Saturday, September 21, 2013

Why art trumps politics

By Michael

When I taught undergraduate English composition, I would often joke with my students that if they preferred to, they could submit "essays" that took on a form other than the typical Times New Roman, 12 point font, double spaced academic essay. They could, for example, submit a documentary video or perform an interpretive dance.  I would bring this up so that we could talk about the benefits and drawbacks of writing over other means of expressing oneself. 
Additionally, in an earlier post I said that I prefer the written form over painting or interpretive dance to express my thoughts. Well, the members of DakhaBrakha, a Ukrainian avant garde band, just happen to be especially good at expressing themselves through interpretive dance, among other artistic media. They play a very original sort of contemporary folk music, which they call "ethno chaos." I am sharing my thoughts about this band because it shares a philosophy very similar to the one Yulia and I are trying to express in this blog. 
Their music video, "Vesna" (Spring), probably does as good a job as any expressing DakhaBrakha and its relationship to mainstream Ukrainian culture. The video opens with an image of dead leaves and the forest floor. The band is then shown walking through the forest. It is as if they have just emerged from the soil itself. The music develops slowly. An accordion plays a repeating rhythm while the band members are slowly unveiled--a vintage boot; then a tall, furry hat. The music and images are at once pagan and primordial. There is an aura of mystery--who are these people? The band emerges from the woods into downtown Kyiv. The women of the band wear white dresses with big red beaded necklaces and black furry hats. The man wears a vintage suit. The gold leaf embroidery on his shoulders suggests a naval officer's uniform. The clothes are at once Ukrainian, but not. Vintage, but contemporary. Pedestrians and bus riders stare at them. The band sets up in a park and begins to sing and play festooned instruments. The city's residents seem to hear the music. A police officer writing a traffic ticket becomes distracted. An older couple on a walk stop in their tracks. The music seems to force them to dance, yet the eventual smiles on their faces make me think that their dancing becomes voluntary. Once the whole city is dancing the band disappears from the park, though the music keeps playing. The band is back in the forest.
What an excellent metaphor. Artists really do have the power to sway an entire society. Ukrainian culture is especially strong. Despite centuries of repression and governance by foreign powers, Ukrainians have managed to maintain a unique identity. Their culture and language have lasted even though they have not been able to govern themselves politically over the years.

DakhaBrakha is smart to embrace tradition in their music and art and incorporate new elements as well. As Marko Halanevych, lead singer of DakhaBrakha, states, "We have to rethink and modernize our folk culture. In fact, as a post-modernist band DakhaBrakha is trying to give new life to our grandmas’ songs." Yulia and I agree. Our context today is not the same as it was in the nineteenth century, for example. It therefore does not make sense to sing the same old nineteenth century folk songs, though it is important to know them. We are proud to build on former traditions to create a new identity and way of life.
This will take time, but it is possible. As Halanevych states later in the same interview quoted above: "We have so many insecurities, no faith in ourselves and are willing to listen to anything that comes from Moscow or America just because it’s foreign. This is a broader social problem, not limited to music alone. Unfortunately, we lived as slaves for a very long time, so can’t immediately be free. Currently, at best, we are at the level of freed slaves. It takes generations and the right focus of development to change this." Halanevych is right. This is a major social trend in Ukraine. These "insecurities" and lack of "faith in ourselves" are most obviously manifested in politics. The Ukrainian state is made to feel that it must choose between the European Union and Russia. Either Europe will save Ukraine or Russia will. There is hardly any talk that Ukrainians may be able to solve their own problems. 
It doesn't help that domestic leaders like Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko are made into political prisoners. The potential power they may have had has been quashed to a certain extent. But they continue to inspire. The recently released Lutsenko wrote an excellent piece that I read in the Kyiv Post. In it he writes, "Change is only possible by rebooting the entire system, by setting new aims for people, the society and the state. People have to undergo an internal cleansing." The focus of his article is the criminal justice system, but he touches on something very important that I want to flesh out. Political reforms themselves aren't enough to change the problems Ukrainians have to deal with. Our politicians have failed. The whole society needs a change. As he puts it, the whole system needs a reboot.
This is beyond the purview of politics.
To make the changes that are necessary other elements of society must get involved in creating that change. Artists do a very good job of this. That is why Yulia and I are so interested in the arts. They get to the root of many things. They influence collective culture, individual psychology, and even interact with politics. The band, Mandry, can be quite patriotic at times. Their song and music video, "Ne spy moya ridna zemlya," has obvious political overtones. It encourages Ukrainians to become involved in making change both for themselves and their deceased ancestors. The video shows images of both the Orange Revolution of 2004 alongside those from the Artificial Famine of the 1930s in which millions of Ukrainians were purposefully starved to death by the Soviet government.

But art doesn't have to be political to create change. Simply raising people's consciousness is enough to influence all spheres of life. And a high level of consciousness is universal--it exists regardless of temporal or spatial context. Politics are also ephemeral. The Orange Revolution images from the "Ne spy moya ridna zemlya" video are outdated. They are already 9 years old. However, the themes expressed in the lyrics themselves are more universal. 
This is why Yulia and I spend so much time discussing the arts on our blog and spend so little on politics. We certainly have political beliefs, but we think that the problems we see all around us require change on a much deeper level. Art contains that gravitas.

If anyone is interested in DakhaBrakha's interpretive dances, here is one of them.

Also, here is my favorite DakhaBrakha video and song. It is called "Карпатський реп" ("Carpathian Rap").

No comments:

Post a Comment