Charm kills art and I fear it has murdered in Addis Ababa
December 5, 2006 7 Comments
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.”)