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TIME IS A BOOK is a project founded by artists Dirk Braeckman and Els Dietvorst. Time Travel spread over 300 books internationally. deBuren went to Bucharest and posed these questions to four young artists. Can art be engaged? Can you, as an artist, still be radical? Today, literary critic Ana Chirițoiu responds.
It was the autumn of 2009, but it looked more like late summer in Venice. I was invited there to talk about contemporary young Romanian writers on behalf of the literary magazine I was working for, Noua literatură. I had brought along a selection of eight short stories that I thought to be representative for the new writing: one of them tackled being a writer between the East and the West, two other ones referred to travelling (I have to admit that my reading was more in the sense of touristic consumption), one was about the cyber control the state manifests over its citizens, one about the impossibility of being a writer or a translator for a living, one was simply funny and in the others one would have had to look far in order to identify social concerns, but they were nonetheless well written and entertaining. I distributed them among the public – Venetian students of the Romanian section –, read them aloud, talked about them and asked for comments.
Most of the comments I have forgotten, despite the very engaging dialogue, except for the one of a student who introduced herself as studying sociology and having taken part in a program of social assistance in several Romanian towns and villages. She was curious to know whether there are books written on such themes as work migration, abandoned children, poverty, rural life, gender relations and so on, which she encountered there and thought could make interesting themes for literature. Much to my own discontent, I could not come up with numerous examples.
I also find such themes as the ones the Venetian student enquired about artistically bounteous, and yet in a dossier on this subject hosted by the magazine I worked for, most of the writers invited to have their say did not share this opinion: some thought there needs to be drawn a line between the writer and the citizen, others that writing is an individual occupation and, especially when it is uninvolved, it saves one from the fallacy of stupidity, others said there are already plenty of writers who gained their glory mainly by being preoccupied with the fate of kangaroos, Amazonian forests, blacks, women, ring-plovers and the like, or that the only possible engagement for a writer is the artistic one. They would probably be offended (some actually were) by a sociological reading of their books, which do in fact support one, even though it is not explicitly invited by the actual content.
By and large, the conclusion of the dossier would be that ideology and social commitment, be it overtly expressed or not, are to be avoided in literature or at least not praised for themselves. I tend to agree to the latter opinion, but I can’t help adding a necessarily complementary question: can art be praised for itself in lack of an ideology? One of the authors invited in the debate opportunely said no. There are instances of books that have successfully embodied both extremes – either complete ivoryness, or total commitment – and even more examples of equally successful books situated at any point inbetween. But there are few instances of contemporary Romanian writers who show interest for current social realities, be it in the form of extra-literary involvement / action, or in that of fictional representations of social problems. The first case of disinterest can be accounted for mostly by sociological remarks: the social status (or symbolic capital) of artists is virtually non-existent, in a country where surveys have shown that a person buys one book per year, rendering literature as a niche form of entertainment or information. The second case requires a more elaborate explanation.
It is well known and widely accepted that it does not necessarily take a dictatorship for one to be a (genuinely) socially committed author. Nevertheless, it is generally alleged that one of the major causes for the lack of interest, if not overt refusal, of most Romanian authors to address social and political themes in their books is what was known as the intensely required (and equally intensely fabricated) social engagement of authors during the communist years. This is to say it was mostly the request that political successes be rendered by means of careful documentation which set the Eastern artistic mind frame to conclude, louder and louder, especially after 1989, that the only morality in art is that it be sufficient to itself, that is, aesthetically purified from political interventions, and that concepts as ‘ideology’, ‘commitment’, ‘documentation’ and so on are to be rendered irrelevant – if not directly disqualifying – when discussing an author’s work, and even more so when conceiving it.
Moreover, the autonomy of aestheticism has served a more twisted purpose than that of alienating artists from society: in the aftermath of the 1989 revolution, several cultural policy-makers made use of it so as to perpetuate the glory of the writers who had served the official politics in the former époque by means of their oeuvre, which was argued to be beyond their human deeds and, moreover, beyond the themes it had been set to illustrate (and often succeeded in doing so).
Formally, the exploration of socially engaged art has a history almost equally long on both sides of The Iron Curtain, but it took very different shapes in the different spaces: while socio-political critique was an important trend with several Western artists, often to the degree that the local establishment felt incommoded by it, with Eastern artists it was a direct request from the Party for artists to turn to society in order to describe the accomplishments of socialism. It can be argued that in the latter case the request stood as an invitation to merely produce fiction, which is indeed the way several artists (especially writers) have tackled it, but this argument is usually overlooked when blaming the horrid sonority of such phrases as ‘social involvement’ on past uses and abuses of the term. It is now enough to mention that documentation was the duty of art under dictatorship in order to compromise the idea of fieldwork; since the prerequisite of checks and balances with what was then called reality was abolished, together with the regime, it has apparently become superfluous to impose such a prerequisite upon ourselves.
By means of time and politics, the generation that had endured communism soon became the cultural mainstream and perpetuated its purist beliefs to the point where it would cause serious clashes with younger generations, the priorities of which were perhaps others. Social and political concerns in art have been discouraged – not only in reviews, but also in the preferential granting of access to publications, stages and galleries. This time the censorship was merely symbolic, but how’s a defender of aestheticism to say that symbolic deeds weigh less than practical ones, especially in a country where, for lack of actual dissidence, the aesthetic concern was much-praised as a means of symbolic opposition to the former regime?
