Monday, September 24, 2018

Rocinha Favela and the Future of Urbanism


During a recent tour in Brazil, I visited the Rocinha Favela in Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is the largest favela in Brazil and runs up a very steep hill near the centre of Rio. It is believed at least 70,000 people live in Rocinha (some estimates suggest more than double that number), living in houses made from concrete and brick. It is officially described as a neighbourhood and has very basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity. Rocinha also has shops, hairdressers, banks, art galleries and many other businesses. The word favela itself is derived from a skin-irritating plant of the spurge family: removing these plants to live in these areas was not easy so the people called the hills after the plant.


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View of sea from top of Rocinha favela (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


History
The favelas go back to the late 1800s when soldiers, brought in for a local war, had no place to live and so settled in the hills. After the end of slavery and the growth of city life many people moved to the cities and the favelas spread. A later industrialisation drive in the 1940s brought many more people to the cities and the favelas expanded dramatically. In the 1970s there were public housing projects but these too disintegrated into new favelas. As the drugs trade increased in the 1980s so too did the growth of gangs and gang warfare. In Rocinha, like many slums, it also has an ongoing conflict between police and drug dealers.


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Locals perform samba drumming, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


UPP and BOPE
The state began a war on the drug gangs in 2008 with the Pacifying Police Units (UPP) moving in, usually after an initial operation by BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) who scour the area for heavy weapons and drug caches. The main purpose of the UPP is to stop armed men from ruling the streets and end drug trafficking. However, there seems to be an uneasy peace between the UPP and the drug gangs. While walking through the narrow 'streets' of Rocinha, a man with a revolver pointed in the air walked through our group and twice we were asked to refrain from taking photographs as we walked past armed groups of men.


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Cemented-over bullet holes, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


Cinema
If you look at any listicle of Brazil's best films you will probably see two films, Elite Squad (2007)  and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010) contained within. These films follow the actions of a BOPE squad in a the favelas and does so without pulling any punches. Different, conflicting elements of society are portrayed in both Elite Squad films. The BOPE and police are shown to have corrupt elements, ultimately manipulated by political figures. The middle class are shown in the discussions about the nature of power in university lectures (with particular emphasis on Michel Foucault) and the students are shown working in charitable organisations in the favelas with the nod from drug gang leaders. The main narrative of the films is the idea of corrupt police making financial deals with the drugs gangs - Elite Squad (2007), and changing to corrupt politicians making money by taxing the whole community after the drug gangs have been pushed out - Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010).


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Overhanging wires on telegraph poles, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)



Tourism
The global success of these two films have probably been one of the factors in encouraging tourism in the favelas While the drug gangs generally do not appear to target tourists there have been incidents where tourists have been injured or killed by both the police and the drug gangs usually as the result of some accident or misunderstanding. In general, tourism, like in many other places, is a quick-fix solution for local businesses but does little in the way of any real social or economic development of the favela neighbourhoods.



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Local store, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


Whither the favelas?
While slums became common in Europe and the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries they are predominantly found in developing countries today. The Little Ireland slum in Manchester, for example, became a source for social scientist Friedrich Engels' book titled The Condition of the Working Class in England published in Germany in 1845. According to the UN World Cities Report 2016: Urbanization and Development - Emerging Futures:


"The percentage of slum  dwellers in urban areas across all developing regions has reduced considerably since 1990, but the numbers have increased gradually since 2000 except for a steep rise of 72 million new slum dwellers in sub-saharan Africa."

Also, according to one article on the world's five biggest slums:

"Around a quarter of the world’s urban population lives in slums. And this figure is rising fast. The number of slum dwellers in developing countries increased from 689 million in 1990 to 880 million in 2014, according to the United Nations World Cities Report 2016."
The biggest slums in the world today are: Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa (Population: 400,000), Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya (Population: 700,000), Dharavi, Mumbai, India (Population: 1 million), Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mexico (Population: 12 million), and Orangi Town, Karachi, Pakistan (Population: 2.4 million).



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Favela mural, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)



Urbanisation and the flight from the land
The development of industrialised farming has been one of the major reasons for the the flight from the land.  There is also the perceived view that economic opportunities are greater in the cities. Governments invest less in rural communities because of lower population densities and this creates a vicious cycle In Ireland today, for example, friends of mine in rural areas still can't get broadband speeds fast enough to play video clips on their computers and in August the government announced the closure of over 160 post offices nationwide. Meanwhile the urbanisation of Dublin has extended into neighbouring counties while pubs and shops in the rural areas close due to a lack of footfall. While the pressure on Dublin has not produced slums it has created huge increases in rents and a growing homelessness problem.

So what can be done about slums? There appears to be three main approaches to the question of the future of slums around the world today: (1) Renovation: top-down and bottom-up approaches, (2) Demolition for rehousing and rebuilding, and (3) Demolition for parkland.



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Local bakery, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


Renovation: top-down and bottom-up approaches
Around the world slum upgrading has consisted of concrete paths, sanitation, safe drinking water, water drainage systems and public transport. The Brazilian state has done some top-down upgrading in the favelas putting in basic sanitation and social services but much more needs to be done with masses of wires on telegraph poles and cabling bundled along the side of the paths. However, with the global neo-liberal move towards privatisation of public housing there doesn't seem to be much hope for governments doing serious renovation of slums in the near future. More importantly, in my opinion, has been the bottom-up slum upgrading, for example, in Orangi Town, Karachi in Pakistan where the residents installed sewers in 90% of 8,000 streets and lanes, digging them by hand themselves. This kind of community spirit builds solidarity which is more important for the residents in the long run in their struggle against uncaring states:

"In 1980, the development expert and entrepreneur, Akhtar Hameed Khan, observed how many communities were self-organising to fill the gap in services - from building homes and schools to water delivery - and launched the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). Now globally renowned, the project has not only led the DIY sewerage projects which continue to expand to this day, but has built a network to manage a plethora of programmes that range from micro credit to water supply, to women's savings schemes. OPP's director Saleem Aleemuddin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that when activists began working in the area in 1980, the lack of sanitation was the most "obvious" and "problematic" area for residents. While it took the OPP around six months to convince local residents to invest and pay for the installation of the first sewerage line on their street, it was not long before people were taking their lead and organising themselves. "Since the government gets almost nothing in revenue from the slum, it therefore pays the least interest to its [slum] developments too," Aleemuddin said. "In fact, people in the town now consider the streets as part of their homes because they have invested in them and that's why they maintain and clean the sewers too.""


