Thursday, 20 December 2007

The newspaper in western art

As a Xmas diversion, it's interesting to spend a few moments noting how the representations of newspaper reading in western art significantly reflect the dominant (and competing) ideologies relating to the consumption of media. And given the importance of newspapers in the political culture over the last couple of centuries in the west, it's intriguing to see how their presence in art has been ignored by critics.

Let's focus on just three contrasting images. In 1872 the French Impressionist Pierre-August Renoir painted a portrait of Claude Monet relaxing - reading alone, his face close up to the text. This is the image of the solitary bourgeois male consuming the new professionalized newspaper in isolation but clearly with pleasure. Aesthetic concerns predominate.

Then there's Lyonel Feininger's Newspaper Readers of 1916 which fetched a mere £3.5m at Christie's a few years back. Its vibrant colours and flowing shapes convey brilliantly a real excitement and pleasure in newspaper consumption. But the figures are like you and me - racing about, their heads down, intently reading, far too busy consuming the newspapers (significantly blank) far too superficially. And the readers are separate from each other. Significantly, too, they are all travelling in the same direction (to their right, our left!). Amongst all the bustle and individuality of the consuming public there is still an amazing conformism.

Interestingly, Feininger, an American who became a newspaper cartoonist and illustrator in Germany before concentrating on painting, moved through despair and loneliness to joy and delight during the painting of the piece in 1916. Indeed, beneath the surface jollity (those swirling shapes echoing cubism and futurism) there is a melancholy about the media, of the kind Walter Benjamin evokes in his essay, "The Storyteller", in Illuminations (1970), where he bemoans the decline of storytelling in the face of the media of information.

Finally there's Tina Modotti's 1929 photograph entitled "Campesinos Reading El Machete" which radically confronts the feelings of alienation at the heart of our first two paintings. It shows Mexican peasants with their wonderfully large sombreros, huddled around a copy of the revolutionary newspaper. In an interesting commentary on this work, Jonathan Jones (2003) in the Guardian, focused critically on what he saw as the representation of subservience of the individual to the cause of the working class. "We do not need to see their faces. They are not individuals; they are the proletariat. The future does not belong to the bourgeois self." But what Jones missed was the way in which the newspaper's central position within the composition is so symbolically powerful.

Here is the newspaper shown clearly as the weapon of revolution, educating workers and peasants and inspiring them to revolutionary deeds. And symbolically, too, the reading of the newspaper is a group activity. Politics merges with aesthetics with the photograph, so typical of Modotti's work in general, so beautifully composed: the newspaper, angular and centrally positioned; the hats in the corners contrasting with their beautiful round elegance. And on all of it the sun, hope, shines.

The photograph celebrates the tradition of radical journalism committed to progressive social change which has been marginalised in this country.

If any of this interests you why not dip into the books and article listed at the end? Have a good Xmas and a progressive 2008.

Adorno, T. (1986/1964) The Jargon of Authenticity, translated by Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Adorno, T. (1991) The culture industry, London: Routledge
Albers, P (2000) Tina Modotti and the Mexican Renaissance, Paris: Jean-Michel Place editions
Benjamin, W (1970) Illuminations, London: Jonathan Cape
Jones, J. (2003) Portrait of the week: Tina Modotti's Men reading El Machete, the Guardian, 15 February

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The massacre of Musa Qala

Take a look at Nick Cornish’s series of photographs in The Times Online of some of the 6,000 UK/American/Afghan forces engaged in the recent assault on the town of Musa Qala, in Helmand province. They show their massive firepower: lines of armoured vehicles; men in full military gear dragging away bare-footed Taliban captives in ragged civilian clothes. An unnamed Taliban is lying sprawled out dead in a field.

Photographs in the press before the attacks on the “strategically significant town” showed rag-tag Taliban forces crammed in battered old trucks desperately clutching their small firearms. Against them, poised to attack, stood the full might of the most powerful nation on the globe: armoured vehicles, infantry, artillery and logistics backed up by “dozens of attack helicopters and ground attack aircraft”, as the Daily Telegraph reported.

How many Taliban “forces” were there defending the town? We will never know. According to the British military spokesman, Lt Col. Richard Eaton, just 200. other reports suggested 2,000. Whatever the figure, this was no “battle”. According to the headline in the Observer of 9 December 2007, “Fierce battles rages for Taliban stronghold”. Yet when the firepower of one side so overwhelms that of the other (missing the crucial cover from the air bombardment) is this not better described as a massacre, a form of hi-tech barbarism?

How many casualties did the Taliban suffer? Again, we will never know. Significantly Nick Meo reported in The Times of 11 December, after the Taliban had allegedly fled the town on motorcycles: “Fears were growing that there had been heavy civilian casualties.” Certainly, buried in all the reports was the news that 2007 had proved “the deadliest” in Afghanistan since the US invasion in 2001 with more than 6,200 people estimated to have been killed. All we know, then, is that the many many dead Afghans will remain uncounted, unnamed.

