The title of Laila Soliman’s most recent play (which is the sole subject of this article) “No Time For Art-Interactive Theater Performance to honor the martyrs of the Revolution”, raises another question: Is there a time for art?
Since the Revolution, Egyptian artists have been running about like headless chickens. Their concerns have taken an almost existential dimension. What do we do now? Do we keep doing what we used to do? Where do “we” end and our art begin? These questions underline the very nature of the creative process, that it has always been tied to life in some way or another. At least the life of the questioning artist.
We might say that similar questions were raised in the debate about the way Ahmed Bassiouny’s work was represented in Venice. Merging the title Artist with that of Martyr seemed to undermine both.
Bassiouny would have taken to the streets and would have met his death, had he been an artist or not. Just as his art is valuable regardless of his martyrdom. Standing in the face of teargas and eventually getting shot, was he thinking about the legacy of his art? Did any of the artists camping on Tahrir square for 18 days think about their art? I know I didn’t.
It becomes clear then that there is a distinction between the artist self and the human self. Like kinetic balls they occasionally collide, propelling the next move. That instant of collision, this fleeting moment of identification, is very transparent in great works of art. You look at the work without drifting in all sorts of sub-scenarios, and you certainly don’t gasp: “what on earth is he/she thinking”? Art created when this distinction dissolves doesn’t leave room for speculations about the person’s (not the artist’s) motivation. Whether it grabs the viewer or not, there are no doubts about its oneness of purpose.
Recently however the question seems to be how to prevent this colliding from ever taking place. Because of the “time”, we must make a clear distinction between who we are and what we do. And what we do doesn’t have to do with who we are, but must in any case attest that we are aware of “when” and “where” we are. And because we are artists, and the time is bad, it becomes “no time for art”, which could be easily followed by no place for art.
When something of extraordinary proportion happens, it needs to be acknowledged. The place for reactionary art in history is secured by history itself. After a devastating bombing or a political victory, there’s no time for art. That is to say no time for contemplative reflection, for philosophy. It is time for action; solidarity or celebration, and anything else seems inappropriate. This explains the catatonic state of some artists, their inability to produce, to pick up where they left off, but in no way does it justify reactionary art disguised as political activism.
This art however is the unjustifiable necessary evil. An indication of the human impulse to act and produce. It is necessary and valid, but its self-referencing displays of assertion and awareness must be kept in check. Artists should know that by showing us real life in all it’s crudity they have not removed themselves from the superfluous concerns of art, for the questions remain where do they show those realities, how, and who are “we” and how it determines our perception of them? Any form of artistic representation takes us back to that space of reflection and distraction. That very space these representations in all their coarse realism attempt to condemn. Re-contextualization, spatialization, and eventually mediation of any life event transform it into a meditated event, as detached from its object as a photograph might be from its subject.
It follows from this that the example of an interactive theater intervention, to be performed on a stage, in a venue, using actors, with timetabled attendance and synopsis for what the audience is to expect, does not add up to an unorthodox form of that which we will not call Art. Nor does it “honor” the reality (but maybe the concept) of martyrdom. If anything, it represents a fact in its untruthful form. If anything, it’s oxymoron. One can use art’s tools to comment on art’s superficiality, it happens all the time. But the claim here is that what is happening “now” is bigger than art’s limited ability to grasp and address it. Why then try to squeeze the elephant back into the cupboard?
There’s something morbidly bourgeois about implying the existence of a “time for art”. The thought that art can only exist to react is disquieting. But more so is the idea that art cannot exist if it cannot react “appropriately”. Did art ever exist or was it passing time waiting for the revolution? I happen to believe that no time is no time for art. It is dangerous at a time like this where we are expected to make the most use of our creative resources, to unlock our potential, to relinquish dogmas and have a broader understanding, to place the word No anywhere near the word Art.
Originally published on http://moabdallah.wordpress.com/ on June 15, 2011. Submitted to RollingBulb.com by Mohammed Abdallah