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Favela houses, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


Others argue that the slums should be seen as similar to the medieval towns and parts of cities preserved all over Europe:

"The tight-knit structure of settlements built in the Middle Ages serves as an important lesson on making modern developments compact and keeping key services easily accessible to the people using them."

Thus, they argue, slums could be converted into a form of green, eco-friendly living areas such as Cambridge where people walk everywhere now instead of driving. However, it is more likely to become a form of gentrification as usually it is wealthier people who can afford to do the extensive and detailed building and repairs (not to mention the demands of state preservation policies in the case of medieval buildings).


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Government plans for Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


Demolition for rehousing and rebuilding
The demolition of slums for rehousing projects does not have a great history. It tended to shift the social problems of the slums to other parts of the city. In Ireland in the 1960s, Dublin's slums had reached a breaking point as urbanisation and the collapse of slum houses put pressure on the government to move people out to suburban Ballymun into high-rise 15-storey flat complexes. However, by the 1980s Ballymun was seen as a social sink and had to be regenerated itself in the 2000s and the blocks demolished. Also, this strategy can be a cynical ploy as the flats built on the sites of the former slums are sold as properties on high-value city-centre land



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Local kindergarten,Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


Demolition for parkland
A prime example of a slum demolition is the Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong which eventually became the Kowloon Walled City Park. What started off as a Chinese military fort in the 1800s became one of the most densely populated slums in the world. It was extended upwards in the 1960s to become a city of over 30,000 people in 300 buildings occupying little more than 7 acres (2.8 ha). The residents were compensated (with some being forcibly evicted) and demolition was concluded in 1994. Today it is a 31,000 m2 (330,000 sq ft) park which was completed in August 1995.

In Brazil, this is always a possible future for the favelas in Rio. Not many realise that the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer on top of Corcovado mountain is in the middle of the Tijuca Forest - a massive reclamation project of land which had suffered from erosion and deforestation caused by intensive farming of sugar and coffee in the nineteenth century. The whole area was replanted with plants and trees of the rainforest and is one of the biggest urban forests in the world today.


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Cabling on streets, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)

Climate change and the future of urbanism
The future of slums around the world seems tied to a kind of trendy belief in the necessity of planning for an urban future. However, there are those that believe that an alternative to the constant growing urbanisation is to create a model that would attract a part of the urban population back to the rural environment. The potential for creating jobs in the agricultural sector in the future must be seen in the context of sustainable soil management and the difficulties that will be facing food production in future projected changes in temperature, ultraviolet radiation, soil moisture and pests which are expected to decrease food production.

Governments would be better off to develop projects to modernise the rural areas with the type of facilities and services that can be obtained in the cities to attract people back to the land. Collapses in various crops or crop destruction around the world due to unexpected frosts, drought, hurricanes, floods etc can only be expected to increase, leading to food insecurity and the potential for global food price increases and food riots.


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Malcolm X mural, Rocinha (Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin 2018)


The very existence of a slum shows a government's inability or reluctance to deal with mass population shifts. It reveals a fundamental structural problem in democratic processes and redistribution of tax wealth. For a government to allow a section its own citizens to live a Hobbesian existence exposes the rhetoric of a government for all. How can this be changed and slum issues be resolved? As the Orangi Town example above shows, solidarity and activism can solve practical problems efficiently even if it is letting the government off the hook of responsibility. As has been seen in the past, the social contract only operates when both government and people keep their sides of the bargain. When or if it breaks down the anger constantly bubbling underneath can spill over. While revolutionary changes around the world in the past, in general, are often attributed to their great leaders, the fact is that it is usually down to the most expropriated and alienated people in society to get the great social change juggernaut moving in the first place.

All images in this article are from the author.

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Seanad Éireann in Solidarity with Palestine: Irish Senate Votes in Favour of Occupied Territories Bill

Yesterday the Irish Seanad voted in favour of the Occupied Territories Bill which will prohibit the importation of goods or services from illegal settlements in occupied territories, including Israel’s settlements in Palestine which violate the Geneva Conventions. The Bill was introduced by the well-known Irish singer Frances Black whose albums feature both Irish ballads and traditional music. She was elected to Seanad Éireann as an independent Senator on her first attempt in 2016.

The Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign welcomed the Seanad vote (25 in favour, 20 against) in support of Senator Frances Black’s ‘Control of Economic Activities (Occupied Territories) Bill. According to the IPSC Chairperson, Ms. Fatin Al Tamimi (a Palestinian-Irish citizen):
“We in the IPSC, and Palestinians around the world, warmly welcome this historic vote, the first of its kind in any Western country. Once again, Ireland is making history and leading the way in its solidarity with the Palestinian people. We thank and salute all those Senators and parties who have pledged to support the Bill, and we will be asking the Irish people to ensure that these politicians support its passage at all stages of the lawmaking process.”
Black has been campaigning for some time now for the rights of the Palestinian people. She states:
“I have long been passionate about the struggle of the Palestinian people, which shows clearly how trade in settlement goods sustains injustice. In the occupied territories, people are forcibly kicked out of their homes, fertile farming land is seized, and the fruit and vegetables produced are then sold on Irish shelves to pay for it all. We condemn the settlements as illegal but support them economically. As international law is absolutely clear that the settlements are illegal, then the goods they produce are the proceeds of crime. We must face up to this – we cannot keep supporting breaches of international law and violations of human rights.”

According to an explanatory note on the bill’s main provisions:
“Under international criminal law, the transfer by a State of its civilian population into a territory it has militarily occupied is a ‘war crime’, as well as a ‘grave breach’ of international humanitarian law. Importantly, it is also a crime under Irish law, no matter where in the world it is committed. Ireland has a duty to ensure these laws are respected and to uphold the humanitarian principles outlined in them. To this end, the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018 seeks to prohibit trade with and economic support for illegal settlements in territories deemed occupied under international law. It would restrict the import and sale of goods produced in such settlements, Irish involvement in the provision of services in such settlements, and the extraction of resources from occupied territories without the consent of the legitimate authority of that territory. This economic support underpins the long-term continuation of illegal settlements, established in clear violation of international law. In tabling this bill we are stating that Ireland should not provide economic or political support for them, wherever they arise.”
The Bill, inter alia, specifically covers the importation and sale of settlement goods:
“6. Importation of settlement goods
(1) It shall be an offence for a person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.
(2) It shall be an offence for a person to assist another person to import or attempt to import settlement goods.
(3) For the purpose of the Customs Act 2015, the import of settlement goods is hereby prohibited.
7. Sale of settlement goods
(1) It shall be an offence for a person to sell or attempt to sell settlement goods.
(2) It shall be an offence for a person to assist another person to sell or attempt to sell settlement goods.”
Many Irish politicians believe that the passing of the Occupied Territories Bill will send a strong message that the issue of illegal settlements is being taken seriously and needs to be addressed.
The Israeli Embassy in Ireland has been highly critical of the Bill and commented that:
“The absurdity in the Seanad Éireann initiative is that it will harm the livelihoods of many Palestinians who work in the Israeli industrial zones affected by the boycott.”
However, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality. BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. It was Palestinian Civil Society that called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel as a form of non-violent pressure on Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights in 2005.


