Friday, February 08, 2013

ESSAY: Georgia between the Aesthetics and the Politics of Democracy. By Zurab Karumidze ( - pdf) Art is based on the human ability of playing -- the free play of intellect and intuition (as Kant defined it in his “Ability of Judgment”); freedom is at the core of playing, and therefore art as free play is essentially democratic. Although throughout history art was used as a very strong tool to boost totalitarian and authoritarian structures -- religious or secular, to politicize arts and aestheticize politics (Walter Benjamin) -- freedom of imagination was disruptive for ideological clichés and stereotypes. Western European art, from its ancient Greek origins (Satirical Drama), had this liberalizing drive, which materialized in the culture of carnival, parody and laughter throughout the pre-modern, modern and post-modern ages. What I suggest calling “Democratic Aesthetics” -- the art of parody and laughter, the art which disrupted the established ideological values and moral norms, the carnavalesque travesty and grotesque, individualism and physiologizm, playful rereading and rewriting of established texts, critical questioning and creative freedom of thought paved the way for the making of the European mindset; it provided one of the earliest and most significant experiences of liberalism and democracy that the European mind has gone through. Authors like Rabelais, Cervantes, 18th century English novelists, Italian dramatists of Commedia dell’Arte, etc., were as instrumental in forging European liberalism, as the political thinkers and philosophers of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. Pre-modern European art provided the aesthetical background, and laid the aesthetical foundation for political Democracy of later periods.

Georgian art and literature emerged from the religious art and writings of the early Middle Ages (influenced by Byzantine art), developing into the secular art of the Golden Age (11th-13th cc.), then declining until the late 18th century, and from the early 19th century falling under European influence through the Russian conquest. Pre-Modern Georgian art and literature substantially lacked “democratic aesthetics.” To a great extent it was parochial and pious. Democracy, be it aesthetical or political, emerged in the free European cities, while the city culture in Georgia was rather underdeveloped. This is one of the reasons that Georgian literature developed mostly as poetry, while prose and fiction remained very poor until the end of the 19th century; classical Georgian prose is mostly made up of religious texts (lives of martyrs and saints), historiography (chronicles, biography of Kings, etc.), and some legal and medical texts.

However, we can talk about some episodes of “democratic aesthetics” in the artistic history of Georgia. Georgian visual art was mostly clerical: iconography and frescos. I’m not a historian of visual arts, but one could trace the tension between the established norms and the emergence of perspective and individualism. The most obvious sample of “democratic aesthetics” is Georgian folk music, which is based on collective improvisation. As for the literature: the major text of the pre-modern age, and not only of that, is the Georgian national epic – Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin (early 13th c.), a unique example of medieval Romance, a largely secular mixture of Platonism and Sufism, with superb versification. By the way, Sufism as one of the most “democratic” religious teachings was appreciated by the Georgian elite of that period. It took five centuries to beget David Guramishvili, a poet of rather wide scope, spanning religious mysticism and secularism, especially his humorous-erotic pastoral poem “The Shepard.” Next comes Romanticism (early 19th c.), in the poetry of Nikoloz Baratashvili: highly individualistic, self-searching, intimate, fanciful, passionate, agitated. The second half of the 19th century featured Ilia Chavchavadze, the leader of the new Georgian public intellectuals, who promoted nationalism. However, in order to do so he had to deconstruct obsolete traditionalist clichés and patterns, suggest following European models of social-political organization and educational reform, and promote the need for cultural, political and social criticism. Among his essays, poems, and long stories (which can be called “foundational” for the new Georgian nation), I would distinguish his almost Rabelaisian story -- “Is he a Man?!” – about a Georgian nobleman in decline. European type literary Realism in Georgian fiction was introduced by the novels of Alexandre Kazbegi. Another unique and remarkable manifestation of “democratic aesthetics” in the history of Georgian literature comes in the writings of Vazha-Pshavela, whose narrative poems focus on the conflict between individual freedom and traditional collective mores. Also I would compare his poetic philosophy with that of American Transcendentalists -- in terms of the intuitive openness to natural phenomena, as representing higher truth; “shamanic transcendentalism” – this could be another definition of Vazha-Pshavela’s poetic weltanschauung.

The richest episode in the history of Georgian art and literature, during which “democratic aesthetics” materialized and, moreover, coincided with political democracy, is the age of Georgian Modernism (1910s-late 1920s). It spanned three dramatic historical periods: the collapse of the Russian Empire (1914-17), the Georgian Democratic Republic (1918-21), and the Sovietization of Georgia (1921-late 1920s). As several political historians suggest (Stephen Jones, Roland Suny), the so-called “First Republic” (Georgian democratic Republic) proved to be a pretty successful experiment in social democracy. As for Georgian Modernism – this was a genuine explosion of artistic freedom, liberty, and diversity in Georgian visual arts, theatre and literature. Paintings by Niko Pirosmani, David Kakabadze, Lado Gudiashvili, Shalva Kikodze, Elene Akhvlediani, et al., the theatre productions by Kote Marjanishvili and Sandro Akhmeteli, the writings and literary disputes of the “Blue Horn” symbolists and Futurists -- they tried to come up with new forms of expression, a new idiom, creating vibrant examples of “democratic aesthetics;” they combined Georgian folklore and myth with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, French and Russian symbolism with the poetry of Vazha-Pshavela and Commedia dell’Arte; Edgar Allan Poe was the demon, the major persona haunting the Georgian poets (not as an American, though, but as the father of French symbolism). Though located on the periphery of European Modernism, Tbilisi or Tiflis of that time was called the “Fantastic City” (Tatyana Nikolskaya) to which the artist and writers from the collapsing Russian Empire were attracted, seeking creative and political freedom, good food and wine. Such energy of “democratic aesthetics” could have boosted the further development and establishment of political democracy in Georgia, but the Sovietization of the nation and the advent of Bolshevik rule killed the process: part of the creative elite was destroyed during the Bolshevik purges, some had to flee the country, and some had to keep a low profile, e.g. by restricting their intellectual explorations to the privacy of their homes.

