiarism. You can’t sample another person’s music without running afoul of copyright law.

But what if you appropriate a lifestyle or some other element of culture?

Justin Timberlake once wore cornrows, emulating a fashion associated more with African American culture. Iggy Azalea, a white Australian rapper, has made a name for herself by mimicking the black musical styles of the American south. Most recently, the heterosexual actor Andrew Garfield created headlines by claiming that “I am a gay man right now just without the physical act” because of his preparations to play a gay man in the hit play Angels in America. In all three cases, the appropriations have generated controversy.

My new play Paper, which debuts on July 9 at the Capital Fringe Festival, looks at this question of appropriation through a social justice lens. Sophia, an older white professor, squares off against Emmanuel, a younger African American student. She has a written a novel from the perspective of a black homeless person. He decries her appropriation of a culture so obviously not her own. Paper presents the audience with the confrontation from her point of view and then from his point of view. In the third act, the characters attempt one more time to resolve their conflict – but from an entirely different angle.

Cultural appropriation was once a largely unremarked-upon process. The Romans stole ideas and entire plays from the Greeks. Shakespeare ransacked the cultural heritage of several different countries to produce his tragedies and comedies. White rock and rollers – Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones – borrowed (or stole) freely from a largely African-American blues tradition.

Sensibilities, however, have changed. In large part because of the success of social movements, cultural appropriation has become a contested terrain. No one today would think of putting on the “blackface” that white performers once used in 19-century minstrel shows. Yet Emmanuel believes that his teacher has essentially adopted “blackface” in writing a novel from the first-person perspective of an African American. Sophia retorts that it’s the job of a novelist to inhabit the skin of very different people.

This issue of appropriation goes to the heart of American culture and society today. The United States is a deeply divided country – by politics, by region, by race, by class. The notion that the United States is a “melting pot” has long since melted away. The question that faces Americans today is whether there can be any unity in all of this diversity – or whether the diversity is at some fundamental level irreconcilable.

We live in a representative democracy, but who has the right to speak for whom? We live in a culturally kaleidoscopic country, but when is appropriation the highest compliment one artist can pay to another and when is it disrespectful theft?

Paper portrays this conflict as an elemental struggle between two different people. Can Emmanuel and Sophia find common ground? Come to Paper to find out.

Breach the Fourth Wall, July 7, 2017

Art Articles Featured Plays

A Peek at Paper

A teacher and a student argue over a remark in class. Or was it a remark about class? Or was it really about race? Or gender?

My new play Paper brings the explosive confrontations on campus around race, class, and gender onto the stage. Take Rashomon, add Mamet, mix in Black Lives Matter, and stand back.

Sophia, meanwhile, is taken aback by what she considers Emmanuel’s arrogance. She is also quite critical of his first submission to the class, a short story that has no characters and no plot. She wants her students to learn the rules before they start breaking them. That’s the “she said” part of the play.Paper brings us into the office of Sophia, a novelist and professor of writing. An African American student in her graduate fiction seminar, Emmanuel, comes in for a meeting just after the two have had an argument in the classroom. Emmanuel is unhappy with his teacher’s patronizing attitudes toward her students. He also takes exception to what he considers the appropriation of African American culture in her novels. That’s the “he said” part of the play.

Then, in the surprising “they said” finale, we see whether the two characters can break out of their roles to end the downward spiral of confrontation. 

With Paper, I was interested in the simultaneously liberating and confining nature of social categories. I was also intrigued by how language cleaves us, that is, both connects us and divides us. I’m fascinated with words like “cleave,” contronyms that have two entirely opposite meanings. At a certain level, as one character in Paper points out, all words are contronyms depending on how we choose to interpret them.

Paper tries to answer this vexing question: are we destined by the ambiguities of language and the determinants of race, class, and gender to repeat the tragedies of the past and the misunderstandings of the present?

Paper is my eighth Fringe production in nine years. My previous shows – Krapp’s Last Power Point, Edible Rex, The Bird, The Pundit, The Politician, Interrogation and Stuff – have all garnered rave reviews. In DC Theatre Scene, Christopher Henley called Stuff, “a lovely, wonderfully written, beautifully detailed, and resonant solo show that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who will read this review.” Interrogation was lauded in DC Metro Theatre Arts as “a deftly told dark comedy about a serious and timely subject that immerses the audience completely in its creative story.” And the Washington City Paper wrote “Feffer is a brilliant writer and performer” in its review of Edible Rex.

Paper is directed by Scott Sedar, who has acted at most of the professional theaters in the DC area and directed for the D.C. Writer’s Workshop and Playwright’s Forum. Assistant director Phillip Chang was a bboy/breakdancer with local urban styles dance group Urban Artistry for five years before getting into acting and comedy.

Our actors are also well known to DC audiences. S. Rex Carnegie (Emmanuel) has performed for the Atlas, Discovery Theater, and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and is also the TV host of “Seriously Amazing Objects” on the Smithsonian Channel. Hilary Kacser (Sophia) is a long time actor regionally and internationally on stage and screen, participated in seven Fringe productions including DisordR, The Play, and can also be seen on Seasons 3 and 4 of House of Cards.