Source: Trocaire

Earlier this month former Pink Floyd star Roger Waters urged people to support the Occupied Territories Bill 2018 at a concert in Dublin.
Ms. Fatin Al Tamimi also commented that:
“These have been great months for Palestine in Ireland, a country which punches well above its weight when it comes to solidarity. At least seven local councils have voted to support the Palestinian-led global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, including Dublin, the first EU capital to take this stand, and most recently Mid-Ulster Council and Fermanagh & Omagh District Council.”
She said that last month saw the launch of a campaign for an Irish boycott of Eurovision 2019 and noted that barely a week goes by without solidarity vigils or protests outside shops selling Israeli products in Ireland.”
As the activist for Palestinian human rights, Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh says:
“I find that ingenuity in resistance, the ability to persevere — what we call sumud — to be tremendously inspiring. Our people are able to continue their lives despite the incredible odds arrayed against them and not only to persist but also to find some measure of success. As the graffiti on the wall says, to live is to resist.”
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Global Research, July 12, 2018

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

A Journey to Iran: Elections, Ramadan and Couchsurfing

In the current media build-up against Iran it is easy to get lost in the confusion and hype about the Iranian government and miss out on an understanding of the problems facing the Iranian people and how they are coping with them. The current economic situation is worsening as the UN Security Council, the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions on Iran begin to bite. Major sectors of the Iranian economy have been affected such as the energy/petroleum industry, banking, the Central Bank of Iran, shipping, insurance, international trade and foreign firms dealing with Iran. In addition to these problems there is a shortage of fresh water, a problem associated with climate change as drought and rising temperatures put stress on existing reserves. Other environmental issues include vehicle emissions, refinery operations, and industrial effluents which have made Tehran one of the most polluted cities in the world.
Even under so much pressure from so many different economic, environmental and international stresses the Iranian people have managed to maintain their dignity and famous hospitality as I found out traveling there last year. I was invited over for a conference for five days but ended up staying for five weeks, traveling north, west, and then south of Tehran. I took a train north to Tabriz and then on through the mountains to the border of Armenia and similarly west through plains to the mountains on the Turkish border. But it was in Tehran and in the south to Isfahan and Shiraz that I had most of my experiences meeting Iranian people. Everywhere I went – restaurants, cafes, galleries and on the streets – people approached me to practice their English and make friends.

There are many interesting places to see in Tehran, e.g. the 435-meter-high Milad Tower which was completed in 2007, the more recent 270-meter pedestrian overpass of Tabiat Bridge (2014) and the Azadi Tower the 45-meter-high marble-clad monument commissioned by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, to mark the 2,500th year of the foundation of the Imperial State of Iran in 1971. The latter is surrounded by about 4 or 5 lanes of traffic but can be negotiated like most streets in Tehran by raising one’s hand Moses-like and parting the traffic.


Elections in Tehran

I happened to arrive on 19 May 2017 during the presidential election campaigning between incumbent president Hassan Rouhani (MDP – Moderation and Development Party – a pragmatic-centrist political party) and Ebrahim Raisi (CCA – Combatant Clergy Association – a conservative organisation). Out on the streets of Tehran campaigning between opposing groups with posters of their respective candidates was generally by young people and mainly good-natured. While I was advised not to go out on the streets at night, I found the street campaigners to be very friendly and they in turn advised me to be careful with my camera and not to take photos of police and soldiers which could result in confiscation (especially as I did not have a journalist visa). During the polling I visited two polling stations and was offered tea and invited in to sit down and observe the electors queuing and voting.

Outside I made some conversation with the armed soldiers guarding the station who were also friendly and quite relaxed. After the voting took place, the twelfth such election in Iran, Rouhani was re-elected for a second term. Again the streets filled up with people and cars coming to a standstill for the celebrations. He received 23.5 of 41 million votes counted and was inaugurated on 5 August 2017.


Azadi Tower, Tehran

Soon after I visited various historical and cultural sites in Tehran. In terms of recent history it is interesting to visit the former Embassy of the United States, the site of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and which is now a museum. One of the best known historical sites in Tehran is the Saadabad complex that covers an area of 110 hectares and is located at the northernmost part of Tehran. It has 18 palaces which belonged to the royal families of Qajar and Pahlavi in a beautiful garden. Reza Shah of the Pahlavi Dynasty lived there in the 1920s, and his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, moved there in the 1970s. After the 1979 Revolution, the complex became a museum.

I also visited the National Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Honarmandan Park (Artists Park) learning about a wide range of past and present Iranian culture. Honarmandan Park has the Iranian Artists Forum which is a set of galleries located inside the park along with a vegetarian restaurant, a theatre and outdoor sculptures. Here I met 2 Iranian artist sisters who discussed with me the difficulties they encountered trying to show work abroad. Both are now in Canada, at least temporarily.


Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Imam Square), Isfahan

During the day the streets were quiet as it was the Holy Month of Ramadan (May 27 to July June 25, 2017) but in the evening, after sundown, the city came alive as people went out to the cafes and restaurants or to picnic in the parks. I got to know a regular taxi driver, Ahmed, and his English-speaking son, Mojtaba, who brought me to Mount Tochal, a mountain and ski resort located on the Alborz mountain range, close to the metropolitan area of Tehran. Mountain climbing is very popular in Iran (another Iranian acquaintance of mine from Mashhad lost 9 friends in an avalanche last December). Life is tough for a taxi driver in Tehran with so much air pollution and traffic, one of the downsides of having cheap petrol.

Ahmed and his wife lived in an apartment in Tehran along with Mojtaba, a languages student who hopes to continue his studies in Germany. On one taxi journey to the National Museum, Ahmed passed me back a dinner his wife had made for me as he knew it was difficult to get food during the day during Ramadan. When I decided to go south, Mojtaba helped me to get train tickets to Isfahan. Iranian trains are slow but comfortable and are a great way to see the countryside. Mojtaba came down to Isfahan with me for the day and we were met in the train station early in the morning by Atefah (just graduated from art college) and her sister (medical student) and their mother who had invited me to stay with them through the Couchsurfing website.

