Who wins when artists stage a cultural boycott?

600 artists are boycotting Israel; Sean Scully is showing in China - is art ever apolitical?

In 1985, Paul Simon broke the cultural boycott of Apartheid-era South Africa to make Gracelands, much to the anger of many, including Steve Van Zandt.  Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / THE IRISH TIMES

In 1985, Paul Simon broke the cultural boycott of Apartheid-era South Africa to make Gracelands, much to the anger of many, including Steve Van Zandt. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / THE IRISH TIMES

 

It’s the sort of question that might come up at a particularly rarefied pub quiz (which, in its own way, sounds like something Hieronymus Bosch might have come up with): who is the first western artist to have a retrospective in China?

The answer, apparently, is Sean Scully, whose substantial Follow the Heart show opened last week at the Cafa Art Museum in Beijing, after transferring from the Himalayas Museum in Shanghai. Scully is rarely shy of an opinion, and in Beijing last week, when I asked if he was concerned about opening a show in a country that has a poor recent record in how it treats his fellow artists, his answer was forthright.

“So I should have a show in America, then? You’d be all right with that, where they shoot little black boys? Is it okay to have a show in England, where they invented the slave trade?” Apply the rule consistently, he argues, and “there’s only one f***ing country in the world you can show in, then, cause there’s only one f***ing country in the world that never did anything to anybody, and that’s Ireland.”

Scully’s point illustrates the difficulties surrounding cultural boycotts. In recent times Israel has perhaps received the largest cultural cold shoulder of any country. Just last month more than 600 artists signed an open letter saying they would “accept neither professional invitations to Israel, nor funding, from any institutions linked to its government”. Among the supporters are Brian Eno, Niall Buggy, Ken Loach and Jimmy McGovern.

The question is, does it work? And would artists not be better advised to make their political points through the widest possible dissemination of their work? It’s one thing to refuse to tour a play in Israel, but would the more effective artistic and political policy not be to stage a work sympathetic to your cause in your target country?

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More practically, how stringent should your cultural diet be? It’s straightforward enough to avoid the latest televisual exports from Israel, even if Hostages does seem like a particularly fine piece of work. But should you also forgo the temptations of Homeland, which was based on Gideon Raff’s Prisoners of War? And then there is Waltz With Bashir, the outstanding 2008 Israeli animated war documentary, in which Ari Folman recounted his pockmarked military memories of the 1982 Lebanon war. (The film remains banned in Lebanon. Cultural boycotts cut both ways.)

Perhaps the most famous cultural boycott took place against apartheid-era South Africa. That didn’t stop Paul Simon breaking ranks in 1985 to record Graceland, using African musicians on sessions in Johannesburg and in New York.

Simon said it introduced the world to South African culture and made it clearly a force for change. In an interview with National Geographic he said, “It was on the surface apolitical, but what it represented was the essence of anti-apartheid, in that it was a collaboration between blacks and whites to make music that people everywhere enjoyed.”

Steve Van Zandt takes a different view. The E Street Band guitarist was the instigator of Artists United Against Apartheid, and his 1985 song and album Sun City featured Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr, U2, several Rolling Stones and most other 1980s stars you would care to mention. It raised more than $1 million for anti-apartheid projects.

Van Zandt said that the artists involved would refuse to perform at the Sun City resort, which was situated in one of several “independent” states created by the apartheid regime to forcibly relocate its black population. Indeed Springsteen and the E Street Band did not play in South Africa until January 2014.

In a radio interview for Sirius XM with Dave Marsh in 2013, Van Zandt claimed that Paul Simon was simply out to make a record to reinvigorate his ailing career and had no interest in fighting apartheid. (In an intriguing aside, Van Zandt also said he talked the Azanian People’s Organisation out of assassinating Simon for breaking the cultural boycott.)

Simon didn’t consult with the ANC for Graceland and, according to Van Zandt, viewed Nelson Mandela as a communist stooge, thanks to advice from his friend Henry Kissinger. Simon “knew more than me, he knew more than Mandela, he knew more than the South African people”, Van Zandt said. “His famous line, of course, was, ‘art transcends politics’. And I said to him, ‘All due respect, Paulie, but not only does art not transcend politics . . . art is politics. And I’m telling you right now, you and Henry Kissinger, your buddy, go f*** yourselves.’ He [Simon] consciously violated the boycott to publicise his record.”

Rock-star reputations aside, the cultural boycott in South Africa was clearly successful, but it’s hardly a model that will work in the internet age. Anyone can access the music and art of even the most obscure cultures with a few clicks of the keyboard. To pretend these cultures don’t exist, or to refuse to engage with them, now seems little more than a symbolic, quaint gesture.

lmackin@irishtimes.com

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