Sunday, January 6, 2008

Evidence of Things Unseen

I discovered the novelist Richard Ford in a university library in Los Angeles some seven years ago. The emotional lives of his somewhat lost characters with their moral quandaries and vulnerabilities drew me in. I learned much later that he enjoyed a long friendship with Raymond Carver , that they commented on each other's work, drew inspiration from each other...though Ford says he learned more from Carver than the other way around.
There's an excellent interview with Ford in the latest Granta (No. 99) where he talks about his work, literature and life. An excerpt:

Tim Adams: Has faith or church-going ever had any appeal to you?
Ford: Not church going. But faith, well... There's the famous line in Hebrews 11: 'Faith is the evidence of things unseen.' I've always been attracted to that line. But for specifically irreligious reasons. I deem that line to be a line about the imagination. I could almost say that, 'the imagination is the evidence of things unseen.' But again specifically I'd say that my 'faith' lies in the imagination and in the imagination's power to bring into existence essential experience that heretofore wasn't known to exist.

Adams: That reminds me of Franck Bascombe's line: 'The unseen exists and has properties.' Do you have an ongoing sense of that 'unseen,' or only at certain charged moments?
Ford: I don't think much about the unseen. For lack of great erudition, or a great education, I suppose I've stored a fair amount of trust in my instinct. But as soon as I see that written down I start to think that instinct may just be another word for luck and for trusting to luck -- which I've done. A favourite line I repair to is by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who said: 'We have a built-in, very potent, hair-triggered tendency to find agency in things that are not agents.' I'm not sure if Dennett approves of that tendency or not. But certainly that's one of the things literature does-- it ascribes agency where before no agency was noticed: it says this causes that, this is a consequence of that, etc. It may be that writing fiction, imagining agencies, is my most trusted way into the unseen.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What does art do?

Talking about art in Saigon got me thinking about art in general. How artists are treated is a pretty good barometer of where a society is headed. And from what I ve been reading over the last couple of years, India isn't doing so well in that respect. First, they drove MF Husain out of India, then some right wing idiot rolled up at at Baroda's prestigious fine arts university and attacked a student artist. If you thought they would arrest the right winger, well what do you know, they arrested the student instead..this was in 2007.
Even now, when I visited, I found the pluralistic Hinduism I knew had slowly but surely given way to various shades of Hindutva--a very curious and spurious mixture of fascist methodology and puritanism.
There were things that made me hopeful, a few reviews of new art and artists; women trained in traditional dance presenting contemporary modern pieces where once there was only orthodoxy--these things were encouraging.
Historian and critic John Berger has a wonderful explanation that tells you why art is important. (I found all his books in a second-hand book shop in Bangalore and was therefore reminded of him)
"I can't tell you what art does and how it does it, but I know that art has often judged the judges, pleaded revenge to the innocent and shown to the future what the past has suffered, so that it has never been forgotten.
I know too that the powerful fear art, whatever its form, when it does this, and that amongst the people such art sometimes runs like a rumour and a legend because it makes sense of what life's brutalities cannot, a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour."

Seen in Saigon

In Saigon, I encountered mass produced art on a scale I have seldom seen before. On all our travels, we (my travelling companion and I), usually buy something by a local artist. It's not what we set out to do, but something usually catches his eye or mine and then we buy it and wrap it with much care and cart it back home so it can find its rightful place on some wall in our house. The only thing we bought this time was a print of an old propaganda poster from the war. My eyes are drawn to tourist art for its mawkish sentimentality and also because it tells you what the mood of a place is, what its gearing up for.
In Vietnam, the mood is commerce. What sells, multiplies. So, yes there were many portraits of women in cone-shaped straw hats. That's fine. What wasn't fine were portraits of Vietnamese women --all the same except for different background colours--I guess you were meant to choose whatever would go with your colour of wall of furniture. Even stranger were the copies of Western artists which seemed almost to outnumber the hats and women--hundreds of copies of Klimt's The Kiss, Botero's rotund women and anything else that has ever graced a museum. Maybe we were looking in the wrong places or even the wrong city, because Hanoi is said to be a city teeming with original, contemporary Vietnamese art with its unique European influences. Apart from a cathedral and a post office, Saigon's city centre is rapidly giving way to the standard issue glass-chrome-steel high rise.
The main shopping area, Dong Khoi, is a snarl of silk and lacquer, the new malls flash the names Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Cavalli at you. Inside, uniformed and delicately-featured salesgirls look flustered as a man in a British accent, slows down his speech and asks for trousers in a "b i g g e r" size. So, here it is the new Vietnam and its open for business, just like anywhere else.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Other Person of The Year

I'm not sure Time magazine holds the kind of sway it did even a decade ago, but the choice of Putin as person of the year has clearly brought the magazine some much needed publicity. Garry Kasparov's oped in the Wall Street Journal shows how this choice is an endorsement of dictatorship. The magazine has made some weak justifications. Apparently, the Person of the Year is just somebody who made the news a lot, it doesn't mean that the person is good or a great leader or any such thing.

"The most revealing moment in Ms. Rice’s comments came when the topic of Mr. Medvedev as the next president was first broached. The official transcript reads:
“SECRETARY RICE: Well, I guess, they’re still going to have an election in March. ” (laughter)
Perhaps my sense of humor was dulled during the five days I spent in a Moscow jail last month for protesting against these sham elections. Or maybe it was reading about the constant persecution of my fellow activists across the country that did it. Madam Secretary went on to speak approvingly of Mr. Medvedev, making the undemocratic nature of his selection sound like a minor annoyance. The last remaining element of democracy in Russia, the transition of power, will be destroyed. Will Mr. Putin and his successor still be welcomed with open arms in the club of leading democracies?
In the early days of our opposition activities last year, when members of Other Russia were harassed and arrested, the “bright siders” in the West said it could be worse. Later, when our marchers were badly beaten in St. Petersburg and Moscow, Mr. Putin’s fans in the West said at least the police weren’t killing us in the streets.
Last week, 22-year-old opposition activist Yury Chervochkin died in hospital after several weeks in a coma. He had been beaten nearly to death an hour after making an anxious cellphone call to our offices saying he was being followed by members of the organized-crime task force known as UBOP, which has become the vanguard of the Kremlin’s war on political opposition. A witness saw him clubbed repeatedly by men with baseball bats.
Yury’s sin was not chanting Nazi slogans or praising the deeds of Josef Stalin, activities that regularly go unremarked in Russia these days. No, he had been caught throwing leaflets that read “The elections are a farce!” That was enough to make him a marked man. Now, for agitating for real democracy in Russia, he is dead.
This is a good opportunity to remember Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative journalist who was murdered on Oct. 7, 2006, Putin’s birthday. The police investigation into this infamous assassination has stalled and talk of it has died down. The Kremlin is counting on the same thing happening with “minor” cases like that of Yury Chervochkin."