What is the Role of Artists in Times of Political Crises?

in #creativity2 years ago


It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

—William Carlos Williams


Physical distance is difficult because of the helplessness it engenders. To see one’s world unraveling continents and oceans away and to feel that you can’t do anything can be terribly frustrating. But with distance, one also sees more clearly. Art, as I understand it, and this includes philosophy, is about cultivating a certain distance so that we might, in turn, lend our vision to those in the thick of historic events. Which is to say, one cannot evaluate the play while sharing the stage with the actors. At least this is how I justified my decision, as an Egyptian, to remain in the United States, my adopted home of the past twelve years, during the Arab Spring Revolution.

Since the Egyptian Revolution began, discerning the meaning of poetry in trying times has been a quandary very much weighing on my heart and mind. Until then, I pretty much viewed art and politics as separate spheres. Journalism, I thought, was better suited to tackle the here and now, like Kierkegaard’s parable of the “matchstick” men: upon their head is deposited something phosphorescent, the hint of an idea; one takes them up by the leg, strikes them against a newspaper, and out comes three or four columns. Artists were creatures of another order, I suspected; they were closer to Nietzsche’s lovers of truth (in Zarathustra): Slow is the experience of all deep wells: long must they wait before they know what fell into their depth.

Of course, Kierkegaard is not being entirely fair to journalists, and there is a place and a need in this world for both: speed of coverage and slowness in reflection. For a journalist to achieve his highest function, which is to serve as a kind of moral watchdog, it might be necessary to rush—to the battlefield and to print—to keep their eye on the moment and to tell the story as it unfolds. Such near-sightedness is a virtue. For their part, artists and thinkers excel in a form of far-sightedness, somehow seeing just past the moment, over its head, to tomorrow. That is how they are able to lend us their vision.


And so it is that I have come to realize the role of poetry in times of crisis: Vision. By “vision” I mean that unblinking witness is only half of the equation. This is what I mean by seeing over the head of the times. It is not enough to bear witness to Now; journalists, to an extent, do that. Poetry lends us a third (metaphysical) eye, one that collapses distances, at once reminding us of our essential selves and who we can become. This vision provides more insight than mere sight.

There is a very touching story (one of many that do not receive media attention) that came out of the Egyptian revolution that I’d like to share. A middle-aged man learns of a young activist having been (deliberately) blinded in scuffles with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and calls in to a television show offering to donate one of his eyes to the unfortunate young activist:

“I’ve heard the dead can donate their eyes for transplants,” he reasons, “and so this should work since I’m alive.”

“And, you’d do this? Donate one of your eyes for a complete stranger?” the TV broadcaster, asks incredulously.

“Yes,” the caller confirms, with feeling. “That young man lost his eyes fighting for freedom, for all of us. So, while I can’t offer him both my eyes, I’d like to offer him one, to split the cost of freedom.”

Poetry, at its finest, can restore our sight. The pen is the seismograph of the heart, Kafka is supposed to have said in conversation with Gustav Janouch.2 If writers are equipped with sensitive instruments to register inner quakes, then how can they fail to note when the entire world itself is in a state of convulsions? Yet, in order for the art not to be poorly digested, it might take artists time to process what has fallen into their depths.

An excellent instance of such witness-art, a form of spiritual journalism, really, is Libyan-American poet Khaled Mattawa’s poem on the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s death, After 42 Years.” More drawn out than the uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt, the human cost in Libya’s revolution was (and remains) sickening—not unlike the current carnage in Syria. Enough was too much, and there seemed no end in sight. Then, out of the blue, we learned of Gaddafi’s capture. How to make sense of all the suffering, the waste of human lives, and to restore to the living their dignity, lost years and possibilities? This is the catharsis Mattawa’s masterful poem offers.

I wept, as I imagine countless others must have, as the poet traced the outline of Libya’s pitiable history, beginning with the bloodless coup: “The country like a helpless teenage girl / forced into marriage hoping her groom will be kind.” Sparing us no detail of the vicious atrocities, humiliations, and daily deprivations endured by his people over decades, as well as the psychological toll:

What and who taught you, O' sons of my country, to be so fearless, cruel?

“Him,” they say. 42 years, 42 years of him.

Who taught you to be heroic in this way?

The no-life we had to live, under him …

There were holes in the air that was full of death.

We managed to hold our breath and live our lives.

