What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
(continued)
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

Shoemaker: Sometimes we are overtaken by events and some issues must be set aside, at least temporarily. I think Bush’s unilateral decision to broaden the war is such an event. I say “broaden” instead of “escalate” or “surge” because the introduction of a new battle group of US Navy ships into the Persian Gulf, replete with Patriot missiles, and the take-over of the Iranian consulate in northern Iraq suggests that Bush is preparing for a regional war, not simply a sweep of Baghdad.

To date, protests of the war by jazz artists have resulted in some significant music. I am thinking of Alex Coke’s Iraqnophobia, Charlie Haden’s Not In Our Name, and Mark Whitecage’s opera, Bushwhacked.

But, I’m not seeing statements about the war – or a host of other issues from Darfur to global warming for that matter – seep into the music or journalistic commentary about the music anywhere near the levels we experienced during the civil rights and anti-war movements of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Why do you think this is the case? What are the obligations of artists to speak out at times like these?

Gonzalez:  I have been outspoken about The War and about war in general since the beginning of my career.  I think war is wrong - unconditionally so - and I write songs that reflect that stance, and I comment on those songs and what they mean to my audiences.  I have been chastised for my outspokenness, and it's a bit painful at times, but with the newest movement amongst the American people to speak out against this war, I feel vindicated.  I was playing the FONT (Festival of New Trumpet Music) at Tonic two summers ago, with Oliver Lake, Mike "TA" Thompson, and Ken Filiano as my sidemen, and we played a composition of mine called "Bush Medicine", which is also on the CD by that group on Clean Feed, Idle Wild, and as I introduced the piece, I could see the faces of many audience members show a discomfort when they heard my admonition that, "If you have a cold, you take cold medicine;  If you are suffering from Bush, you have to take "Bush Medicine."  After the show, several people came to me and protested my words.  I thanked them for their candor and for their strength in coming up to challenge me, "After all," I remarked, "this is about our right to Free Speech!" 
 
My sons, who play in my trio Yells At Eels, feel no compunction to silence their protests.  My younger son, Stefan, wrote a song called "Elegy for a Slaughtered Democracy,” which addresses the frightening prospect that the US went through the past 5 years because of the gradual taking away of our rights as Americans.  With the history of jazz as our role model, we've figured that jazz is a music of liberation, and that we as artists, as musicians, have the obligation to point out our displeasure and chagrin at the encroaching whittling away of our freedoms.  I can't tell other artists what their duties are in this regard, but I feel that we certainly have the right to express our political views, just as we express out views on life, Spirit, our daily exhaustion, or any other facet of our human condition.
 
I have a thread on a jazz board on the net, and there are always other threads popping up about the desire of the jazz listener to silence the on-stage political commentary of musicians whose music they support.  It's always been of great interest to me that some in our audience have chose to forget the lessons of the jazz continuum, and in fact deny that the jazzers who were the most political in their music and in performance were political at all.  When the titles and the facts were pointed out, they continued to deny the political implications of songs such as Max Roach's "South Africa, Goddam"; John Coltrane's "Alabama"; Mingus' "Fables of Faubus"; and others too many to list.
 
We are in politically correct times.  Many artists don't know how to stand their ground.  It will end up hurting them in the end.
 
Rusch: As far as levels of activism, specifically on Bush's war, it's been four years and the activism is actually higher than in the first four years of the anti-Vietnam War movement. I lived in a major urban area and can well remember protests and marches where less than 20 people were involved.

For me, neither Vietnam nor Iraq can compare to the Civil Rights Movement (which, similar to the anti-Vietnam war and anti-Iraq war movements, often was promoted by the actions of lone individuals). Civil rights is a moral absolute and, unless you're a pacifist, wars are less clear.

As for the obligations of an artist, I think many attempts at overt political statement in art come off as contrived period pieces (with some notable exceptions) and are not artistically successful.

Artists are no more obligated than anyone else to express overtly their political attitudes but, if they do, as artists they should do it artfully. Great artistic efforts can produce powerful political statements but political statements, powerful or not, do not in and of themselves make successful art and instead often make for sophomoric, awkward efforts.