During the day we went to  visit Chehel Sotoun (“Forty Columns”), a pavilion in the middle of a park at the far end of a long pool. It was built by Shah Abbas II to be used for his entertainment and receptions and beautiful paintings of such scenes adorn the walls of the pavilion. Later we went for a picnic at night in Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Imam Square), the jewel in the crown of Isfahan architecture (constructed between 1598 and 1629) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The square is surrounded by buildings from the Safavid dynasty, one of the most significant ruling dynasties of Iran, often considered the beginning of modern Iranian history.

Around a thousand people sat around with their families on rugs and enjoyed picnics. Atefah’s mother also laid out a picnic while Atefah rushed over to two foreigners whom she had spotted to ask them to join us. Turned out to be an Australian mother and son who were traveling around Iran together. We were all taken off to see some of the famous Isfahan bridges over the Zayandeh River which was completely dried up at this time of the year. We visited the Si-o-se Pol pedestrian bridge which was built in 1632, the Joui pedestrian bridge built in the 17th century, the Khajou pedestrian bridge (1650), and the Marnan pedestrian bridge (1599).

In conversation with Atefah, she told me that the water shortages have become so serious that they have water only 4 days a week at home now. Iranian meteorological services say that 97% of the country is affected by drought but it is particularly bad around Isfahan where demonstrations have broken out over water in the  past. She also said that foreign goods are becoming more and expensive and the inflation rate is around 10%. She is trying to go to Germany for further study and says that the decreasing grants and the worsening exchange rate is making it increasingly harder for her to get the visas necessary.



Si-o-se Pol Bridge, Isfahan

The next night I was brought to hospital by Atefah’s family due to dehydration as I had not been drinking enough water. I dreaded going in as I was used to very long waits at home. However I was seen very quickly and was soon moved to a cubicle and put on a drip. After about three hours I was released and brought to an overnight bus I had booked to Shiraz. Couchsurfing again I stayed with Mohammed and his family. Over the next couple of days he showed me around Shiraz and then drove me to Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire (ca. 550–330 BC). It is situated 60 km northeast of the city of Shiraz and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Persepolis is believed to have been a grand ceremonial complex but only occupied seasonally. Mohammed also talked about similar problems regarding water, inflation and food prices. At this time in June the temperatures in Shiraz were nearing 40 degrees. That same week the temperature in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz (between Isfahan and Shiraz) soared to 53.7 degrees (29/6/2017), Iran’s highest temperature ever recorded and the highest June temperature in Asia on record.

I decided to fly back to Tehran and stay in a hostel for the last night. I arranged to meet Ahmed and Mojtaba in a cafe to drive me to the hostel. Upon inquiring if they knew where the hostel was they answered in the affirmative but that they had already decided that I was going to be staying with them instead. And so I was taken off to their apartment to meet Ahmed’s wife, have dinner, a last walk around Tehran streets and then given Mojtaba’s bed while he slept on the couch. In the morning we arose and they brought me the 40 kms to Imam Khomeini International Airport for my flight home.
*
Global Research, July 05, 2018

Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country here. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.
All images in this article are from the author.

Is This the Real Culture War? Art Movements and the People’s Movement

Introduction
Ever since the achievements of Renaissance humanism with the triumph of art over nature, with the development of new artistic techniques (the optics of perspective, the structure of anatomy, the mixing of pigments, and the development of movement) art was strengthened and, combined with the scientific explorations and achievements of the Enlightenment, led to the idea that Man could become stronger and better and hold an optimistic view of the future. He could improve his well-being and even take control of nature to create a better life for all.  This view continued through the decades and was associated with social revolutions and political activity which connected progressive ideas about society to artistic forms of expression which would illustrate and advance the hopes and desires of the masses for a better life and future. These artistic movements changed and developed from the Enlightenment to Realism to Social Realism and then to Socialist Realism as artists both inspired and reflected the people’s progressive movements the world over.

However, at every juncture, oppositional movements also stepped in and opposed progressive change and revolution by the people; from the Romantic movement in Revolutionary France to the Modernist movement to Postmodernism and now Metamodernism. These movements have derided every aspect of the progressive forces, from the quietist “l’art pour l’art” of Romanticism to the attack on artistic form by Modernism, to the later attack on ideological content by Postmodernism and now the ‘oscillation’ between the two (form and content) of Metamodernism, a movement caught between self-obsession and the pressing desire of the masses for ideas and culture that will deal with climate change, financial crises, terror attacks and the neo-liberal squeeze on the social welfare system.


These two movements, Romanticism and the Enlightenment, have their basis in attitudes towards and beliefs in the efficacy of the burgeoning scientific movement. Romanticism, beginning in the 1770s formed the basis of an anti-scientific strand in culture over the last two hundred years while the Enlightenment formed the basis of a scientific strand roughly between between 1715 and 1789. Both strands have been in opposition ever since, their ideas reflected through various cultural movements which sprang up in different countries and at different times, some revolutionary and some reactionary.

Let’s take a look at these two opposing strands in more detail.

The Anti-Scientific Strand


Romanticism
One of the most important movements is Romanticism particularly as it still has a strong anti-science influence today. Romanticism was characterized by its emphasis on emotion and individualism and glorified the past and nature, putting emphasis on the medieval rather than the classical traditions of ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order.  The Romantics rejected the norms of the Age of Enlightenment and the scientific rationalization of nature which were  important aspects of modernity. Isaiah Berlin believed that the Romantics opposed classic traditions of rationality and it basis in moral absolutes and agreed values which led “to something like the melting away of the very notion of objective truth”.

Objective truth and reason were elevated by the artists and philosophers of the Enlightenment to understand the universe and solve the pressing problems of the world. However, Romanticism promoted the individual imagination as a critical authority allowed of freedom from classical notions of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). Romantics were distrustful of the human world, and tended to strive for a close connection with nature to escape elements of modernity such as urbanisation, industrialisation and population growth and therefore allowed them to avoid questions centred around the working class, such as alienation, the ownership of the means of production, living conditions and conditions of employment. The Romantics pursued the idea of “l’art pour l’art” (art for art’s sake) believing that art did not need moral justification and could be morally neutral.
According to Arnold Hauser in The Social History of Art:
“Revolutionary France quite ingeniously enlists the services of art to assist her in this struggle; the nineteenth century is the first to conceive the idea of “l’art pour l’art” [ital] which forbids such a practice. The principle of “pure”, absolutely “useless” art first results from the opposition of the romantic movement to the revolutionary period as a whole, and the demand that the artists should be passive derives from the ruling class’s fear of losing its influence on art.” [1]
This position originated with the elites in the nineteenth century and serves the same function, Romanticism being the main influence of culture today.