And, then, after suffering of such magnitude the poet (with his pen-cum-seismograph-of-the-heart) knows that closure will not be easy or quickly forthcoming:

How can you say “over” when it took 42 years …

history like a rat, hiding in a sewer drain …

the astonishment unbearable that would kill you if it lasted too long …

O' Lord how little our lives must be when so much can be buried lost …

There is no "after" until we pray for all the dead.

This is what poetry can do in difficult times, to speak our silences and make sense of our pain,harnessing the anguish of so many souls—what Kafka, in a letter (to Oskar Pollak) says about books being an axe for the frozen sea within us. Someone once said: if you want to know what the moon is truly like, send a poet. Mattawa’s report from planet Libya on the moral aftermath of Gadaffi’s rule is heart-rending and more meaningful in a way than any of the coverage in print or on television. Why? Because it is journalism of both the outer and inner lives of a people; his poetry dares to carry upon its back the otherwise unimaginable agony of countless souls.

“State of Siege,” by the late, great Mahmoud Darwish is another magisterial instance of witness- art: a smashed vase of a poem, not unlike Eliot’s “Wasteland” (these are the fragments I have shored against my ruin) only in this case it is the very real wasteland of Palestine that Darwish surveys. It makes sense, in a time of war or siege, to speak in shards; in such times of duress, the world appears shattered, and fragments are what the artist is left with when they can muster the concentration, the energy, and the faith to put pen to paper and write something down.

Like Eliot’s “Wasteland,” the void is never far in Darwish’s “State of Siege.” Unlike the parched faith of "Wasteland," however, “State of Siege” is seared by a near mystical love; amid the rubble, an affirmation of earth and angels in the same breath. Faced with the abyss, hope obstinately arises. Hate is transmuted, and enslavement has the poet dreaming freedom: A little, absolute blue / Is enough / To ease the burden of this time / And clean the mud of this place.” But first pain must be set aside, as an unsteady burden preventing one from traveling light, “like those who ascend to God do. Interestingly enough, trafficking as Darwish does here with eternity as the nearest hope, the poet refuses to relegate poetry to a secondary concern, lamenting the cost of violence on art:

… the work that remains to be done in language.

In addition to the structural fault that

Damage poem, play and incomplete painting …

words that besiege me in my sleep

words of mine that have not been said

that write me then leave me, looking for the remainder of my sleep.

Out of the other side of his mouth, though, Palestine’s national treasure expresses an ambivalence, warning us against loving (his) words overmuch, during hard times: We do not care much for the charm of adjectives … Do not trust the poem ... Writing is a small puppy biting nothingness … Instead, the poem expresses a deeper allegiance to the tribe of humanity, to beauty, to Home (in this case, Palestine) as a state-of-being. Things that people everywhere can appreciate, or should.

In this manner, the poet reconciles the false distinction between the active life and the contemplative life, since his words are also actions. Specifically, in those first heady days of the Egyptian revolution, a great deal of pent-up creative energy was unleashed in the streets, and much of it took the form of poetry. Before and after things got ugly—courtesy of the previous regime’s rent-a-mob—Al Jazeera reported spirited poetry readings at Tahrir Square.

Protestors heartily sang the punchy poems of legendary Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm who, in his bold verse, has been using puns and colloquial speech to critique the state and mock its corrupt leaders for a few decades. A much younger poet, Tamim al-Barghouti, also came to be regarded as one of Egypt’s revolutionary voices. Though he couldn’t be in Egypt during the demonstrations that ousted Mubarak, al-Barghouti faxed a new poem back home after the government-imposed Internet blackout. His poetry was photocopied and distributed throughout the square and, when people erected two massive, makeshift screens in Tahrir,al-Barghouti was able to virtually participate in the revolution, after all, by reading his words to the gathered crowds.

Despite these instances of political poetry, I believe that, at its heart, poetry is apolitical—even if it is sometimes employed in the service of politics—since it cannot take sides. In addition to serving as a witness in times of crisis, poetry can act as a sort of (inner) alarm system, activated when we've strayed, trespassed or tripped into unholy territory. Reminding us, like American soldier-poet Brian Turner does in his exemplary “Here, Bullet” that: it should break your heart to kill … nightmare you. This is what I mean by poetry as spirit journalism, a report on the life of our collective spirit, a reminder of our higher estate, and allegiances to one another and life.

On that note, I will end with a cherished work emblematic of what poetry can offer in bleak days. Here is an excerpt from W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939, a poem that many reached for after 9/11 and will continue to turn to, so long as we need reminding by the better angels of our nature:

All I have is a voice To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

© Yahia Lababidi


(Images: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)


What a fantastic post @yahialababidi, your mind works in beautiful ways! So many impressions and feelings arose as I read this, I'm not sure how to best express them in the form of a response except to thank you for sharing your insight and heart in the form of words.

