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

I was asked this question, what role for the artist in a conflict zone, as I was translating the poem “The Artist’s Idea” by Aboul Kacem Echabbi.4 It opens with this:

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.

6. Ibid.

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.

8. Ibid.

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.

Emna Zghal is a Tunisian-born, U.S.-based visual artist. Her work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Tunisia, and beyond. Zghal has received fellowship residencies and completed projects with: the Women’s Studio Workshop, the Newark Art Museum, the MacDowell Colony, the Weir Farm Trust, and the Cité Internationale Des Arts in Paris. Reviews of her work have appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Artforum, ARTnews, The New Yorker, in addition to many Tunisian publications.