Welcome to The Mantle’s fourth virtual roundtable, and the third in our series on the roles of individuals in times of conflict. In previous iterations we have heard from writers and musicians. Here, four artists and allies answer, "What is the role of the artist in a conflict zone?"
The backgrounds and perspectives of the roundtable participants match the complexity of the question. That is, any answer requires establishing a context, parsing details, and thinking outside the box. Perspective matters. Thus, the writer and performer Kayhan Irani, who has extensive experience in conflict zones like Afghanistan, necessarily approaches the question differently than her fellow artist Emna Zghal, a Tunisian-born visual artist who brings her own interests, experiences, and politics to the table.
As in roundtables past, conflict is in the eyes of the beholder. Revolution, war, environmental destruction, the push and pull of the artistic role in society at large—all of these represent different types of conflict. Lucía Madriz, who uses art installations to address ecological and economic destruction, provides a unique take on her role in the face of a different sort of conflict. To round out the voices, Todd Lester, an advocate for reconciliation and for artists in distress, comes to the discussion with a twist of inside-outside legitimacy: What does an artist’s ally say about the role of the artist in times of conflict?
Further, what role do you, the art lover, assume an artist should take in the face of violence? Perhaps the answers proffered by Kayhan, Emna, Lucía, and Todd will help you see the artist’s position in a different light.
To follow the roundtable that asks, “What is the role of the artist in a conflict zone?” see my introductory remarks below. Then click on each of the participants to read their essays and responses. At the bottom of this page you can view my concluding remarks.
- Shaun Randol, Editor in Chief. October, 18, 2012
What is the role of the artist in a conflict zone?
Readers of these roundtables will recall that this series began with a premise: that the artist (broadly defined) does have a role to play in times of upheaval. Further it was assumed that their duty is somehow unique to that of the ordinary citizen (the plumber, the accountant, the retail clerk). At the very least, there was the supposition that the artist must, in some way, act on behalf of Right, Truth, and Justice.
In the previous roundtables, these assumptions were strongly challenged, and this discussion is no different. In her essay, the artist Emna Zghal, for example, reminds us that the estimable Matisse and Rilke, artists in their own rights, provided no such comforts while the fabrics of their societies were being shredded by world wars.
Still, while my assumptions are continually challenged, I can't shake them. The fact remains that the artist occupies a very unique position in society. Unlike a doctor who swears by the Hippocratic Oath to practice medicine ethically, the artist signs no such pledge. But like the preacher, the artist does answer to some higher calling—they can’t help but make art. Is it too much to expect that their talent and skills be offered to provide meaning, inspiration, agitation, or consolation during our darkest hours? Fulfilling such a promise is the reason why, for example, Pablo Picasso's "Guernica" (1937) stands strong as a testament against the horrors of war.
Conflict, however, isn't just relegated to armed assault. Structural violence, as epitomized by the destructive nature of capitalism, is another form of violence. Thus, the art of Diego Rivera, which lionizes the laborer and highlights the inhumanity of capitalism, endures in the hearts of men and women around the world. Rivera’s work inspires those who daily toil in a violent economic system.
No matter which argument they make as to the specific obligation of the artist in conflict, a common theme in the roundtable essays presented below is the idea that there is something bigger than the self. Art should be made for the sake of others, and it is up to society—the beneficiary of artistic genius—to act on behalf of those creators.
(Shaun is the Founder and editor in chief of The Mantle, an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle).
I've just come back from a vacation to Mexico where I had the opportunity to visit the home where Trotsky lived (and was assassinated). That visit lead me to the Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art (1938) that he authored with André Breton (signed by Breton and Diego Rivera) which in turn made me think of another important text (on this topic), which is Marcel Duchamp's The Creative Act (1957).
I've never quite understood how the art world (for all its largesse) has not reacted to the regular affronts /attacks on its members due to censorship, individual courage, and the blowback of speaking truth to power ... especially in that artists have been a part of changing society throughout history and rarely benefit from the safety mechanisms available to vocational activists. In part, my frustration is that the art world suffers from the perception that it does not have the tools to keep its artists safe ... but rather this is somehow the work of human rights organizations or legal sectors. The fraught-ness of that idea is best summed up in a script something like this:
When capital markets collapse (or surge), a marginalized community will become further dispossessed by the rationale of a dominant culture. Within that community there will be an artist willing to expose said impunity; rally their community; and whose bold creativity and intuitive strategy will be of the most potent resources left at the community's disposal. As a result of their organic, unpredictable activism, artists often face danger and must flee their homes and families as a result. Since capital is a part of the equation, the outlets of capital (including non-profit foundations that fund culture) will be pressured to cut costs. While those spending cuts are not overtly related to the silencing /discontinuing of a particular creative voice, they do have the effect of stunting the creative milieu generally. At this critical—and oft repeated juncture—the opportunity to contextualize the artist's role in society has been repeatedly lost. All the other social sectors experiencing similar funding constraints (e.g., human rights, social enterprise) revert to an anti-artist bias that can be justified under budgetary duress.
