The problem with neutral songs

12 July 2018

Mohammad Abu Hajar

Mohammad Abu Hajar is a Syrian musician and researcher in political economy.

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

Antonio Gramsci once wrote a text criticizing neutrality, a text that I think would very difficult to ignore every time the old City disintegrates and its walls are fractured by its own erosions and by the pressure of renewal, and yet the city refuses to give way to the future so that the latter can begin to build what will come. Dante Alighieri in his Inferno preceded Gramsci in criticizing neutrality. Alighieri's statement has, in fact, gained a far greater fame, reserving the darkest places in hell “for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

It was Antonio Gramsci, with his modernism and scientific conceptualization of History, who overcame in my assessment, Dante’s moral conceptualization of History and his moral critique of neutrality. Gramsci explained how neutrality can play a role in preserving the obsolete old City. Moreover, Neutrality can play a more solid and more effective role defending what is disintegrating, than all the courage of those who stand  as defenders of City's worn-out walls.

Gramsci says: "Neutrality is the millstone around the necks of innovators, swamps and marshlands surrounding old City walls, there where the enthusiasm of the attackers drowns, there amidst neutrally, evil that is not caused by the initiative of this handful settles down, and pushes the many to sit in surrender neutral and to allow the threads of mold to pile in, threads that will only be broken by the sword, laws that can be issued during the  mold of neutrality can only be abolished by the revolution. Neutrality leaves those men ruling who will not fall but with a general rebellion.”

Neutrality appears here to be a historical dilemma, or let us say, seems to play a specific historical role when the worn-out city is cracking while being attacked by innovators. Neutrality is not just a moral problem. Herein precisely lies the role of neutral art, the art that claims to be standing outside the walls of the City, unattached to it when it comes under attack, for neutral art claims to be indulge in matters of quality and professionalism, that there is no role for it to play, and that Humanity is its intention, but neutrality affects history and strongly and negatively so. Neutrality enhances our collective sense of the inevitability of victory, an inevitability that is not ours, an inevitability imposed by the victorious upon us and upon the course of History.

Speaking about Dante in this may come across as overly theoretical. Gramsci is not Dante anyways, and he is certainly not the sisters Faya Younan and Rehan Younan. The fame of the two sisters in Syria is certainly greater than Gramsci’s. That is because neutrality posesses almost a dirt like ability to swallow the attackers against the worn-out city

As for Faya and Rehan, they went out to the public in the fall of 2014 with a yodeling musical production.  Apart from the fact that the work brought together the two sisters, "Li Biladi" received a very high rate of views on social networks, their production was an intensification of all those simple chic feelings that engulf the public in an emotional quagmire, like the mud quagmire that surrounds the worn-out City walls according to the description of Gramsci. Their "artistic" work was exuberantly apolitical in a way that made it sit on the throne of neutral art in relation to what has been going on in Syria since 2011, as if this work was an intensification of everything neutrality itself had to say and do.

I come back now to Gramsci whom I did not give up on, to say that the yodelling of these neutral people is very disturbing. Faya and Rehan’s yodeling appears beautiful and embellished as if it did not hide behind carefully chosen angles of photography, the astonishing voice of Faya and the full expression of sadness for her sister, a swamp of mud that suffocates the zeal each person who tries to build the “City of the Future”.

In the above-mentioned "artistic" work, which is, in any case, a work of extremely low technical worth, the neutrality of the section devoted to Syria weeping for the beautiful country that was destroyed by an unclear doer, the yodeling comes with the pace of grammatical and pronouncing mistakes. We do not know what is that irrational, insane and selfish war, nor who is the selfish and the crazy one, neither who is the one who destroyed the minds, souls and hearts? How can a war not know a beginning?

A cheap/bad attempt to drive the audience to tears, says Gramsci: "I will not share my tears with them, I will not be merciful."