That's really great to hear, @natureofbeing. We give what we have, and I'm grateful this spoke to you, as a fellow artist, and questing soul. Meantime, today, I've been exploring my Coming to America story in 2 parts, one light and one darker. If you've time this weekend, perhaps, you might enjoy these reflections. _/|\_

You are really very talented! Fantastic post. I read it again wondering how you do it, how to see over the head of it too.

You're very kind, dear Martin! I'm really grateful for your generous attention. It is, always, a challenge to try and see the eternal in the transitory. Politics, and its shifting contortions are always passing... What remains is the unchanging human heart or spirit, if you will. I try to look into that to better understand where our fears and longings come from, and the many shapes they take, throughout time. Peace & Justice for all is what I believe in _/|\_

Hello @yahialababidi, thank you for sharing this creative work! We just stopped by to say that you've been upvoted by the @creativecrypto magazine. The Creative Crypto is all about art on the blockchain and learning from creatives like you. Looking forward to crossing paths again soon. Steem on!

Excellent news, thank you, for your support! Really excited about @creativecrypto magazine 🤓

A very thoughtful piece. I think I understand in a small way the directions you must feel pulled.

My personal take: I came to poetry to heal; I did not know that at the time, but I now know the muses called me for my own salvation of sorts. I have learned much from the pen. So I see my poetic job, if I have one, as a healer and not a freedom or any other kind of fighter. My pen aids in awareness and psyche-discovery; perhaps it helps some of those who read it to come to a deeper understanding of existence too. Maybe then, one day, we may need less freedom fighters, whether they be of the journalistic, poetic, or worse, the violent nature.

I think at its finest poetry heals and brings peace. Ultimately, that is my reason for writing.

Thank you, Pryde. Again, I think we agree on essentials. The poet as healer, and a person of peace. I can think of no higher calling even if it is difficult, sometimes, figuring out what the best way is to engage with current events.

These are 2 quotes I turn to when I need reminding, and you will see that they echo what you say:

Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread. —Pablo Neruda

Ah, to be one of them! One of the poets whose song helps close the wound rather than open it! —Juan Ramón Jiménez

Peace, sister, all ways _/|\_

What a compelling piece. I basically don't know what to say except that I found this deeply moving.

Thank you. For words that need voice.

Deeply moving is saying a lot, my friend, thank you.

We each do what we can, with what we have...

Have a lovely Sunday _/|\_

My friend you always intrigue me with your lines and i must say each time i come across your work, i take my time to read through and know the way forward on what to say as my comment.

My response to your question is that i must say that there a million words in the work of an artist than the written words sometimes.

The scenarios that has transpired in the political world especially in africa has forced many to be inspirational and know how to do this work perfectly in passing their message to the people called politician.

In my country we have various national dailies where some of this artist have columns where they do justice to this by passing message two page write up can do that an average lay man on the street get the message perfectly.

The role of the artist to me is to pass a million message in just one drawing.

Thanks for sharing this piece. You are really inspired my friend.

I am me @brightfame

I appreciate your taking the time to read and share your thoughts. I agree that the artist is a kind of conduit or bridge, passing the message of the people to politician, as you put it.

By acting as a witness and giving voice to the voiceless, the artist is also an activist.

Poets and artists play a crucial role in terms of national crisis..

Their creations work like a form of inspiration for the mass people.. Artists and poets had a big influence in historical movements since decades.

Poetry, at its finest, can restore our sight.

This is so true to a piece of artwork too.. They heal our souls...


Thank you, Christinaa, for your affirmation. Inspiring and healing souls is the most that one can hope for (as an artist and person).

(Tell me, my friend why do you sign each comment with a large picture of yourself and your name in capital letters. Isn't it enough to have these on your blog page? I ask because I find it distracting to look at every time that I write you :o )

hehe. I would refrain from doing it, then. :p

Woohoo I'm grateful for your gracious understanding, Christinaa :D

thanks for ur suggestion.. :D

there is no doubt that artists play a major role in political crises because they represent the simple peoples and the words the artist says direct effect on peoples heart in other words the artist is the voice of peoples. Thanks @yahialababidi for sharing such a effective and informative topic with your lovely poetry.

I agree that artists are the voice of the people, as you say, and that is an important responsibility (especially, when there are corrupt governments, oppressing the people).

Glad to hear you enjoyed the post. _/|\_

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