En brev, the art world will likely never receive adequate support and publicized legitimacy from the outside toward taking concrete steps that could help keep artists safe. Currently, there is a lot of movement on the topic of artist safety, free expression, social practice, and related mobility: Much of that movement and discussion, however, still somehow remains oblivious to the distinction between professional activism and the much more organic, replenishable framework of artists dependably (throughout history) deploying their creativity in exponential ways that cannot be presupposed. So, for sure, we'll arrive at a new moment whereby artists “could” access X, Y, Z resources, yet to the extent that doing so is dependent on the artist self-instrumentalizing her/his work before it has had its full impact, those resources will miss their mark.
I think that artists (when they take a stand) share some similarities with other orientation- or identity-based activists, e.g., LGBT, environmental, indigenous, disability, youth, etc. I see what I call “orientation-based” activists being left out of the swiftly professionalizing activist vocation (narrower legal-leaning designations such as human rights defender that always assume intentionality and leave very little room for “accidental” activism). Being on the outside of the vocation also impinges on the likelihood of said artists being able to make a living (getting paid) from the creative social change work they do.
Many times, I am asked to provide a formula for how or why an artist gets into life-threatening danger. Of course there are stylistic forms of censorship and suppression that are different from one region to another and when levied across diverse demographics, but I suppose there is a sort of countdown or sequence of events that is discernible: When the rule of law erodes (or has never formed) and the protective layers of civil society are stripped away due to contested elections, civil war, cross-border conflict, etc; when we know that journalists are fearful to give literal accounts of the impunity faced by their communities, then we also know that artists who bear witness to the societal condition will face danger. The outcome is the same for an artist in Guatemala and an LGBT activist in Uganda.
Conversely, I would argue that to improve conditions for culture workers in areas of unrest would make it safer for grassroots activists (and vice versa). It’s also important to consider how sexual orientation can be used as grounds to economically marginalize a person regardless of whether his/her work is related through personal activism. For example, I recently asked an artist grantee of the Creative Resistance Fund if sexual orientation had anything to do with the eminent danger faced. The answer was yes, but with the caveat that there is no way to know for sure until it is too late. Unfortunately, I have heard this on several occasions. When I think about all these overlapping vulnerable groups—grassroots activists, LGBT community, artists in conflict (or unsafe) areas—the concepts of precarity and intersectionality come to mind. According to Wikipedia, precarity means “existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.” And,” intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and religion-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the “intersection” of multiple forms of discrimination.”
Unfortunately, I can fill both hands with names of artists and culture workers detained, disappeared, wrongfully charged, economically marginalized, and harassed in just a couple weeks. In sum, if we inside the art world don't see this as our responsibility, no other sector will either.
Should art collectors and galleries play a role in the safety of artists? Or to provide greater resources to meet the humanitarian needs of the artist?
Hell yes! I mean, I have my doubts as to whether the commercial side of the arts makes the connection, that being intuitive, inventive, and ahead of the curve (um, avant garde) can sometimes be dangerous. I think that hyper-commodified spaces (physically and conceptually) create a vacuum and/or eclipse the history of artists being a part of every period of social change. Unfortunately the art market only takes notice in fetishistic terms: when a big artist gets in trouble, that can be a boon for business and the market may seem to go through the motions of supporting his/her safety. While I'm critical of the fetishizing of danger art/artists in danger, I do understand that such instances can raise awareness across the board of the dangers artists sometimes face.
Do artists have the same responsibility as journalists to “bear witness”? Why or why not?
What is responsibility? Do all journalists bear witness? Do all intellectuals bear witness? Are all artists intellectuals? I can't really answer, other than to ask more questions.
Should artists be held accountable for their actions or inactions in a time of conflict? Why or why not? And if so, by whom?
If there were to be a concerted effort to inform, sensitize, and raise awareness among artists along demographic lines (and if artists had resources available to them when danger strikes) then, yes, I suppose some accountability would be in order. I don't think a perpetually under-resourced space can be held accountable in the same way that a sector of professional journalists or activists should be.
Good question: By whom? The “whom” could be the missing piece. Who takes care of artists when they are in distress (or need)? That same entity could likely hold them accountable or, moreover, enter a dialogue by which mutually decided upon criteria for accountability could be established.
The Conflict Within
I´ve been increasingly starting to feel, especially in recent years that the issue of ecological destruction, whether it will be climate chaos, whether it be the disappearance of species, whether it be the water crisis … Every dimension of the ecological crisis is in fact the leftover ruins of a war against the Earth, the biggest war taking place on the Planet which globalization has made truly global. No place is safe, no ecosystem is safe, and no communities are safe.
