Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Reading Log: Ian McEwan. "Sweet tooth"

In the room of a poet in disgrace
(after Anna Akhmatova). 36"x24".
Oil on canvas. 2013.
This week's reading log post is, for a change, about fiction: Ian McEwan's "Sweet tooth". It is about intelligence services' (in this case, MI5 trying to outdo both MI6 and CIA) attempts to covertly support and promote the "right" kind of art (in this case, literature) in the course of what they call "soft Cold War". In other words, the "right" kind is something which wouldn't be straightforwardly pro-Soviet, but wouldn't sound "right-wing loony" either. Like Orwell's "1984", for example. 

McEwan's characteristic way of constructing his novels, with its layers of illusionary realities and its play on literary and not-quite-literary deceptions, meshes quite well with the topic; the logical conclusion that art is better at creating illusions than all intelligence agencies taken together is both stated in the end and enacted throughout the novel. Refreshingly, the "spooks" of the novel blunder through their lives just as blindly, just as prone to falling into the traps of their own little deceptions, as any next person; fully engrossed in themselves and in labyrinths of their own journeys and their own motivations, which have little, if anything, to do with the Cold War. 

Just in case you are going to read the novel, I will refrain from any details of the plot and potential spoilers. In any event, a more interesting topic is what do we actually think now of the intelligence agencies' (on both sides of the ponds) covert involvement in arts. Lots of such information is now "out", declassified and readily available, but each new mention of this aspect of Cold War seems, still, to find some surprised readers. Especially, it seems, as far as the CIA's role in promotion of Abstract Expressionism as a "poster child" for American freedom of expression is concerned; I recently came across an internet discussion where all participants are still convinced that Abstract Expressionism was a successful communist provocation against right, proper, and pretty "American Art".    
As a child growing up in the Soviet Union, I heard, of course, the opposite version: that Abstractionism was a part of "bourgeois" on-going battle against Communism, funded by intelligence agencies. I didn't believe it for a moment (the rule of thumb was not to believe anything coming from the Soviet authorities), and yet it seems that it was somewhat closer to what was happening. And you know what's funny? That the only officially "authorized" style, the so called "socialist realism" was indistinguishable from "proper" American art (as understood by the participants of the afore-mentioned discussion): think Norman Rockwell, and you'll get the gist of what "socialist realism" was all about.  

Doubtlessly, I am not quite a typical reader of McEwan's novel: although about half-generation younger than his young characters, I remember the time he is talking about (the seventies), but from the other side of the iron curtain -- partly directly, partly from conversations and reading endless memoirs. And as someone growing up in the circles of political and cultural dissent, I am, in a sense, one of indirect beneficiaries of these covert operations. Take, for example, a mention in passim that a new translation of Akhmatova was secretly funded by MI5: it rings differently for me than for someone who barely knows the name. Knowing not only her poetry, but also how her major poems were preserved through hard times (in faithful memories of a few trusted friends) and what this sort of recognition abroad meant to her, I cannot help but feel grateful for this support, whatever its source.    

But there is, in fact, a larger issue here. The Soviet authorities prosecuted (and, occasionally, murdered) "wrong" artists, confiscated and tried to eliminate forever "wrong" novels, destroyed unauthorized art exhibitions with bulldozers. Their western counterparts acted somewhat less directly and in a more civilized manner, but under the same fundamental assumption: that art is relevant, important, potentially dangerous. A force to be reckoned with, and even feared. That it's something that matters in the grand scheme of things, that it has the ability to ruin empires and change the course of history. It felt somehow relevant for the Soviets that Shostakovich should write a more traditional kind of music than he had aspired to in his youth, and for MI5, that Akhmatova should be translated and published. As though the Soviet Union might actually fall apart under the sheer power of art... 

And then, something happened: in the Soviet Union of late eighties, everything was, gradually and with some difficulties, but allowed. Every single "wrong" book was published, "wrong" paintings pulled out from storage rooms and exhibited, and even Solzhenitsyn returned triumphantly to Moscow. And the Soviet Union did collapse after all, didn't it?  

It seems to me, though, that, in the aftermath, in the final analysis of these events, it was decided, somewhere and by someone, that it wasn't art that brought it down. That art doesn't really matter that much, that the whole thing was grossly exaggerated; and in any event, it's much safer and simpler to tame it with commercialization, just like everything else; and tax dollars are better spent elsewhere. And the question lingers, where does it leave us? Do we agree with this assessment? 

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