So amidst the din of warfare coverage, the silences and omissions for me are always the most significant, the most troubling.

Horror is mentioned in the coverage but the focus is on the Taliban. The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, alleged that an unnamed 15-year-old boy had been burned to death on a stove and the town had to be seized from the Taliban to halt such atrocities. “Taliban horror had to end” is the headline in the Mirror of 11 December 2007. There is no such outrage over “our” atrocities.

In contrast to the silence surrounding the dead Afghans, British casualties are named and celebrated. Sergeant Lee Johnson, of the 2nd Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, died on 7 December. His commanding officer describes him as “a huge personality and supreme soldier”.

And in the face of the unspeakable horrors, the military mumble the absurdities of massacrespeak. According to Lt Col Eaton, quoted in the Guardian of 10 December 2007: “It is like a game of chess and we are moving the right pieces into the right places so they are where we want them to be when we need them.”

In this way the hi-tech barbarism of the assault on Musa Qala is domesticated and trivialised, reduced to the level of a game of chess in a strange jangle of words.

Monday, 10 December 2007

‘Worst humanitarian crisis in the world’ largely missing from the UK media

The British mainstream media’s coverage of Africa has recently been focusing on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and the controversial decision by PM Gordon Brown not to attend the European Union-Africa summit in Lisbon in protest at the presence there of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Yet the continent’s biggest humanitarian disaster has gone largely ignored.

In Somalia, according to the United Nations, more than one million people have been displaced from their homes and put on the edge of starvation by the fighting between the occupying Ethiopian troops and the local, largely Islamic resistance movement. The UN describes Somalia as its “worst humanitarian crisis in 16 years”.

The Indian journal, Frontline, in its current issue, quotes the head of UN operations in Somalia, Eric Laroche, as saying that if such a crisis engulfed Darfur “there would be a big fuss”. Somalia, he said, had been a “forgotten emergency for years”. To add to the country’s woes, over the last year it has faced drought, floods and a locust infestation.

Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the leaders of the EU and Africa at the Lisbon summit to act to end the atrocities in Somalia where Ethiopian troops were engaged in the indiscriminate and deliberate bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods.

Appalling war crimes
HRW said both sides were responsible for appalling war crimes. But it stressed the Somali government had repeatedly harassed humanitarian organisations trying to help the displaced population. Former warlord Mohamed Dheere, the mayor of Modagishu, detained the head of the UN’s World Food Programme for five days in October causing food distribution to 75,000 people to be temporarily suspended.

Somalia’s most recent tragedy began on 25 December 2006 when Ethiopian troops, with the support of the US air force and navy, entered the capital, Mogadishu, and installed a puppet Transitional Federal Government. An Islamist militia calling themselves the Somalia Islamic Courts Council (SICC) had seized power in June 2006, ousting the warlords and bringing a much welcomed period of relative peace to the country.

According to Ahmadou Ould-Abdallah, the UN’s top official in Somalia, (quoted in the Frontline report) the short period in which the Islamists were in control in Somalia was the country’s “golden era”. But the US, claiming the SICC were harbouring radical Islamists, resolved to remove them from power. Satellite pictures of the Islamic fighters provided by the US proved vital to the Ethiopian troops in the December 2006 battles.

The country is particularly dangerous for journalists. Eight have already been killed this year. Human Rights Watch reports that the Transitional Government has closed down newspapers and three independent radio stations.
The conflict has also spread to eastern Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State, known as the Ogaden, where a rebel movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, has been stepping up its attacks on Ethiopian troops. Both sides are blamed for indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Chad human rights abuses missed by the media
While calling for EU-AU action on Somalia, HRW also focused on another African crisis which has been ignored by the UK media. Following one of the most remarkable human rights campaigns in recent years, Chad’s former dictator, Hissène Habré, now faces charges of crimes against humanity.

Installed as head of state in Chad following a CIA-backed coup in 1982, Habré was responsible for appalling human rights abuses before being ousted in another coup in 1990. In a rare instance of coverage, on May 21st 1992 the Guardian carried four short paragraphs reporting how 40,000 people were estimated to have died in detention or been executed during the tyranny of Habré. A justice ministry report concluded that he had committed genocide against the Chadian people.

Habré’s victims first looked to Belgium where its historic “universal human rights” 1993 law allowed victims to file complaints in the country for atrocities committed abroad. Following threats from the United States in June 2003 that Belgium risked losing its status as host to NATO’s headquarters, the law was repealed. Yet a new law, adopted in August 2003, allowed for the continuation of the case against Habré – much to the delight of human rights campaigners.

Now Senegal, where Habré lives in exile, has finally responded to an appeal by the African Union (AU) to try the former Chadian dictator. The AU has mandated Senegal to prosecute Habré “on behalf of Africa” while President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal has asked the EU and AU for technical and financial support to carry out the trial. The EU has, in principle, agreed to this request and the AU has named an envoy to the case.
Last week, HRW said Habré’s case provided a unique opportunity for AU-EU co-operation. But HRW’s important plea over Chad was largely ignored by the UK media.