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Art: a sane response to terrorism and war

By Susan McDonald - posted Wednesday, 5 October 2005

Art is talking about politics. War, terrorism, anti-terror laws and threats to civil liberties are deconstructed in print, on stage and canvas. Peace songs are sung at a protest in Texas.

I can hear the scorn in reply. Bleeding hearts, they’ll say. But why shouldn’t artists comment? We could do with a fresh perspective on the political process, some imagination. Bleeding-heart artists (and philosophers, judges, priests et al) have been right before, and they’re right now.

In World War II, the poet Stephen Spender observed, “… the fate of individuals was more and more controlled by a public fate which itself seemed beyond control”. He could easily have been referring to the world since September 11, 2001.


After the attacks on New York and Washington, French philosopher Jacques Derrida predicted that bombs in Afghanistan, Iraq or even Palestine would “never be ‘smart’ enough to stop the victims responding with … counter-terrorism, and so on, ad infinitum”.

The artists and philosophers know that politics is out of control. One terrorist attack, shocking as it was, sent the political process into a spin, which no-one seems willing, nor able, to stop. The war in Iraq has probably spawned more terrorists than it has quashed. And the latest solutions to terrorism (curtailing, even abusing, the rights of individuals) may, in their turn, become part of the problem.

Of course, art will always clash with politics, largely because it looks at life from a vastly different perspective. For the artist there can be more than one valid point of view; the personal is more important than the political; the struggle more important than the goal (which is unreachable anyway); the end never justifies the means.

So, many artists prefer to remain detached, to put themselves beyond the public struggle for power, beyond what W.H. Auden called “the usual squalid mess called history”.

But it is precisely because art is so divorced from politics that it has a legitimate voice. Spender felt it valid that artists take a position, even if one of fatalism and despair.

So we should listen when Salman Rushdie criticises the politics of Islam (as writer, as well as victim), when Norman Mailer rails against a “pre-fascistic atmosphere” in America, when British playwright David Hare (Stuff Happens is on now in Sydney), describes the Iraq war as one liked by politicians but “which only the poor bloody people in nearly every country in the world dislike and distrust”.


Apologists for those in power can label such opposition leftist agitprop or naïve intellectualising (one critic termed Derrida’s foray into the political discussion that of an “academic tiger now determined to get out of (his) jungle”), but the artists’ stance is more than partisanship or theoretical posturing. It’s about process.

Only a few weeks after September 11, 2001, Derrida questioned on what basis terrorism can claim a political content and thus be distinguished from ordinary crime. Declaring “war” (or even “global struggle”) is not the only way to fight terrorism. The British Government didn’t bomb Ireland in response to IRA attacks.

Complicated socio-political problems demand a more nuanced approach. Creating a viable, non-threatening Palestinian state may go a long way towards removing the raison d’etre of suicide bombers. And taking away the rights of individuals may actually act to inflame rather than cool passions. But these considerations are scuppered. Politicians stick stubbornly to the script. And the tail wags the dog.

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Susan McDonald is a freelance writer and sub-editor.

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