Saturday, March 12, 2005

Revolution Ain't A Dinner Party- Fear and Loathing in Prague and Pretoria

John Leland's Hip: The History tracks that elusive aura that makes up the essence of 'cool.' Not an easy task to document this but he finds some fascinating precedents. Writing a biography is one thing but how much more difficult is it to track a slippery, extremely subjective idea like 'hip.' And I thought that bios I've seen of salt and cocaine were far out...

Jay Walljasper's article The Coast of Bohemia is an interesting critique of Leland's book, wondering about the political connection to hipsters and why this isn't given more credence in the tome. Wondering about that myself, I thought the source would provide some good answers. So...

Leland: "In the book I try to do justice to the politics of John Reed's bohemian set, but I also give equal place to the set that inhabited the Village after them, of whom Fitzgerald said, "The events of 1919 left us cynical rather than revolutionary. It was characteristic of the Jazz Age that it had no interest in politics at all."

My take is that hip is a transformative force, but that it works as culture and romance, not as politics. As William Burroughs said, revolution in America begins in books and music, then waits for political operatives to "implement change after the fact." Hipsters do radical individualism very well, but may need someone else to make the compromises and sacrifices associated with collective action."

Also in the "Bohemia" article, there's this provocative passage:

"Politics and the whole business of making the world a better place comes across as distinctly "square" in Leland's vision of hip and as a tad dull and not fabulous enough in Stover's manual on becoming a bohemian. But that's not always the case. The generation of 1968 in Europe and most anti-Vietnam War protesters in the U.S. were social as well as political rebels. So were the intellectuals and rock musicians who ignited the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and many of the millions worldwide who stood up against apartheid in South Africa."

I wondered about that also, particularly the last two examples he gave, not just in terms of well-meaning Westerners who tried to hasten the end of the repressive regimes in each country but the artists themselves in each place. Prague and Pretoria seemed like special cases that couldn't be generalized. In the case of Czechoslovakia, The Velvet Revolution was indeed started up by bohemians (and why not? it's their native land!) but it wasn't a simple matter of them taking up arms against injustice out of an ingrained sense of freedom.

When asked if the Plastic People would prefer a democratic government to the Communist one they lived up the threat of for years, here is what their former manager Olga Zahorbenska had to say: "The Plastics were young guys who wanted to have fun, get girls and play their music. They never wanted to get political, it was just circumstances that got them engaged with politics, dissident movement, etc.. I'm not sure about (Plastics leader) Mejla not liking the U.S. democracy at the time. Of course, it would be another matter to discuss it these days, but we still have a long way to go with our "democracy" here."

Which isn't to say that they didn't like or care about their freedom but you can't expect a group of peaceful anarchists to embrace any form of government.

In the case of South Africa, the freedom movement was very different. The African National Congress, who took bolder steps to fight the government, were never thought of as artists primarily: they were a political party dating back to 1912. In fact, once the ANC took over the country, there weren't always sympathetic to all types of artists: witness the mixed signals about patronage as evidenced in this story about the North Sea Jazz Festival.

But even when apartheid was in effect, the racist white government had a confused relationship to the arts, as I witnessed in 1988. Traveling there to visit friends, I saw some things that didn't make any sense. At a record shop in Johannesburg, there was copy of Max Roach's We Insist: Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (an explicit expression of black pride) for sale. The last song on the album is "Tears for Johannesburg." In the capital Pretoria, another record store had a large window display for Stevie Wonder's Characters. One of the songs there is explicitly anti-apartheid, "Dark 'N' Lovely," pointedly referring to the head of the South African government, warning him 'Hey there Botha! Yes, we are watchin' you!' Compare that with a screening of Pink Floyd's The Wall that I saw there. All of the violent and anti-authority scenes had been chopped out: Pink shaving his eyebrows, the facist rally and its aftermath. I caught up with the projectionist afterwards and he admitted that the theatre was forced to show the movie in that version because the government thought that it 'might incite riots' otherwise. The lesson was that the real-life facist censors obviously weren't consistent in their attempted moral cleansing of society.

Obviously, that didn't mean that artists had free reign under apartheid. As in Czechoslovakia, some artists would couch pointed messages and criticism in universalist moral stories and songs: a great example is the work of Mzwakhe Mbuli (who still experiences prosecution to this day). This method was also used effectively in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) with artists like Thomas Mapfumo. And now when we find in America that we had better 'watch what we say' and that many media outlets are under attack and worrying about any potential indecency infraction, we could definitely learn a lesson from them.

Thinking back to Walljasper's article, I know specifically what he means when he refers to the boho's "who stood up against apartheid in South Africa." When I was in college (mid 80's), I saw many other students try to press the school administration to divest from companies who had financial interests in South Africa. I didn't participate but it wasn't because I didn't agree with them but maybe because I was more of a wide-eyed thrill-seeker then, maybe the sort of boho that Walljasper chides for picking up on the right music/films/art but not seeing a wider connection to the world, not realizing that other people couldn't enjoy these same priveleges or voice their opinions if they didn't mesh with an official, dictated stance.

That didn't necessarily let the do-gooders on campus off the hook for promoting freedom of expression consistently. When I visited the school before starting there, a janitor gave me a mini-tour, showing me a speakers' auditorium. This very nice blue collar guy was appalled though that the student league had insisted that Ian Smith (former president of Rhodesia) shouldn't be allowed to come there to talk because of his own country's racist oppression. "Why would they do that?" the janitor fumed. "Isn't this supposed to be a college, where you get to hear different ideas, maybe even some you don't agree with?"

Years later, when I met an ANC member during SA's apartheid period, it occured to me that his life and work had little to do with 'hip' and everything to do with necessity. Though I was embarassed to ask him at first, I had to know one thing. How could he and other ANC member struggle and live every day in perpetual danger and possible death? "When you're backed into a corner, you don't have many choices," he explained.


Blogger Michael said...

For politics to be cool, they have to be both radical and espoused primarily by the educated and artistic classes. In such cases, the politics is only one aspect of the bohemian culture, not its overwhelming force. Politics, art, and lifestyle are all intertwined. Think situationists, pre-revolution communists. Once the causes are taken up by the working class (those effected by the injustice), they are no longer cool. Once there is a critical mass, it is more reality than theory, and reality is work and ugliness. Theory is much sexier.

5:47 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home