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Telling The Truth Through Lies 

Ariel Dorfman talks about the role of art in times of war and what it will take to create a viable peace movement.

Years ago, when Ariel Dorfman began writing his latest play Picasso's Closet, about the Spanish painter's time spent in occupied Paris during World War II, he wasn't thinking about the United States or Iraq. The poet, dramatist and chair of literature and Latin American studies at Duke University has spent most of his life writing about Chile, where he served on the cabinet of the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. In 1973, dictator Augusto Pinochet overthrew that government, tortured and killed Allende, and launched a wave of human-rights atrocities that have echoed in Dorfman's writing ever since. Dorfman felt best able to address the subject of war indirectly, through the story of Picasso and the creation of his famous painting, "Guernica," a work that confronted Nazi atrocities and changed the art world forever.

Earlier this month, the Duke Institute of the Arts sponsored a reading of Picasso's Closet featuring professional actors. "Guernica" itself became the topic of news that same week after the United Nations covered its tapestry of the masterpiece. It was concealed with a blue cloth and a row of flags as Secretary of State Colin Powell stood in front of it to make the case for war against Iraq.

Though the U.N. claims it was trying to create a more telegenic backdrop, the symbolism strikes a dissonant chord for those who worry that voices of artists will be obscured.

Dorfman spoke to The Independent about "good lies," the complications of peace and the necessary things that the anti-war movement must address.

The Independent: What a coincidence that the day before the reading "Guernica" appeared in the news in the context of an impending war.

Ariel Dorfman: What's interesting about "Guernica" as an extraordinary work of art is that [Picasso was] able to bring together both the contingent, denunciatory urgency of an art that is reacting to an event of terror against civilians, and at the same time is able to bring in a series of other elements of modernist vanguard creation. It's that conjunction that I find particularly interesting in "Guernica."

In a sense, I wanted to explore how an artist reacts to war when he's in the midst of it, but also when he's being censored by it, by the occupying forces. I think there's a necessary, almost inevitable tension between the immediate and the permanent in art.

This says two very different things about art in the play. One is that art is not meant to decorate walls; it's meant as an instrument of war against brutality and ignorance. The other thing is that art is the exploration of obsessions and themes that are not directly related to the war. You can depict the war by painting a tomato, or a stove. So the social does not always find itself in direct relationship to the artistic--that is, the social themes that creep into the works of many artists. This contradiction between the testimonial and the need to explore issues that go beyond the immediate is essential and crucial to all the forms of art in the 20th century.

There are many ways in which artists can react to terrible events that they either suffer or witness. You know, the mere fact that in the midst of war one continues to write truths, in the midst of dictatorship one continues to keep language alive. Because war and dictatorship tend toward deception. They twist words. So the mere fact of doing this--I'm talking especially of writers here--of attending to language as foundational--of accepting, for instance, ambiguity, or exploring the territory between black and white--this is in itself a very important way in which an artist can contribute to a better world. So you can show the children screaming, and you can also show the tomato growing.

You've said that Picasso's isolation in Paris forced him to face his demons regarding his art. What sort of demons are you talking about?

There is a strange relationship between terror and beauty. For instance in my Poems of the Disappeared, those poems depend on incredible suffering of others to create a universe that moves people. But it means that I as a writer have got to plunge into that universe in a compassionate way, and then I have to take a step back. So how do you create something beautiful out of something horrible? In one sense, you have to. Having witnessed that, you cannot ignore it. On the other hand, you want to make sure that you do not degrade it, you don't abuse the suffering you've seen. And you want to make sure not to turn the art into a form of propaganda. Because the most interesting literature is the one that tends to understand that reality is incredibly complex. It's a very delicate balance that you have to reach.

This brings to mind one of the poems in your new book, "In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land," in which you compare yourself as a poet to the simultaneous interpreters at the United Nations or The Hague. You try to communicate the stories of torture victims without melodrama, to convey the essence of their stories "without giving in to that dark cloying current/of what they are really saying."

That's another of the strange contradictions, right? How can it possibly be that Picasso's rendering of what happened in Guernica has outlasted the cries in the streets of Guernica? There is a sense that you are writing from some sort of safe place, or maybe you are exorcising the fear by making it understandable. I personally think that it's legitimate to do that, it's good to do that. It's one of the tasks that poets and writers and artists have. But it's only one of the tasks.