Caine: Artists are citizens and have the right to express deeply held and sincere views through their art, including political viewpoints. That is not to say that sincerity by itself creates great and interesting art. I agree with Bob Rusch that much of the time political art seems clichéd and predictable. Agit prop art is sometimes useful to rally people to a cause but frequently becomes trite, especially with the passage of time. But there are also so many inspired works that powerfully express a sense of revulsion and horror at the brutality of war. Art such as Picasso's “Guernica,” Goya's “Disasters of War,” music such as Penderecki's “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” Freddie Hubbard's and Ilhan Mimaroglu "Sing me a song of Songmy,” and John Coltrane's “Alabama,” and films such as Spike Lee's recent documentary on Hurricane Katrina (which is not about war but is a powerful indictment of the Bush administrations failures in New Orleans) or "The Battle of Algiers" by Gillo Pontecorvo are powerful works that dramatize the injustices of war, racism, poverty and oppression but are also inspiring as art. They are the voices of single individuals raising their voices and protesting, bearing witness to the suffering of the innocent. Whether or not this art has had any direct influence on politicians today is an open question. Recently I read about the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. When his opera was premiered, Stalin himself declared that the music was subversive and composers who wrote in this style risked long imprisonment and even death – the government actually took modern music seriously enough to ban it. The Nazis also banned the music of Schoenberg and many other composers as decadent -they actually believed that art had the power to be subversive and could affect political life.

Contrast that to the situation in the USA today where artists and citizens are merely ignored on most issues by the media and the Bush administration. For the past 6 years, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld administration has waged war in Iraq on dubious grounds, surveilled and harassed innocent people under the guise of fighting terrorism, gotten rid of certain fundamental rights of habeus corpus and fair and open trials, and instituted secrecy that masks the incompetence and venality of the current administration. Perhaps the reason we don't see the same level of activism as in the 60's is that the war in Iraq is being fought without a draft – Americans are allowing volunteers, many of whom joined the armed forces for economic reasons, to fight as their proxy. During the Vietnam War, there was an immediacy to the possibility that you could be called to fight and die for a war with very unclear goals. Many Americans also felt that the time had come to fight for greater racial and gender equality. During the 60's a lot of the music reflected the turmoil and anger of the time but also the desire to bring freedom to the music. The liberation of the music itself was a metaphor for the desire for more freedom and equality in society. Today there is a greater sense of complacency in our society-many people have been persuaded that to question or actively oppose administration policies might be supporting terrorists, etc. While it is true that more than a million people marched in New York City to protest the war before it was launched, there have been fewer demonstrations than occurred in the 60’s during the Vietnam War. Maybe this will change in the near future.

Warfield: I am in accord with many of the viewpoints expressed thus far. I'm completely against the idea of war and the killing of fellow man, unless of course there is no other alternative, and I'm just as against the manipulation of religious views to gain political power for the support of war. I believe that any attempt by man to jeopardize the existence of our society is an arrogant gesture translating in one way or more to "The Seven Deadly Sins of Fundamentalism." I do agree whole heartedly that war issues can be confusing, but I believe this to be largely the result of propaganda.
 
An artist’s political attitude may not necessarily translate into anything substantive or artistic. Creation comes as it comes, and I personally feel that artists have no obligation to express or share their viewpoint about anything they choose not to. The opportunity for choice is their right as human beings. I believe that those who they feel they have something to say that will make an impact should do so.
 
As far as works spawned by this war or any other war for that matter, I cannot speak in any terms other than "in my opinion" and will not speak to their value, impact or validity. Validity is the result of existing. The test of time will bring honesty to the answers that need to be brought to fruition.
 
Whether we speak of art or war, they both relate to the human condition and the greater issue is still that we need to address ourselves in order to help broaden our perceptions. Objectivity is imperative if we intend to achieve clarity in anything. This clarity in turn, will hopefully lead to a greater awareness of all things, but I believe it is easily masked by our comfort zone. Remove us from our comfort zone and I believe things will immediately change.

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