My discontent with contemporary art can be summed up by my day today. It is June 14, 2014 and I am in London.
I went to see an exhibition organized by the Palestinian Film Foundation entitled “The World Is With Us”. It is a collection of over 20 hours of rare films shot between 1968 and 1980 during the Palestinian Revolution. The films were made by both Palestinian and international directors, from the Dziga Vertov Groups’s “Ici et Aileurs” to the works of Hany Jawhariyyeh, one of the founders of Palestinian cinema, also the first martyr of Palestinian cinema as he was killed while filming events in Ain Toura in Lebanon. The incredible Vanessa Redgrave was also present in the film “The Fifth War”, which is an account of Israel’s 1978 “Litani Operation,” in which its forces invaded Lebanon aiming to eradicate the PLO base. The highlight of the film was a wonderful surprise cameo by Dr. Elias Shoufani, the late father of my dear friend Hind. Seeing Ms. Redgrave interview him so many years ago, in the prime of his youth, gave affirmation that art and love are the most powerful tools we have. With film, good people and their ideas can live forever.
The films were being screened on vintage TVs and the display and presentation not only took me back in time, but also eased the weight of the content I was watching. Along with the films there was a curated selection of revolutionary posters by some of my favorite historic Palestinian artists, illustrators and graphic designers. It was wonderful to see works by Mona Saudi, Abdel Rahman Al-Muzain, and Mustafa al-Hallaj. I spent a good three hours in the small basement room. It was hot and I was hungover—a long night of cheap wine and very expensive charcoals and ink, but I barely noticed as I was so taken by the work. The amount of research that has gone into this show is to be applauded. Never in my life have I been able to see so much of Palestine’s rich artistic and film history all in one room. I was happy. I was informed. I left feeling good. I felt empowered by all the information. Enough to make me want to do something good for art today.
Leaving Rich Mix, the venue in Shoreditch, I looked at the world around me and wondered about how we ever let things get so lost and violent in the Middle East. Today, the good people of London city are getting ready for a big night out. The world cup has just started and England plays Italy tonight. Apparently the pubs are staying open late just for the game. In parallel to the World Cup and on an entirely different tangent, the possible break up of Iraq is happening as I type. In the last few days, ISIL, the new and improved! al-Qaeda militia, has been sweeping across northern Iraq and are plucking up cities along the way. The news agencies are reporting that Iraq is most probably going to be broken up into three countries in the coming weeks. This ambush has the “Western” world reeling. Did all those who perished in Iraq, all those soldiers from around the world, all those civilians, all those militiamen, all those mothers and sweet sweet children… did they all die for nothing? That’s the big question today. To me, it’s so far from a question. It’s a fucking reality. If you go to war, NOTHING good will come out of it. Violence begets violence and it’s a never ending cycle. Well done warmongers, you’ve given birth to a new monster and it’s not going anywhere. It’s only going to get bigger and it’s picking up lost souls in Syria along the way, sweeping in for total world domination.
As thoughts rushed through my head and emotions swelled up in my chest, my eye caught notice of a big gallery. I thought to duck in and check out the show really quickly. I reached for the door, and it almost broke at my tug. What, locked? Why would they do that? It’s a Saturday. Then I saw a buzzer. Ok, I guess I have to push the buzzer. I did. A shrill bell rang and I made my way in. There was no one, only a long and cold hallway. I saw something that looked like art hanging on the wall, but wondered if it was just not an extension of the building itself. It confused me. I looked up and saw a few security cameras looking at me. Ah, ok. I started feeling sick in my stomach. I don’t like the idea of people looking at me through a security camera while I’m at an art show. I walked on through. The gallery office doors were closed, so I walked passed them and into the exhibit space. The entire room was occupied by a giant useless looking sculpture. Was it a sculpture? I’m not sure. I stood there frozen, not knowing what to do. I didn’t smile and I didn’t frown. I just didn’t feel anything. I walked up to it and touched it. I felt the security cameras burning a hole through the back of my head—yes, even more cameras in here. What is the point of this monstrous thing, I wondered. Ok, I get it. It’s a commentary. But, on what? It’s so cold. Is this what our world has come to? The schism between what we are experiencing in the Mid East and what people are feeling here is like day and night. I might seem a bit hard, but believe that I am all about love. I felt like this sculpture was working against love. It was working against emotions. It was working against… yes, you said it… humanity.
So here’s the question at hand. What’s the purpose of art? What is it supposed to make you do or feel? Most people today would say that I’m not even asking the right question. Art today is so deeply rooted in cold wordy philosophy that it’s become utterly lifeless and devoid of feeling. It’s become so conceptual that it lives on it’s own. The bridges to fun lovin’ softies, like me, have been burnt. They say that art is a reflection of society and if this is how artists see our society today, I would like to ask them to give their eyeglasses a good cleaning. The world is on fire. Humanity is more fragile than ever. People are not cold and lifeless. We are all in it together, working hard—blood, sweat and tears to create the lives that we wish to live. I don’t want to single out the gallery or artist that I saw today, they just had the misfortune of being in my line of fire. Nothing personal. There are many others like you out there.
I truly believe that today, more than ever, we need to be making art that inspires. Art that contributes to positive values and ideals. Critics would say that I’m 50 years behind, but I would tell them that they should show some humility. Art is moving quickly, but quality of production and ideas have been on a steep decline. Maybe we need to slow down a little and figure out what’s really important. But of course, we can’t. The art market would never allow it. Art belongs to the elite now. The millionaires who have bought and resold and rebought and resold have upped the prices so much that the value of art today is mostly based on its commodity value. And this makes me want to vomit. I swear it’s not the hangover. I had a shot of wheatgrass and I’m feeling much better now.
In a few hours, England and Italy will go to war over a ball. In a few hours, ISIL will go to war for oil, bread and God. In a few hours (well more like days), a painting at Art Basel will sell for a million dollars. In a few hours, a baby will be born in the Zaatari Refugee camp and will experience being in an open-air prison for her entire life. In a few hours, a man will buy his finance a diamond ring made from the blood of African miners. In a few hours, millions of cows will go to the slaughter to make your next Big Mac. Yes, this is the world we live in today.
All that said, what really then is the role of art today. As artists, where do we fit in within the whole mess of it all. What about someone like me who lives straddled between the East and the West. I don’t have the answer, but I know what my gut tells me and it tells me that art should stay within the realm of all that is good and all that is fair.