I put my words to the service of causes. But you have to be very careful when you're struggling for a cause that you don't end up simplifying issues so much that you cease to be an artist.

In times of war there is a tendency to think that because the most precious thing of all--which is life and peace and dignity--is being threatened, that the question is, is there an alternative to rushing into the fray and throwing words as if they were bricks? But it turns out that words can be used in a different way than bricks, even in a war. Who keeps alive the language in the midst of deception and doublespeak? Or as I say in one of my poems, what words can we keep alive so that the lovers of the future can speak to each other? You never want to forget that there are other things happening.

That there is more to life than war, then, is part of the message of peace.

I have two more plays coming up, one opening on the West End in London in September and another next year in England. These plays both explore a situation of terror and forgiveness, loss and healing. But they also plumb the depths of guilt and memory and father/son, mother/son relationships. They're about the things that war would destroy, that war would not even allow us to look at. My interpretation of art is that it works at many levels of consciousness, and it is at our peril that we subsume one to the other.

The reason why we can wage war so easily is that stories of peace are not recognized. There's a sense in which I'm trying to say that the way to avoid war is to look carefully at the complications of making peace. Of course it's not that the situation I'm depicting is directly related to what's happening--that one side are the Iraqis and the others are the Americans.

I think this is a time when many people are very scared and quite ambivalent about going to war and the consequences that it will bring, and some are feeling motivated to speak up against it for the first time in their lives. But at the same time, they're equally put off by anti-American rhetoric and the simplistic anti-war slogans like "no blood for oil," with the typical way that you might picture a protest.

I am resolutely against this war, but I think it's a very complicated situation. I've been thinking about how we--I mean in general the peace movement and the human rights movement--have not been particularly focused on the plight of the Iraqi people. Not that we support the dictatorship, which people in the U.S. government did at one time, including Donald Rumsfeld. But of all the arguments, what right do we have to continue to tell the Iraqi people to live under this monster? In other words, it's by being very thoughtful, by being exactly the opposite of what Bush and company are, by admitting the enormous complexity of the world, that we can construct a viable anti-war movement.

People mobilize around very simple things: "No to war." OK. But behind that mobilization, artists can give images, humor in particular. There are lots of things that creative people can give to this. There is, I think, a need to constantly ask questions of all sorts.

I think we're absolutely right to oppose this war of Bush's, to denounce it. But at the same time we must be wary of being so over-righteous that we don't recognize our own problems, and especially we don't recognize the fear in which he breeds this war hysteria.

What do you think of the Poets Against the War Protest that Sam Hamill started, that the White House responded to by postponing its poetry symposium?

I think it's wonderful. What I most liked about it was, it was a bit humorous. It was these very defenseless poets saying that they could not participate in any other way than in protest, and the protest came from the deepest fountains of their beauty and their attention to words.

Artists have a way of telling truths. And the truths are often, as in the case of Picasso, full of lies. But they're good lies, you know? Not lies that hurt people. Lies that ask questions. Jean Cocteau says that art is a lie that tells the truth.

What significance do you see in the United Nations covering up the tapestry of "Guernica" before Colin Powell argued the case for war?

I don't understand why Colin Powell felt that this painting would be interpreted as directed against the U.S. bombing. Why do they feel alluded to? Why doesn't he turn around and say, "And here is what Saddam Hussein wants to do to the American people"?

You know why? Because the painting itself will not allow itself to be used in that fashion. The painting is about military men who from afar bomb civilians. Picasso is talking about the innocents who will be sacrificed for the interests for the powerful. "Guernica" denounces both the U.S. military adventure and Saddam Hussein's treatment of the Kurds, the Southern Arabs, the Shi'ites, his own people. But when Colin Powell loses the chance of pointing to "Guernica," he points the finger at himself, saying, "I intend to do this."

You see how art tells the truth through its lies? You see how "Guernica" continues to stick its finger in the wound of reality and make us scream, and reveal to us the truth merely by its presence in the world? So who would have thought, almost 70 years later, that a work of art would continue to do its subversive work? EndBlock

  • Ariel Dorfman talks about the role of art in times of war and what it will take to create a viable peace movement.

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