Los Angeles Review of Books: Can Art Save Your Life?: On Revolution, Political Prisoners, Climate Activism, and Pink Floyd
ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH had not heard music in three years. The writer, technologist, and activist, an essential voice in the revolution that began in Egypt in 2011, had been arrested in September 2019 on trumped-up charges. Ever since, el-Fattah, a British Egyptian national, had been asking for an mp3 player. On April 2, 2022, locked in a cell in Wadi el-Natroun prison, just north of Cairo, he began a hunger strike, consuming only 100 calories per day, in protest of his own unjust detainment and that of 60,000 other Egyptian political prisoners. Last November, in advance of the COP27 climate conference to be held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, he escalated his protest.
On November 1, el-Fattah stopped eating entirely. Five days later, on the first day of COP27, he stopped drinking water. While his sister Sanaa Seif marched with other activists in Sharm el-Sheikh to bring attention to his cause, el-Fattah’s health deteriorated. On November 9, after repeatedly smashing his head against a wall, he was restrained and put on suicide watch. Two days later, he collapsed in the shower, in what he later described as a near-death experience. Since then, he has temporarily broken his hunger strike, in part because he recognizes, his family says, “that his wish for the end was getting the better of him. That there was a strong part of him that was ready to die.” On November 14, prison authorities granted him access to a music player. The first song he listened to was Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”
El-Fattah’s aunt, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, recounted in an interview “a moment of almost sufi exultation” that el-Fattah told her he’d experienced upon hearing the song, particularly one part: what he described to her as “that amazing, great solo ringing in my ears while the blood came back to my limbs.” Despite having been on hunger strike for almost six months, food was not the sustenance that el-Fattah most craved. It was music.
I lived in Cairo for a year spanning 2015–16, studying Arabic intensively and researching the history of Art and Liberty, an Egyptian avant-garde movement from the 1930s and ’40s that merged artistic practices with Marxist and anti-colonial politics. Whilst there, I observed with trepidation the ever-tightening strictures on Egyptian civic and cultural life—the proliferating concrete barricades, the omnipresent police, the gradual disappearance of any reminder of the recent revolutionary past. When the uprising first began in 2011, it was often described as an awakening—Egypt and the Arab world at large had stirred from their political slumber to demand change. By the time I moved there, though, Egypt’s first democratically elected president had been deposed, and the authoritarian regime of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had begun. Today, the Egyptian revolution is widely considered a failure by foreign media and political commentators, if not by all Egyptians. In the current public narrative, Egypt has gone back to sleep; the Arab Spring has given way to winter.
This past fall, when I read the interview with Soueif, sitting at my desk in my basement office at Oberlin College in northeast Ohio, I opened Spotify on my iPhone, put in my earbuds, and searched for “Comfortably Numb.” The song opens in a minor key with a woozy slide on a lap steel guitar: “Hello. Is there anybody in there?” I tried to imagine el-Fattah listening. Did he have headphones, or did he listen through the tinny speaker of an MP3 player? Were his eyes closed or open? Did he smile when the chorus began? “There is no pain, you are receding. / A distant ship, smoke on the horizon.”
El-Fattah’s arrest in 2019 was not his first. Indeed, he has spent most of the past 12 years in prison or detention. Throughout that time, he has stated repeatedly that literature, music, and other forms of cultural expression are essential to his well-being. After his 2019 arrest, el-Fattah was denied not only music and radio, but also newspapers, books, pens, and paper. During a hearing, he described how he was being denied his officially mandated rights, including adequate exercise, access to sunlight, hot water, and standard-issue mattresses and pillows. But even more important to him, he said, was “the denial of the written word. I am not allowed any books or magazines, and I am denied the right to subscribe to newspapers or have access to the prison library.”
El-Fattah was eventually allowed access to books, pens, and paper, but it was not until he almost died that he was allowed to hear music. Listening to “Comfortably Numb” on repeat in my office, I had questions: What is it about art, literature, and music that the Egyptian authorities so hate? And what is it about art that el-Fattah finds so sustaining? His access to reading materials, he said, was more important than sunlight. David Gilmour’s guitar solo brought the blood back to el-Fattah’s limbs.
In Dresden in 1849, a year when the working classes were revolting in cities all over Europe, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin came up with a novel strategy for what to do when the Prussian army attempted to suppress the ongoing socialist insurgency. He suggested that the workers place paintings from the national museum’s collection in front of their barricades. Bakunin speculated that the Prussian soldiers, upon seeing the priceless canvases, would not dare to destroy them, and would therefore not breach the barricade. The art, Bakunin thought, would protect the revolutionaries.
