Monday, April 29, 2013

Black Or White: Spanish crisis and the arts

I have been researching a feature on the Barcelona-born artist Joan Miró who, despite having been a supporter of Republicanism, lived quietly enough in Mallorca under the Franco regime. The impression I formed was one of his not having been bothered by the regime so long as he had done nothing to bother it. And Miró didn't bother it. He was only really bothered about getting on with his art.

Miró's abstract paintings and sculptures could have symbolised any number of things. One of the beauties of abstracts is that they can mean everything or they can mean nothing. The observer can interpret them as he sees fit, projecting his own prejudices, opinions and attitudes onto the painter's canvas in creating a perception as to what the artist actually means. The obscurity of meaning makes proof very difficult. So long as the artist keeps his thoughts to himself, which is pretty much what Miró did, then a regime is none the wiser as to what he might be thinking or not.

Obscurity of meaning helps. I fancy that autocrats and technocrats can't get their heads around anything that isn't black or white. I imagine them to be incapable of understanding irony or innuendo. Only if a painting, a song, a film slaps them firmly in the face with an unequivocal message, be it pro or anti, will they get the meaning. Some artists got away with things during the Franco era because the authority figures were probably too thick to understand. Andrés Rábago, the cartoonist, was one such artist.

Alternatively, the regime may have felt it necessary to cut the arts world some slack. By the fifties it had stumbled on the realisation that the arts world was a potential source of making it look better to the rest of the world. This is one reason why so much effort was put into attracting film-makers, an effort that produced the Charlton Heston-Sophia Loren epic "El Cid", a film of magnificent cinematography but one that did rather gloss over some of the true nature of El Cid - that of having been a mercenary.

At the same time as the regime was looking to Hollywood and foreign money in order to give Spain a more acceptable global image, it wouldn't have been wise to have been stamping down too much on its own artists. Of course, it did do and had done. Federico García Lorca, one of Spain's most important poets of the twentieth century, was executed in 1936. But then that had been a time of war. Twenty years on, things were a bit different.

The arts world doesn't operate in a cultural, social, political or economic vacuum. An artist who wants to get on and flourish when the politics are repressive has to be a Leni Riefenstahl. A leftie like García Lorca in 1936 stood no chance. When the gloves of repression are removed and artists' hands can be waved with full freedom of expression, the canvases on which they work change completely. But making appropriate artistic gestures under unrestricted democratic regimes bring their own problems. Too often they can appear to be ones that veer towards a political extreme, usually the left, and so open themselves up to criticisms of being overly and overtly political.

Spain's artists of today face just this dilemma, those who haven't jumped ship and gone abroad. There may be democracy in Spain, but the arts world doesn't always benefit from such democracy. The artist Santiago Sierra has pointed out that art which deals with economic crisis in Spain doesn't get a great deal of visibility, a key reason being that critical thinking or expression is deterred because the major art collectors happen to be banks or the state.

Another member of the arts world, the film director Isabel Coixet, has chosen to mostly work abroad, but her latest film was shot in Catalonia. It portrays a Spain four years from now, one that has descended into anarchy. Doom-laden messages from the arts world are natural responses to poor or deteriorating circumstances.

Pedro Almodóvar's latest film - "I'm So Excited" is its English title - is unusual in taking a very different approach. He has made a highly camp comedy in which scandals involving the government and the royal family make the film appear as though it were a metaphor for them. Almodóvar hadn't foreseen these scandals, but whether he had or he hadn't, comedy, rather than apocalyptic visions, can be a better way of getting a message over. But not to politicians. Democratic the times may be, but present them with a metaphor which isn't black or white and they won't have a clue.

Any comments to please.

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