Modernism
By the  beginning  of  the  20th  century, the  Modernist  movement was generally referred to as the “avant-garde” until the the word “Modernism” became more popular. Modernism  was  the rejection of tradition, and the creation of new  forms  using reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision  and  parody. The Modernist ‘rejection of tradition’, like with Romanticism, is the rejection of classical notions of form in art (harmony, symmetry, and order). Modernism (like Romanticism) also rejected  the  certainty  of  Enlightenment thinking.  Modernism emphasised form over political content and rejected the ideology of Realism and Enlightenment thinking on liberty and progress.


The Realist movement began in the mid-19th century as a reaction to Romanticism, and Modernism was a revolt against the ‘traditional’ values of Realism. Realist painters used common laborers, and ordinary people in ordinary surroundings engaged in real activities as subjects for their works. However, Modernism rejected traditional forms which over time became less and less ´real´ and more abstract and conceptualised.

The Great War brought about more disillusionment with Enlightenment ideals of progress among the Modernists who turned inwards and attacked art forms, instead of war-mongering capitalism. The Romantic continuity in Modernism produced individual, horrified reactions but were ultimately no threat to the ruling elites. Like an angry child smashing his own toys, the Modernist attacked his particular cultural forms and then expected the public to pick up the pieces. What was left was atonalism and abandonment of traditional rhythmic strictures in music, the departure from traditional realist styles in art and the prioritisation of the individual and the interior mind and abandonment of the fixed point of view in literature. The Dada movement, for example, was developed in reaction to the Great War by ‘avant-garde’ artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society but then only to respond with nonsense and irrationality in their art works.

As for the Great War, the avant-garde and Modernism – like the Romantic movement and the French Revolution – failed the masses again as it stood outside the people’s movement, turning in on itself and attacking reason instead of uniting with the progressive forces against war. In the end it was mainly the political movements of James Connolly in Ireland and V.I. Lenin in Russia (the two geographical ends of Europe) who organised the working classes against the war and destruction.
David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), the revolutionary artist and founder of the Mexican Mural Movement, had this to say about the Modernist ‘avant-garde’:
“If we look closely at their work it is the most reactionary movement in the history of culture. It has not developed anything new in composition or perspective and has lost much of that which has been accumulated over twenty centuries. It is based on the hysteria of novelty for the sake of novelty, in order to satisfy a parasitic plutocracy. The artist who changes his style every 24 hours is the best-known artist. When he has exhausted all the solutions, the others become his followers and sink into repetitious imitation.” [2]
The allusion here presumably to Picasso (1881–1973), famous for changing his style many times, is interesting in relation to Joaquín Sorolla (1863–1923) the great Spanish artist whose  depictions of ordinary Spanish people in monumental works of social and historical themes was overshadowed by Picasso until relatively recently. Cubism, credited to Picasso as its inventor, was an art style that conflicted with the representational system in art that had prevailed since the Renaissance, as the subject was depicted from differing viewpoints at the same time within the same painting.
Many pseudo-scientific explanations were given to explain Cubism regarding art in modern society, new scientific developments etc but even Picasso himself ridiculed this:
“Mathematics, trigonometry, chemistry, psychoanalysis, music and whatnot, have been related to cubism to give it an easier interpretation. All this has been pure literature, not to say nonsense, which brought bad results, blinding people with theories”. [2]
Indeed, Cubism is probable the most parodied of all forms of Modernist art.

Other Modernist forms such as Expressionism have been seen to be at least critical of capitalism and war, but according to Lotte H. Eisner who quotes a ‘fervent theorist of this style’, Kasimir Edschmid:
“The Expressionist does not see, he has ‘visions’. According to Edschmid. “the chain of facts: factories, houses, illness, prostitutes, screams, hunger’ does not exist; only the interior vision they provoke exists.” [p10]
Therefore, the external reality of life and death for the working class is ignored for the ecstasy of ‘interior visions’.

For Eisner, writing in The Haunted Screen, German Expressionist cinema is a visual manifestation of Romantic ideals. She writes:
“Poverty and constant insecurity help to explain the enthusiasm with which German artists embraced this movement [Expressionism] which, as early as 1910, had tended to sweep aside all the principles which had formed the basis of art until then.” [pp9-10]
Richard Murphy also notes:
“one of the central means by which expressionism identifies itself as an avant-garde movement, and by which it marks its distance to traditions and the cultural institution as a whole is through its relationship to realism and the dominant conventions of representation.” [3]
Expressionists rejected the ideology of realism, and Expressionist art, in common with Romanticism, reacted to the dehumanizing effect of industrialization and the growth of cities with extreme individualism and emotionalism, not collective social empathy and political change.

After the Great War and the Russian Revolution, in the 1920s and 1930s, the idea of depicting ordinary people in art spread to many countries in Realist and Social Realist forms especially as a reaction to the exaggerated ego encouraged by Romanticism. In the United States the Ashcan School was well know for for works portraying scenes of daily life in New York city’s poorer neighborhoods. However, the unsettling depictions of the darker side of capitalism by the Ashcan School was soon displaced with Modernism in the Armory Show of 1913 and the opening of more galleries in the 1910s that promoted the Modernist artwork of Cubists, Fauves, and Expressionists.

This takeover by Modernism in New York continued into the 1940s and 1950s with the development of Abstract Expressionism, an art form which was soon promoted globally as a counterweight to the Socialist Realism style developed in the Soviet Union, especially during the Cod War. The loose, splashing and dripping of paint in the work of Jackson Pollack became used as a symbol of the ideology of freedom and free enterprise in the United States. The victory of Modernism in the United States served two purposes: national and international. It dampened down the critical dissent of the Ashcan School while at the same time serving as a useful tool of foreign policy.

