“Paul Simon’s continued animosity to the controversy surrounding his visit to apartheid-era South Africa [relevant to] the persistent calls for a cultural boycott of Israel”

This is a very interesting article about the role of cultural boycotts in political activism. It discusses Paul Simon’s travels to apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s, when he was recording Graceland. As the article states, “Simon travelled to South Africa in the mid-1980s seemingly infused with the desire to explore the American dream in one of the places it was most abjectly absent. […] Amid the thick racial tension and brutality of South Africa’s white regime, he found a vibrant, if disjointed, music scene emanating from the country’s black community.” At the time,  the “United Nations-supported boycott of South Africa dictated that cultural partnerships with South Africans should cease as a means of isolating the white regime over its apartheid policy.” And since 2005 Palestinians have called for a similar boycott of Israel as a means of protesting and attempting to isolate Israel in reaction to Israel’s brutal and oppressive policies in the occupied Palestinians territories and beyond. As one of the leaders of Artists Against Apartheid said “We were saying to artists across the world that at this point in the history of South Africa [1985], the expression of your support must be non-participatory. You can’t go there. The way in which you interact with other people is on a free basis between free people.”

The article continues that “The Palestinian boycott, while effective in grabbing headlines and forcing a hysterical response from the Israeli government, is still in its infancy. Prominent musicians, such as Roger Waters and Elvis Costello, have agreed not to play in Israel and untold numbers of musicians quietly decline invitations to perform. But others, like Simon himself, have ignored the call, proclaiming that art is above politics.”the independence of the artist reigns supreme, even in the most lopsided of political conflicts.”

It is interesting that even though it seems as if Simon was naively travelling to South Africa in the 1980s without knowledge of apartheid, “what Simon was doing with Graceland was interacting on an intellectual level with black South African society, creating a mixed-race international community of artists that symbolised what the regime was trying to repress”. A similar interaction of Western musicians with Palestinian society, however, is rare. As the article notes, “While the merits of Simon’s arguments that artists should be above political constraints are backed up by his universalist interaction with black South Africans, the Red Hot Chili Peppers approached Tel Aviv as if it was just another stop on a world tour.”

The issue of a boycott of Israel at the present time I feel is a tactical question. That is, boycott per se is a valid form of resistance and activism that Palestinians and their supporters can engage in (though it is of course only one form of activism that seeks to end the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians), but each case must be examined separately and by its own merits. One cannot simply have a blanket boycott because at times that would be counterproductive, as was the case with Graceland and Simon in which Simon’s interaction with black South Africans was a positive action.

A cultural boycott of course raises the issue of art and its relation to politics, but no universal statements can be made about such issues. Perhaps it is apt to quote the ancient Greek Thucydides, who quotes Pericles’ Funeral Oration: “For we alone regard someone who takes no part in politics not as one who sticks to his own business but as a man who is good for nothing.” One cannot escape the political implications of one’s actions, nor can one ignore the political situation art is produced in. This is not a theoretical point about the causal relationship between an artwork and the political context in which it is produced, but rather to make the point that artists, like all members of society, have a responsibility to be aware of what is happening in the world around so as not to be blind accessories in oppression. As Ralph Nader has quipped:

“To the youth of America, I say, beware of being trivialized by the commercial culture that tempts you daily. I hear you saying often that you’re not turned on to politics. The lessons of history are clear and portentous. If you do not turn on to politics, politics will turn on you.”

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