Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Life of Brian: Inspiring what?

I nominated Caroline Lucas for the C4 political awards, but in their wisdom they choose not to have any green figures in this year where green issues have hit the headlines more than any year before it.

Brian Haw's camp outside Parliament (by night)Brian Haw (who has set up a permanent anti-war camp outside Parliament, right) did make the grade however and you can vote for him if you want here. But, he says taking an extremely heretical pause, I wont be. I don't find him a particularly inspiring figure.

He doesn't remind me of those committed to peace and justice who also play a productive role in society as firefighters, nurses, cleaners and cooks. Nor does he embody a movement of diverse strands coming together in a democratic and united surge.

Brian Haw is one obdurate, stubborn man - principled, determined and in the right - but utterly alien at the same time. Perhaps a symbol of perseverance for many who oppose the war but of objectionable indolence to those yet to be persuaded. To hold up Haw as a symbol of our movement is, to those people, to push them away, making us appear to idolise someone they regard deep down as a shouty, homeless, loony (as we call them in the mental health trade) and that is not us.

I think for some in the movement he stands in the Gandhian tradition of "be the change you want to see" but unless you want to see a world where no one has a job, family life or hobbies he doesn't.

If he's an inspiring political figure what does he inspire you to do? Nothing much I bet, because unless you intend to sacrifice all your humanity in order to become a living bill board, a slogan that talks, then he purely acts as a way for lazy journalists to reinforce the idea that activists are somehow "other" and strange. Not at all normal. Activists need to become more involved in their communities not less.

I think the tendency to turn the largest movement this country has ever seen into a handful of celebrity egos is a mistake, although it's easy enough to see how it happens. It's a tendency that dumbs down debate, allowing us to stay in a comfort zone that avoids awkward questions - and we have no one to blame but ourselves if we let that happen.

Artist mark wallinger thought this was such a good idea it should go in one of the most foremost *art* galleries in the countryLook at the art installation of Haw's banners (right). I guess I'm supposed to be happy that anti-war feeling has crept into Tate Britain, one of this country's foremost art galleries. But the idea of art as a semi-literate Guardian article is frankly shameful.

What does this work actually say about society, our lives, the things we love? Does it make me feel that I'm mortal, does it strip bare and tease out emotional responses? Does it say anything beyond the slogans daubed on the placards?

As art it is shit not because it's political, the greatest art has always had real political depth, it's shit because as politics it is trumped by the crudest Daily Mirror headline let alone the articles of ZNet, ISR or Monthly Review. As art it has no claim to nuance nor depth. There are no layers to peel, no flesh on the bone, no humorous twinkle in its eye.

It's the demon child of middle class elitism and Socialist Worker placards. It advocates ignorance over understanding and debases all around it. It has no redeeming aesthetic quality, humour or originality. It is, perhaps, the natural outcome of an artistic establishment dead on its feet and that section of the anti-war movement that are leftist Clucky Luckies whose repetitive squawks and zealotry mask an absence of humanity, sense of shade or anything to say beyond this week's rote learned headlines - that happen to be identical to last week's.

If we're going to make art out of this war let's do something challenging.

Give me the bullet riddled bodies of Iraqi policemen, the blood soaked clothing of Shia worshippers caught in a suicide bomb, a twisted and ripped piece of metal that once contained the precious head of someone's son. A tap that can't drip because there is no water. Damn well stretch our everyday common sense don't pander to it - in both art and politics. Flex the imagination.

The Tate Modern has slides... now that is art - at least people are smiling and their pulses raceWe should demand art that cracks walnuts in its biceps, that takes us to places deep within ourselves. That wrestles with love, fear, pretension. Don't just drawl "Stop the War", give me the swinging cadaver of Tony Blair with his loyal henchman Prescott clinging to his ankles to ensure the neck breaks cleanly. Give me the snap of that moment in a note that penetrates right into the sternum.

Give me art that eats its enemies raw, and politics that digs to the kernel of how we live our lives. Brian Haw can only do that as a valuable part of a far wider debate where all those who oppose the war are engaged - and slogans masquerading as art are
positively harmful. It compels us to be smug about our anger whilst turning a space that could have contained something of beauty or inspiration into a banal, dogmatic bark.

Art can grab your skull and ram long dirty fingers down your throat. It can stare into you blankly until that blankness consumes you. It can conjure up hot brothels, full of sensual curves and unsatisfying pleasures that bite you with their kisses. Asphyxiate me, horrify me, teach me, electrify me - but don't fucking bore me for Pete's sake.


Peter said...

You're right about Brian Haw in a way. Clearly it takes a unique kind of person to mount a one-man vigil for so many years - if nothing more, his vigil forces all MPs and lobbyists to think about the war every time they go past and see his signs saying "stop killing my children".

But this is at huge personal cost to him and his family. I understand he left his wife and children to mount his campaign. Maybe he was unhappy at home, and was going to walk out anyway - but it's a darker side to the public image of a determined campaigner.

