(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)
By Shaun Randol
In The Mantle’s latest virtual roundtable, “For the Sake of Others,” 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. In other words, perspective matters. Thus, the writer and performer, Kayhan Irani, who has extensive experience in conflict zones like Afghanistan, understandably 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.
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. Todd Lester's perspective seems to round out the voices. He is an advocate for reconciliation and artists in distress, and 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?
Here are excerpts from the answers proffered by the roundtable participants. To read introductory and concluding remarks by me, the moderator, and to read the discussants’ essays and answers to follow-up questions in full, click here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Shaun Randol is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Mantle
[Photo courtesy of The Mantle]