Tickets for paper can be purchased here.

DC Theatre Scene, June 24, 2017

Art Articles Books Featured Fiction

My Novel (Accidentally) Predicted Trump

It’s terrifying when your dystopian nightmares begin to come true.

Donald Trump is consolidating a circle of extremist advisers. Hardline restrictions on immigration are going up, regulations on Wall Street are tumbling down, and ordinary Americans can no longer agree on simple truths, let alone politics.

Abroad, Europe may be splintering, too, Asia looks volatile, and wars continue to rage in the Middle East. And everywhere, climate change creeps forward.

For me, however, the rise of the Trump era held a special terror.

My novel Splinterlands, which I finished in March 2016 and published in December, imagines a world that breaks into a million little pieces. It begins with the destruction of Washington, DC by a terrible storm — which I called Hurricane Donald — and goes downhill from there.

I tell the story of the unraveling of a family, which takes place against the backdrop of the break-up of the European Union, the collapse of China, the disuniting of the United States, and a massive financial crisis that wipes out the middle class everywhere.

After submitting the final draft of the book to my publisher, I watched in bewilderment as the British public voted to withdraw from the EU. I was astonished some months later when the American public elected Donald Trump. And I was dismayed to watch the new administration begin to undermine U.S. democracy even before it officially took office.

I also felt a strange sense of déjà vu. It was a feeling akin to traveling back in time to watch the unfolding of an assassination or the lead-up to a world war. I’d already gamed out these scenarios when I was plotting my novel.

I’m no Nostradamus, and I didn’t intend Splinterlands as a prediction of the future.

When I was writing the book, I was concerned about the rise of far-right extremists, the rollback of democracy, and growing divisions here and abroad. And the half-measures the international community adopted to address climate change didn’t bode well for the health of the planet either.

I wanted my new novel to serve as a wake-up call. The world — and our country — could easily fragment, I warned, if we didn’t pay more attention to the sources of the new populist nationalism.

Economic globalization was benefiting some and leaving others behind. Faith in the democratic process was eroding as political elites engaged in corruption. Social media was undermining the distinction between real and fake news.

In past eras, progressives challenged these developments with calls for greater economic equality, more democracy, and solidarity across social identities. But mainstream progressive parties have often backed the same 1 percent-friendly policies as the right, leading to skyrocketing inequality.

The decline of the left has provided enormous political opportunities for the far right.

They’re climbing in the polls all over Europe. And here in the States, the white-supremacist alt-right played a critical role in getting Donald Trump elected.

But novelists don’t write dystopias because they think the dismal future they portray is inevitable. 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale: These were all calls to arms. If humanity didn’t change its ways, the novelists warned, those dystopias would be more likely.

Americans, fortunately, are already responding to the threat.

The protests following Trump’s inauguration brought millions of people onto the streets. And the executive order banning Muslims from seven countries from entering the United States has generated unprecedented backlash.

The United States is divided, but still it stands.

I’m terrified. But I’m also hopeful. My novel Splinterlands remains mostly fiction, and I’ll work hard with millions to keep it that way.

OtherWords, March 1, 2017

Art Articles Featured

The Art of Detente

On a wall in Boston, artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo is taking a quiet but historic step forward in U.S.-Iranian relations.

His fanciful mural on an air intake structure in Boston’s Dewey Square represents a first. Ghadyanloo, who has completed more than a hundred surrealistic murals in downtown Tehran, is the first Iranian artist to do work commissioned by municipal authorities in both Iran and the United States.

This exercise in mural diplomacy couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Iran is back in the news after Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections. The president-elect has promised, at the very least, to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran. The Republican-controlled Congress wants to impose new sanctions.

Quietly, however, the Obama administration has moved to build on the rapprochement initiated by the 2015 nuclear deal. In September, the Obama administration greenlighted a Boeing deal to sell commercial jets to Tehran. The Treasury Department also loosened the sanctions regulations to make it possible for foreigners to use dollars in transactions with Iran. And the administration wants to encourage more U.S. firms to do business in the country.

Still, Iran has complained that the United States has not done all that it promised to usher the country back into the global economy. And European allies, eager to push forward with a broader agenda of engagement with the country, have been dismayed at how Washington has focused its cooperation so narrowly on nuclear matters.

That’s what makes Mehdi Ghadyanloo’s recent U.S. tour so noteworthy. He knows nothing about nuclear weapons. His work isn’t political. But precisely because his utopian landscapes are so far from the worlds of nonproliferation and geopolitics, Ghadyanloo’s work opens up a window on what could be: a true detente in the relationship between Tehran and Washington akin to the sea change in U.S.-China relations in the 1970s. Just substitute murals for ping-pong.

Ghadyanloo’s murals are the perfect vehicles for such rapprochement. They are trompe l’oeil masterpieces that are full of hope. When the Tehran city authorities asked him 11 years ago to help beautify the city, Ghadyanloo submitted five designs to “start the imagination engine of the people,” as he puts it. The city accepted all five designs, and he went on to create more than 100 murals.

