Coffee Hour on Cairo: A Collective Work of Art

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Barbara Massaad (32 min, 15 meg)

Revolutions are not born of chance but of necessity. A revolution is a return from the fictitious to the real. It happens because it had to happen…

Victor Hugo, in the thick of the people’s revolt in Paris in 1832, in Les Miserables, the prized Norman Denny translation, Penguin edition, p. 720.

MFR CL Pyr 640

Mark Fonseca Rendeiro and I are comparing impressions here of our “conversational immersion” in Cairo toward the end of last year. At the two-year mark, the Egyptian “revolution” is still young by the measure of the 18th Century models in France and America. To have felt the paroxysm of people power in Tahrir Square again last month is to know that nothing about the upheaval in Egypt is “over.” Charles Dickens prepared us, of course, to see flashes of paradox in these “best of times” and “worst of times” when history comes unhinged. We saw chapters of a very dark story, the evidence of horrific injuries and cruel losses of life, and revelations of deep old distortions in Egyptian society, also in American policy. We also got close to a lot of thrilling stories of the shit people won’t take; of blind courage and human intuition of the moment to act, to put their dignity and their lives on the line.

The rockets of big news as soon as we got to Cairo were astonishing: the mighty renewal of mass protest in Tahrir Square; the Israeli descent, guns blazing, on defenseless Gaza; the gruesome, preventable train-bus collision that dragged 51 Egyptian children to excruciating death; President Mohamed Morsi’s reach for dictatorial power; then the popular ratification of a pot-luck constitution… We’d come looking for reflections and connections and found them, too. Mark puts it forcefully here. American-born, with lively roots in today’s Portugal, he’s an esteemed solo practitioner of digital journalism, based in Amsterdam. In Egypt he came to realize “I was amongst family and people I could relate to — and a struggle that doesn’t seem so alien to me.”

Here’s the kernel of it for me. I went looking for artists to reflect on events in Egypt. I came back thinking of the ongoing mass revolt in Tahrir Square as, in itself, more like a work of art than anything else. It marks a moment of desperate insight into “the real” (in Victor Hugo’s sense above) and contagious courage in facing it. I was making a connection (before Greg Buchakjian mentioned it) with Picasso’s Guernica. It’s not a peaceful picture. It is a sustained cry from a tortured imagination of blind fury, doubt, agony and decision. It represents an inspired stab in the dark — not by Picasso in the case of Tahrir Square but by a million or more people scared reckless. It was something more than a political event: more like a communal birth, or death, an organic explosion. It seemed to speak for the whole species, a resolution “to act,” in Tony Judt‘s phrase, “upon our intuitions of impending catastrophe.” I kept thinking: what if a million goats had shown up in Tahrir Square? Or a million earthworms? Or a million Glossy Ibises? We would still be looking up in wonder. We’d know: they’re saying something! They’re on to something we haven’t seen clearly and they don’t spell all the way out. But in truth, as Mark says, the brave mobs in Tahrir Square are our close cousins, voicing pain and fear that billions of people know — under tyranny, in extreme poverty, under a mortal threat to their habitat and ours, to our common future as human beings. We will not forget that uncanny resonance of Tahrir Square — the aura of a collective work of art.

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  • Potter

    Les Miserables needs to be read and re-read, no doubt about it.

    The Guernica of Picasso was so familiar in it’s humongous glory hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. That was so many years ago and for so many years. Then I had the time and the student ticket to keep returning after art history lectures at Hunter. It’s in Madrid where it should be now (I suppose). A powerful work.

    Don’t roll your eyes and pardon the comparison but this conversation and the description brings me back to some heady days in the late 60’s here. Of course there was not quite the level of danger, though there was some, some self-inflicted. But cops were out there with clubs and their harsh “busts” for pot. There was no tyranny to overthrow though. And I voted.

    It was a cultural revolution too. We had our cultural revolution. It had it’s art (handmade houses which were fabulous works of art, psychedelic posters, cartoons & light shows) and it’s well known and enduring music component today “classics”. “The times they are a-changin” the lyrics said; the answers were “blowin’ in the wind”, ”all you need is love” “just imagine”. It’s had a fashion component (tie dye and beads, headbands, long skirts and no clothes at all) and symbols (peace). The “underground press” flourished: Rolling Stone, the SF Oracle, The Village Voice and in Boston, The Avatar (of which I was a member). It was about politics, the rap was anti “the establishment”, anti the Viet Nam war, back to the earth living and organic farming (the real kind, not the corporate kind). There were those who dropped out (of college, of Harvard!) and “tuned in” (to the cosmos) with or without the aid of psychedelics. We got “real”, out of the “rat race” and into the difficulties and rewards of of communal living. Taboos of all sorts were broken that had lasting effect. There were safe zones “be-ins”, “love-ins”. There was Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury. There was confusion too.