Bakunin’s plan was never realized, but in 2015, the Kurdish Turkish conceptual artist Ahmet Öğüt brought the idea to life in an installation titled Bakunin’s Barricade. The idea came to him, he said, after witnessing the Gezi Park protests that took place in Istanbul in 2013. Observers have drawn connections between these protests and the Arab Spring, which began two years earlier. Having lived in Turkey from 2007 to 2010, I returned in the summer of 2013 to visit friends in Istanbul, where I saw some of the demonstrations. Out late one night, I crossed the famous Istiklal Avenue, which runs along the city center. The scent of tear gas hung in the air while around me, dozens of young people wearing gas masks stood waiting in eerie silence.
Last fall, Bakunin’s Barricade made its North American premiere at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin, where I teach a course about the Arab Spring called “Art of Revolution.” On a Tuesday morning in October, I took my students to see the installation. We sat on low stools and gazed at the scene: a white truck, a blue truck sawed in half, tires, bricks, cinder blocks, traffic cones, upright wooden pallets, lampposts, bicycle racks, trashcans, manhole covers, and signage from around town—including signposts from the nearby intersection of Main and East Lorain streets. Hung upon the barricade were 13 artworks from the museum’s collection—pieces that Öğüt had selected in consultation with Oberlin students. These encompassed a wide range of works, including an oil painting, Harmonizing (1944), by African American artist Horace Pippin; a sculpture, Untitled IV (Shield) (1990), by German American artist Kiki Smith; and an Andy Warhol silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe. The curator asked me to begin the discussion by describing what I was seeing, and I told her, honestly, that I was a little overwhelmed. Confronted with both the immensity and the heterogeneity of the barricade, it was difficult to zero in on any one piece of it.
Next to the installation, framed on the wall, was a four-page contract. In the event of “extreme economic, social, political, transformative moments and movements which engender high levels of public concern relating to fundamental human rights, including those defined in the [United Nations’] Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the museum would agree to loan the barricade out to the public. The contract had been signed by Öğüt as “The Maker,” but under “Transferee,” there was no signature. Drawn up by Öğüt in consultation with a lawyer, this contract is as telling a part of Bakunin’s Barricade as the barricade itself. But the installation was part of a temporary exhibition—the Allen Museum had not actually purchased Bakunin’s Barricade from Öğüt. Were it to do so, a museum representative would need to sign the contract.
As we read aloud from Öğüt’s contract, my students speculated on what it would mean to use the art in a real barricade built in the street. First, if you were going to build a barricade in Oberlin, where would it go? (In front of the president’s house, one group suggested.) Second, was it true that the authorities wouldn’t attack the barricade if they saw the art? Maybe the campus police wouldn’t advance on it because they would know the worth of the art, but would federal authorities care? Wouldn’t insurance cover the cost of any damage to the art, thus undermining the effectiveness of the barricade?
As the students shared their thoughts, I wondered if there was something ridiculous about Bakunin’s Barricade. What good was a barricade built in the liberal enclave of Oberlin, Ohio? In Egypt, many musicians, writers, and artists have been arrested. Some havedied in prison. Many others have gone into exile. Similarly, in Iran, dozens of poets have been arrested. Was it not naive, even ludicrous to believe that art could defend society—and to make this claim from the safety of an American campus? To imagine that state authorities would be so moved by a vision of our collective heritage seemed laughable. Wouldn’t the art function less as a barricade and more as a target?
Over the past year, climate activists have publicly vandalized a series of artistic masterpieces. In one of the most notorious instances, two protestors at London’s National Gallery, Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland, threw tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888). As assembled museumgoers gasped, one of the young women reportedly yelled, “What is worth more, art or life?”
The implicit logic of this question seems to be that art is a distraction from what we might call “real” life—the destruction of the Amazon rainforests, the construction of new pipelines, the planet being destroyed before our eyes. Why are you inside looking at art, Plummer and Holland seemed to ask, when you should be outside witnessing the earth’s annihilation? Why are these paintings worth preserving but not life? The very question accuses us, the public, of choosing beauty over reality. Margaret Klein Salamon, executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, which funded the act of vandalism at the National Gallery, suggested as much in her comments to the press: “[T]he point is the house is on fire, this is an emergency. We can’t just enjoy beauty and fun and continue as we are while doing nothing about it, because at the moment we are accelerating off a cliff.”
Yet the choice to vandalize Van Gogh’s Sunflowers suggests that beauty does have a role to play in the fight to save the planet. In the act of protest, the painted sunflowers become a stand-in for life on earth, not a distraction from it. Other attacks have abided by a similar logic. Last July, two activists covered John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821) with printed posters showing a dystopian version of the painting’s idyllic scene. Where Constable shows us a glassy river, green pastures, and an immense sky, the new image the protesters taped over the canvas replaced the river with roads and added airplanes and smoke-spewing factories. In defense of the activists, philosopher Peter Singer unpacked their message: “[I]f we do not stop using fossil fuels, scenes like the one Constable painted will be gone forever.”