At the time, many walls in Tehran were covered with anti-American slogans or pictures of those killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Ghadyanloo was a child during that conflict. “I wanted to make brighter pictures that didn’t depict war scenes,” he says.

Most of his designs cover huge, windowless walls in congested, polluted Tehran. In one, a building accordions back to reveal the blue sky beyond. In another, a path seems to lead away from a busy street into a sunlit glade. Cars float in the air, bicyclists careen down the side of a building, a bouquet of balloons draws a child high into the air: Ghadyanloo creates the illusion of depth and beauty on flat, featureless expanses.

“You see a lot of bad news everywhere when you scroll through your social media,” Ghadyanloo says. “Public art can create a balance.”

The bright surfaces conceal some adversity. The economic sanctions are not abstract for the artist. They made it difficult for him to buy high quality paint. Art collectors have difficulty traveling to Iran. If someone does want to buy one of his works on canvas, it’s hard to transfer the money.

Five years ago, Ghadyanloo stopped doing murals in Tehran. “I was overproducing,” he confesses. “I need another five or 10 years to update my visual library.”

He has since focused on his works on canvas, which are often darker than his murals. Several paintings explore the impact of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian jet downed by the U.S.S. Vincennes in 1988, which killed all 290 people on board. Ghadyanloo was 7 years old at the time. One of his canvases depicts a plane aloft without a cockpit, with 290 empty chairs beneath it.

“When I work in public, I feel responsible to people,” Ghadyanloo says. “I check my designs with my mom and ask if she wants to see my work on the wall. Public art should be positive. You’re basically forcing people to see artwork on the street. They’re not voluntarily entering a gallery. You can’t paint a sinkhole in public. It can be in a museum and people can ignore it.”

Ghadyanloo’s murals are so popular in Tehran that they have inspired many imitators, which the artist finds flattering, though most of them are not up to his standards. These imitations are another reason he has been focusing on his studio work.

But the prospect of doing a mural in a different city in another country gets his creative juices going. When the Boston wall became available, he leaped at the opportunity. Part of the city’s Greenway Conservancy, the same wall has featured work by internationally renowned artists Lawrence Weiner and Shinique Smith.

While completing his latest mural in Boston, Ghadyanloo took a break from the work to visit Washington, D.C. to talk with curators, artists and policy professionals. He looks forward to creating art in the nation’s capital.

“I think people in every corner of the world, no matter if they are American or Iranian, are all similar,” he says. “We feel love, hope and fear, and this is the key to public art internationally.”

US News and World Report, December 15, 2016

Art Articles Featured

Iran: The Calligraphic Challenge

Mehdi Saeedi turns words into art. The Iranian graphic artist has transformed Farsi script into posters, paintings, and other works. He has taken a traditional form, calligraphy, and made something even more startling and beautiful from it.

In Saeedi’s posters, a line of script turns into a bird, with an olive branch in its beak. Don Quixote rides a horse of words, a reminder that the knight’s adventures were inspired entirely by books. Emerging from a swirl of poetry are two hands, themselves tattooed with calligraphy, holding a traditional flute.

“My work goes back to the 14th century, a time when calligraphers applied and used the practice of calligraphy in illustrations,” Saeedi told me. “An example I can give you is the Bird of Bismillah in which the calligraphers created an image merely for aesthetic reasons. But after that, what calligraphers were doing had more of a religious and spiritual dimension. Because they believed that God is beautiful, they decided to illustrate this in the shape of a beautiful bird, where they would write the name of God, in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.” This phrase, known as the “bismillah,” is the first line of the Koran.

With his reinvention of the calligraphic tradition, Saeedi has become a famous artist in Iran at a relatively young age. More than that, he has acquired an international reputation. He was won many international awards, including grand prizes in poster competitions in Japan and Taiwan, and has exhibited in in 250 galleries all over the world. His work is currently on display in Washington, DC at the Alex Gallery in September.

Saeedi starts from a set of specifically Iranian elements – the Farsi language, images from traditional Persian culture – and manages to create something universal.

“I realized from the beginning that if I just focused on Persian calligraphy, it would limit my audience to Iran, and then only they would be able to read it,” he said. “However, an image is something that is universal and comprehensible. Therefore, I tried to use the technique of Persian calligraphy in creating an image to which I can connect via its beauty.”

Saeedi was greatly influenced by Polish poster art. As a recent short documentary about his art explains, the recent explosion of Iranian graphic arts parallels the flourishing of poster art in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s: the emergence of a number of distinct styles and approaches that together form a body of national work that has attracted attention and international awards.

The calligraphic tradition, associate curator of contemporary Asian art at the Sackler and Freer Galleries Caroline Huh explained at a recent Atlantic Council event devoted to the graphic arts in Iran, has often served to “animate surfaces, lend significance to buildings and objects, and provide beauty.” Calligraphy is sometimes an adornment, sometimes part of a meditative practice. In Iran, it has been intimately connected to the poetry that has long attracted a worldwide audience.