Dr. Vandana Shiva1
The Conflict Within
I would say the only thing that differentiates artists from other people is their access to an audience, albeit a rather small one. Politicians, actors, singers, and religious leaders have much more exposure than a visual artist. Nonetheless, artists are commentators for the different interests that we humans have. This platform on which we occasionally stand can be used to present all kinds of themes and interests; the artist’s sensibility, experience, and context are some of the elements that help to shape the contents of his or her work. Art needs freedom of content, form, and expression.
The role of an artist in a conflict zone is the same as the role of any human in a conflict zone: that of following his sensibility, of opening his eyes and understanding his own position, and that of doing what one holds as right.
As an artist and a person I like to talk from and about my own experience.
The conflict zone has always been within me. Much of my self-doubt took shape and color from the outset of my art studies: I wondered, like many other people, who am I and what is expected from me? As a result, my work questioned heterosexual sexuality, gender issues, male and female cultural constructions and stereotypes, and which habits of our social behavior reinforces women’s inequality in our society.
These themes were like a snowball growing and growing and including more issues like women’s rights, LGTB rights, the feminization of poverty, economic abuse in the name of so -called Progress, inequality, and environmental issues. The more I investigated I saw there was a tremendous interconnection between economic-environmental-community rights and women’s rights.
At one point I started to work with seeds. Seeds are, for me, the materialization of generosity. A tree doesn’t give a small number of seeds: it gives and gives and gives, ensuring the continuity of life, its own species and those who are dependent on it. When I make installations with rice, corn, and beans I think of the first women that collected seeds, cleaned them, and set them aside for the next day. In every culture, food is the gift you provide for your group, family, and strangers. Food is nurture itself.
When I first heard about genetic modified food, I could barely believe this was happening: huge companies patenting life as if they had created it, forbidding ancestral practices like choosing and keeping the best seeds for the next season. Contaminating other fields with their poison-resilient seeds and accusing farmers of “stealing” their patented seeds. Multinational companies have attacked the most vulnerable populations in many countries: indigenous people and farmers, not to mention destroying biodiversity (insects, animals, and other plants), and polluting water and the soil. All of this it has been happening since the early Nineties, and we still don’t know what we are eating: (there are no GMO-labeled products).
I talk to people about this problem and some of them know about it, some of them do not, some really don’t understand what the problem is in the first place. Besides the environmental impacts named above, GMO crops can create allergies, antibiotic resistance, and worse—some of the chemicals in fertilizers like Roundup are carcinogens.
After a while, I realized I wasn’t getting through as much as I wanted to.
I felt I was only providing information, just overwhelming people with another batch of bad news. Hard but true … and I didn`t feel any big change or evolution in my life.
What is it that makes us run from these issues, that overwhelm us and make us just want to change the channel, to hear some music and forget about it? I started to observe myself. Speaking since the age of 17 with friends and family about unjust economic conditions, communities under threat of disappearance, species going extinct, and ecological disasters, and sharing information picked up from here and there … and then simply going to bed, getting up, and continuing with my life in the exactly the same way as the day before.
Obviously there was something wrong … really wrong. I believed THEY had the responsibility of all this chaos; THEY were failing to do the right thing, and I was just an insignificant someone with no power or choice. And anyway, the conflicts were so far away … I felt powerless and somehow untouched by these other realities, disconnected.
Gulf of Mexico BP Oil Spill, 2010
The 2010 BP Oil Spill was my breaking point. As soon as I heard the news I knew this was going to hit me big time. I knew I would cry for many days and I would be frustrated. I also knew that that was exactly what BP and the oil industry wants: they want all of us to feel little, powerless, to get out of the way and let them keep “working.”
I didn’t get out of the way. I tried to understand what happened and what the relation to me was, and I realized it was Oil: I use it every day. My life overflows with plastics, which are everywhere; there are even oil derivates (such as parabens) in cosmetics. We use fuels like diesel, gasoline, and aviation fuel for transportation, oil is used to create electricity, and on and on. Because I am a consumer of this product, BP’s oil extraction was also made for my own consumption. I connected, I realized I had something to do with this disaster, and I could do something too: I had to watch my own oil consumption and try to reduce it to the absolute minimum.
I realized how all these years I was disconnected. I was all talk, no action. Suddenly I had a lot to do, a lot to change, because a harmonious life with nature would not come from doing the same old thing. The first person I had to address was myself.
I made a list of things I could easily start straight away: using cloth bags in the supermarket, turning off the computer when I am not using it, watching my water consumption in the shower, etc. I created these lists and decided to take two hours on Sundays to check how things were going.
I realized that the goals had to be constantly reviewed because you don’t always get it right. For example, I went shopping and I only took one bag, which wasn’t enough to hold my goods, so I had to get some plastic ones at the store. Another day I changed the bag I carry and I didn’t have any cloth bag with me. In the beginning, then, it takes some time to acquire the new habit and to actually adjust it to your own life.
