Guerrilla Girls poster

Following on from yesterday’s post, I wanted to say a few things about political art.

In particular, I wanted to think about how political content and artistic merit intersect to create a political effect. I want to draw together the strands of a few things that have been knocking around my head of late.

Let me start with a review of Submission Part 1, mentioned in yesterday’s post. This is a short film made by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh. In it, Islamic women’s stories are told, of how their submission to Allah and to the demands of their religion and culture has led to beatings, floggings and daily miseries.

Two powerful images recur in the short film.

The first is of a woman dressed in a burka and veiled so that only her eyes are uncovered. The burka, however, is made of sheer black fabric reminiscent of a sexxy negligee, so that her naked body is clearly visible underneath.

To me, the burka is a powerful symbol both of oppression and protection. It is meant to afford a woman protection – from inappropriate and unwanted male attention. It is her barrier against violation. However, as a compulsory and cumbersome garment, which focusses attention on the woman’s body as a cause of male violence, it is clearly, to me, a symbol of protection by oppression rather than protection by liberation. To make the burka, instead of a heavy, impenetrable garment, into a sheer, transparent one – this is a comment on just how flimsy a protection it provides. To make the burka, instead of a sexless shapeless drape, into a sexually vocal item of lingerie – this is a comment on just how effectively it prevents unwanted sexual attention*. And to focus attention on the naked body of the covered woman is to point out that burka-wearing is just as much about control of rampant female sexuality as it is about control of male urges. One image says so much.

[* It is worth remarking that in Princess, Sultana describes her transformation from unveiled girl to veiled woman. Before she veiled, men ignored her. Afterwards, they watched her, ogled her, desperate to catch a glimpse of the flesh under the fabric.]

The second key image in the film is that of Koranic scripture inked onto naked female flesh. Inked onto the naked female flesh of a woman beaten or flogged. Such an image illustrates the effect of Islamic law, as currently interpreted in many countries, on women. It shows how women pay the price of the strict, violent, antiquated notions that predominate in such places. No translation is needed for such an image.

Why, then, is this film not a runaway success? Why do we all know about the murder of Theo van Gogh, but not about the film he made? Why has this film, with such clear and powerful images, failed to have any significant political effect?

Well, there are lots of reasons. We live in a patriarchy for one thing, duh, and any overtly feminist film has to be little short of astonishing before it is touted as a work of genius in very many circles. For another thing, there is the fundamentalist attack on free speech and the consequent “respectful” self-censorship that I discussed in yesterday’s post. Ever since Islamic fundamentialism came under the spotlight after the bombings on 11 September 2001, the media has been very wary of publishing or promoting “anti-Islamic” items, such as an “anti-Islam propaganda film” like this.

But, ultimately, a big reason also has to be that the film just isn’t artistically that good. The script is good, the filming and camerawork and images are effective, but the casting is poor and the acting worse. I’m not sure under all the veiling how many actresses were in the film (I’m a bit rubbish at telling people apart at the best of times in fact…) but the speaking parts were done in a way that I found thoroughly unconvincing. I did not hear an oppressed Muslim woman speaking out about her ordeal. It was too – flat. I heard an American college woman reciting a poem*. It was very hard to believe in. And, because of that, the impact of the film just wasn’t there. It was a film that was beautifully conceived, well-written, well-directed – but with a fatal flaw so that, no matter how powerful the message, it Just Didn’t Work.

[* I comment as a (native) English speaker. It may understandably not sound so bad if you are a non-(native)-English speaker, since the accent and intonation may not have the same effect. I suspect it would still sound a bit flat though.]

Compare this with something like, say, the play/book The Vagina Monologues. The text is well-written, the monologues are engaging, the nuggets of political content are inspiring. In feminist circles, this play/book is much-derided, and for a number of good reasons. Yet it is successful. It has swept around the world. They even put it on in Cheltenham, not so long ago. This success is not because Ensler is secretly anti-woman, and thus popular for all the wrong reasons. She is not. Her work is, despite its flaws, very much pro-woman. The reason why The Vagina Monologues, despite being a pro-woman feminist work, is so popular is that is very good. Its political content may be dubious in places, but its artistic merit – combined with something both inspiring and shocking in the populist political messages that it undoubtedly does have – mean that it has a political effect far greater than other, more “important” works. – Of course, it helps that TVM is aimed at middle class white women.

And then, let’s take a look at To every man who never called himself a feminist, a performance poem that is doing the femblog rounds right now. Sentiments? I agree. Political message? Spot on. Artistic merit? No.

Kudos to her. But. The poem is really not very well performed – that “American-college-woman-reciting” thing again. She doesn’t sound angry, she doesn’t sound passionate. She sounds like her experiences are limited to the ones she got on a women’s studies course. I don’t say that to be mean, and I recognise that it may be absoutely 100% dead wrong as an assessment of this woman as an actual person. I say it because this woman’s actual life and personality are not relevant here. It is her persona we are judging when we respond to her work. When you are performing a work, your performance is a massive part of how you will be judged, how the work will be judged. And the persona she projects, the part she plays, does not help to hammer in the true import of the poem she performs.

Where am I going with all this?

I just want to point out that, in political art, artistic merit is an essential tool to back up the political message in order to create maximum political effect.

Sometimes the consequence is that a piece with plenty of artistic merit, despite its mediocre or dubious political message, becomes very successful – even too successful. Sometimes the effect is that a piece that is artistically mediocre, despite its vital and incontrovertible political message, altogether fails.

There is nothing earth-shattering in these observations. But sometimes the necessity of political art being good art, as well as good politics, seems to get missed.