2.4.07

Echoes of Empire

I was in New York city the last four days. It all went well except the usual mild bullying at the customs. The guy couldn't help but notice the visa for Lebanon on my Canadian passport, ask me to repeat the dates of my visit to Lebanon and repeat my name, an Arabic name, all with a faint smile on his face while I am thinking that I could end up, like Maher Arar, tortured in some Lebanese, Syrian or Egyptian jail if the guy's smile was to be replaced by a mere suspicion. This is, as foolish as it may be a thought, still a logical possibility. Some minor conditions still miss however. I have no acquaintances or people whom I know who meet these conditions: Mulsim+man+beard+computer business+Mosque+political opponent of some US friendly or US lackey Arab opressive regime.
O.K. then I can celebrate my 24th wedding anniversary and enjoy New York city with my husband.
First Stop: the MOMA. Last year we were lucky to see the nearly complete collection of Edward Munch's work. It was a great moment. This year, apart from the permanent collection, which is worth thousand times the visit, there were two exhibitions: Jeff Wall and a Venezuelan artist, Armando Reverón (1889–1954). I didn't like Wall's work. As for Reverón, he was schizophrenic and so his work was more of a curiosity for a psychiatrist than for an art lover. Still, his presence at the MOMA was certainly due to the fact that he is the only known modern Venezuelan artist. Which promted me to ask myself why Venezuela ? The answer is that the MOMA has been featuring a Latin American or a central American artist every year since 1991. I have seen the work of mexican sculptor Javier Marin in Havana last December and was impressed, and there are many other American artists who deserve this honor. There was maybe the recent rise of Venezuela's political profile in the Americas as a reason for this exhibition.
Oh dear, I see Politics everywhere, I told myself, even in Art Exhibitions. But I was right. New York's artistic and cultural scene was revealing of the current political landscape in the US centered mainly on 'foreign policy' or more exactly on foreign military intervention and tensions with foreign states. I would later see an exhibition at the MET on Venice and Islam, two small temporary exhibitions at the Pierpont Morgan library on the bibles of the Apocalypse and the ancient Sumerian and Assyrian seals, and the Pucini opera about the encounter of a Japanese woman with an American navy man and the ensuing tragedy in Madame Butterfly at the NY city Opera.
This is, after all, the cultural center of the 'Empire'. I am not saying that these cultural events were willingly planned according to the political context. I am just noticing that relations with foreign countries in which the US has its army engaged in combat operations or with which the US has diplomatic tensions, are slowly invading public consciousness and awarness.
Second Stop: 'A Moon for the Misbegotten'. This one has nothing to do with Politics depending on how one sees things. Actor and Old Vic artistic director Kevin Spacey brought the Eugene O'Neill play 'A Moon for the Misbegotten' to New York and we saw the play. Spacey plays the lead role along with actress Eve Best, actor Colm Meaney, and two other actors. The play is about redemption through love. The play is excellent. Spacey is such a generous and natural actor on stage, Best is wonderful, and Meaney, an equally wonderful actor, added to the Irishness of the play and the theme of love and redemption. At the end of the play, the characters, after being cursed for a long time by a harsh life away from love, each for different reasons, finally discover love. The interesting feature of the story is that love is not binding, it is a liberating process. Because she knows that she is loved and because she aknowledges her own feelings, the central character, Josie, can finally make a personal choice for herself, to stay or to leave her father and to search for her own future, and maybe happiness, away from guilt and self destruction.
If we were to apply this to international politics, I would say that only love can liberate people from themselves and from their external and internal tyrants. The actual wars in the ME rest on this faulty assumption that people have to be liberated from their tyrants from the outside. The result is: people forced into liberation will stick to their old tyrants. All we need is love.