Old habits die hard, but they certainly die!
I felt very good because I was finally doing something that was in communion with my thoughts and desires. On the other hand, you suddenly realize the immense quantities of waste that are everywhere. You get an aspirin and it comes in its plastic-plus-aluminum capsule, in its paper box, and you still get a small fitting plastic bag you can never reuse. This can be discouraging at times. But you grow, you understand this is a process that you want people to be integrated into, and you say “no thank you, I won’t take the bag” without barking at them.
I believe many of us want to hear good news from Nature: that a river is no longer polluted, that some animal species is no longer in danger, that a forest grows.
I believe we are conditioned by publicity and the lies that we achieve happiness trough consumption. We are Pavlov’s dogs and we need to wake up and start thinking for ourselves. What make us happy? What make us healthy? What is it that really matters?
We barely receive any information about what we are polluting, exterminating and poisoning. And this includes our own body. We need to inform ourselves. It is our responsibility to know what we are doing with our lives.
And we can always go deeper and deeper. And share the information, be patient with yourself and others, remember we are all learning.
HERE, (heaven, earth and hell) (2008), Beans and pebbles. 4 m diameter
Can you discuss some of your art that coincides with your eco-conscience?
Well I think it is more that the works came from that consciousness-search process I am in.
The works with seeds are probably the ones where these themes are clearer. They deal with Genetic Modified Organisms and consumption.
I started to make installations on the floor using the basic crops consumed in most of Latin America and Caribbean countries: rice, beans, and corn. I do designs that go from 9’ x 9’ to 32.8’ x 45.9’. It takes a lot of time to install these pieces: between 16 to 56 hours. I really appreciate that space because while I am working people come close; sometimes they help and tell me their food stories: what they know, how it used to be before, what had happened. Others wonder why I make so much work to wipe it out later, working for “nothing.”
I also started to use Fibonacci numbers in my art pieces. These numbers express the way plants grow. We owe our lives to plants. Plants give us oxygen, food, and medicines. Cyanobacteria “polluted” the Earth with oxygen 2.500 millions of years ago; they also protect the rivers and watersheds and are found in Plankton. Through plankton, cyanobacteria is producing around 50% of all oxygen needed on the planet.
How have certain works of art helped to shape your eco-conscience?
The conversations I have had with people during and after the seeds installation works have had a great impact because I discovered that the problem was not only in Costa Rica or Central America, but that the problems were big and interrelated. People from India told me that varieties of Basmati rice were disappearing. I met a Puerto Rican that still deals with the consequences from Agent Orange (courtesy of Monsanto). I heard from New Yorkers about the existence of no grass fed cows. I heard about bees disappearing. I heard in Guatemala about red and black corn being almost extinct and the list goes and goes. All these voices, like drops of water in a stone, left a hollow.
How should we understand the intersection between your art, the environment, and the way you choose to live your life?
I am still trying to understand why our culture divorced itself from Nature. I have my “own” theories: It is easier to exploit something you don’t know or have a relation with… Nature is all about life and death and we don’t want to know anything about the second. To get closer to nature means to be closer to our bodies, accept that we are organic beings that are going to die…
My art develops of my concerns, my concerns look for a constructive outlet in the everyday life. I try to transcend my mental and artistic discourses and do actually something in the real world… We tend to float in a sea of discourses never touching ground…
Acting Toward Peace
There is a very simple exercise that we do in the Theater of the Oppressed to demonstrate the essence of a conflict: two people stand face to face; one person says, “I want it” and the other person replies “You can’t have it.” They repeat these, and only these, phrases to one another—each person trying to get the other to concede to her will by modulating her voice, moving her body, etc. The battle of wills, one desire against another, is a simple way to define conflict. In the real world conflict is layered with complexity. Competing levels of individual, communal, and systemic will are engaged in battle and the longer the conflict persists, the more fixed the ideologies become. How many marriages have ended because of irreconcilable differences, each partner receding into his or her own narrative structured to cast the other in the worst light possible? How many people arrange their lives around a story they've created about someone or something, rather than in response to actual events, becoming a character seeking distorted goals? Inflate this play to the level of a nation and see how those in power, who seek to consolidate more power, use storytelling as strategies of control.
New social, cultural, and ethical norms are created in order to justify repressive or corrupt laws and systems. Resources are allocated to those who participate in the narrative and kept from those who are “out” of the narrative. Everyday citizens, with little power and resources, must make choices based on sheer survival. The decisions they make about how to navigate the conflict determines their future. The narrative constructed during times of conflict transforms normative and ethical frameworks into ones limited to the narrow parameters of the conflict. Often people, families, and even communities forget that they have made a decision of convenience and start to internalize the belief systems and ideology they have conformed themselves to. Thus, poverty of thought and imagination, fueled by fear and coercion, enforce the ideologies of conflict. People’s histories and the choices they were forced to make are left out of this narrative. In such a space, artists and culture workers can offer hope, build agency, and create a space where dialogue can occur, new possibilities are imagined, and actions are initiated toward change.
