Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Artist’s Burden

Never before has an award in an elitist cultural affair such as the Cannes Film Festival engendered so heated a public debate concerning the deserved nature of the accomplishment and the motives which underlie the honor bestowed upon it. Then again, Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ (F9/11) is a veritable cinematic tour de force, which by virtue of the provocative topic it chooses to explore and the array of cinematic techniques which are employed in the presentation and exposition of its theme, aims precisely to undermine artistic conventions and to subvert the prevailing consensus regarding the social function, or better yet the absence of one, assigned to contemporary art.
Bearing this in mind, one may reasonably claim that the gesture of handing Moore the award for having put together an overtly political film, is of greater importance than the very content of the film itself. The participation of F9/11 in the competing section of the Festival was not made subject to the perfunctory classification of films into the separate categories into which modern cinematic production is formally divided (i.e. political documentary, science fiction, etc.). The obvious consequence of such a formalistic approach to Moore’s work would have been to heavily constrain the film’s popular appeal by virtue of designating it as inappropriate for mass consumption and of interest only to a specific, politically conscious type of audience.
Furthermore, by receiving its award in an open contest against seemingly apolitical films, and by this we mean films with no overt political meaning and therefore with no direct bearing on the political process, it seems that the very preoccupation of Moore’s work with the issues and problems raised by ongoing developments in the field of politics is the principal object of praise by the organizing committee, the entertaining qualities of F9/11 notwithstanding. It is the activist approach of Moore as a filmmaker which receives recognition here and not merely the aesthetic quality of a work of art. Particularly so, when what we are presented with is a documentary which deals with the objective representation of reality, thereby inviting those who comment or deliberate upon its quality to express their own views and formulate their own interpretations of those sociopolitical events the film purports to bring into light. If F9/11 was meant to convey an unequivocal political statement, which it surely was, the award which it received in Cannes amounts to an indirect endorsement of this statement by the intellectual leadership par excellance of the world cinematic community.[i]
This brings us to the overriding question of the political reawakening that currently seems to be festering within the ranks of the American artistic community.[ii] Moore’s success in the revered Cannes Festival served to effectively redefine the established perceptions concerning the boundaries between the public domain of politics and the sphere of artistic activity. It demonstrated that, in times of crises, not only is the artist in a position to use his selected artistic medium so as to actively implicate himself in the interplay among conflicting political ideas, not only does he possess a moral right to engage in militant political action, but he also has a moral obligation to do so, an obligation which derives from the public aspect of his profession. No longer will Moore be viewed as a pariah among fellow filmmakers because of the unequivocally partisan content of his work. No longer will he be treated as an attraction (the exception to the rule) or will he be on the receiving end of condescending attitudes on the part of his fellow artists.
Apart from demonstrating that political involvement no longer constitutes a violation of the post-modern artist’s informal code of conduct, Cannes also situated protest art, of the type Moore is in the habit of making, at the vanguard of the process of transforming contemporary art into a socially responsive medium and attaching to it a sense of collective responsibility which it hitherto has lacked. In other words, it has allowed Moore’s brand of combative artistic documentation to heavily influence the general platform from which a movement of agitational, protest art may be expected to emerge in the future.
Furthermore, insofar as Moore’s work cannot but express the director’s commitment to a basic set of social and political values upon which he bases his critique of established authority, one may reasonably suggest that by honoring F9/11, a degree of approbation was extended to the underlying set of principles underpinning the ideological orientation of the work. In turn, such a bold initiative can be interpreted as confirmation of the fact that the ideological element which is inherent in the composition of all works of art not only constitutes an integral part of the process of artistic creation, but may also provide the point of departure from which the artistic merit of a particular work of art can be realistically evaluated.
To be sure, the tendency of contemporary art to adopt increasingly political and anti-authoritarian connotations can hardly be attributed solely to a spontaneous realization on the part of the individual artist of the moral requirements which are presupposed by his role as an active social subject. The truth is that the politicization of art and its new-found affinity for disobedience against political authority represents more a reflexive reaction against the Bush administration’s systematic campaign to place the sphere of artistic expression under a regime of strict governmental supervision and control. The anti-government stance adopted by many an artist in the aftermath of the Iraq war is a defensive posture, directed against a political power which infringes upon the basic democratic rights upon which the essence of artistic freedom rests, which up until now artists had taken for granted.
