Netherlands: Terrorism as Art

For sensitive souls who think art is beautiful and terrorism is sick it might be a shocking idea, but there is a relationship between terrorism and art, argues Prof. Dr. Bob de Graaf, professor of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

An article from the University of Leiden newsletter.

Little attention is paid in the Netherlands to the to similarities and reciprocal influences between violent radicalism and art, he says. Researchers as well as politicians and policy makers try to find and influence especially economic and social root causes. Naturally they should do so, thinks De Graff, but besides that they should be aware of the need of - especially by well educated - youth for self expression and their "fifteen minutes of fame". To also be aware of the cultural manifestations in society, give more attention to "what's in the air".

Because that is an important aspect of being a terrorist: the need for self-expression. A terrorist works in staging, composing, searching for a public. American skyscrapers, American airplanes and the scenario of the American disaster movie made the attack on 11 September 2001 into a form of street theater. And the current number 2 of Al-Qaeda described the attack on the Egyptian president Sadat in 1981, in which he was involved, as "an artistic plan prepared with care".

It's a known fact that authors and movie-makers write about life and death. In the 90s there was a real boom, especially in America, of films and books about disasters and violence. It is certainly not unthinkable, according to De Graaf, that terrorists were inspired by literary scenarios. Hi cites the statement of Robert Altman that Afghanistan might have been the breeding ground for 9/11, but that Hollywood was the source of inspiration.

But there's more than mutual influences; it's not always easy to draw the line between fiction and reality, argues De Graaf. In 19th and 20th century Europe there were whole art-movements which glorified the spreading of violence and which then flowed into actual terrorist movements.

Nihilism, which began with the novel Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, ended radically violent. Terrorist acts play a big role in the work of Surrealists like Luis Bunuel and André Breton. Breton even thought that the true Surrealist should go out in the street and shoot wildly.

Situationism, which came out of Surrealism, began with playful happenings, as an accusation against the consumption society, but the smell, stink and pudding bombs became real bombs in the 70s. Movements like the Black Panthers, the Red Brigades and the Red Army Faction began as art-movements which said that art should be extreme and have an impact. For Andreas Baader, with his designer sunglasses and predilection for films about terrorism, terrorism was the best way to get attention..

De Graaf says its doubtful whether that's the case recently. On the one hand, it seems like art it taking a step back. Shocked by 9/11 American authors don't write any more about terrorist, but about victims and trauma processing and the apologize for their earlier work. The violence of which was rather tame, for that matter. But on the other hand terrorism lack the fantasy and ambiguity that characterizes art. The repeated pictures of attacks lead to people getting used to it. And, so says De Graaf, "habit is deadly for terrorists."

Regarding Islamic terrorism De Graff says he doesn't yet know enough. Is the relationship between terrorism and art maybe typical to Western terrorism? Are there important differences in the culture of language and images, or is there a globalized culture of the individual that seeks expression and attention, and that can leave behind its trail in history. De Graaf's Center for Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism is building up a database of ego-documents of terrorists to start a study. In any case, young Islamic terrorists don't choose a role model from authors and artists, but from practicing preachers: Osama bin Laden and suicide bombers.

But there are also signs that this is indeed a global phenomenon, and that above all it's the consumer society which provokes terrorism as part of the sub-culture.

In this sense the similarities with the above-mentioned Situationism is striking. The combination of initially innocent artistic and intellectual protest and a subculture of youthful street violence can also flow into present-day explosive political violence. Government and citizens must therefore take into account that a specific form of society and belief brings with it risks and secure themselves against it, ends De Graaf. Besides that, an imagination isn't a bad quality.

Source: Leiden University (Dutch) h/t Allochtonen Weblog

See also: De Graaf's paper " Something in the Air, Terrorism as Art" (PDF, Dutch)

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