Saeedi has created a number of posters devoted to Rumi, the well-known Persian poet. “I love Rumi and his poetry,” he said, showing me a poster of the hands of the poet playing the traditional Persian flute known as the ney. “The poem of Rumi is duplicated in the image where we also see the shape of the hands of Rumi playing the ney.”

He is currently working a new series connected to the Shahnameh, the world’s longest poem by a single author. Composed around the 10th century, it provides an account, in couplets, of ancient Persian history. Saeedi is trying to find the right script for the project – Iranian calligraphy draws on several different scripts – to provide a fresh, modern image of this venerable text.

Saeedi achieved enormous success within Iran as a graphic artist. To challenge himself, he has come to the United States to absorb new influences.

Meanwhile in Iran, the art scene continues to expand. Women artists are becoming more prominent and taking on more feminist-inflected themes, reported Hengameh Fouladvand, the executive director of the Center For Iranian Modern Arts in New York at the Atlantic Council event. “There’s more avant-garde work from women now than under the Shah.”

“Gallery space is a semi-public space,” Lila Nazemian of the Lila Heller Gallery in New York explained at the same event. “You have to be part of the community to find it. A regular person wouldn’t walk into a gallery. The openings in Tehran are on Fridays, and a small group of people comes every week. At these galleries there are back rooms where artists can show more risqué work, such as nudity or political work.”

Graphic artists, Nazemian continued, have the same status as any other visual artist in Iran. In this environment, Mehdi Saeedi achieved not only national but international success.

“Many of Mehdi’s works have a core international message and meaning with a Iranian surface,” points out Shahrooz Shekaraubi, the the founder and president of the Aftab Committee, an organization devoted to Iranian culture that organized the Saeedi exhibit. “This is what makes his work so appealing to diverse audiences. There’s much to connect with.”

LobeLog, September 23, 2016

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The Music of Hopelessness

If foreign policy had a soundtrack, it would be the opposite of easy listening.

Really, could anyone listen to a symphony of war and peace all the way through? In the first movement — devoted to death and destruction and played presto and fortissimo — the electric guitarists step to the front of the orchestra to strum power chords, scream hate-filled lyrics, and deliver cacophony instead of melody. Only headbangers and the hard-of-hearing could bear the onslaught.

In the second, interminable adagio movement, meant to represent diplomatic negotiations, the music is more repetitive than Philip Glass and more soporific than Coldplay at half speed. Those left in the audience would struggle simply to stay awake until the final notes of the negotiated settlement.

Fortunately, foreign policy’s soundtrack is not restricted to these two modes. Another genre of music has periodically provided relief from the official rhythms of war and peace: the protest song.

Edwin Starr’s 1969 classic “War” — “What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” — captured the spirit of the time and, alas, continues to resonate today. The threat of nuclear annihilation prompted P.F. Sloan to pen “Eve of Destruction” with its warning: “Can’t you feel the fears I’m feelin’ today? If the button is pushed, there’s no runnin’ away.”

More contemporary additions to the genre include: M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” Arcade Fire’s “Intervention,” “When the President Talks to God” by Bright Eyes, and System of a Down’s “Boom!” — not to mention classic songs by Patti Smith, Cat Stevens, Black Sabbath, Billy Bragg, Sonic Youth, the Dead Kennedys, Peter Gabriel, The Clash, Bob Marley, Kate Bush, and many others.

And that’s just the English-language tradition.

Over the weekend, the Eurovision contest produced a surprise winner, “1944,” on the unlikely topic of the Soviet expulsion of the Crimean Tatars in 1944. “When strangers are coming,” the lyrics go, “They come to your house/They kill you all/And say/We’re not guilty/Not guilty.”

Virtually all the songs in the Eurovision contest, a showcase for sonic schmaltz, seem to be produced by the same computer program: start with a pounding dance beat, add lyrics about the eternal verities of love, and enlist someone attractive to supply the soaring vocals. With its unusual title, unflinching lyrics, and musical arabesques, “1944” immediately jumps out as something different. ABBA — Eurovision winners in 1974 — this is not.

Sung by Ukrainian chanteuse Jamala, who is of Tatar and Armenian ancestry, “1944” elicited an immediate rebuke from the head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian Duma: “Geopolitics won on aggregate. Political meddling triumphed over fair competition.”

Talk about insensitive remarks. The Russian government annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine — through geopolitical muscle and political meddling — and recently bannedthe Crimean Tatars’ legislative body to add insult to injury. And all that Ukraine gets out of it is a Eurovision victory? It’s not even a consolation prize.

The Sound of Drones

Protest songs, like “1944,” are usually one-offs. Music producers don’t want more than one potentially divisive song per album, so as not to risk harshing the listener’s buzz.

Now, along comes something different: the protest album. The latest effort by Anohni, the transgender singer-songwriter formerly known as Antony Hegarty, takes protest music to an entirely different level.

The title of the album is about as anti-commercial as you can get: Hopelessness. Who in their right mind would spend their hard-earned money on something as unpromising as that? Yet, the combination of Anohni’s other-worldly voice, the often-lush electronic arrangements, and the subversive lyrics make the album required listening as we head out of the Obama era andinto something potentially worse.