The saturation of the post-9/11 cultural environment with ultra-patriotic doctrines, the exaltation of unconditional obedience to the Presidential political authority as the supreme virtue of the good citizen in times of war and the spread of conformist, submissive attitudes as a norm by which artistic behavior can be effectively monitored and regulated, all constitute indirect forms of control, through which the artistic sphere is being slowly transformed into a propaganda industry. In the case of Moore’s F9/11, other types of control, more immediate and tangible than ideological indoctrination, were exercised in order to prevent the film from finding an outlet to the theaters. Once it became evident to the White House that the willingness of the original corporate producers (Disney, Miramax) to actively demonstrate their ‘patriotic sentiment’ by way of consciously submitting their product to self-censorship and refusing to go ahead with the distribution of the film could not be relied upon, the government opted for a more direct-action approach which included the threat of political and economic counter-measures against those companies who would resolve in favor of circulating Moore’s film in US cinemas.
In this respect, the Cannes award was a breakthrough in Moore’s struggle to bypass the informal embargo against F9/11 orchestrated by the US government and enabled the director to assemble a coalition of willing companies that would assist him in the distribution of the film. It was the Bush administration who first undertook to define anew the relationship between political power and artistic freedom. The Cannes award was merely a response on the part of the artistic community to the challenge presented to them by the US government.
Goddard’s objection that the political content of Moore’s documentary served only to obscure any attempt to realistically and soberly evaluate its artistic attributes is neither here nor there. For what Goddard has utterly failed to grasp is that what we speak of here is not the subjugation of artistic creation to political imperatives, but, on the contrary, the development of a distinctive genre of art which is socially conscious, is assertive and refuses to be cowed by political power and is not averse to struggling with controversial themes with a direct impact on the social and material conditions of our existence.
At the event that one hastily dismisses Moore as a polemicist or a propagandist, we are entitled to retort that in tumultuous and extremist times, when a tyrannical authority is at work, the effort for as possible an impartial and unbiased depiction of reality can become in itself a subversive activity. For instance, when a reporter chooses to adhere to the prerequisites of journalistic ethics and does not shy away from reporting a massacre perpetrated by his own government, the simple act of safeguarding one’s own professional integrity appears to acquire the dramatic meaning of a defiant gesture against tyrannical authority. After all, as has been pointed out by Charles Taylor, “’propaganda’ does not necessarily have to be composed of lies. Indeed, the most effective ‘propaganda’ is the truth, for in the long run the use of the truth will enable the propagandist to gain the trust of his audience”.[1]
If the journalist, or the artist for that matter, decides to hold his peace in the face of injustice, then not only is he culpable for having failed to act but he is also an accomplice to the crime which he has witnessed. This is a duty which both the artist and the journalist cannot ever afford to disregard and when either of them, due to repression or a personal proclivity for accommodationism, embark upon only a partial fulfillment of their social duty, it is the other’s task to intensify his efforts so as to unmask the powers that be and thus make up for the loss. This moral obligation not to ever fall short of the requirements of justice is what we call the artist’s burden.

[1] Ch. Taylor, Film Propaganda; Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, p.26 (Croom Helm; London, 1979).
[i] Contrary to what is taking place in the field of international politics, the intellectual leadership informally embodied in the presiding committee of the Cannes Film Festival, which included artists of both American and European origin, appears to have operated on the basis of a transatlantic consensus against President Bush’s counter-terrorist strategy. It seems that in the arts a degree of political consonance has been achieved between Europe and the US which is still characteristically absent on the political level of the transatlantic alliance.
[ii] One has only to recall the mobilization of the global artistic community in the turbulent period which preceded the US invasion of Iraq and the massive participation of various artists in the campaign of the anti-war movement. A recent article in the New York Times, describes the sense of “political awakening” experienced by the most progressive sector of New York’s artistic establishment and the virulent anti-Bush sentiments which accompany this new-found interest in electoral politics. To what extent this novel phenomenon represents an authentic manifestation of heightened political awareness among US artists, or is merely the product of a fashionable trend remains to be seen. As Williams writes, “It’s ‘fashionable’ to hate George Bush right now”. See Al. Williams, The Cutting Edge in Arts Is Discovering the Medium of Politics, New York Times, 09/07/2004.

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