Story and art are vehicles for analyzing the world through multiple lenses and for imagining our responsibilities within that world. As a form of storytelling, the arts open spaces for debate, dissent, and dialogue about the systems of oppression that we experience in our daily lives. Furthermore, engaging the creative capacity of people is essential to any movement seeking to create a way out of the limitations imposed on us by the oppressive society—a society hardened by narratives of in and out, victim and victor. As an artist working in a conflict zone, particularly Afghanistan, the arts represent an extremely important process of self-reflection and social analysis; one that encourages people to think about alternatives to their current situation and helps to melt those rigid borders constructed in conflict narratives—be they personal borders or ones imposed from outside.
I recently led a Theater of the Oppressed (participatory theater for social change) training in Kabul for theater groups from three different provinces. At the end of the training I asked the artists assembled to evaluate one new technique, theory, or tool they learned. One artist from the province of Khost said, “Previously I saw the oppressed as the defeated ones; dead, beaten, or otherwise silenced for good. Now I see that the oppressed are always trying. Their struggle continues.” While this is a very small shift in perception, it is a huge re-evaluation of the role of the oppressed in society. The notion that the oppressed must concede to the oppressor’s might is a notion that is not only set down by the oppressor, the paradigm also greatly benefits the oppressor. Defeat, however, is never permanent, and while the oppressed may suffer many setbacks, it is their will to continue which keeps them in the game. The resilience of the oppressed is one of their strongest assets and, if activated and organized, is the very weapon that will bring about their own liberation. Any attempt to turn around conflict must believe in the capacity of the oppressed to solve their own problems and must strengthen their collective will.
The capacity to dream, articulate that dream, and then act to achieve it fuels liberation—even a dream as simple as wanting to ride a bicycle leads to bigger claims and activities. Working with theater artists in Afghanistan, it took us three, six-hour days of work to uncover simple personal desires they once had. The first two days we had to unload everything that got in the way: war, violence, fear, fighting, chaos, lack of infrastructure, poverty, etc. Though I was trying to get to their desires, the actors were showing me what they had to endure, what the road was like. I kept pushing them, honoring what got in the way but refusing to believe their desires were lost and forgotten. In one creative activity, I asked the participants to come up with an imaginary journey to find a lost desire. The embodied journey would include some aspect of the difficulties they faced in fulfilling that desire. The exercise was to help them reconnect with a deep desire as well as recognize that it was unfulfilled because of external forces. They were not losers, their dreams weren’t trivial, but they were facing multiple oppressions that kept that dream from becoming a reality In the end, they expressed and remembered some of their oldest dreams: riding a bicycle, learning to swim, studying to be an artist. Creative visioning—coupled with aesthetic, experiential frameworks— is a crucial tool that gives people both distance and familiarity: the distance allows for a space in which one can articulate desires while familiarity with a complex social mosaic creates pathways to get what they want. Arts-based practices can offer people a way to strategize, to map out the journey from here to there. In doing so, people are not only creating pathways for themselves but also pathways for others in society. In a conflict zone, one’s daily life is taken over by large, powerful forces. The ability to dream within that storm, to create amidst chaos, is a huge contradiction to the oppressive forces that want us to remain hopeless and confused.
When one person examines the world she lives in and subjects that examination to an artistic process, the result extends the artist’s thinking and becomes a sort of artifact attracting wider reflection.. When art is shared it builds relationships, as others are generously invited in to think about and expand on the artist’s personal vision. The exchange starts a process of questioning, analyzing, and processing. We are pulled into participating with the work of art, whether in our own thoughts or in a discussion with others. Whether or not we find an answer or fully formulate an opinion, we have expanded our thinking. We have spent time engaging with possibility and reflecting on the present. This process can threaten the persistence of conflict where perspectives need to remain fixed and solid. Melting certainty with creative experience transforms the ground upon which conflict rests. It forces people to consider a new idea, a different perspective, or an alternative narrative. It challenges us to acknowledge our limits. New thinking brings about new thinking, which brings about new possibilities.
At the end of this recent theater training in Afghanistan, I asked the actors to name one technique, idea, or exercise which they appreciated. Noorwali stood up and said that during this training he was able to think for himself, he was able to analyze problems and make his own solutions. He said, “we made something out of nothing.”
Artists slowly stir up winds of change. As the conflict transforms, art ensures something green and fresh will be growing out of the rubble.
Is the artist more important (influential?) during—or after—a conflict?
