Art in the Time of Terror

“No man who’s shot a rifle at his fellow men can look at these properly”, says Gomez the painter as he refuses to look at the paintings in the Museum of Modern Arts, in Sartre’s Iron in the Soul. Surrounded by the mushrooming impact of World War II, he instinctively feels that he is part of a violent spectacle that somehow obscures his ability to appreciate the paintings he loves. Moreover, war has changed everything, even the paintings he’s known so well. Under the circumstances, perhaps, he feels that art itself is pointless.

Though not a perfect parallel, the recent terror attacks in Mumbai do raise questions of a similar vein. How could anyone sit around and write poetry when fellow human beings are being massacred? What’s the point of art in such times? What is the point of such a discussion at all, when everything’s burning?

Sartre’s question is set amidst the World War II. Terror in its modern sense, wasn’t invented yet. So Gomez’s grouse is against the so called nobility of war that glorifies the killing of the ‘enemy’. Terrorism as we know it today changes the game altogether - it does not need to masquerade as legitimate as the ‘just wars’ and crusades did. It does not need a well-defined, sufficiently accepted enemy at all. The more innocents dead, the better. The more children mutilated, the more PR generated. “You take all the moral high ground you want”, they seem to say, “we’ll take the Kalashnikovs”.

This leaves us with no room to negotiate, no space to talk, and no way out. Paranoia becomes the norm.¬† We scan faces as thoroughly as a flatbed scanner. We tap phones and log into each other’s mail accounts. We teach our children not to speak to, look at, smile, touch or even blink until they adhere to these rules even at home. We send them to self-defense classes until they look like little ninja warriors. We teach them to keep safe distances until they even stay away from us. We look at each others bags suspiciously. When people talk to us, we clam up like, well clams. Some of us even beep when we pass by strangers. To our kids, we pass on the legacy of this ominous ticking in the back of our heads so that they can carry on like Geiger counters all through their lives.

The likes of Hitler and Nero are often cited as examples to prove that the love of art is in no way indicative of the goodness of the person. Yet the fact remains that such art lovers used art as an instrument of aesthetic pleasure and just that. Paintings, poems or plays that asked uncomfortable questions often disappeared like detractors in their regimes. So obviously, Sartre was not talking about art that merely entertained.

Which brings us back to the beginning. True art, poetry or literature does make us break out in boils when faced with mindless carnage and hatred. Like a pain we cannot actually place, it nags us in sharp jabs when we least expect it. Like a frustrated diner trying to draw the attention of the waiter, it gesticulates wildly. Like a stubborn kid, it tugs relentlessly on our cloaks of indifference.

So what if we exposed a whole generation to true art instead of mere entertainment? Would they grow up with minds that reject violence and hatred? Would the human race even exist long enough for us to find out? Or would you get tired of these of questions that I am typing in? And would you think I am hopelessly trapped in this paragraph and have to keep on writing one question after another? If so, how do I ever get out of this post?

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