What makes Hopelessness particularly interesting is Anohni’s ironic strategy. Instead of adopting the perspective of the outraged activist, she channels the old Stephen Colbert in adopting the persona of those she so clearly opposes.

“Four Degrees,” for instance, is about climate change. Rather than lament the passing of life from a burning Earth, Anohni sings like someone eager to hasten mass extinction:

I wanna hear the dogs crying for water
I wanna see fish go belly-up in the sea
All those lemurs and all those tiny creatures
I wanna see them burn, it’s only 4 degrees

In “Drone Bomb Me,” she imagines a potential victim wooing the drone high above:

So drone bomb me
(Drone bomb me)
Blow me from the mountains
And into the sea
Blow me from the side of the mountain
Blow my head off
Explode my crystal guts
Lay my purple on the grass

In other selections, Anohni sings of the “loving” eye of surveillance, the “love” a Death Row inmate has for the executioner (If Europe takes it away/inject me with something else), and the feckless apologies of an American who seems only to be concerned about the effects of drones and torture when they produce Islamic State beheadings on TV.

Of course, other songs on the album are more straightforward: an indictment of Obama, a comparison of humanity to a virus, and so on. But the seductiveness of the ironic approach appeals to me. I wonder what happens at Anohni’s concerts. Will the crowd, in singing along on “Four Degrees,” inadvertently shoulder responsibility for global warming when they cry “I wanna see them burn”? Irony is usually distancing. But here, irony establishes a damning proximity.

When she was performing in Antony and the Johnsons, Anohni did not shy away from politics. But it was usually an extension of her own beliefs. For instance, in the cut “Future Feminism” off Cut the World (2012), she includes a mini-lecture that castigates patriarchal monotheisms and calls for “feminine systems of governance,” beginning with the structures of organized religion. It was as if she became frustrated with the indirect nature of song lyrics and decided that she had to unburden herself to her audience in an unmediated manner.

In Hopelessness, she goes off in yet another direction. Anohni told The New York Times:

I was scared singing a lot of these songs. The words aren’t necessarily that savory — they’re obviously unsavory and scary. And that was also weird: to appropriate my own voice, which is something that people typically trust. People trust me to bring them to a safe place. This is the first record where I’ve not really done that. I’m using my voice to express more conflicted, multifaceted kinds of problems and perspectives that are less settled and less comforting.

It’s not just the lyrics. Anohni herself sounds like a drone in the song “Obama,” and the music is unpleasantly dirge-like. That’s an even riskier strategy: to make an unpleasant-sounding song on an unpleasant subject that practically dares people to listen to the end.

The Power of Music

Thanks to The New Yorker review of Hopelessness, I learned of another foreign policy concept album that came out this year: PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project. The title refers to the Hope VI public housing projects, demolished to make room for mixed-income units. A British rocker, Harvey traveled around the economically ravaged parts of Washington, DC — chauffeured by a Washington Post reporter — and added her observations on that trip to what she’d seen in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Harvey takes the more conventional approach in this album of writing in the third-person voice of the foreign correspondent. Here, for instance, is the opening to “The Ministry of Defence,” drawn from her visit to Afghanistan:

This is the Ministry Of Defence
Stairs and walls are all that’s left
Mortar holes let through the air
Kids do the same thing everywhere
They’ve sprayed graffiti in Arabic
And balanced sticks in human shit

The Hope Six Demolition Project is not PJ Harvey’s first foray into protest music. On her fabulous album Let England Shake, her song “The Words that Maketh Murder” rips into all those responsible for war. She reminds us that wars usually begin not with the force of arms but the force of words: assertions, declarations, threats, and the like.

The songs on The Hope Six Demolition Project contain some intriguing lyrics, and the music fits comfortably into the British alt rock tradition. But it doesn’t quite challenge the listener in the way that Anohni does. PJ Harvey is the traditional musical voyeur. She went to “dangerous” places and filed her stories, and we the listeners are as protected from what she saw as she was sitting in the back seat of cars taking notes. Anohni, on the other hand, invites her audience to take responsibility for making the entire world a dangerous place.

I prefer Harvey’s music and will probably continue to re-listen to her most recent album. But even if I never listen to Hopelessness again, its unsettling songs will stay with me a lot longer.

Divide or Unite?

Music is a powerful weapon against injustice. But in the wrong hands, music can be a murder weapon as well.

Just ask the formerly popular musician Simon Bikindi. He was charged with inciting genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Although his conviction in 2008 stemmed from his speeches rather than his music, the court concluded that his songs had “an amplifying effect on the genocide.”

Short of inciting genocide, other musicians have lent their lyrics to dubious causes. A number of skinhead bands over the years — Skrewdriver, Angry Aryans — have produced racist and xenophobic anthems. Turbofolk groups like the band Serbian Taliban sang in praise of Serbian ultra-nationalism. In the wake of 9/11, Toby Keith released “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” with lines like:

Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
The U.S. of A.
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way.

