In Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” the audience has to deal with the following languages: Arabic, Chinese, Urdu, Persian, French, German and English.
Considering most Americans, including privileged college students like us, can’t tell you what Urdu sounds like, let alone which peoples speak Urdu and where they live, this choice might seem like high-minded condescension. And it is. And it’s the smart thing to do.
We sometimes deserve to be talked down to. For instance, as Gaghan’s film illustrates, we have a woeful track record for learning languages. Even the University, a bastion for strong international learning and language training, almost cow-towed to a group of spoiled, insulted people we call classmates by reducing an already-shallow language requirement.
Getting submerged into the stew of languages, globalization and that always-tricky mistress of politics can lose the audience. But I think that’s the point.
Remember Alexander Pope: “The two purposes of art are to inform and entertain.” Now think about our modern artistic education, our modern art, or modern expectations about art and words like “diversion” and “amusement.” Didactic art becomes, in our cohort’s indecisive eyes, associated with shortsighted, patriarchal bile like “Birth of a Nation” instead of righteousness like Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
We’re all guilty of something on a global scale, so, conversely, we’re all equal in our sins. There are no preachers in modern political art, but instead documentarians: Young Jeezy talks about feeding his family with coke profits. “Here, Bullet,” the debut book of poetry by Iraq War-vet Brian Turner, has speakers meditating on Iraqi women washing food for their family alongside burned-out tanks and defused bombs.
Unveiling minute cultural details, like Turner’s stanzas, is the fundamental source of “instruction.” We are told things we know nothing about – Muslim theology, oil economics, drug deals in hoods we’re never going to visit – and somehow become part of the debate. College students may not like hearing it, or reading it, or being forced to write about it, but we should be lectured to. We need to be told we are ignorant and that even if we remain ignorant, we are part of the dynamic.
We take a class on Middle Eastern wars? We’re part of the debate. You buy an album cause of the bass-heavy club starters and suddenly the MC raps about low-income housing? You have just been educated and entertained.
Like “Traffic,” Gaghan’s other tour-de-force of culpability and shared sin, the best modern political art preaches interconnectedness. Purchasing plastic bags and refilling your car binds you to oil-field workers on platforms in the Middle East. The drugs you use (narcotic and otherwise) link you to research scientists, farmers and distribution networks innately tied into to class differences.
The rapper Lil’ Wayne, originally a King Midas-like Hot Boy in the early ’90s New Orleans rap scene, suddenly carries the artistic lineage of the city on his shoulders in the wake of Katrina. He’s from the infamous Magnolia Housing Projects in the city; he’s never slinked away from crafting new narratives rooted in childhood poverty. Between the sticker pushing $20 at Borders and “Fireman,” the napalm lead single, from his most recent album, Tha Carter II, plays simple hustling narratives next to grounded hymns on his home: “New Orleans my birthplace ya heard me / Where money is more important than the person.” That line works because ever since that hurricane, money – to FEMA, to the contractors who just finished building another round of inadequate levies, to the always isolated and idiotic Barbara Bush – has been the hand of fate that has disfigured New Orleans.
Yeah, it’s Lil’ Wayne, the same guy who made a mint off inventing “bling-bling.”
Yes, he’s educating you.
To be lost in the streams of languages, social groups and the murky path of money is to be awake. Modern art, like Gaghan’s films and post-Katrina Southern rap, is performing one of the noblest tasks possible: subtly revealing ignorance.
And if you’re a college student and you’re comfortable with ignorance, you should probably reevaluate a lot more than your stance on art.
– For the record, McGarvey speaks Chinese, Persian and Vulcan. Converse with him in any tongue at firstname.lastname@example.org.