Artists are important before, during, and after conflict. It is not whether art or artists have a role to play rather, what role do they play? As times change, as goals change, as needs change, art and artists can and should address those needs. For example, during a conflict there might be a big need to call attention to the problem, to draw allies in, to bring information to the larger world. Artists who are engaged in the struggle for conflict transformation can and should apply their talents to support the larger movement. When conflict dies down and there is reconciliation and healing work to be done, artists can meet those needs through various creative tools and formats. Art and creativity is an important part of a healthy, functioning society. All people have to take on a role in transforming society, and all people can use their skills and talents to do whatever work is most needed. So we mustn’t instrumentalize the arts in order to say they are useful or valuable. We need to continually appreciate and engage with art, so that we remember that there is an important function the creative arts have and an important role for artists in this world.
Should artists be held accountable for their actions or inactions in a time of conflict? Why or why not? And if so, by whom?
An artist should be as accountable as any other human being for their action or inaction in a time of conflict. However, like many oppressed groups, artists are either invisible or hyper visible—meaning that their everyday efforts often go unnoticed and underappreciated, or they are singled out and made to feel bad about not using their tremendous power to solve all world problems.
The oppression that is directed at artists means that all art and art-making that isn’t hyper monetized is marginalized and trivialized. To sell a painting for a million dollars or to sell a million copies of a song is considered, in the dominant discourse, to be a success. Everything else is seen as useless and a waste of time. Think about the messages we see and hear that make fun of artists who don’t “make it” in this way. Young people are dissuaded from becoming artists by being told they will never earn a decent living nor find a spouse nor be appreciated and respected. Conversely, artists who are “successful” are derided when they speak up about a political or social issue. They are told to go back to making art, that their ideas aren’t important enough or that, because they make art, they aren’t smart enough to contribute in other fields. To hammer the final nail into the coffin, when times are tough artists are often pointed out and blamed for not doing more to transform society. The belief that art is important and deeply, personally meaningful is not used to uplift arts and the artist in society but used as a way to further blame artists for society’s larger problems.
So, amid these confusing and contradictory messages, how can an artist live and work with integrity? Sadly, most artists are isolated and atomized, unable to deeply use their creativity for powerful social transformation. If we cannot figure out how to honor, support, and appreciate the broad spectrum of creative workers in our society, how then can we point a finger at them for not doing “more”? The spheres of influence and artist can work within and who they can mobilize and reach is different depending on how each individual artist sees her or himself in the world. As long as artists are constantly fighting to just keep their heads above water, we will not see a systematic and fully vibrant engaged arts movement.
I would just like to say that I see all work as having the possibility of being creative and artistic and so we all use our creative capacities, in big and small ways, to contribute to this world. I’d like the intelligence and skills that come from using creativity to be appreciated, highlighted, and trusted much more than it currently is.
The Artist Unaccountable
When a doctor attends to the sick, she is dutifully fulfilling a role. After, she would expect for her effort to be acknowledged, assessed, and compensated. This is not the case when a poet pulls out a piece of paper and spends hours on end putting words together and pulling them apart. Seldom is the case that somebody else is waiting to be affected by that specific poem. However, this seemingly detached endeavor—art—has potentially tremendous impact and importance in zones of conflict and elsewhere. Art exists wherever humans existed. Still, it is hard to define a role for art and artists, since both the coming to the world of a piece of art and the reactions to it are unpredictable.
In a world where we are pressed to provide efficiency reports on all efforts, it might be unthinkable to claim that there could be nothing to show for the artist’s efforts. Many do succumb to this temptation to provide justification for that effort. Doing so strays from art’s way of comprehending the world, as it compromises with what oppresses us. Art, as I understand it, is a free, insubordinate and often-playful activity that seeks a truth of one sort or other. Such a quest cannot, nor should it, be bound by rationality. Art could be like sitting around and digging a whole with stick; it has neither rhyme nor reason, other than the following a pressing urge to do so. The inner necessity, as Rilke calls it. “A Demon whom one can neither resist nor understand,” said Orwell.1
In a conflict zone, the expectation to justify this endeavor—art making—becomes a moral one. The individual playing with a stick is now cornered; there is an urgency to be useful in a life-and-death situation. Yet artists, like other people, have taken the morally wrong side of events and are not taken to be lesser artists. Wagner comes to mind. Rimbaud was an arms dealer. And Adonis’ position on the Syrian revolution was less-than-glorious. The measure of art itself is neither moral nor rational.
I do acknowledge that there is something seductive and comforting about an artist putting her skill to use for a righteous struggle. That comfort speaks to the fear of artists and society: this endeavor might be altogether irrelevant. Faced with the moral “must” like the oppressive “must,” Milosz describes in The Captive Mind: “The writer does not surrender to this ’must’ merely because he fears for his own skin. He fears for something much more precious —the significance of his work.”2
That fear—acknowledged or not—is the condition all artists live under, be they under oppressive or democratic regimes. It is certainly true of visual arts produced in the United States now. Nearly all the language of museum catalogues is couched in this assertion or desire of importance and significance. Often we are led to believe that such significance is of a political and historical order. It is important to note that such significance cannot be predicted with infallibility. While writing one of the greatest political novels, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell confessed: “It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write.”3
Live with feelings and for feelings ‘cause
your world is a universe of sentiments and feelings.