According to Frances Stonor Saunders in The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, Abstract Expressionism was “Non-figurative and politically silent, it was the very antithesis to socialist realism. It was precisely the kind of art the Soviets loved to hate.” [4] This was Modernism at its zenith as the wealthiest of art investors and the most influential art critics promoted Abstract Expressionism as “independent, self-reliant, a true expression of the national will, spirit and character.”[5] However, the size of the confidence trick being perpetrated on the unsuspecting public became unsettling. According to Saunders:
“It was this very stylistic conformity, prescribed by MoMA and the broader social contract of which it was a part, that brought Abstract Expressionism to the verge of kitsch. ‘It was like the emperor’s clothes,’ said Jason Epstein. ‘You parade it down the street and you say, “This is great art,” and the people along the parade route will agree with you. Who’s going to stand up to Clem Greenberg and later to the Rockefellers who were buying it for their bank lobbies and say, “This stuff is terrible”?” [6]
The imposition of Modern Art on the public was also noted by the journalist, Tom Wolfe, who wrote about the 1960s and 1970s art scene in New York in The Painted Word:
“The notion that the public accepts or rejects anything in Modern Art, the notion that the public scorns, ignores, fails to comprehend, allows to wither, crushes the spirit of, or commits any other crime against Art or any individual artist is merely a romantic fiction, a bittersweet Trilby sentiment. The game is completed and the trophies distributed long before the public knows what has happened. […] We can now also begin to see that Modern Art enjoyed all the glories of the Consummation stage after the First World War not because it was “finally understood” or “finally appreciated” but rather because a few fashionable people discovered their own uses for it.” [7]
It was also in the early 1970s that the Irish artist Seán Keating (1889–1977), a Realist painter who painted images of the Irish War of Independence, the early industrialization of Ireland and many portraits of the people of the Aran Islands, was brought face to face with Modernism. In a well-known televised interview, Keating, now in his 60s, was brought around the ROSC’71 exhibition and asked to give his opinion on the exhibits. As Eimear O’Connor writes:
“When confronted by The Table, made by German artist Eva Aeppli (b.1925), Keating said it was ‘downright horrible perversity, nightmare stuff … an old lady who had gone completely mad and is dangerous … I think it is morose … vengeful against the human race…'” [8]
This baiting of a famous Irish humanist whose love of the Irish people and progress displayed the new confidence of the Irish elites who had jumped on the Modernist bandwagon as an symbol of fashionability and of final acceptance by the European elites who would allow Ireland to join the EEC (EU) in 1973.


Economic Pressure by Seán Keating (1949)
Scene of man bidding farewell to his family as he prepares to emigrate from Aran Islands.
(The Irish peasant betrayed: elevated as a national symbol before Independence yet ignored afterwards.)

Postmodernism

In the meantime, Postmodernism was gaining strength. Some features of Postmodernism in general can be found as early as the 1940s but it would compete with Modernism in the late 1950s and became predominant by the 1960s.

Postmodernism is defined as follows:
“Postmodernism, also spelled post-modernism, in Western philosophy, a late 20th-century movement characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power. Postmodernism as a philosophical movement is largely a reaction against the philosophical assumptions and values of the modern period of Western (specifically European) history—i.e., the period from about the time of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries to the mid-20th century. Indeed, many of the doctrines characteristically associated with postmodernism can fairly be described as the straightforward denial of general philosophical viewpoints that were taken for granted during the 18th-century Enlightenment, though they were not unique to that period.”
In other words, Postmodernism had a direct line of descent from Modernism and Romanticism before that. The same Romantic characteristics show up again – the suspicion of reason, subjectivism and denial of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Once again cynicism towards the idea of progress and working class improvement is the mainstay. Every technique and trick of avoidance of the important issues facing the people’s movement is used in Postmodernism: “common targets of postmodern critique include universalist notions of objective reality, morality, truth, human nature, reason, language, and social progress” and “postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-referentiality, epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, subjectivism, and irreverence.”


Postmodernist artists decided that past styles (once criticised for being ‘traditional’) were now usable in a parodic way along with appropriation and popular culture. The Postmodernist critique of universalist ideas of objective reality and social progress, or the Grand Narratives, has particular implications for the working classes and popular political movements as their liberatory philosophy and ideologies are based on them – whatever their supposed successes or failures in the past. To take them away is to fall back on the neo-liberal philosophy of the end-of-history and more of the same globalised capitalism ad infinitum. After the attack on Form in Modernism, we now get an assault on Content in Postmodernism.

When applied to the people’s movement itself, such as the French Revolution, Postmodernist historiography for example, all but wipes out its historic relevance and importance. As Richard J Evans writes in In Defence of History, Simon Schama’s book Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution over-emphasises the bloody and violent nature of the revolution as if the politically-conscious people taking their lives into their own hands were irrational beings exploding with an animal lust for violence. Evans comments:
“In Citizens, indeed, the French Revolution of 1789-94 becomes almost meaningless in the larger sense, and is reduced to a kind of theatre of the absurd; the social and economic misery of the masses, an essential driving force behind their involvement in the revolutionary events, is barely mentioned; and the lasting significance of the Revolution’s many political theories and doctrines for modern European and world history more or less disappears.” [9]
The more opaque forms of relativistic Postmodernist writing and thinking were exposed when Alan Sokal refused to get into line and exposed the French Postmodernists in a hoax essay published in Social Text in 1996. According to Francis Wheen in How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World:
“As a socialist who had taught in Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution, he [Sokal] felt doubly indignant that much of the new mystificatory folly emanated from the self-proclaimed left. For two centuries, progressives had championed science against obscurantism. The sudden lurch of academic humanists and social scientists towards epistemic relativism not only betrayed this heritage but jeopardised ‘the already fragile prospects for a progressive social critique’, since it was impossible to combat bogus ideas if all notions of truth and falsity ceased to have any validity.” [10]
The obvious contradictions and cul-de-sacs of Postmodernism eventually brought it into decline and soon doors opened for a new obfuscatory philosophy to buttress increasingly crisis-ridden globalised capitalism – Metamodernism.

Metamodernism
According to Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker in ‘Notes on Metamodernism‘:
“The postmodern years of plenty, pastiche, and parataxis are over. In fact, if we are to believe the many academics, critics, and pundits whose books and essays describe the decline and demise of the postmodern, they have been over for quite a while now. But if these commentators agree the postmodern condition has been abandoned, they appear less in accord as to what to make of the state it has been abandoned for. In this essay, we will outline the contours of this discourse by looking at recent developments in architecture, art, and film. We will call this discourse, oscillating between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, metamodernism. We argue that the metamodern is most clearly, yet not exclusively, expressed by the neoromantic turn of late”.
So there you have it – this is the best that Metamodernism can offer – a return to Romanticism! We have now come full circle as “the metamodern is most clearly, yet not exclusively, expressed by the neoromantic turn of late”.