    It all faded but left quite a mark. Too, later, there were the memories of “those days” of being alive, of community. You had to have been there, just like you have to have been in Tahrir.

    Of course this Egyptian awakening is much more critical in many ways as you describe. The starting point, the urgency, very different.

    You both complement each other so well in this coffee chat, and the series.

    A point about ”stay safe” which I am sure you realize. Embarking on this particular journey with it’s uncertainties, those well wishes must hook perversely into one’s own apprehensions, even exacerbating them. For loved ones at home, those fears for your safety remain, especially in such a situation where events are on the news. So I was concerned too after we had not heard from you here in awhile.

    I look forward to the rest…

  • Robert Zucchi

    “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” ― Aristotle

    “History’s accelerating like technology’s accelerated. Can’t go back. We can blow the whole show up. Or we can calm fear, see the world is really changing, like a dream, & go explore & help each other through. It’s all safe because as Einstein & the Buddhists secretly tipped everybody off long ago: the whole show is a harmless wave-illusion.” __ Allen Ginsberg, Letter to the “Wall Street Journal,”1966

  • nother

    I love the idea of it as a “collective work of art.” That’s such a great prism to look things, it frees me up to see a more complex picture and let go of the impulse to categorize. Just as I would never dear try to explain what’s actually happening in Picasso’s Guernica, why do I dare to do it in Tehrir Square? And it makes me think of the artists John Singleton Copley and Paul Revere and how they were instrumental in representing our own Revolution.

    And for the Egyptians that wax poetic about those recent days, all the power to them! Reveling in a new found dignity is their reward for their courage, because it might be a long time before the tangible fruits of their effort are enjoyed. And an essential part of freedom is expressing, so tell them to keep tweeting, ext. and painting a picture of that “world miracle” as Chris calls it. Express, express, express!

    The burning question that comes to my mind is this: You talk about what’s happening as a “heart of huge beast pumping like crazy.” My question is: is that beast a burgeoning pubescent American-like city? Or is it a burgeoning post-American city? Is there any possibility that when the smoke clears, something better than American will emerge? Or at least something that has learned from our indiscretions?

    For instance, as Egypt moves forward into a future of possibility, do they bring with them precious traditions that many American have left behind in our lust for capital? Such as family, hospitality, ext.? Is there some unique Egyptian-ness that they might add to our example of liberty, and which could possibly draw us into a brighter unseen future, together?

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  • Potter

    Re my above- horrors, I forgot women’s lib and the civil rights movement.

    Nother hello! Re Guernica, The meaning can be (is) something simple : how terrible, how painful is war; it sucks in innocents, traumatizes, destroys. The painting is huge and in black and white and grey.. no color and standing before it is different from seeing the picture above. We were blessed with it here in the US for many years.

    Wikipedia has a wonderful entry on it-

  • nother

    Thanks Potter! I’m jealous you experienced it in person. And you’re right, the wiki is great. I especially like the following line which I think speaks to this ROS series:
    “But far from being a mere political painting, Guernica should be seen as Picasso’s comment on what art can actually contribute towards the self-assertion that liberates every human being and protects the individual against overwhelming forces such as political crime, war, and death.”

  • chris

    Nother, you (and Wikipedia) trump me here brilliantly. But I think the complete quote works even better: “In his chef d’oevre, Picasso seems to be trying to define his role and his power as an artist in the face of political power and violence. [which is exactly what the Cairo mobs have been doing for two years now.] But far from being a mere political painting, Guernica should be seen as Picasso’s comment on what art can actually contribute towards the self-assertion that liberates every human being and protects the individual against overwhelming forces such as political crime, war, and death.

  • Potter

    I’m realizing how civil war weakens a country. It seems violence cannot be avoided. Look at how what starts peacefully and non-violently turns into violence. What is most amazing is when it does not.