But of course, music more frequently brings people together. With his project Heartbeat, Aaron Shneyer has assembled young people from Israel and Palestine to make music. “There’s a few tools that we’ve come to understand inside music which we as musicians use to reach the zone, that magical place of unity as a band,” he told me in a recent video interview about his project. “Those three tools are really the same for building healthy communities and healthy societies. It really comes down to respect, to listening, and to responsibility.”

Heartbeat offers a hopeful story at a time when Israel and Palestine are at diplomatic loggerheads. Anohni’s Hopelessness is also, in a way, hopeful. She wouldn’t devote a whole album to the world’s ills if she didn’t think it possible to reverse them, even though it will probably require radical transformation. Just don’t fall for cheap slogans like “hope and change,” the songwriter reminds us. And don’t be lulled into doing the wrong thing, or doing nothing at all, by pretty melodies and a catchy Eurovision beat.

You can dance, Anohni is telling us. But only if you join the revolution.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 18, 2016

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Iraq’s Artifacts of Exile

In the initial aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, looters swept through the National Museum in Baghdad and carted off 15,000 items of incalculable value. Some of these items were destroyed in the attempt to spirit them away. Some disappeared into the vortex of the underground art market. Only half of the items were eventually recovered.

In February 2015, after a dozen years in limbo, Iraq’s National Museum reopened. But it was a bittersweet reopening, and not only because of the thousands of missing treasures. That February, Islamic State (ISIS or IS) militants recorded themselves smashing priceless objects in the central museum in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that IS had occupied since June 2014. U.S. troops had largely left the country, and Washington had declared the war over. But the destruction of Iraq—its heritage and its people—was still ongoing.

Michael Rakowitz is involved in a massive reclamation project. Since 2007, in a project calledThe invisible enemy should not exist, the Iraqi American artist has been recreating the lost treasures of Iraq. He and his studio assistants locate the description of the objects, along with their dimensions and sometimes a photograph, on the Interpol or Oriental Institute of Chicagowebsites, which have been set up to deter antiquity dealers from buying looted artifacts. Then they set to work.

“To date, we’ve reconstructed 500 of the 8,000 objects,” Rakowitz says. “It’s potentially a project that will outlive me and my studio.” In addition to the objects looted from the National Museum, they’ve begun to reconstruct pieces that IS has destroyed in Mosul, Nineva, and Nimrod.

Rakowitz recently gave me a tour of an exhibit of these reconstructed objects at the George Mason University School of Art, which was part of the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here Project. The largest piece on display is a brightly colored lion that stands about three feet tall.

“The Tell Harmal lion was destroyed,” Rakowitz says of the lion that once stood in the main temple of the Babylonian city of Shaduppum (today known as Tell Harmal) over 3,500 years ago. “Looters tried to take the head off the lion, and not knowing how fragile the terra cotta was, the entire head shattered beyond repair. We don’t just reconstruct the head but the entire lion: to give the viewer a sense of what that lion’s ghost might look like.”

The lion destroyed in Baghdad in 2003 was various shades of grey and white. But the reconstructed lion has a yellow torso and blue jaws. The difference in coloring is a function of the materials used for the reconstruction. “The artifacts are reconstructed out of the packaging of Middle Eastern foodstuffs and the Arabic-English newspapers available in the US where there are Arab communities,” Rakowitz explains.

The artist got the idea of using such materials during another of his art projects, the reopening the import-export business in Brooklyn that his grandfather established when he moved to the United States from Iraq in the late 1940s. This art project also involved an attempt to import Iraqi dates as a test case for the lifting of sanctions against the country.

In the process, Rakowitz discovered that packages of date cookies, for instance, rarely indicated the provenance of the fruit, often listing the ingredient as coming from countries that don’t even grow dates for commercial purposes. The sanctions had effectively rendered Iraq invisible. Later, for his tribute to the National Museum artifacts, Rakowitz wanted “to enlist these fragments of cultural visibility to construct what are now for all intents and purposes invisible objects.”

Curator in Exile

The person most responsible for retrieving so many of the pilfered objects from the National Museum was the former director, Donny George Youkhanna. Having participated in many of the excavations that uncovered these objects in the first place, Youkhanna felt a deep connection to the museum’s inventory.

After receiving a bullet in the mail that clearly suggested that he was in the crosshairs of militants, Youkhanna went into exile. He left for Syria, where he spent six months, and then accepted an offer from SUNY Binghamton to join its anthropology department.

During the creation of his project, Rakowitz formed a close friendship with Youkhanna and was touched that the former museum director visited his show when it was in New York. “He stayed at the gallery for hours, and as viewers came in, he gave tours of the artifacts on the table in the same way he would have given tours back in Baghdad,” Rakowitz said. “Donny George became very emotional about the artifacts. He said, ‘This is probably as close as I’ll get to them again.’”

Youkhanna passed away in 2011 as a result of a massive heart attack while traveling to Toronto. Not only did he die in exile, Rakowitz points out, but he didn’t even die within a country. He suffered a heart attack in the no man’s land between the United States and Canadian customs.

