“What kind of stories do you want to tell? I say exhume dead bodies, those stories, stories of the people who dreamed big, and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love, and lost. Artists, we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life” -Viola Davis, 2017, Academy Awards.
Davis is renowned for pushing the boundaries of what roles a black woman should play and bringing the stories of complex human beings to life, a vocation most artists hold dear to their heart. A calling to tell the stories of the people around them, their pain, their loss, their bliss and their fight. We live in a land filled with forgotten stories, a sprawling garden of silent minds to which the world has turned a blind eye. Art is a crucial factor in elevating our society and tackling essential human issues, yet how can artists do that if the country itself is censoring them and pushing them to the sidelines in order to only let the safe, comfortable and acceptable content go mainstream?
You may not be in an artistic field, but you are surely capable of creative expression. All of us can tell stories, one way or another. It’s unfortunate that not everyone has the chance to actually exploit his creativity, or make it his sole vocation and career. Most of us choose the safest options, which is understandable, especially in a country that’s falling apart. Now, it is true that our culture is rich in artistry, thanks to our society having an abundance of artists, and we all speak of how powerful and important the arts were during the October 2019 revolution. But we should not ignore how the country is failing its artists, not giving them the chance to properly tell the stories they want to tell.
If we go back to what Viola Davis said, specifically regarding the stories of the common people, human beings who lived normal lives, who went through the emotions that we all feel, who fell victim to society’s hungry urge to prey on people who are different… Our country needs that. Art’s importance lies in exposing a close minded society like Lebanon to significant issues like gender equality, LGBT+ rights, child and domestic abuse, rape, and so many more, and now is more important than ever to tackle those issues if we want to elevate our society. Lebanon is stuck in a bubble, a comfort zone scared of anything new, anything that’s not traditional, deemed unsafe, not right. We should break that bubble, and what is a better tool to do so than art? We need controversial narratives that challenge societal norms, that make us uncomfortable, make us question our centuries old beliefs, and most importantly, that represent complex human beings, something which is clearly lacking in the mainstream media in our country.
Unfortunately, the artist must leave the country, or choose a scientific traditional major, because they don’t have the canvas required to exploit their art. We’re losing those artists, and nothing is changing, because how could they ever raise awareness about important issues if the country itself isn’t letting them release their narratives to the public? Freedom of expression is governed by a patriarchal, religious and discriminative system who pushes art to the sidelines to make place for cliché, overused and safe content. We keep hearing about bands, songs, movies, TV series, plays and video games that are banned in Lebanon because of controversial content, content that do not fit the narrative of our good, religious, moral and ethical country. I have heard personal stories of playwrights who were denied to show their plays in theatres because of the presence of controversial characters, such as transgender people. Instead, what do we see? Boring and mundane shows about love, betrayal and male protagonists with his two competing lovers, of course set in the best villas and locations. Those are certainly not an accurate representation of the country’s current situation.
However, we shouldn’t deny the fight artists are already doing to advocate for free artistic expression. Brilliant students keep releasing independent work, and they try their best to be heard. Moreover, there has been some evolution in the kind of stories that are being told. Capharnaüm (2018) is a perfect example of the prowess of Lebanese talent, especially in offering a realistic window into our society with all of its qualms. Plus, some of Carine Rizkallah’s new TV shows are portraying genuine situations, such as the scandal of being a single mother, the Palestinian and women’s nationality issue, even going as far as criticizing the nature of our mafia politics. Also, it takes great courage for the Lebanese youth to pursue artistic fields as they’ve been told over and over by society that medicine, law and engineering are the only way to a secure financial future. We also should not forget the favoritism of science in schools where students who excel in math and physics are put on a pedestal while the ones who don’t are thrown to the sidelines. They are not encouraged to pursue their creative passions, and sadly some never do.
Some of you might be thinking that amidst all the issues our country is facing right now, freedom of art should be the least of our concerns. But tell that to the victims of abuse and sufferers of mental illnesses who stay silent because of the taboo surrounding those topics, or the gay Lebanese boy whose religious and homophobic parents abandoned to the street because of his identity, or all those people who have no voices. We should exhume their narratives from the hidden corners of Lebanon, and expose their truth in order to change. Artists are here to speak for them and give them that voice. Media representation will force people to look at them and empathize instead of shying away because it doesn’t concern them. It is true that we tend to ignore problems in Lebanon as many subjects are still taboo, so instead of facing those sensitive issues, we turn a blind eye if they don’t concern us personally, and we go on with our lives, as if they’re nonexistent. But turning a blind eye and silencing the victim doesn’t make us any better than the abuser. Today, trusting our politicians to cause some positive social change is laughable. Artists, however, can have the same effect, if not a better one, thus the need to create safe spaces for artists so they can spread awareness and finally open our closed minded culture to new horizons. Finally, we should admit that most of our problems in Lebanon are issues deeply engraved in our culture. It is easy to criticize our elders: they’re too old fashioned, their beliefs are archaic, they’re sexist, homophobes… But can we really blame them if they don’t know any better? They weren’t exposed to those issues in their day, and therefore only rely on oral opinions, what society deems is right, without questioning, and that is the center of the problem. Art puts us face to face with our beliefs and traditions, making us question their existence. That is why we need to be exposed to stories, to better stories, stories that inspire people, incite change, and push us forward, and that is what our country needs the most right now.
Étudiant en Computer Engineering à la Lebanese American University.