Sunday, August 16, 2009

the arts will not save your soul on their own

An interesting analysis of art's civilizing influence (or lack thereof) in Friday's New York Times. Michael Kimmelman's recounting of the murder of Marwa al-Sherbini in a Dresden courtroom by a white nationalist and assault (by police) of her husband as he tried to save her makes for every brown person's worst nightmare:
Marwa al-Sherbini, a pregnant Egyptian pharmacist [...] was stabbed 18 times in a Dresden courtroom, in front of her 3-year-old son, judges and other witnesses, reportedly by the man appealing a fine for having insulted Ms. Sherbini in a park. Identified by German authorities only as a 28-year-old Russian-born German named Alex W., he had called Ms. Sherbini an Islamist, a terrorist and a slut when she asked him to make room for her son on the playground swings. Ms. Sherbini wore a head scarf.

The killer also stabbed Elwi Okaz, Ms. Sherbini’s husband and a genetic research scientist, who was critically wounded as he tried to defend her. The police, arriving late on the scene, mistook him for the attacker and shot him in the leg.
That's the kind of mistaken identity that makes Henry Louis Gates' ordeal this summer seem like drinking a beer in the Rose Garden. (Of course, the good Professor would argue that his detention was merely the first step on the same path of horror that occurred in Dresden -- especially the horrific shooting of Mr. Okaz, assumed to be the perpetrator in a courtroom melee by arriving policemen since he was brown. HLG would be wrong on that count.)

What turns Kimmelman's human interest piece into more tragic cri de coeur is the conclusion he reaches from this horrific act occurring in one of European cultural capital:
High-tech industries and research institutes like the one where Ms. Sherbini’s husband works, which recruit foreign experts, have lifted Dresden economically above much of the rest of the former East [Germany], and last year nearly 10 million tourists fattened the city’s coffers. With half a million residents, some 20,000 of them foreigners, the capital looks prosperous and charming, like its old self.

All of which gets back to the problem of reconciliation: What are the humanizing effects of culture?

Evidently, there are none.

To walk through Dresden’s museums, and past the young buskers fiddling Mozart on street corners, is to wonder whether this age-old question may have things backward. It presumes that we’re passive receivers acted on by the arts, which vouchsafe our salvation, moral and otherwise, so long as we remain in their presence. Arts promoters nowadays like to trumpet how culture helps business and tourism; how teaching painting and music in schools boosts test scores. They try to assign practical ends, dollar values and other hard numbers, never mind how dubious, to quantify what’s ultimately unquantifiable.

The lesson of Dresden, which this great city unfortunately seems doomed to repeat, is that culture is, to the contrary, impractical and fragile, helpless even. Residents of Dresden who believed, when the war was all but over, that their home had somehow been spared annihilation by its beauty were all the more traumatized when, in a matter of hours, bombs killed tens of thousands and obliterated centuries of humane and glorious architecture.

The truth is, we can stare as long as we want at that Raphael Madonna; or at Antonello da Messina’s “St. Sebastian,” now beside a Congo fetish sculpture in another room in the Gemäldegalerie; or at the shiny coffee sets, clocks and cups made of coral and mother-of-pearl and coconuts and diamonds culled from the four corners of the earth in the city’s New Green Vault, which contains the spoils of the most cultivated Saxon kings. But it won’t make sense of a senseless murder or help change the mind of a violent bigot.

What we can also do, though, is accept that while the arts won’t save us, we should save them anyway. Because the enemies of civilized society are always just outside the door.
It's hard not to find some sympathy with this kind of nihilistic despair (if arts can't redeem humanity in Dresden, it won't anywhere), but in the United States, where advocates argue that government funding for the arts saves us from the throes of hate, or acts simultaneously as a nationalistic and humanistic act, such self-defeating rhetoric is anathema. After all, arts advocates (in addition to keeping their projects alive), are trying to stave off catastrophe by keeping the forces of ignorance and genocide from widespread influence. (Hmm. And hmm.)

It's especially terrifying that this deep pessimism comes out of Germany. The Nazis have never held power in this country (both the health care reform nuts and anti-Bush II zealots can shut it. They haven't), and the civilizing influence of our multicultural society has been seen as its winning strategy in that endless vigil.

If it turns out that arts are not at all useful in the effort to find common ground, the only other option is that they are a tool for those who would exploit our differences (after all, don't forget the Chancellor of the Wagner Fan Club). Art does not exist in a vacuum: it works as a tool in the interest of someone's agenda, be it the National Socialists, the Medicis, or Coca Cola.

So when this kind of despair is takes root among art's partisans (this is a column in the Arts Section of the New York Times, not Jesse Helms' zombieblog, for crying out loud), a helpful question for artists to be asking themselves is what agenda, what interests, are they pursuing? Artists need to examine whether they're a tool for those who would bring us together, or those who would drive us apart -- because you can't sit that choice out.

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