You gotta have art

The reporting on Iran has been skewed and an exhibition with art on the subject of Iraq has some interesting perspectives.

An exhibition of artistic work that "responds" (as they say) to the Iraq war finishes on Saturday 6 May in Dublin's Rubicon Gallery. The art, by North American and Irish practitioners, includes some interesting stuff, notwithstanding the yicky, gicky title given to the exhibition, "This Ain't No Foolin' Around".

Little in it, anyway, could prepare the viewer for the dull, dispiriting, self-obsessed self-indulgence of some of the relevant artists who took part in a recent "Critical Voices" seminar to discuss their work. I suppose it's in the nature of most artistic creation that one believes one's own thinking and "process" to be the most important issue that the work raises. But one would have hoped for some sense of depth and proportion from artists dealing with what the exhibition curator called "the most important event of our time".

The artists' "responses" to Iraq, in the end, seemed to boil down to a few largely superficial observations: protesting the war is like the 1960s and also somehow like consumerism; Fox News is like something created by Albert Speer; George W Bush is, like, awful. The reminders of the extraordinarily potent icons of Abu Ghraib really served to underline the fact that by far the most significant images, "art", of this war emerged from soldiers' digital cameras.


An American construction

Since only one of the exhibition's six artists has actually been to Iraq, it's not surprising that the work reflects a certain abiding shallowness in the imagery and discourse that has emerged from the US invasion of that country. (Even the fact that everyone in the panel used the word "war", rather than "invasion" or "occupation", was a reflection of the unacknowledged ideological limits on our thinking about Iraq.) Courtesy of our media, we hear a lot, but know very little, about events in that country.

Given that these are Western artists, it is perhaps appropriate that their "Iraq" is essentially an American construction – like the "Iraqi village" built by the US army in the California desert, where soldiers can train for guerrilla-style warfare by battling actors and stuntmen brought from Hollywood and Arab-Americans bussed in from San Diego. (No, you couldn't make this stuff up, and no artist could hope to match it for depths of ironic decadence; this training breakthrough was reported with tones of awed approval, "from the edge of Death Valley", in the New York Times this week.)

It is not necessary for our view of Iraq to be so blatantly imperial for it to be damnably limited. In the run-up to the "war in Iraq" in early 2003, the media's "arena" for the upcoming conflict was not Iraq at all, not the country where soldiers and civilians were preparing for a bloody attack on the remnants of a sanction-blighted society, not that place of fear and defiance. Nor was the focus even on US/British military planning in the region. Instead, the main focus of Western media attention was on the West itself, on the pseudo-"debates" in the United Nations, and on the very real but ineffectual protests on the streets of Western cities.


Onward to Iran

Again, it was not necessary for that reporting to be "bad" for the overall picture to be dangerously skewed. As the US diverts attention from its murderous debacle in Iraq by concentrating its verbal firepower on Iran, the same media questions arise. Not only have journalists taken their eye off the Iraqi ball, but they have again allowed their agenda to be set according to Western concerns.

In the Irish Times, for instance, Denis Staunton's reporting has been fine, just like Conor O'Clery's before him. Quite correctly in Monday's paper he led with US rejectionism after Iran's inspections offer, and his report on the diplomatic argument eventually featured plenty of Iranian and European comment alongside that from Condoleezza Rice. But just because Staunton, in the US, is doing his day-to-day job properly doesn't mean that the paper is adequately informing readers about the issues that lie behind this build-up to a potential military attack on Iran. Lara Marlowe's few days in Tehran are no substitute for sustained coverage that transcends "defying the Security Council" clichés.

Neither the US domestic politics, the geopolitics nor the consequences for "ordinary" Iranians of another military "adventure" have been adequately addressed in our media. We are, again, ill-prepared for war.