On Anger and Looting

The Iraq War, Rakowitz insists, was not just a disaster for Iraqis. Because it involved the destruction of so many ancient treasures from the birthplace of Western civilization, it was “a disaster for all of humanity.” He adds that, “It was also a lost opportunity when the outrage for missing objects did not translate into an outrage for missing bodies. So, the project does have an angry side.”

Through the reconstruction of these objects, Rakowitz wanted to make the Iraq War more present for American viewers. “In 2006, it was possible to go through Chelsea and not know that a war was going on,” he remembers. “I wanted to find a way of disturbing that. It is an antiquities market that made these objects desirable for the people who looted them for whatever reason. I’m an artist who is dealing with the contemporary art market, which is allowing me to show in a Chelsea gallery. Why not make an object that essentially haunts these collections as an uncomfortable apparition: to make us think about our complicity, conscious or unconscious.”

The name of the project—The invisible enemy should not exist—is the literal translation of the name of the street that ran from the Ishtar Gate, which Nebuchadnezzar built in 575 BC as a northern entrance to his city of Babylon. The gate was excavated between 1902 and 1914 by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey and then reconstructed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

“The countries of origin have called for the return of these objects,” Rakowitz argues. “There’s a large debate about this and the value of the imperial museum. For me it’s very simple. When things are taken without permission or under questionable circumstances, like backroom deals, this is a problem.”

The effort to reconstruct the objects looted from the National Museum in Baghdad is designed to be part of this debate. “The project has been acquired by several institutions, including the British Museum,” Rakowitz explains. Both the British institution and the Metropolitan will “take these replicas of looted artifacts from 2003 and put them next to Mesopotamian artifacts that they got under questionable circumstances.”

The juxtaposition of items representing two different eras of looting is a kind of artistic truth-and-reconciliation process.

“I appreciate when museums can be self-reflective or even critical when looking at its immense inventory the provenance and acquisition history of some of these things and to allow for some of the more uncomfortable stories to emerge,” Rakowitz points out.

At the same time, the objects that the British Museum or the Metropolitan essentially looted from Iraq many decades ago have at least been kept safe from the latest round of destruction. “Many Iraqis were calling for objects at the British Museum to return to Iraq,” Rakowitz says with a measure of sadness. “In the immediate aftermath of the looting, this attitude changed and these same Iraqis regarded those artifacts as fellow refugees and exiles just like themselves.”

LobeLog, April 6, 2016

Art Articles Featured

The Art of Dissidence and Diplomacy

The position of the body is the same. The figure is prone on the beach, near the water’s edge. The head is face down in the sand, and the face is just visible. One arm is close to the body, palm upward. The knees are bent, the feet together.

This is not Alan Kurdi (initially misreported as Aylan), the three-year-old Syrian child whose body washed up on shore in Turkey. It is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who staged a photographic reenactment for the newspaper India Today. He is not dressed in toddler clothing, nor has he shaved his beard to make himself appear younger. He is not after verisimilitude. He is paying homage.

At one level, the artist is simply expressing solidarity with the refugees that are pouring out of the warzones of the Middle East.

Last month, Ai set up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, which has been an entryway into Europe for many of the refugees. He has shared photos of life in the refugee camps with his many social media followers. He withdrew his art from two museums in Denmark after the Danish parliament passed a law allowing the government to seize property from asylum-seekers. He is planning a memorial to the refugees who have perished during the crossing. It’s made out of 14,000 of the poorly made lifejackets that surviving migrants discarded on arriving in Lesbos.

At another level, Ai Weiwei is making a bold statement about iconic representations.

The initial photo of Alan Kurdi shocked many people into recognizing the enormous cruelty of the refugee exodus. But after the photo was reproduced so often, it could not help but lose its initial capacity to arouse outrage. Can Ai Weiwei use his own iconic status to somehow refocus international attention on the continuing plight of the migrants?

Some of that attention has necessarily turned toward the artist himself, and not in a positive way.

“In his bizarre beach-lying ego trip, Ai also demonstrates what can happen when artists blunder too unthinkingly into big political issues,” writes Tim Teeman in The Daily Beast. “Instead of highlighting their cause, in their effort to shock, they can undermine it. Indeed, this is the biggest problem with Ai’s beach picture: it is all about him, and not about refugees, or the refugee crisis. It’s a pretty picture, whereas the picture of poor Aylan Kurdi — and all it stood for — was anything but.”

Teeman has reduced art, at least in this case, to little more than ego plus aestheticism. Ai Weiwei, he is arguing, is fundamentally irresponsible — for not thinking more and inserting himself less. It’s a strange criticism coming from Teeman. As a journalist who doesn’t generally cover politics — he writes mostly about popular culture — he is doing precisely what he faults Ai Weiwei for doing: foregrounding his own opinion (as opposed to sticking to the facts like a journalist) and wading into “big political issues” without thinking very deeply about them. Moreover, just like the Chinese artist, Teeman is aiming to provoke.

Well, we often criticize that which we fear, deep down, applies to ourselves as well. Still, Teeman inadvertently raises some important questions. What role can artists play in not only addressing political issues, but also helping to resolve political problems? As provocateurs, can artists do more harm than good? Is all art inherently political — or are politics and art antithetical?