I suppose we're all human, and every action has its price - but I don't feel admiration so much as confused curiosity about him.

I do think the line of black tape in the Tate, showing the protest exclusion zone, is good though.

Matt Sellwood said...

I think this is probably the best blog post I have ever read.


Disillusioned kid said...

I don't think Brian is inspiring, but I do think his dogged insistence has helped to keep the issue of the war bubbling away, an important factor given the current inactivity of the wider anti-war movement.

studentmedic said...

Excellent post Jim!

Jack Ray said...

like that comment conversation we had earlier about direct and mediated action. Brian is pricking the conscience of people who couldn't care less.

lachicapolitica said...

Mr Jepps...

you're a fucking genius.


Daniel S. Ketelby said...

JimJay: Art can grab your skull and ram long dirty fingers down your throat.

Or it can annoy, baffle, look nice over the fireplace, create a sense of harmony where there was previously discord, etc.

I think that that was a brave and insightful piece on Brian Haw, given his folk hero status in some quarters.

Peter: ...at huge personal cost to him and his family. I understand he left his wife and children to mount his campaign. Maybe he was unhappy at home, and was going to walk out anyway - but it's a darker side to the public image of a determined campaigner.

A friend of mine made a similar comment about possible impacts on Dave Morris's family (he was a single parent) after watching the McLibel film. There are always shadows, always costs.

Earthpal said...

No, the art itself doesn't inspire me. But let's be fair. I don't suppose Brian Haw ever claimed to have any artistic talents. Just a deep belief in an issue. Brian himself didn't recreate his protest camp in the Tate. He wasn't the one to turn it into *art*. And he's not been nominated for an Art award. He's been nominated for a political inspiration award.

I agree he's not that politically inspiring. Do you think maybe that Brian has been there for so long now that he's largely unnoticed or disregarded nowadays- a bit like the BMW garage you walk by or drive past every day on your way to work...or the cafe on the corner? Or the billboard poster - you know it's there but you can never recall what product it's advertising.

I'm not knockin his efforts. That would be unfair and unjustified. He's done more than many armchair warriors whose only claim to activism is to sign an online petition. But Jim Jay is right in that his one-man vigil does need sparking with imagination, if only to refresh, make people notice again

Regarding those political awards: if Caroline Lucas were up there, she would have had my vote. T'is a crying shame that no green's have been chosen.

a very public sociologist said...

I agree with you, Jim. I don't find BH inspiring at all.

Jim Jay said...

Thanks for the comments people.

Although the following is actually contained in the post I'm aware it might have been easily lost in the thrust of what I was saying, so I'll say it again - rephrased. In order to be helpful.

From my point of view the anti-war movement is at its strongest when it is diverse. That means I'm glad BH is doing what he's doing despite the fact I'm personally left cold by this kind of protest which always smacks, to me, of a symbolic gesture, never designed to stop the war but to ensure that the individual concerned is seen as on the moral high ground.

I oppose the changes in the law to boot him off, and the general vicitimisation of BH and I was careful in my post not to say he was wrong or a bad person.

The post specifically deals with BH's nomination for an award and an artist who has attempted to make art out of his slogans... I quite agree with earthpal when he says the art is not brian's responsibility and, in fact, the award isn't either. Although, I suppose, he could have prevented both had he wished to do so.

This is not a personal attack on BH. However I was aware during writing that some people may take it this way. I've been pleasantly surprised that very few people have made this mistake.

Hope this clears things up any confusion that may have arisen :)

Earthpal said...

Jim Jay, just so you know - Earthpal is a she, not a he.

Think I might change my nic.... :(

I for one, did hear the message in your post and I actually think your post is excellent. It's an inspiring piece of passionate writing and I agreed with much of it. I just felt it important to point out that BH himself is really rather an "accidental artist" and although you're right to say he could have prevented it, he'd have been silly to because it did give the campaign more publicity.

Anyway, well done on the post. I really loved reading it.

Jim Jay said...

ooops... that was a bit of an unconscious assumption on my part - there's nothing about your nick name that's male or female... sorry.

I should make clear i've had a couple of... um.... empassioned... um... emails - and this was, in part, a response to them so that others don't get a similarly mistaken impression.

And thanks again for all the kind words on this post - I'll have to raise my game now!

weggis said...

"Tate Britain, one of this country's foremost art galleries"

You must be joking?

If you look carefully at the banners confiscated by the MET, you will find a couple of Banksies Rats....Now there's an artist!

Otherwise I liked this post too.

Jim Jay said...

Despite my "efforts" Brain won the vote

Jim Jay said...

And there is an interesting piece at the excellent UK Watch on the art work which takes a different view to me

Louise said...

Jim Jay, have you met Brian Haw?

Jim Jay said...

I haven't Louise - I keep meaning to go and have a chat with him, if he's amenable. My worry is that I would not like him and then my political disagreements with him might get tinged with personal bias too...

You? What's your opinion of him?