And where is this pressure coming from, to allow a little reality back into the arts?
“Some argue the postmodern has been put to an abrupt end by material events like climate change, financial crises, terror attacks, and digital revolutions […] have necessitated a reform of the economic system (“un nouveau monde, un nouveau capitalisme”, but also the transition from a white collar to a green collar economy)”.
So the contemporary crises of capitalism and climate change are finally impinging on the disintegrating Postmodern artistic consciousness and the answer is reformism and ‘new capitalism’. However, Metamodernism is “Like a donkey it chases a carrot that it never manages to eat because the carrot is always just beyond its reach. But precisely because it never manages to eat the carrot, it never ends its chase”. With a little bit of progressive critique, the Metamodern artist can regain credibility without ever really challenging the status quo.

From all of the above we can see the common threads tying Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism and Metamodernism together: individualism, art for art’s sake, suspicion of reason, subjectivism and denial of the ideas of the Enlightenment. All individualist movements that oppose the idea of collectivist ideology and action. Movements that ultimately serve the status quo and the ruling elites. Yet some of these same elites were involved in the development of the concepts of the Enlightenment in the beginning. What happened to them?


Night’s Candles Are Burnt Out by Seán Keating (1927-28)
Ardnacrusha –  Ireland’s first power-station built by Siemens post-independence in the 1920s, a hydro-electric dam built on the river Shannon, north of Limerick.
(Disillusioned Irish workers unemployed and drinking as the new elites begin the process of state-building.)

The Scientific Strand


The Enlightenment
The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment thinkers believed in the importance of rationality and science. They believed that the natural world and even human behavior could be explained scientifically. They felt that they could use the scientific method to improve human society. For the artists and philosophers of the Enlightenment, the ideal life was one governed by reason. Artists and poets strove for ideals of harmony, symmetry, and order, valuing meticulous craftsmanship and the classical tradition. Among philosophers, truth was discovered by a combination of reason and empirical research.

In the field of political philosophy the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual, the natural equality of all men and the idea that legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people. Therefore the Enlightenment popularised the idea that with the use of reason and logic social development and progress would be the norm for the masses and science and technology would be the instruments of human progress. The ideas of the Enlightenment paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries as it undermined the authority of the monarchy and the Church. The French Revolution become the first main conflict between the men of the Enlightenment and the aristocracy. Within the arts this conflict arose between those who believed that art had a role to play and those who believed in art-for art’s-sake. As Hauser notes:
“It is only with the Revolution that art becomes a confession of political faith, and it is now emphasized for the first time that it has to be no “mere ornament on the social structure,” but “a part of its foundations.” It is now declared that art must not be an idle pastime, a mere tickling of the nerves, a privilege of the rich and the leisured, but it must teach and improve, spur on to action and set an example. It must be pure, true, inspired and inspiring, contribute to the happiness of the general public and become the possession of the whole nation.” [11]
However, the rising bourgeoisie who advocated the ideas of the Enlightenment realised that their objectives and those of the revolutionary public were not the same:
“Yet as soon as the bourgeoisie had achieved its aims, it left its former comrades in arms in the lurch and wanted to enjoy the fruits of the common victory alone. […] Hardly had the Revolution ended, than a boundless disillusion seized men’s souls and not a trace remained of the optimistic philosophy of the enlightenment.” [12]
Thus began the conflict between the new rulers, the bourgeoisie, who wanted to set limits on progress, and the interests of the toiling masses who had not yet achieved one of the most basic concepts of Enlightenment philosophy: the natural equality of all men. This struggle for political and social freedom took different forms over the next century or so but had as one of its bases the idea that the arts would play a role.

Realism
As the bourgeoisie stepped up its development of capitalist society building factories and markets, the Realist movement reacted to Romanticist escapism in favor of depictions of ‘real’ life, emphasizing the mundane, ugly and sordid. The Realist artists used common laborers and ordinary people in their normal work environments as the main subjects for their paintings. Its chief exponents were Gustave Courbet, Jean-François Millet, Honoré Daumier, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Courbet hated the aristocracy and royalty, and advocated political and social change. He painted ordinary people and in sizes usually reserved for gods and heroes. Realist movements, like the Peredvizhniki or Wanderers group in Russia, developed in many other Western countries.

Social Realism
Meanwhile, as the the Industrial Revolution grew in Britain, concern for the factory workers led to a meeting betwen Marx and Engels and a major change in the ideology of the working class organisations seeking better conditions. While the Romantics believed that the Industrial Revolution and its exploitative extremes in the factories was the result of science, the Marxists instead questioned the ownership of the factories and who benefited from the greatly increased power of the new means of production, means that could benefit society as a whole. Therefore while the Romantics looked back to the medieval artisans and peasants, the Marxists saw science creating new possibilities for a better future for everybody.

Social Realism grew out of these changes as Social Realist artists drew attention to the everyday conditions of the working class and the poor and criticised the social structures which maintained these conditions. The Mexican and Russian revolutions gave a fillip to the Social Realist movement which reached its height of popularity during the 1920s and 1930s when capitalism was under severe pressure from the global economic depression. The Ashcan School in the USA and the Mexican muralist movement were two groups who exerted a huge influence at the time and many of the artists involved at the time were supporters of political working class movements. While contemporary Social Realism has been kept in the background it is still a popular style with progressive artists.

Socialist Realism
As nationalist struggles of the nineteenth century changed into socialist struggles during the twentieth century, the style and form of the art changed too as ordinary people were now depicted as subjects with dignity and power. This style became known as Socialist Realism. It was pronounced state policy at the Soviet Writers’ Congress in 1934 in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in other socialist countries. Like Social Realism, Socialist Realism also met with fierce denunciations and controversy. However, despite its caricature as a style that depicts people as naïve, happy, joyous ciphers, its originators condemned any attempt to portray people living in an idyllic paradise as the work of shallow artists who would never be taken seriously by the populace:
“An artist who tried to represent the birth of socialism as an idyll, who tried to represent the socialist system, which is being born in hard-fought battles, as a paradise populated by ideal people – such an artist would not be a realist, would not be able to convince anyone by his works. The artist should show how socialism is built out of the bricks of the past, out of the material which the past has left us, out of the material which we ourselves create in the sweat of our brow, in the blood of our toil and struggle, in, the hard battles of classes and in the hard toil of man to remold himself.”
Socialist Realism went into decline in the 1960s as the Soviet Union itself went from crisis to crisis until its end in 1991. Today it is a style which is still much criticised. Why is Socialist Realism such a taboo? Because Socialist Realism is a quadruple whammy – it contains four elements that elites don’t like:
  1. Anything to do with the Soviet Union (then) or Russia (today)
  2. Any depictions of the working class anywhere (which are not subservient)
  3. Any discussion of socialism or socialist ideology (past, present or future)
  4. Any realist depiction of opposition to capitalism (that could influence others)
If one looks at ‘history of Western art’ books it becomes apparent that there are very few positive images of the working class but plenty of images glorifying monarchs, aristocrats, the middle classes and Noble Peasants (the useful idiots of nationalism). Representations of peasants usually take the form of non-threatening genre paintings and any Socialist Realist art is excluded.