The day after:
The MET: Temporary Exhibition,
Venice and the Islamic world. This exhibition was prepared with the collaboration of l'Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), Paris. I had a glance of the art and works that were to be in the exhibition in Qantara's (the quarterly publication of the IMA) fall issue. There were some cultural and political annoyances for me in the exhibition. First, the contact between Venice and Islam, as rich and productive as it may have been, was limited to part of the Islamic world, Egypt, Damascus, Turkey, and Iran. Venice and the Islamic world is, in this regard, misleading. Second, the introduction to the exhibition is sensationnalist, in my opinion, welcoming the visitor with statements implying that the Byzantine empire disappeared under successive Muslim invasions (actually Christians, being crusaders from Europe or Byzantine rulers, have also lead military campaigns against Mulsim rulers and Muslim countries). Moreover, l'Institut du Monde Arabe, who was pivotal in the organisation of the Exhibition, has as a new president the ex president of 'Les Amitiés France-Israel'. Arab countries contribute to the financing of the institute but the French government seems to have the main leverage in the institute in terms of programming, content of exhibitions and other activities. I walked into the exhibition with these thoughts in mind. The items shown are impressive, rugs, textiles, engravings, Ceramics, copper work, old books and manuscripts, Paintings, and among others, the first copy of the Qur'an printed in venice (1537) and dismissed by Muslims as inappropriate because it was not written according to the Muslim art of Calligraphy (actually I was able to read in it, the book was open on the Maryam sourate, 99), developped later to great extent by the Ottomans, and which has a spiritual connection to the written word of the prophet. It is only in the 19th century that printed copies of the Qur'an were circulated among Msulims. Otherwise, as early as the eleventh century, travelers to Muslim cities as far as Bukhara, recorded seeing books in public displays and markets.
Outside, the weather in New York city, which was windy and cold for the last two days, has turned mild, we walked into Central Park admiring the first magnolia flowers and letting our thoughts wander with the screams and the shouts of dogs, children and park dwellers in the background. What is the role of Art and Culture ? I asked myself. Is it to follow the social and political tranformations, to accompany them, or to transform us from the inside preceding these transformations ? I didn't care that the presentation of the exhibition was somewhat a little biased and sometimes inaccurate in its interpretation. I was glad I was able to see artefacts and objects which hold testimony to the power of Human beings to overcome the religious, political and social odds, as Venetians and Turks and Safavids were able to do - despite wars and embargos decreed at the time by the Pope against Muslims and not followed by Venetians - in order to follow natural inclinations, to be rich, to be powerful, and above all, to be curious of others and their ways of living to the point of adopting some of them.

The next day:
We headed for lower Manhattan this time.
The program was to visit the Pierpont Morgan Library and see its collection of old medieval manuscripts. The Library's collection is on Display only partially at a certain time of the year so one has to visit at least four or three times a year in order to see the whole collection. Music manuscripts were not on Display when we visited last week. The library has a valuable collection of religious medieval artefacts from all across Europe. On Display also are the personal quarters of Mr. Morgan with the books, the paintings, polyptichs, etc..All or most have to do with the Christian religion. There were two small temporary exhibtions. Assyrian, Mesopotamian and Sumerian seals, some smaller than the tip of my little finger featuring entire scenes; lions struggling with bulls, kings, priests, etc... and very well presented. However, the room featuring this exhibit was also the entrance to the other one which seemed to draw more people, the Apocalypse then exhibition of the bibles of the Apocalypse, some of them thousand years old with illustrations. 90% of the people I saw during the hour I stayed around the ancient seals exhibition crossed it and went directly to the Apocalypse exhibition. Signs of the times...The night before, my husband was watching the television in the hotel. Tim Lahaye with some other guy who 'believed in him' were the guests of some TV host on some unknown TV station. I cannot recall anything I see on TV. I don't watch TV, we have no TV at home, and everytime I watch news on TV I am struck by the fictional and show dimensions of TV news. My husband told me the next day that the discussion with Lahaye was on the Apocalypse and the Iraq war and the war 'between the west and Islam'. He said that the host and his guests were mentally disturbed discussing fictional wars between fictional characters and making fictional connections to the present wars in the ME. I read something similar a while ago and posted on the connection between Chritian zionists believing in the Apocalypse in the ME to bring Jesus on earth and Jewish zionists and Israel. At the exhibition some very old bibles of the apoclypse were on display. In them, there was an illustration of Babylon burning because it had become a corrupted city. The burning of Babylon is, as it seems, a necessary step in the Apocalypse. I was feeling a mild headache. I left the room and stayed in the ancient seals exhibition room. Contrary to the apocalypse bibles, the seals were a vibrant testimony to the rationality and the witt of the Human mind few thousands years before some of the Chritsian interpretation of the world had turned human witt and intellect into pure madness and obscurantism. I mean there are some 50 million American Christians who believe these stories of the Apocalypse.



And what do you think of people who believe the predictions of someone who drew the earth as it is shown above ? The bibles of the apocalypse had their own maps, their own vision of the world, and their predictions were based on this unscientific and fictional vision of the earth and the world.

This same afternoon we went shopping for fabrics for our dining room chairs. We found a shop who had a rich and original collection of furniture fabrics and I fell in love with an Italian silk fabric with Florentine patterns. I couldn't detach my eyes from this piece of fabric. It will be on my dining room chairs soon. I felt sympathy toward the Venetians and the Ottomans who took the art of living to such a refinement in textiles and rugs and everyday tools. Why would we believe in apocalyptic visions of the world when there is so much beauty in it and why would we go to war, try to destruct entire civilisations and their cultures and their historical artifacts as Israel did in Palestine and as the US did in Iraq ?