I’ll explore these questions not only in this column but also in a new initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies that we’re calling Epicenter. Our new effort explores the intersection of politics and culture, precisely the territory that Ai Weiwei inhabits.

More on that, however, after a word from Madame President.

Madame President

The United States and the Arab World share this in common: Neither has had a female leader in the modern era. American voters might overturn the patriarchal status quo in the November elections. Arabs, meanwhile, will have to content themselves with the virtual reality of a female president.

In a new TV drama Madame President, the imaginary Arab country of Jabalein has just lost its leader to a heart attack. Noura Saad, the minister of planning and development, ascends to the presidency, but only for a year until the next elections. During this short tenure, she faces the usual problems of the region: water shortages, unemployment, civil unrest, political intrigue. On top of that, she must address concerns from colleagues and citizens alike that a woman is somehow not fit to be president.

Though it draws some musical and visual motifs from House of Cards, this production by Search for Common Ground and a Jordanian multimedia company relies more heavily on Tia Leoni’s Madam Secretary for inspiration: similar rise to power, nearly identical family make-up, and comparable conspiratorial backstory.

What it lacks in humor and fast-paced storytelling, Madame President makes up for in earnestness. It wants to address issues that are often off-limits in public debate in Arab countries: the status of women, the limits of civic protest, the prevalence of corruption. In thefirst episode, the new president decides not to crack down on young protestors upset over rising prices and unemployment. Instead, she meets face to face with them, listens to their demands, and releases their detained compatriots. Crisis averted!

Search for Common Ground has pursued this popular culture strategy in several parts of the world — a children’s TV show in Macedonia promoting intercultural understanding, a soap opera about social issues in Guinea, and a multi-nation TV show about footballers called The Team.

Here the artists are not simply raising provocative issues. They’re modeling the solutions: compassionate leaders committed to non-violence, football players from different socio-cultural backgrounds working together, soap opera characters providing information about public health issues. If Ai Weiwei is the provocateur activist, Search for Common Ground offers public service announcements wrapped up in the garb of popular entertainment. While the activist artist deploys the astringency of vinegar, the public service artist offers the honey of homey narrative.

You might argue that soap operas are not art. You might also argue that art should not be in the business of answering questions, only asking them.

These are legitimate challenges. But instead of this dualism of art/not-art, I prefer to imagine a spectrum that runs from more provocative to less provocative. On one end of the spectrum, the artist-dissident is throwing a pie in the face of convention: wake up! At the other end of the spectrum, the artist-diplomat is offering us the same pie as reconciliation and sustenance: eat up!


Our new program at IPS, Epicenter, is devoted to lifting up the work of artists as both dissidents and as diplomats — those who help to provoke conflict where the status quo is unjust and those who hope to resolve conflict where the status quo is violent. We’ll be focusing on the Middle East for the next year, with a particular emphasis on Iran. The nuclear deal — signed in July and implemented in January — offers a tremendous opportunity to improve U.S.-Iranian relations and pave the way for the resolution of key conflicts in the region: in Syria, Iraq, and even Israel-Palestine.

Since the United States and Iran don’t have formal diplomatic relations, much of the work of reconciliation must take place indirectly — through third parties, in second-track diplomacy, and by people-to-people contacts. One of the more successful examples of this kind of public diplomacy has been in sports. Like soap operas, athletic contests can often reach more people than exchanges in the fine arts.

This week, for instance, I write about the extraordinary case of “wrestling diplomacy”between Iran and the United States. Iranian wrestlers participated in the “Rumble on the Rails” in Grand Central Station in 2013. The next year, a U.S. team participated in the World Cup of Greco-Roman wrestling in 2014. What makes these exchanges so important is that, first of all, Iranian wrestlers are so much better than their U.S. counterparts — so a certain respect for Iranian culture and traditions is implicit in the exchange.

Also, as Bahman Baktiari, the executive director of the International Foundation for Civil Society, explains, “Wrestling appeals to conservative elements. Iranians start matches with prayers. Most of the logos in the arena are from the Koran. We are connecting to an important segment of Iranian civil society that we were not reaching before.”

Epicenter will tell these stories of the peacemaking component of culture. But it will also tell stories about the provocateurs.

“Art and culture is a great way to ensure accountability,” Manal Omar of the U.S. Institute of Peace told an audience at a session on “Art in Response to Conflict” sponsored by the Middle East Institute last week in Washington, DC. She pointed out that in a perverse way, artists are accorded more power and status in authoritarian countries. “The jails in the Middle East are filled with artists, poets, playwrights. They are the risks. They are the people who are inspiring the people. The authoritarian regimes have figured this out. Why haven’t we?”

Epicenter will amplify the efforts of organizations working with both the dissidents and the diplomats. Follow us on our Facebook page to read articles, see videos, and learn of events that are changing the face of the Middle East. Foreign policy is too important to leave to the “professionals.” Through art and culture, we can all work to make the world a better place.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 10, 2016