Charm kills art and I fear it has murdered in Addis Ababa

I was recently rewatching Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when a friend of mine, who is on a one-year writing fellowship in London asked whether he should move house to Oxford so that he could commute to London for his classes. Oxford, which is a city that I enjoy and like, is ever associated in my mind with charm. As in walking its cobblestones always yields the thought of how charming it is. Yet this I suspect is not what Oxford is at all, its charm is a velvet glove worn over a monstrous self regard which like all malign things that are English is hidden by a facade of good manners and prettified surface.

In any case, here is what the character Anthony Blanche says to Charles Ryder, a modestly famous artist of famous country houses played by Jeremy Irons: “I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

This charm is what I have been seeing in many of the galleries I have visited here in Addis Ababa. The artists seem captive to a desire to please and delight, and little more, so that canvas after canvas, all somehow avoiding the world the artist lives in, become like a giant lie that soothes so that it can sell. Charm, in addition to being a facet of personality, is a magic with dangerous, hypnotic qualities. Who would want to hypnotize if not for the purpose of some sort of harm? Charm as magic in the hands of the pleaser and delighter, the artist who avoids honesty, who steers clear of controversy at all costs, recruits him into society’s ruling army of dissemblers. In fact the dictator is more honest in his manipulations and betrayals than is the artist who paints little cute flowers as tanks roll by in the streets.

It was not until I met Richard Onyango (old NYT review) in Nairobi this past weekend that I was able to recognize what I had been seeing in so many galleries here. Onyango’s art is the practice of honesty and it shines through. His life with Souzy Drosie is captured in all its pain and frustration and happiness. His painting of a KBS bus evoked in me such a powerful memory of a day in which death missed me by an inch and ploughed its tons of metal into a schoolboy who was standing less than two meters from me. Onyango does not charm, he delights and challenges and makes me feel that I must be more honest in my writing, and yes, to be a bit dramatic, in my living as well.

(Btw, here is another great quote from the Brideshead Revisited series. This time by Father Mowbray: “But yesterday I got a real eye opener. The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.”)

About bulletsandhoney
I read my first book when I was three, then my second one a few weeks later. It has carried on this way for decades with only temporary distractions of eating, fighting, loving, heartbreak and other such irrelevant biographical details.

7 Responses to Charm kills art and I fear it has murdered in Addis Ababa

  1. AddiSalone says:

    You know, I have to agree with you and add that life in general here does sometimes seem charmed. When you meet and socialize with those of of the ‘super-middle’ class (coz i am not yet convinced there is a middle class in Ethiopia), it would seem as if they themselves live in world outside of the reality of life in the country. There is no mention of the thousands of street children, or the lack of proper education, or the sometimes blatant discrimination against foreigners (particularly other Africans). Instead, you can find yourself as do the ‘super-middle’ class Habesha does, revelling in the nouveau-chique spas, lounges, and cafe’s with wireless internet, which are popping up all over this impoverished city.

  2. Thanks Addisalone,

    Yes, there is a strange racism alive and well haunting these streets. But hush, lest it be woken up!

  3. Keguro says:

    My good friend told me that Kenneth Burke once said the proletariat had no interest in seeing themselves represented. It sticks with me when I try to teach about representation: is art that is not “realist,” however broadly we want to use the term, somehow dishonest? Can there not be a place for delight and aspiration and amnesia in art?

    Perhaps I seek to justify why I’ve been reading bad harlequin romances for 20 years now, often eschewing literary classics of gloom and doom. Escape, such a sweet drug.

  4. No, I am not calling for gloom and doom, or realism nor condemning delight. Just for some form of engagement with what is around you and not a seemingly steadfast determination to remain out of it totally. But having said all that, it is up to the artist of course to decide what the hell he wants to do and that is as it should be.

  5. Keguro says:

    I just finished teaching a class on African fiction and it was startling to see how well my students reacted to stories that affirmed everything they already know, or think they know, about “Africa.” And this at the end of the semester.

    Any story that mentioned corruption or violence or starvation was received with a measure of, ahh, that is true engagement with history. My own reactions were equally startling, in part because I didn’t want to teach such stories. I wonder at my own desire to resist certain texts and motifs in favor of the more “romantic” texts I favor or formally innovative, if no less marked by corruption. (Really, why is Bound to Violence out of print?)

    It was in that ungenerous spirit that I asked about the relationship between representation and engagement. The question of artistic freedom is related, but, I tend to think, a different question.

  6. LG says:

    Hello my friend, your witty observations are great company out here where the pursuit of charming shiny packages seems to have killed off humanity and spirituality. Hope you are enjoying Lamu.

  7. annemanyara says:

    I like how you say, “charm is a velvet glove worn over a monstrous self regard”, because it sounds nice and bold and radical, but I do not really agree, because this is not always the case. Sometimes charm is just charm, and beauty is simply beauty. I like to think about beautiful things, even though they may be far removed from the world I live in, because these give me hope.

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