Viewed in this light, the act of vandalism acknowledges and appropriates the power of the painting. To pollute and deface Constable’s rural Eden is to represent in an instant the slow violence that the natural world—“real life”—has sustained over the past two centuries. The activists draw on our attachment to this painting, our longing to dwell in its peaceful world, as a means to shake us out of our state of comfortable numbness, to wake us up to the earth’s destruction. In this respect, the painting does not distract us or turn us away from life; it brings us back to it. It reminds us of what we have to lose.
Perhaps this is also why the climate activists have not actually done much harm to the paintings they’ve attacked. They have mostly selected works that are protected by glass. Art is not the target of their protest; it is the method.
Why did the Egyptian authorities deny el-Fattah an MP3 player for so long? Of course, we cannot know for certain, but at some level, we do know: because it hurts him. It causes him pain. But there is something else. Music enlivens him—not because it cheers him up (though perhaps it does that too), but because it endows him with life. This is not what the authorities want. They don’t want to kill him; they know the danger of a martyr, especially one already as famous as el-Fattah. But they want him, as Giorgio Agamben might say, barely alive. Despite spending most of the past 12 years in prison, el-Fattah has proved himself a powerful foe to the Egyptian state, by virtue of the moral clarity of his writing, which has made its way out of prison in the form of handwritten notes. Even as his bodily health has deteriorated, his voice has remained a threat. As the journalist Yasmine El Rashidi writes, “Incarceration is the government’s attempt to remove his voice, and his revolutionary persona, from the political playing field.” The authorities offer him food, water, a bit of exercise, but they do not want to give him anything from which he might draw inspiration or vitality.
Recently, listening over and over again to “Comfortably Numb,” I had a realization. The song is ostensibly a critique of a certain kind of narcotic—pills, muscle relaxants, drugs that numb life’s pain. (Roger Waters’s lyrics are based on his experience of being injected with tranquilizers in order to ease the symptoms of hepatitis before a show.) With its reverberating effects, soaring vocals, and lush orchestration, the song mimics the feeling of being in such a state. But in the end, “Comfortably Numb” does not numb you. It’s a warning. While the chorus might evoke a sensation of floating, that ethereality is pierced by the famous guitar solo, which brings you back to earth. The solo is a call to wake up, to keep fighting, to keep living.
In December, a few months after visiting Bakunin’s Barricade with my students, I return by myself to sit with the work. My attention is drawn to Smith’s Untitled IV (Shield), positioned at the far left corner of the installation. Smith made the sculpture by applying a plaster cast directly to the belly of a pregnant friend. I can see the fine pores of the woman’s skin, her hair, her belly button, even the lumps and mounds of the baby’s head or foot pushing up against her navel from the inside. Around the plaster cast, Smith has added an off-white, hand-modeled rim—turning the sculpture into the shield of its title.
The power of Untitled IV (Shield) is that it suggests at once softness and hardness, fierceness and vulnerability. Made in 1990, the piece gestures to the wars over reproductive rights and abortion, so essential to understanding both that political moment and our own. But all I can think of as I stare at the piece is my three-year-old son. During those nine months he lived inside me, we shared a lifeblood. Observing the pink plaster, I have the instinct to cradle my own belly, as if it were a phantom limb. To be a parent is to feel both powerful and exposed.
I think again of el-Fattah. In 2011, he was in prison for a different offense when his son Khaled was born. At three days old, Khaled was brought to the prison to spend 30 minutes with his father. “In half an hour I changed and the universe changed around me,” el-Fattah wrote. “Now I understand why I’m in prison: they want to deprive me of joy. Now I understand why I will resist: prison will not stop my love.”
Sitting in the quiet gallery, I imagine what might happen if the conditions attached to Bakunin’s Barricade should come to pass. I imagine building a barricade in the streets of Oberlin. I imagine carrying the art out of the museum and onto the pavement. Were this to occur, I realize, the works of art would not be for the authorities. Their purpose would not be to protect us from the violence of the state, nor to shame the state into stopping its advance. They would be for us, the protesters. I would want to stand beside Kiki Smith’s sculpture—not so it could shield me, but so it could remind me of the stakes of the fight.
Anna Levett is a scholar of Arabic and French literature, and a professor at Oberlin College. In 2022, she was awarded the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Pauline Yu Fellowship in Comparative Literature.
April 1, 2023 • By Anna Levett
Featured image: Ahmet Öğüt. Bakunin’s Barricade, 2022 installation, original installation 2012–15. Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Bakunin’s Barricade: a barricade inspired by Bakunin’s never-realized proposal in 1849, here including works from the Allen Memorial Art Museum by David Wojnarowicz, Eva Hesse, Nisse Zetterberg, Kiki Smith, Alfredo Jaar, Barbara Kruger, Andy Warhol, John Baldessari, Raquelín Mendieta, Doris Salcedo, Horace Pippin, and Sol LeWitt.