In the evening we went to see Madama Butterfly. I realised that what this Pucini opera shows very well is the colonialist, in this case the American, arrogance toward natives of countries conquered. Unlike most operas, the libretto of Madame Butterfly is quite substantial. The US navy captain Pinkerton acquires a Japanese wife that comes with a house, or a house that comes with a wife if you wish, through a contract for which he had all the rights and she had none. The story ends badly of course because in every encounter between two different civilisations there is a faulty assumption made about the other. The racist assumption of our difference and our superority which make us forget about our similarity and our humanity.

On our last day in new York we walked in Soho. We visited art galleries displaying some of Keith Haring's works. My husband and I like the artist. In the afternoon, we visited the Cooper Hewitt museum of design, a stunning discovery and a very interesting museum.

New York is a great city and represents in its cultural scene the best of what the US has to offer to the world. And why the US does not offer this to the world instead of offering its army and its might, which come with destruction, humiliations, resentment, and more wars ? One of the reasons is that the US itself has a hard time accepting the premises of the cultural life and the spirit of its most glamourous city. In the US, unlike in Europe, culture is considered a good for the elite. The rest must content itself with what they can watch on US TVs and cinema screens; Christian evangelists and other cultural memes destined (albeit unintentionally) to maintain the popupation in a state of perpetual darkness. The sad thing is that the US exports only its 'trash culture', the culture of its own disgraced and ill-favoured class. So before going on a Middle East tour civilising mission, the US must bring itself and its own majority, not only its elite, to civilisation through culture. Liberation comes through culture and not through the destruction of other countries and other cutlures on the basis of racist and dangerous religious ideologies. And we can turn to culture only when our physical survival is not under threat.

Leila, from Dove's eye view, commented on this post with the following:
I love that city with a passion, since before I moved there at 19; I lived there twelve years and miss it still.

America is schizophrenic. The America of New York City's great culture is not the America that sends war based on ideology and lies. Ideological, fantasy-based America tends to hate New York and all the major cultural cities of America (which cities are generally liberal and filled with opposition to Bush and his imperial project)

In every day conversation and internet chat, on topics as diverse as food or child-rearing, middle Americans will suddenly spew venomous hatred at New York City and New Yorkers. It's a kind of poison. They hate us for our freedom, I think - freedom to acquire great art and display it, freedom to make new art (music, theater, visual art, film, new crossover art forms) freedom to make new culture.

The schizophrenic hatred of cosmopolitanism is probably as old as the American Republic. Unfortunately, this hatred has morphed into actual destruction of other cultures.

5 comments:

Leila said...

Thanks for the wonderful review of your NY trip Sophia. I love that city with a passion, since before I moved there at 19; I lived there twelve years and miss it still.

America is schizophrenic. The America of New York City's great culture is not the America that sends war based on ideology and lies. Ideological, fantasy-based America tends to hate New York and all the major cultural cities of America (which cities are generally liberal and filled with opposition to Bush and his imperial project)

In every day conversation and internet chat, on topics as diverse as food or child-rearing, middle Americans will suddenly spew venomous hatred at New York City and New Yorkers. It's a kind of poison. They hate us for our freedom, I think - freedom to acquire great art and display it, freedom to make new art (music, theater, visual art, film, new crossover art forms) freedom to make new culture.

The schizophrenic hatred of cosmopolitanism is probably as old as the American Republic. Unfortunately, this hatred has morphed into actual destruction of other cultures.

Too bad about the sneering customs official. They really are assholes, aren't they? I was born in America, but my Lebanese name with the prefix Abu- sparks all kinds of comment when I fly. I sympathize. Really it's an illness and I hope it passes soon.

Sophia said...

Leila,

Thanks very much for this equally heartfelt comment. I will feature it at the end of the post if you don't mind.

homeyra said...

This is a wonderful post, you took us with yourself for the week-end.
I wish to repost some of it, reflexions on culture vs war! :)
I think all should read it.

Sophia said...

Homeyra,
You can repost it entirely if you wish.

Naj said...

Happy Anniversary Sophia :)

My, your detailed travelog is really impressive! I feel I should read it with a pen and paper and take notes. Thanks for sharing!

(Yes the world is too beautiful to be ignored by our apocalyptic phobias; and I trust that if the world citizens invest their frontal lobe perfusions into art, rather than schizophrenic politics, the world will become a different place.)

 
Since March 29th 2006