Irish Industrial Development (oil on wood panels) by Seán Keating (1961)
International Labour Offices (ILO) Geneva, Switzerland
(Positive images of Irish workers by Irish artist in Geneva – must be Socialist Realism!)

Conclusion

The fact is that Romanticism in its different forms has made sure to keep the working classes out of the picture and the only response of the peoples' movements should be to keep Romanticist influences at arms length. Romanticism has become the capitalist art par excellence. Romanticism vacillates between cultures of despair and Nihilism. It is opposed to logic and reason and its extreme individualism ensures a divisive affect on any collectivist organisation. Romanticism pervades most mass culture today and sells egoism and impotence back to the very people who turn to it for solace from desperation.

The long conflict between Romanticism and Enlightenment ideas contained in art movements over the last two centuries is set to continue as new responses to the contemporary crises of capitalism try to ameliorate the situation or fundamentally change the system underpinning it. What is needed are new national debates on the role and function of art in maintaining or changing the structure of society. Debates similar to those described by an eyewitness to the Paris Commune, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, who wrote: “a whole population is discussing serious matters, and for the first time workers can be heard exchanging their views on problems which up until now have been broached only by philosophers.” [13]
*
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at http://gaelart.blogspot.ie/. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.

Notes:

[1] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol 3 (Vintage Books, 1958) p147
[2] D. Anthony White, Siqueiros: Biography of a Revolutionary Artist (Booksurge.com, 2008) p413
[3] Richard Murphy, Theorizing the Avant-Garde: Modernism, Expressionism, and the Problem of Postmodernity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1999) p43
[4] Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 1999) p254
[5] Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 1999) p254
[6] Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, 1999) p275
[7] Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (Bantam Books, 1987) p26/7
[8] Eimear O’Connor and Virginia Teehan, Sean Keating: In Focus (Hunt Museum, 2009) p33
[9] Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (Granta Books, 2000) p245
[10] Francis Wheen, How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (Harper Perennial, 2004) p89/90
[11] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol 3 (Vintage Books, 1958) p147
[12] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol 3 (Vintage Books, 1958) p157
[13] Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, in Le Tribun du Peuple, May 10, 1871, quoted in Stewart Edwards, The Paris Commune 1871 (Quadrangle, 1977) p283

Thursday, May 24, 2018

“Michael Inside”. The Prison System in Ireland

“Michael Inside”. The Prison System in Ireland

A Movie Review

 
 
Michael Inside is a new Irish movie which looks at the prison system in Ireland and the people who serve their time in it. The film is about a young man who is sent to prison for the first time after being caught with drugs he had stashed in his grandfather’s house who he shares with. In prison he is taken under the wing of an older experienced prisoner who helps him to stand up for himself but also ensnares him in a cycle of violence in the prison itself. We see the emotional and psychological growth and strengthening of Michael with these harrowing experiences. The big question of the film is then: will he become like his father, also in jail, or learn from his grandfather’s advice?

The most important aspect of this new Irish film is its cinematic approach to telling the story. Ireland has a long history of theatre and successful drama which spilled over into its film-making too. Irish films in the past have been worthy and wordy with directors more comfortable with theatrical styles than cinematic imagery. It was also difficult to achieve cinematic lift-off with the gravity of so many winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ireland won four times in the 20th century: W. B. Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969) and Séamus Heaney (1995), all of whom wrote plays. Not forgetting, of course, Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge, George Moore, Oscar Wilde and Seán O’Casey. The developing language of cinema filtered slowly into Irish film-making either for reasons of fear of audience reaction (more used to theatre) or a lack of an appreciation of the idea that sometimes less is more.

Michael Inside has at times an almost documentary feel to it in the way the prison and the prison officers are portrayed. They come across as empathetic and generally respectful of the prisoners. The director of Michael Inside, Frank Berry, stated the story-line was “researched with former prisoners” and authenticity was desired even to the point of using former prisoners as extras.


The use of the camera has a Tarkovskian feel with long takes, blurring and choreography before the camera. Some scenes like in the grandfather’s house are performed in front of a stationary camera with minimal lighting and wonderful blocking as actors move in and out of shot during the dialogue. Michael’s life outside of prison seems almost as oppressive as inside. Sparse dialogue, sparse rooms and ennui add to this feeling.

The tyranny of montage is felt though when Michael goes into his cell for the first time and sits down on the bottom bunk. This would have been a perfect moment to let the camera linger and linger to illustrate the timelessness of prison life. Steve McQueen, the British director, does this brilliantly in Hunger (2008) (also a great movie) when he has a fixed camera on one end of a long prison corridor pointed at a person washing the floor and stays on him until he finally gets to the other end. A similar very long take is used in the Irish Traveler film, Pavee Lackeen  (2005) to illustrate the difficulty of such basic things as making a cup of tea as we see the young girl go outside and walk to a hose behind a metal fence, fill the bucket and walk back to the mobile home. However, in Michael Inside, it cuts all too soon in the prison cell to the next shot.

Cinema fans who liked A Prophet (French: Un prophète), the 2009 French prison drama-crime film directed by Jacques Audiard will also enjoy Michael Inside. Unlike A Prophet, the protagonist of Michael Inside is exposed to alternative paths for his future as a former prisoner who has studied for an MA and is progressing towards a PhD gives the inmates a talk on the importance of education. This is an important moment in the film as it demonstrates one way with which to break the cycle of violence and transgenerational incarceration. Indeed Michael plans to further his education despite the bias against former prisoners.

Michael Inside is a wonderful film about the Irish penal system, the sparseness of some working class lives and the potential for positive change. The irony of this depiction of working class poverty and hopelessness is the fact that the film is conceived, researched, and acted using the imagination, talents and experience of Irish working class people. It points to a new self-awareness and education happening in sections of Irish society that augur well for the future.


Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin is an Irish artist, lecturer and writer. His artwork consists of paintings based on contemporary geopolitical themes as well as Irish history and cityscapes of Dublin. His blog of critical writing based on cinema, art and politics along with research on a database of Realist and Social Realist art from around the world can be viewed country by country at http://gaelart.blogspot.ie/. He is a Research Associate of the Centre for Research on Globalization.