His disappointing, hypocritical concert.
In memory of Farah Ebrahimi.
Times are indeed a-changing: Bob Dylan, who became an American icon by “speaking truth to power,” just gave a concert in China, one of the most repressive countries in the world. While there, Dylan not only failed to express solidarity with the Chinese dissidents in jail; according to The Washington Post, he also agreed to perform only “approved content.”
The scenario becomes even more ironic when you consider that, while Bob Dylan sang “Love Sick” in mainland China, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, a potential Republican nominee for president, spoke in his farewell address about the detention of the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, and others. He added, “The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur.” The problem is not that Dylan should not sing his love songs in China; rather, the problem is that Dylan was just fine morphing into Barry Manilow in Beijing, when he was his old self just three days prior in Taiwan, signing “Desolation Row” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Artists are only human. They have many sides to them, they can be fickle, and they are mortal. What endures is not the singer but the song. Yet I still hang on to the old-fashioned belief of my youth, when we listened to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, convinced that artists were effective because they were the consciences of their societies—because their commitment was not to any political ideology, sect, or party, but to truth. Truth that is dangerous no matter what times we live in, because it is always a call to action. Once we know it, we can no longer justify our silence.
Some may say in defense of Dylan in China that age mellows us. I agree age does or should do this, and that it can also make us more self-consciously aware and critical of ourselves. It is also true that too much fame and power, too much wealth, can change our attitudes toward the principles we once believed in. But, for some, age, fame, power, and wealth can be means to becoming more humane and to helping others find their voice. Take Joan Baez, for example, who, in maturity, has changed and grown wiser, but not lost her passion, her commitment to justice and kindness.
Thinking of Joan Baez, one feels grateful and hopeful that certain things in life will not be changing with the times. Yet Bob Dylan, who always had a cynicism and aloofness that Baez did not, seems to have lost something with age. In China, he seems to have struck out against his own songs, his creations. The result? A disappointing and hypocritical show—one that makes me yearn for the Dylan we once knew.
In memory of Stan:
I disagree with Nafisi, who, for a literature professor, evinces here an embarrassingly middlebrow conception of art, a conception she tries to elevate with the rhetoric of "Truth." In her argument "Truth" as she rhetorically deploys it is analytically empty.
Bob Dylan owes who what: solidarity with the jailed dissidents to them, to Nafisi; protest songs to Nafisi; the incarnation of a former, sixties self to Nafisi; to "Truth" as Nafisi sees it to her; to channel Joan Baez for Nafisi?
I say horseshit to all this.
Dylan owes nobody anything when he performs other than to his audience to put on a good show. If he agreed to his hosts' strictures-where some would not have-so he did and where is the hypocrisy? If I'm a member of his audience in China, I say better to have heard him sing some of his songs, than not to have heard him sing at all.
Hypocrisy is an instance of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues one doesn't hold or possess. Where is that here? What standard does Dylan profess that he inverted? Dylan doesn't present himself as a moral exemplar or as a conscience. I don't think he ever did. But, regardless, he hasn't for decades. Nafisi wants to fix him in his sixties, protest self, long, long after he by and large left it behind. That is where she locates his hypocrisy: that he violates the meanings (to her) of his 40-50 year old persona. Her argument is ludicrous and a measure of its ridiculousness is that on her logic Dylan has been a hypocrite for nigh on 40 years.
Joan Baez can sing, profess and present herself however she chooses. But by doing so she affords no rational standard by which to judge Dylan. For those who wish to attempt to be now the consciences of their societies, let them try. Dylan does not wish to be that and that aim similarly affords no one a basis by which artistically or morally to judge him.
Here is Nafisi at her most declamatory, high sounding and most empty:
...Yet I still hang on to the old-fashioned belief of my youth, when we listened to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, convinced that artists were effective because they were the consciences of their societies—because their commitment was not to any political ideology, sect, or party, but to truth. Truth that is dangerous no matter what times we live in, because it is always a call to action. Once we know it, we can no longer justify our silence....
She writes as though she has some purchase on "Truth" in relation to art, as though, accordingly, she can prescribe for, and to, others in their art what she holds most meaningful for herself. Even in the most demanding of times artists seek their own paths, beholden to no one’s conception of truth or value, and will, finally, fall to be judged by the quality of their art, not by its congruences to the high items on someone’s checklist of what is morally, socially or politically important.