Such a phenomenon of  concentration of neutrality could not have lasted long for the two sisters quickly appeared on the screens of the Syrian regime to announce a clean break with neutrality, after doubts arose over the existence of a pro-revolutionary content in their work especially that the pro-regime public was not the fastest to understand the [reality] of the phenomenon unlike a wider faction of neutral persons and part of the pro-revolution audience. That was mud. Just like Gramsci described it: the appearance of the two sisters on the regime television channel was a reason to spread frustration among a large audience of the attackers against the old City.

Although contemporary history has witnessed a sharp debate about the nature of art and its positioning in social conflicts, at a time when André Breton’s "Manifesto For an Independent Revolutionary Art" is being re-read, further questions arise about the relationship between artist Salvador Dali and his art with dictatorship and fascism. Dada did not do much, most of what he did was not to take a position at the time. "True art, which is not content to play variations on ready-made models but rather insists on expressing the inner needs of man and mankind in its time--true art is unable not to be revolutionary," says Breton.

When domestic and international power relations are added to our perspective to understanding of what is happening in Syria, for example, where depoliticization seems to be a desperate attempt by defenders of the current situation in order short-circuit the popular demands for freedom and emancipation, the political regime in control Syria is trying to remove the political character from those demands that took a sharp form with the start of the Revolution in 2011, the regime is trying to convince the world that what is happening is not political as the protesters were claim, "They are sectarian people, who work under contract, who were pushed by their hatred who have gone into public squares and they have no rightful demands."

In this context comes the civilized world’s reading of our conflicts, we, who have not yet reached the shores of modernity, we are unable to formulate political demands, our death is gratuitous. Here comes the neutral song in this context as a "noble" cry against murder, but the murder of whom? Committed at whose hands? What should one do after listening to the funeral of Faya Yunan and others for this homeland that destroys and kills its children? Neutral art usually reinforces the importance of immediate cessation of the killing, a bearing of a noble demand but a bit farther beyond nobility and good morals, the role of this art emerges as an accomplice in the perpetuation what is actually happening.

Stopping the killing and destruction is mostly the goal of neutral art. In neutral art, the demands of those who are killed are in no way on the same level of importance. The humanistic voice bypasses the political one in neutral art, and here lies the death of the political voice and the death of the politically confrontational is itself a political act. A self-generated dynamic denies the attribute of neutrality from the neutral itself, making its intersection with the ruling power a natural and predictable event. Thus, the appearance of Salvador Dali with General Franco the fascist Spanish dictator in a friendly image and the support of Faya Yunnan and her sister to the murderous Syrian regime becomes an expected manifestation, and in keeping with the nature of the neutral art-song, neutrality is by its very nature is a victory for the actual, and the actual is a victory on the worn-out and shabby.

Neutral art drowns you in the details of death and in the necessity of stopping the killing, and yodeling happening over human beings. Neutral art in this context is an act that serves the victor, an act that can easily be adapted to reinforce the positions of those who are screaming: restore peace and security to us. When the murderer is diluted, and political demands are suppressed, the triumph of the worn-out old becomes an automatic matter.

One can end revisiting what has been said on the organic intellectual: art is the action of culture. What many have said about culture can be read as an act of confrontation against what is common, ordinary and predictable, for the role of the intellectual is to challenge everything that is authoritarian. In discussing the neutrality of art from this perspective, it would be possible to dismiss the artist as a cultural agent for each and every one who produces the neutral song, but it can be argued back that this is an ideological perception that tries to push the artist to take a stand.

However, apart from ideological perceptions, it must be emphasized that neutrality is first and foremost a political position.  First, neutrality is a victory for those who have power at a specific moment, and thus the problem of the neutral song becomes that when it claims not to take a political stance and prefers to adhere to taking humanistic positions, it is trying to outsmart history, the public and perhaps the party who produced or the artwork in an attempt to delude everyone that it has no stance. All this while standing to the right in all social conflicts. Art, even if it doesn’t confront, cannot lament, otherwise critics will cast it as defense of the old worn-out City in the face of attempts for renewal.


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