Hisham Matar: ‘Art is contrary to authoritarianism and populism’ – Music and Books – Culture

Hisham Matar, Professor of Comparative Literature at the columbia universityachieved international prestige when he obtained the Pulitzer Prize in 2017 by The return (Salamander). In this autobiographical novel he narrates the life of his father and his family, his trip to Tripoli (Libya), after three decades of absence. Matar constructed a harrowing story about a brave common man, his father, who opposed the absurdity of evil as a leader of the resistance.

The writer managed to reconstruct, thanks to international organizations such as Amnesty International and a few letters that reached the hands of the family, that his father was alive at least until 1996: “Cruelty is omnipresent, but I am still stronger than his tactics of oppression. My forehead does not know how to bow,” Jaballa Matar wrote.

A citizen of the world, Hisham Matar lived in Nairobi, Rome, London, Paris and Cairo. He currently resides in New York. The writer spoke with La Nación in a bar in Madrid. He arrived in the Spanish capital the day before and has already visited the Prado Museum and will juggle his agenda to go to the Thyssen, where there is a work by the Siena school. Museums are a magnet and a temple for this author, who dedicates his literary and academic life to understanding the dialogue that exists between an art object and the individual who approaches it.

A month in Siena It is the aesthetic and healing experience of Matar, who spent a season in this Italian city frozen in time, already as an adult and trained as a teacher, devoted to exploring the mysterious union and dialogue between a psyche and the creations of geniuses; in this case, Duccio or Lorenzetti. “Only love and art have that capacity; only in front of a book or in front of a painting can we truly access the perspective of the other. It has always seemed paradoxical to me that there is something intimately collective in the solitary arts”. Exile, populism, love, art and hope run through the work of this singular narrator.

It’s a huge question. I would say that there are many reasons why populisms arise, but there is something central: democracy needs a wide network of social support. This has been denied lately, and both the media and social networks have played a key role in strengthening them. It is clear that we have naturalized values ​​that emerged after the Second World War, such as freedom of the press, democracy or international law. We assumed that those were solid iron structures, but they were not. They are weak. Democracy is not something passive, but, on the contrary, requires that we maintain it with an active commitment. Populism provides a very simple answer to a very complex question of stability: why would you want democracy when you can have stability? This stability comes with very fast and easy solutions to complex problems. And it is unfortunate that this apparent stability is chosen. People forget that populism, or dictatorial or authoritarian governments, are actually unstable because they corrode civic systems.

What role do intellectuals play in this context? You have specialized in exile literature, you have written about complex political contexts, but there are intellectuals or people linked to teaching who, on the contrary, collaborate with populism, who indoctrinate from their classes.

I answer you from literature and from what I know. I don’t think literature should be used in the way you point out. Literature, by its nature, is interested in complexity and contradiction, trying to imagine what it means to be someone different. Art is, therefore, by its essence, contrary to authoritarianism and populism. Populism is not interested in difference and complexity, it prefers to explain things in a simple way. Honesty is essential for teachers; we should rethink what this value is, admit that we are not always right.

Love and art history resemble each other. There is an act of hope in the search to connect with the other through a painting, with the artist or with those we love. We want the latter to see us in such a way that they can understand us, that what we express has a meaning, and that it is not about defending a cause or an idea, but only that the other can see things from our perspective.

Many years have passed since the disappearance of his father. How do you feel today around this tragedy? Have your feelings changed over time? Do you feel resentment or hate?

I feel deep sadness and a great desire for justice. I’m not interested in revenge at all. Revenge is the final victory of the oppressor; it means that you have learned from them the language of power. When I fight, I never do it with the spirit of revenge, but I have often fantasized about justice. My father went through terrible times, but it was easy to be his son, because he had principles, he was brave, he never betrayed his companions. That I am his son is a very convenient accident for me, because children do not choose our parents. I feel sorry for Gaddafi’s son. For him, being his son has also been an accident, but, in his case, an inconvenient one, with a father who has left him a legacy of violence.

Without a doubt, they have marked me. Although I don’t want to think that I am a hostage of them, because I am a free man, they have affected me in my relationship with art, with nature, with my idea of ​​justice.

In A Month in Siena, he elaborates a concept that refers to the way in which each one of us interprets a work of art through what he calls “the emotional life of the spectator”. Is there also some rationality in this contemplation?

Yes, without a doubt. I believe that a work of art is an active place, a space where various activities are concentrated, such as intellectual, emotional, psychological and philosophical. The reason why I return to the same painting is because I try to connect with all those spheres. And also appears, among all these aspects, the level of delight. That is why we are moved.

A month in Siena focuses on the link between a pictorial work of art and the viewer, two horizons located in very remote times and spaces. What happens to literature and the reader?

I think something very deep happens when you find yourself in the story of a character or a voice, of someone narrating something that has not happened to you or describing a country where you have never been. It is a very expansive moment, as if you are connected to the human race. Sometimes I get letters from people in another part of the world who tell me that they have been mobilized with my book. Do you know what I call this moment? For me, it’s the opposite of crazy: suddenly things make sense on a very deep level about people and about the world we live in. A kind of love act takes place in that connection.

I think I understand what Vargas Llosa is saying. It is true that you could not be an artist in the 16th century if you did not master the technique; but today you can be. It is also true that education places less and less emphasis on technique. But in literature, my central concern is the stories and if there is no style in them, there is nothing.

The concept of beauty has also been changing over the centuries. I am thinking of the ideas of Arthur C. Danto, who maintains that beauty is no longer a necessary or inherent condition in a work of art.

Today, the word ‘beauty’ has become a complicated notion, as if beauty is suspected in some quarters to convey something that is not serious or a superficial idea. However, it is clear how much we need it. All you have to do is go to a museum and see the number of visitors who come to it, or see how so many people turned to literature during the pandemic. We live in a post-industrial era where everything is manufactured on a large scale, and this has advantages because it makes many objects more and more accessible to so many people, but it has also made craftsmanship, the human touch in this speed.

What is the place of art today?

It’s fascinating how much more access we have to art today than we did in the past. But, without a doubt, at present we underestimate the importance of culture and art. It is also true that today we are interested in figures, the number of books sold, all kinds of data. It’s fine to think about opening up art and reaching underprivileged people, but we can’t analyze culture and its effects in numbers. Art is something very serious for the human species. It is about the most important thing he is capable of creating.


Because there are our deepest ideas about our nature and our expression, as well as about time. We have not managed to create anything better and more complex where the harmony between our mind and our soul is expressed in a coherent, moving and intelligent way. But there is something more important than art and that is dignity. When looking at the history of art or literature, one realizes how complex it means to be a human being, for example, how difficult family ties are. Being human is what I feel most proud of and, at the same time, most ashamed.

Laura Ventura

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