    So I say it was the cruel violence described in that article Picasso read while in Paris, (as cited by the Wikipedia article),violence against the innocent women and children in his homeland, that moved Picasso to paint this whale of a painting (11 foot plus high by 25 foot long) for the Republican cause, for self determination, with such emotion and passion. It was the violence and the suffering that moved him.

    This was the only thing he could do to ward off the sorrow he felt and helplessness. He had the genius to devote to it.

    As a young student looking at La Guernica, after having listened to lectures, in detailed exegesis, and by the soon to be curator at the MOMA (the late William Rubin), I could not feel it then even in person standing before it as I feel it now after years of watching, looking and reading and listening (to the cries, which you can hear coming from this painting, too) about war pain and suffering.

    This pain and suffering and war I believe will go on endlessly because this also is who we are, what we do as humans. We do this as well as being the artists and unsung human angels that take form in so many ways. War, pain and suffering, obscenely described by us Americans not that long ago as “shock and awe,” and the awful injustice of it, seems to be how we collectively move and get moved. We don’t seem to be able stop it. Might still makes right; it always has.

    Thank you for focusing on this.

  • nother

    Potter, I happen to have an affinity for Helen Keller these days, and so she is a prism I look through. Keller’s take on this might be: “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”

    There is defiant hope in the painting, to be sure. The ghostly woman’s head coming through the window (center right with her mouth open) holding the fire lit candle, she cuts right through the painting, the candle she holds is the 50 yard line, it’s the flagship symbol of the painting I believe. And she is serene, it’s a melancholy serenity, but in a compassionate serenity. The violence must come to her, she will not answer the violence. She seems to be looking straight across at the suffering soldier with the flower growing out of his hand. But it’s not a helpless look she gives, it’s a – I might have gotten here late, but I got here in time for resurrection.

    And her eyes! When I looked at them again I thought of those eyes on the walls of Egypt, that Chris documented. A mother’s eyes.

    Chris, I agree about the longer quote (thanks for referencing this wiki, Potter) and I love the connections you’ve been making in this series. It’s freed me to think of this change in world order, in a different way.

    We know there are at least two fundamental things that go into being an artist: individual expression, and a profound appreciation for the mysterious – which is the opposite of absolutism. Einstein tells us in his masterpiece essay, “The World as I See it: “The really valuable thing in the pageant of human life seems to me not the political state, but the creative, sentient individual, the personality; it alone creates the noble and the sublime, while the herd as such remains dull in thought and dull in feeling.”

    The most important thing about the masterpiece Guernica, might not have anything to do with the content. The art of it may just be in the very act of painting it.

  • sifta

    The connection to Picasso’s reaction to the massacre in Guernica is powerful, but it seems of a previous age. The current maelstrom has fundamental connections to those of the past, but also differs in its dynamics and vocabulary.

    Perhaps we should also consider the situation of Ai Weiwei — the irrepressible Chinese artist who seems to be utilizing mass person-to-person communications as a means of becoming a nexus of a thousand thoughts and further channeling this strength to oppose enormous pressures.

    Of course, the situation in Egypt and Tunisia lies beyond this. But, perhaps we can view Tahrir square as a richer and physical manifestation of the kind of thing that Ai Weiwei and others are doing on the internet. Thus, the “collective work of art” is the emergent result of repressed experiences in the vacuum of liberty. And Tahrir is simply the medium onto which these dynamics are painted.

  • Potter

    Nother, thanks. That post of mine is half of how I feel.

    I don’t see the hope in Guernica. But what Picasso said he felt about the work when asked about it’s symbolism was that it’s up to you what to take from it. People call it the most important painting of the 20th century. I think that is because of what happened after. Things got a lot worse, especially for Europe after Guernica.

    So I agree that
    The most important thing about the masterpiece Guernica, might not have anything to do with the content. The art of it may just be in the very act of painting it.

    I would say that the point of it (in place of the “art of it” ) may in the end mainly be in the very act of painting” which is what Chris said above I think. I added what I thought was the “prime mover”, the violence. Picasso needed something to grab onto for this commission.

    It may be that we rid ourselves of the violence (Steven Pinker thinks we are moving there). Practice Lovingkindness.

    Sifta- beautiful!

  • Potter

    Turning away from the ongoing chaos in Egypt, or searching for something larger from the specifics, I am so grateful for this conversation about Guernica and that it caused another look at the painting. The best, most worthy explanation I have found so far is here on a British educational website for homeschooling (and us).

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