We are a long way from the days of John Berger who, in winning the Booker Prize in 1972, spoke out so eloquently about literary conformity, migrant workers, the exploitation of the Caribbean by the Booker company and his decision to give half of his prize money to the Black Panther movement in London. Can you imagine any likely literary winner of this age doing anything remotely similar? Instead we have now a commodified ‘rebellion’ in the arts, supplied by the likes of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, friend of the Tories and glorified salesman respectively.
In many ways the politics of individual artists is a loaded thing at the best of times and simply as a reader it sometimes seems that it is often best not to know. Once a purge of the bookshelves began it would seem hard to know where it would end. That is, of course, a nagging dissatisfaction but it can be possible to read an author despite and in spite of their politics. Possible but not pleasing.
Of course, what a lot of writers seem to adopt is an a-political position in the hope of sidestepping, well, sidestepping everything. The only problem with that though is that the a-political position is one of the most deeply political positions available. Pretending not to see doesn’t wash, especially if you are an artist or a writer. If you are not seeing it, it is because you don’t want to. By all means live inside your head, that is the curse and the blessing of the creative life, but don’t poke your eyes out at the same time.
Clearly though, there comes a time when some writers leave you no option but to judge them politically, as in when they put their heads above the parapet and make a political decision. It says something surely about the state of our arts at this time that the public expression of a political stance should be one in support of one of the world’s most powerful armies against a population who have stones and knives. To then follow this up, as JK Rowling has done, by declaiming that she has never ‘heard of a cultural boycott ending a bloody and prolonged conflict’ can only astonish Archbishop Desmond Tutu and those thousands of global anti-apartheid activists who opposed South Africa. It can only bring succour to such cultural icons as Elton John and Queen who performed in that officially racist State and in doing so took the most blood soaked money available at the time.
Rowling’s re-writing of history is either intellectually sinister or intellectually bankrupt and looks as if it might be both. To be fair, though, if she and all of those others so brave to speak out against the cultural boycott of the Israeli state are having problems understanding the situation I can point them to an easily discovered place. Joe Sacco’s Palestine is a graphic novel, one of our most underrated artforms, that documents the author’s experience staying in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip amongst the Palestinian people. It is one of the best explorations of the subject I have ever read.
So if JK Rowling, Hilary Mantel, Simon Schama and friends are having trouble grappling with the intellectual nuances of the Palestinian experience (and if they are already disremembering the history of apartheid South Africa it looks like they are) then have a look at that book. Honestly, it’s a comic. How much simpler do you want it?
On the pages of this publication Mia Oudeh has already written more eloquently than I could ever manage about her heartbreak at JK Rowling’s position and has skewered all of these cultural figures by hinting at a ‘judgement purely based on privilege and monetary benefits.’ The Sleaford Mods vocalist Jason Williamson recently pinpointed the famously ‘a-political’ Noel Gallagher of Oasis as being ‘withered by luxury.’
If nothing else we can only hope that those writers and artists opposing or taking a non stance on the cultural boycott of the Israeli State heed the likes of John Berger, Ken Loach, Naomi Klein, Alice Walker and the late Iain Banks instead of those Guardian signatories. To do otherwise is to bring forth art from the position of privilege and withered luxury and come on now, we’ve had a bellyful of that haven’t we? Yet, at least be thankful to The Guardian signatories for one thing. There is no more fence now to sit on. Colours to the mast. The cultural boycott is the only ethical position we have.