It was built upon deep affection, and it would
wither if it were built upon thought.5
My interest in Echabbi was rekindled as one of his verses morphed into the main slogan of the Arab Spring: “The people want to bring down the regime.”According to the testimony of an activist from Kassrine, it started in Tunisia around January 8, 2010, and became a resounding rallying cry in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. In Yemen, the slogan was converted into rhythmic call and answer protest song. In Syria, a group of youths under the age of 15 were arrested in the city of Dera'a after having sprayed ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam graffiti. The Wall Street Occupiers chanted it, in Arabic, making their own version: “The people want to bring down Wall Street.” The inspirational original 1933 verses of Echabbi are:
If the people one day wanted to live,
then surely fate must submit.
The night too shall end and,
the chains shall break.6
It is fascinating and awesome for a line of poetry to have such resonance across many lands and times. Such power is a vindication of art. In a way, all artists strive for such an impact, but this desire hardly constitutes a role to be filled. Echabbi was anything but a political leader or activist. He was a romantic poet who lived with feelings and for feelings as he professed. This poet who sensed what his people are and could become. Seventy-three years later his conditional sentence—If the people one day wanted to live—became an affirmative one: The people want to...
There lies the importance of this effort—art. James Baldwin contends that:
The Poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t, Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union Leaders don’t. Only poets. (…) We know about the Oedipus complex not because of Freud but because of poet who lived in Greece thousands of years ago. And what he said then about what it was like to be alive is still true.7
The other point Baldwin makes in the same lecture is: “Art is here to bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion. In this sense, all artists are divorced from and even necessarily opposed to any system whatever.”8
The juxtaposition of “role” and “artist” implies that there is a neat world out there—a safe world—where each is assigned a role. Even that odd creature playing with stick is given a function. Why? Is it so threatening that such person has no role? The truth is that many of us, artists, die without having had the impact that Echabbi or Rilke achieved. Yet we do exist and go about life like artists. “Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come.”9
With regards to storms of spring and zones of conflict, the artist is not immune to them, no more than other people. Adonis said in an interview that a poet is moved with equal intensity by the drop of dew on the rose and by major disasters like wars. Orwell says that what makes him write is a sense of injustice. That alone does not make him an artist. About Homage to Catalonia (1938), he wrote: “I did try very hard in it to tell the truth without violating my literary instincts.”10
Zones of conflict are places with tremendous intensity, grief, and horror, where human beings are tested in their most basic instincts: the desire to survive and win. Such an experience could genuinely inspire works or art, or not. Matisse painted flowers during World War II while helping his daughter and wife in underground resistance efforts. There is no must in art. “A poet is never just a woman or a man. Every poet is salted with fire.”11 If indeed the artist has a role, she is held unaccountable for the position.
Green Tiles II (2011), silkscreen and watercolor, 18” X 24”
1. George Orwell. Why I Write (New York: Penguin Books, 2005): 10.
2. Czeslaw Miłosz. The Captive Mind (New York: Vintage International, 1990): 12.
3. Orwell, 2005: 10.
4. Also spelled: Aboul-Qacem Echebbi and Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi
5. My translation, from the original Arabic.
7. James Baldwin. “The Artist's Struggle for Integrity,” in Randall Kenan, ed. The Cross of Redemption, Uncollected Writings (New York: Vintage International, 2011): 51.
9. R. M. Rilke, F. X. Kappus, and S. Mithchell. (Letters to a Young Poet (New York: Vintage, 1986): 24.
10. Orwell, 2005: 9.
11. Susan Howe and Emily Dickinson. My Emily Dickinson (New York: New Directions, 2007).
Have you used art to answer or confront conflict?
Not exactly, rather I have made art to help me understand conflict. I was deeply affected by living through the war propaganda that preceded the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq. I was part of an artist’s group Artists Against the War that formed initially by artists signatories of Not In Our Name Statement. The actions we did were thought out collectively. We meant to add our voice as visual artists to the effort trying to stop the war before it happened and protested as it was carried out. My activist experience with both AAW and NION was enlightening and enriching experience. I have seen people put themselves on the line for their belief with a lot of courage. And I was heartened by their commitment to prevent the U.S. from decimating Iraq.
But after working with AAW for two years I grew alienated from the group. I came to realize that while my peers vehemently opposed the wars, their view of Iraqis and Afghanis did not differ fundamentally from those who wanted to invade those countries to help and liberate the “natives.” It was similar in its condescendence and ignorance. I felt that there were traits in American culture that characterize their perception of themselves and that of others that explained why these wars continue to happen.
