“On this happy occasion, I wanted to share some of my unhappy concerns and questions, mainly about art and its role today ... In the hope that these questions could open a discussion between us later,” Rabih Mroué smiled at his audience. “... By later I mean tomorrow ... not tonight.”
Mroué’s happy occasion was his being named a laureate of Holland’s Prince Claus Award Thursday evening. The prize was bestowed at a ceremony attended by a range of Lebanese and Dutch officials, sundry members of the arts community and a handful of previous Prince Claus laureates, including Ashkal Alwan founder Christine Tohme, who hosted the event at the organization’s Home Workspace.
“I ask myself, how can art deal with all the events going on today, political, social, economical and mostly military events, next door and around us,” Mroué continued. “What can art do in such a situation? And: Is it supposed to “do” anything at all?
“If yes, then what should its role be in the light of events that are still ongoing ... Events that neither fade in intensity nor cease altogether ... Should we just sit there and watch? Should we continue our work as if nothing was going on around us? Should we wait and see where things will lead in the future before we decide how and what to produce as theater and art work?
“Or should the artist proceed to produce works that have a direct relation with ongoing events? And can she/he get the necessary distance from events in order to develop their work? And if so, how? Uneasy questions that would require a long discussion, serious thought, deep reflection ... The answer can never be simple or simplified into a dichotomy of: Yes, we can make art, or no, we can’t make art.”
Best known for his technically innovative, cunningly written and often hilarious dramaturgy, Mroué – known as Beirut’s “the jack of all arts” in certain circles – has also worked in a range of other forms, including video and music composition and performance.
It is his theater work, frequently written and performed in collaboration with his partner Lina Saneh, that has won international acclaim. Though usually performed to packed houses in Beirut, Mroué’s work is seldom mounted in Lebanon – a reflection of his and Saneh’s much-discussed relationship with the censor.
Since it was inaugurated in September 1996, the Prince Claus Fund has set out to support artists and cultural organizations “in situations and areas where freedom of cultural expression is restricted by conflict, poverty, oppression, marginalization and taboos.”
Each year Prince Claus honors 11 “cultural pioneers,” the principal laureate receiving 100,000 euros ($140,000), while the other 10 walk away with 25,000 euros each.
When explaining why Mroué received the prize, the 2011 Prince Claus Awards Committee Report cited his “radical interrogation of memory, power and the reconstruction of truth, for creating direct audience encounters with the methods for analyzing the instability of meaning, for stimulating critical social engagement by exposing and opening up discussion on sensitive issues, and for offering a moral voice emphasizing individual responsibility.”
This is the latest in a series of prominent international awards Mroué has won in the last few years, including the Spalding Gray Award, a prize from New York’s Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2010 and a fourth he and Saneh received for Thomas Jonigk’s 2010 German adaptation their stage play “Biokraphia.”
The recognition has had little discernable impact on the public profile of Mroué, who remains one of Lebanon’s more approachable arts superstars.
“For me,” Mroué continued from the podium, “these are essential matters today, and I have no answer to them other than a personal belief that art, in order to be active and alive, must raise problematic questions, and think in a low but audible voice without slipping into activism .
“For art should open debate, not close it. And the artist should confront her/his personal beliefs and put them under critical examination.”