My bitter remarks could go on and on, but the discussion is fairly uninformed and highly idiosyncratic. I’m not aware of surveys being made as to what the proportion of writers who swear on pure aestheticism and their reasons to do so is, and this subject hardly ever enjoys any discussions. Participation in debates regarding public and social subjects tends to occur in what I’d call extravert societies. Ours is not such; it has often been said that communism has failed in perhaps its greatest scope: creating a public sphere. And so far the transition to democracy did not manage to change much in this respect either, not even when shutting the windows could not help the noise of the street or that of the public sphere from entering one’s solitary study room.
What the transition to democracy, often described as ‘catching up with the West’, did manage, however, was to create a sense of cultural sufficiency, which renders themes as social commitment as passé, due to a two-fold self-indulgent logic. It is said either that, once we’ve read books, watched performances or seen exhibitions containing the results of (Western) socially engaged art, we can have a say in it and not need to practice it any further; or that so numerous artists have formerly exercised socially engaged art that the present may be exempt of its presupposed benefits. But it is only honest to admit that neither of these rationales can stand for an actual experience of political art; the former is artificial, the latter is counterfeit.
Social engagement no longer appears to be the Golden Fleece in Western literatures either; when it is still practiced, it simply conveys personal choices and a personal ideology, and there are probably cultural circles where it is even regarded as naïveté or indeed as a desertion from aesthetic value / incumbent artistic subjectivity / honesty / individuality. Even though they ceased to be major intellectual conquests, there are nonetheless books of fiction being written on such themes as human rights* or feminism – a species that would have to wait before it appears in Romania, if it ever will, despite the necessity that it does. A necessity reclaimed in the name of a reality that calls for a representation, and furthermore, in the name of morality and – were it not such a censurable word – didacticism. But the obviousness of such representations is made void by the sufficiency described above, perverse enough to make many be amused by political correctness without ever having practiced it.
Take, for instance, feminism. ‘Feminism is so passé’, I hear prominent local artists say, while statistics show that in Romania a woman is being abused every 2 minutes and that, throughout 5 years, more than 700 of these cases ended in death**. Even though local statistics don’t fall short from global ones, they may be relatively far from those in Western Europe, towards which we aspire without taking notice of the gap between the aspirations of intellectuals and the realities of the field. In fact, such figures may be more similar to those of countries like Somalia, of which we are otherwise appalled to read in the news. There are no surveys to show to what extent public Romanian intellectuals are aware of such data as they serenely preach disinvolvement from social issues in art, frequently rendering it a gratuitous leftist caprice which has failed to change the world anyway, but which poses a serious threat to change art. Thus, feminism does not even resound here in academic circles – there is no feminist criticism, no feminist studies, and the few translations from feminist authors remain largely unnoticed.
I browse The Guardian and find an article in which several feminist authors talk about the books that influenced them; I wonder how long it will take before an important daily newspaper in Romania approaches the subject and also how much it takes before it finds five local feminist authors. The most frequent objection such intellectuals formulate against feminist literature – and any other form of engaged literature – is that such writers have sacrificed their art for the sake of the direct purpose. Did Jeanette Winterson do so? Did Doris Lessing? Did Emily Dickinson? Did Sappho? Who’s to judge art beyond its ideas? Is there a sacrifice involved at all? Who’s to defend the idea that such writers are writers before they’re feminists? And why would anyone?
It’s early summer in Bucharest, 2009. The yearly book fair Bookfest takes place in a huge building inherited from the former regime. One has the chance to meet here writers in flesh and blood. A young male writer grabs my arm and takes me to a bookstand to have me look at a poetry album he says he’s crazy about. The album consists of images of young women’s naked bodies on which poets write poems. It is printed on quality paper, in bright, full colours. It costs a lot, too. The poets in the pictures look pleased. So does my friend. A post on a feminist blog I often read, which would easily be considered radical here, comes to mind; it states that the history of art merely reproduces the history of women’s humiliation. I can’t quote that to my young male friend without expecting to be ridiculed. But I can’t think of anything else while I try to make out from the looks on the girls’ faces what other than a deep, undisputed sense of patriarchy has prompted them to offer their bodies (benevolently, as far as I remember) for writers to use them in such an uninspired manner. And also what the chances would be of an equally luxurious album of poems and photos about the abuses on women to be financed and appreciated by such sophisticated young writers as my friend. Is women’s nudity (in such obsolete, hippie forms) the only way to make poetry appealing to the audience?
Poet Adrian Mitchell is frequently quoted to have said, ‘Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’. Most self-sufficient intellectuals would not admit that exploring reality and positioning oneself in relation to it is not only a perfectly legitimate artistic act, but also a desirable one. The gap between them and their possible audience is therefore larger than life. The social reality in which a woman is abused every two minutes seems to occur in a country far away from the one where artists pronounce themselves against ideology in art while they consume albums in which poetry (supposedly aesthetic and abstract) is written on the body, as if such artistic gestures were ideology-free.
The debut poetry volume of Adrienne Rich is entitled A Change of World. It appeared in 1951. I recap the words which changed my world: falogocentrism, le deuxième sexe, queer, écriture feminine, inequality, performativity, woman-eunuch, borderlands, king kong theory, power discourse, transsexual, gender. And I wonder if it’s not time they changed other people’s world too, and thus make the gap between a room of one’s own and the facts and figures and people living outside of it less blatant. Most insist on calling the allusion to this gap an undesired remnant of the former regime. I’d simply call it fieldwork.
* Freedom: Short Stories celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a collection of short stories issued in August 2009 by Amnesty International and Mainstream Publishing, gathering texts by such authors as David Mitchell, Ariel Dorfman, Xiaolu Guo, Paulo Coelho, Henning Mankell and several others.
** Survey done by the National Agency for The Protection of The Family, quoted by Unica magazine.