I made this book: Cultures of War: An Essay, in which I used the words “American citizens.” They are poets, thinkers, and activists pointing critically at racism, charity, the romanticizing of war, monolinguism, etc. These traits I believe make Americans vulnerable to being manipulated into war. It also makes them amenable into thinking that they could save people they know next to nothing about, including from U.S. might. A view of others that exclude any sense of agency or self-will of the other is far removed from the truth. I was also celebrating in this work those at the margin of a society that know it best and have the courage to think that it could be different.
You end your essay with a comment that artists may or may not respond to a conflict. This is a matter of choice rather than obligation. Does that mean that we should not hold the artist to a higher standard than the ordinary citizen?
No, I do not think that there should be different standards of citizenship, one for artists and another for plumbers. The standards I hold myself and other artists to are integrity, authenticity, and truth. It is perfectly conceivable to derive insight, pleasure, and inspiration from works I fundamentally disagree with. The late Edward Said praised the literary talents of V.S. Naipaul, while tearing to shreds the stands he articulated. A righteous work that is created out of a sense of obligation or fantastical illusions of bravery is bound to feel canned and inauthentic. Such work has little added value to human knowledge. The truth is neither virtuous nor righteous.
I fundamentally disagree with the wording “choice,” in whether the artist creates or not work about conflict. If the measure is authenticity there is no choice. Matisse’s flowers survived the times he lived because they responded with integrity to the demon that compels one to make art.
Should artists be held accountable for their actions or inactions in a time of conflict? Why or why not? And if so, by whom?
Once we artists offer our work and bear our souls to the public, the public has the right to do what it chooses with it, including judging the work and its author. I do follow a number of pro-revolution Facebook pages of Tunisia and Egypt, and artists are constantly judged for their stance with or against the dictator. Nevertheless, those many pages do administer judgment when they need to make a point, like posting a clip of a film of Adel Imam, an actor they decried earlier for his stances with the dictator. I believe that what makes a given clip poignant is the truth it depicts, and those who put it out easily make abstraction of their disagreement with its makers. At the end, judging artists is not always useful to how one makes sense or their art.
The impulses for justice, revolution, and peace are as true and human as the impulses of injustice, status quo, and war. And that is the truth about us humans that Baldwin claims only the poets know. An art that does not dare to dig into truths that might be hard to face is of no interest to me. Such truths could be that of cruelty as much as that of pleasure. Seeing art through the prism of conflict and which side one is on distorts the complex reality into two camps. The reality sometime is dizzyingly more complex than that.
To what extent, if at all, do we celebrate artists who consistently address conflict? The provocative Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is lauded, at least in the West, for his dissident, democratic art. Closer to home, though, a well-known contemporary artist who rails against the American wars in Iraq in Afghanistan does not immediately come to mind. Certainly he or she is not being showcased by the major museums or art shows that flood New York City (where I live). You will not find the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the sculpture of artistic superstar Jeff Koons, for example. Yet how jolting would it be to see a cartoonish bubble-sculpture of an American Predator drone parked on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.? At the very least, such an exhibition would spark a conversation on art and the role of art in politics, and it may prompt Americans to look more closely into drone warfare being conducted on their behalf in places like Pakistan and Yemen.
Picasso's "Guernica" was painted immediately in response to the bombing of a village of the same name, exhibited that same year, and remains one of the most profound works of the artist’s career. It hangs in the United Nations Security Council room as a ghostly reminder of the terror to be found on the other end of falling ordinance. Take a look at the United Nations art collection on the whole and you’ll find myriad pieces that advocate for peace: Marc Chagall’s giant stained glass art is replete with symbols of love and peace; a Venetian mosaic evoking the “golden rule;” the Japanese Peace Bell; Evgeniy Vuchetich’s “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares;” and so on. Can art with messages of peace only find a home at the UN?
Earlier this year I visited the fine art museum in Saigon, Vietnam and was struck dumb by the massive portrait “Dioxin Consequences” (2008) by Nguyen Van Bom, which depicts the hideous deformities of innocent civilians who suffered the effects of Agent Orange spraying during the American War. Indeed, much of the art in that museum focused on that country's devastating war years. This makes sense: artists are often the emotional outlets for a traumatized citizenry. But not always.
Last year I attended an art exhibition featuring 27 Iraqi artists living in exile (in Syria, which at the time was quiet). Not one of the works depicted the war raging next door in their homeland. I was very surprised by the lack of war and violence in their work, but should I have been?
In this roundtable, both Kayhan and Lucía shared how they use their art to confront violence. Their most recent work continues in this vein. Emna Zghal’s most recent show, however, does not directly address conflict. When I visited her exhibition I fully expected to be smacked in the face with Arab Spring-infused art; instead I was surprised to be confronted with … pineapples. During our conversation about the show, I was made aware that although Emna's art for that particular show may not have been political, it did not mean that she was apolitical.
Art and the artist can be (should be?) examined separately, but doing so does not alleviate the art or the artist from a responsibility to act against injustice. The same goes for art lovers.