With the advent of the “Khruschev Thaw” in the late 1950s there was a certain revival of “democratic aesthetics” in Georgia. This is when American culture and the arts penetrated the Soviet realm partly via official, but mostly unofficial (black-market) channels. American literature was permitted in the Soviet Union -- the writings of Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, et al. However, the true novelty was the coming of the works of Hemingway in the 1960s and William Faulkner in the 1970s: they captured the minds of some Georgian writers. Specifically, Hemingway became a sort of icon for many Georgians, together with JFK and other idols of American pop-culture, particularly, pop-music. America was perceived as the land of all kinds of freedoms, including sexual freedom, of unlimited possibilities and wealth. The strongest impression came from the jazz music. There were few Georgians who performed jazz, but many appreciated it, listening to smuggled records, to the Willies Connover Jazz Hour program on Voice of America, watching movies such as “Sun Valley Serenade,” which became a true fad at that time, or “The Magnificent Seven,” which fascinated Georgian “Machos” with the dynamics of cowboy shootouts and Wild West chivalry. People who appreciated jazz, American literature and the associated way of life turned into a cast of “aesthetic dissidents,” marginalizing themselves from the official Soviet aesthetics and ideology.

“Democratic aesthetics” in the 1960s and 70s in Georgia was mostly represented in the cinema and the theatre; due to mysterious reasons, some things were more permitted in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia than elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Movies by Otar Ioseliani, Gia Danelia, Eldar Shengelaia, as well as theatre productions by Mikhail Tumanishvili and Robert Sturua questioned and deconstructed not only Socialist ideological clichés, but also those of the Georgian traditionalists, and this was achieved by a vibrant carnivalesque and parodic artistic idiom. Though working under the Soviet-Communist regime, they were able to accomplish what can be called a “pluperfect Postmodernism.”

With the advent of Perestroika and subsequent Georgian independence, significant changes suggesting “democratic aesthetics” emerged in Georgian literature. Still in the minority, a group of young intellectuals promoted the idea of cultural criticism, of rethinking national history, rereading and rewriting the national classics, encouraging globalization processes in Georgian culture. Young authors modified Georgian fiction, introducing new language (e.g. city slang) and new topoi (modern urban realities, gender, minority, perversions), and delved into parodic intertextual play. Thus, beginning in the early 1990s, Postmodernism became a fad sweeping the minds of a new generation of Georgian artists and writers.

All the above mentioned episodes of the emergence of “democratic aesthetics” are just islands in the stream of Georgia’s history. None of this was ever enough to forge and temper the sensibility and the mindset needed to embrace political democracy, with the exception of one case – the Democratic Republic of 1918-21. To an extent, for a small nation like Georgia such an experience with “aesthetic democracy” should have been enough to translate it into political democracy and liberalism. However, Georgia had missed the formative centuries of “democratizm," which Europe had been through in the late Middle ages, featuring a "carnival culture" of free cities, and social and economic modernization. The elites, who created the artistic and political democracy of the Georgian Democratic Republic of 1918-21 were destroyed, banished or marginalized by the totalitarian rule and thus the succession was disrupted. The Soviet period left no space for political democratization, and as for the post-Soviet period, there are several explanations why Georgia failed to become a decent democracy: a) social, economic and territorial problems disenfranchised the broad majority of the nation, and people embraced religious nationalism instead as a solution; b) the power lust of the ruling elites, which impeded decentralization and self-governance, transparency and accountability, and jeopardized fledgling property- and human rights. In contrast to the sporadic liberalism of the Shevardnadze period, the post Rose Revolution years have shown a dramatic backslide of democracy: lack of checks and balances, politicized judiciary and police, violation of property rights, total control of national TV.

Due to historical and present-day hurdles, Georgians are stuck on the “aesthetic” level of Democracy. Democracy as an idea and a value is something amorphous and eclectic to the Georgian mindset – it is more like a metaphor, a symbol. Opinion polls show that democracy, alongside religious orthodoxy, has become a significant element of the Georgian national identity, thus suggesting a form of conflation of notions in the current national mentality. Democracy is subliminally perceived as an index of chosenness, Europeanness, and Christianity, all of which are important for a nation historically surrounded by Muslim states. On the other hand, Christianity is also perceived as an index of national identity, not as a purely religious value. The core of such an amorphous eclecticism is in the Georgian cultural mindset. For a concise and comprehensive description of such a mindset I’ll refer to Osip Mandelshtam, who wrote: “I would consider Georgian culture a type of ornamental culture. Tracing the outlines of the vast and fully developed territory of the foreign (culture), they [the Georgians] mainly absorb only its outer design, while at the same time fiercely resisting the internally hostile essence of the powerful neighboring territories.” Today, however, the picture of democracy is clearing up. Paradoxically, this is thanks to the backslide of the objective democracy we have had since the Rose Revolution: more people demand real democracy – checks and balances, independence of national TV and media, property rights, independent judiciary, decentralization, participation, accountability, a fair electoral environment, etc.

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