F.Thomson: Independent Culture

“It’s not all bad. I’ve been very productive here. Several plays, I made the film – there’s a lot of demand for Syria at the moment. I’ve made dozens of films in the past. But now, people actually want to see them – I won a prize!”

My friend points at a beautifully framed certificate, emblazoned with the name of a renowned European film festival. He’s deeply proud, and deservedly so; he has worked incredibly hard in his field for the past 15 to 20 years, and finally found an audience – an audience who wish to slip, for an hour and a half, into the country he chose to leave several years ago.

“Of course, if you are doing the same thing again and again, it gets boring.”

One of the perceived silver linings of the current situation in Syria is the increase in artistic productivity from within and outside the nation. Unfortunately, this perception can be misleading and damaging. This is not to take away from my friend’s extraordinary achievement – on the contrary, he is an exception. For every independent, inspirational success, there are countless artists who struggle to supply the growing demand for angst-ridden paintings of Kalashnikovs and camels.

As much as we like to reflect that the West no longer fetishes after Orientalist portraits of curvaceous, veiled women drowning in seas of pillows, silk flowing from the ceiling (I still don’t know where they’re supposed to be hanging it), hookah pipes in one hand and 27 rings on the other, we are presently faced with a new breed of desire for the mystical Orient: its name is “refugee art.”

The problem is deeply complex and multilayered; the crude simplification which follows can be further explored another time. Fundamentally, the rise of our new niche stems from two primary causes: first, there is little or no funding for independent arts in Syria today. Theatres which are still open play propaganda plays. Art galleries are transformed into temples of khaki-clad icons. Second, those artists who could leave, did leave, and spread themselves all over the world as optimistic ambassadors of their rich, diverse, and fascinating country. Simultaneously, they would have an opportunity to express their full artistic desires to willing audiences with no fear of censorship, and would be eligible for funding previously unavailable.

The problem erupts from demand. Several years ago, before the major political events took place, a friend of mine was fortunate enough to have some of his work produced in Britain. It was therefore interesting when they got back in contact with him recently, asking for “an update” of the original text, that is to say, a rewriting that would better reflect the current situation, rather than the social commentary which he had intended to write – and had written – several years beforehand. The piece was not about Ba’athism, or ISIS, or al-Nusra or Hezbollah, or the Free Syrian Army, or, actually, anything to do with their respective politics. And yet, apparently work without allusion to war, sectarianism, or suffering, is work without an audience.

The term “refugee art” is dangerously popular. It categorises and stereotypes artistic production. It pressures artists to condone to foreign perceptions of their problems, like giving a hypochondriac a medical encyclopaedia, and telling them they look a bit pale. Why can’t “refugee art” simply be “art”? Our ever-increasing need to rationalise everything we see forces original thoughts out of the spotlight and into dingy corners, where they are welcomed by hollow-eyed middlemen, holding nametags. “Hello, my name is: I’m Syrian and war is bad.”

Our need to explore the world and its infinite realm of possibility is matched only by our love of categorising. Just because we have largely moved away from films about desert voyages and toothless Bedouins explaining star navigation to wide-eyed adventurers, it does not mean that we have escaped the problem altogether. Whatever your thoughts on Edward Said, I put it to you that he is still spinning in his grave.

Of course, I am the first to admit that discussing social issues and conflicts is the finest path to resolution. Art can unite people more strongly than political parties, and can divide people more firmly than military checkpoints. But art is created by the artist, and not by the audience; then the audience can respond, and by doing so, becomes the next artist.

People today have the same problems they’ve had for centuries, even as refugees. If your partner breaks up with you, you are allowed to write a song about it. If your partner breaks up with you and you happen to be a refugee, you can still write a song about it without being expected to use the words “tent” or “revolution” or “regime”. Equally, if you do want to use those words, you should be allowed to use them without being shifted to the “Refugee Love Songs” playlist on the iTunes Store.

Independent culture is going to be one of the cornerstones on which the new Syria is founded, whatever the shape – physically or metaphorically – it might take. If we create expectations and clichés, we remove independence and thus, we install our own foundation stones on foreign soil. We are not just jeopardising the wonderful opportunity with which we are presented – we are also jeopardising the future in which the arts will play a starring role. If we respect art, then we should respect it equally for what it is, and supply artists with the means to express themselves rather than handing out nametags.

F. Thomson
Aug 21, 2015