On Decorating The Blast Walls

I once saw a photograph of an artist painting a mural, and what came to mind? That the artist was playing a constructive role in society by creating a public work meant to beautify his community? Of course I had many reactions to the photo, but in reading about the actual circumstances in which it was made, suddenly a different set of responses come into play, as well as questions regarding the social purposes of art. A closer examination of the photo told me something about the art and artists in our own respective communities.

The photo was taken on July 20, 2007 by Associated Press photographer, Khalid Mohammed, and it showed an Iraqi artist painting a mural on the steel and cement blast walls erected by U.S. occupation troops in downtown Baghdad, fortifications meant to protect government buildings from car bombs. Commissioned by the U.S. backed Shiite dominated central government, the artist’s mural is part of a government funded “beautification project,” where non-controversial and colorful murals are being created and installed on bomb blast walls all across Baghdad.

In painting the ramparts of a military occupation, does the Iraqi artist somehow make life better for his people? I don’t mean to say that art should not serve to ameliorate suffering and bring joy to the soul, those are, I believe, some of the main reasons why we create works of art. As Albert Camus once observed, “We have art in order not to die of life.” But when we create art, who is it for, what is its purpose, and what are its ramifications?

Knowing the context of the mural puts the artwork in a whole different light, and disconcerting questions arise that are pertinent for artists everywhere. Does the creative work most artists engage in simply conceal untenable realities? Should artworks make acceptable, that which is clearly unacceptable? At what point do the escapist elements of art move from enlightened pleasantries to enablers of malevolence? The spectacle of an artist embellishing an urban battlefield so as to mask the horrors of war is indeed a powerfully unsettling one, but is the work of that Iraqi muralist really so different from that of contemporary artists around the world? Sometimes I get the feeling that the majority of today’s artists, metaphorically speaking, are merely decorating blast walls.

As if to buttress my point, the postmodernist installation art duo, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, have announced plans to construct an enormous pyramid in the desert of the United Arab Emirates. The Mastaba project is named after the pre-pyramid, bunker-like tombs of ancient Egypt that served as final resting places for Kings and Queens, though it is not yet known if today’s Royal couple of postmodernism also intend their colossal mastaba to be their final burying place.

The pyramid will stand approximately two thirds the height of the Eiffel Tower, and will be constructed of 390,500 orange-yellow oil barrels; but don’t presume a pyramid built of oil barrels in the middle of the United Arab Emirates is some type of social commentary, it is not, after all this is Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who have been quoted as saying, “We do not create messages.” In the 1960’s the couple attempted to build their pyramid in Texas and then the Netherlands, however these plans didn’t work out. They finally turned to the UAE, but in 1980 the Iran-Iraq war erupted, a conflagration that took the lives of a million people and marked a deepening involvement in the region by the U.S. Needless to say, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s art project was put on hold, and it wouldn’t be revived until just two years ago.

Washington aided both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, providing arms and intelligence information to the regimes of Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini; of course that brinksmanship has only intensified, with the U.S. now occupying Iraq and threatening military action against Iran. With all this chaos as a backdrop, our postmodern dynamic duo have revived their pyramid project. The UAE “is very keen to see this project realized,” according to Christo, and the cost of building the pyramid will be underwritten by the government of the oil rich Gulf state. Contrasting with previous Christo projects, the structure will not be dismantled, and Christo has stated that the pyramid, according to unnamed engineers, “could last for 5,000 years.” But why is this harebrained project being embarked upon now, with the entire Middle East either on fire or about to explode? There is no ulterior motive or profound reasoning behind the return of the Mastaba project, because Christo and Jeanne-Claude, as apolitical and self-absorbed artists, are simply “decorating the blast walls.”

On the other hand, those artists who want their works to have a noble purpose, can fall into a trap of a different sort. In the Summer of 2005, British graffiti artist, Banksy, traveled to the West Bank to leave a series of stencil murals on Israel’s so-called “security fence” surrounding the Palestinian territories. On his website the artist wrote: “How illegal is it to vandalize a wall, if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice? The Israeli government is building a wall which stands three times the height of the Berlin wall and will eventually run for over 700km – the distance from London to Zurich.” Once Banksy began his murals, he was confronted by an old Palestinian man who said, “You’ve painted the wall and made it look beautiful.” The artist replied with a “Thank you”, only to be admonished by the elder, “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home!

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