For the Sake of Others

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. 

Enjoy!

- Shaun Randol, Editor in Chief. October, 18, 2012

Moderator's Introduction

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).

  • The Conflict Within

    Lucía Madriz

    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.

    Read essay »
  • Acting Toward Peace

    Kayhan Irani

    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.

    Read essay »
  • The Artist Unaccountable

    Emna Zghal

    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.

    Read essay »
  • Everyone's Responsibility

    Todd Lester

    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).

    Read essay »
Moderator's Conclusion

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.