The Role of the Artist in Times of Terror
As terror and violence have become a growing reality of daily life across the globe, people have learned to negotiate with this actuality in ways that enable them to absorb, process and respond to the violence emotionally, physically and psychologically.
Perceptions about safety and security have been altered not just by personal experiences but also by the machinery of information that services a continuous appraisal of daily lives. Creative responses have also contributed to these negotiations through literature, art, performance and music in the shape of statements, protests and documentations of an increasingly volatile existence.
This investigation has created avenues of expression for artists across the world. The relationship between art and terror has been examined extensively by both local and global artists in their bid to make sense of the chaotic nature of their existence. This is not a new phenomenon; artists throughout history have depicted the ravages of war using a range of mediums. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is an iconic example.
The artist’s role in portraying war or terror has ranged from the documentative to the protestive, creating works that either respond to the immediacy of an event or render a distanced and thoughtful perception of it. The magnitude of 9/11 provoked an array of responses from the general public and artists not just in the USA but also in countries that faced the repercussions of the violence and terror.
Artists in Pakistan have contributed their voices to this response as acts of terror have become alarmingly routine. While some artists have touched upon the subject tangentially by negotiating these ideas intellectually in their work, others have created works that relate directly to an event or act of terror. Bombings, killings, mayhem and terror increasingly inform the work of artists who take on the role of reflecting society directly or indirectly through their chosen forms of expression.
The artist Farida Batool’s lenticular prints reflect images of peace and mayhem simultaneously to mourn the loss of innocence in the city where she grew up.
Mohammad Zeeshan’s paintings employ the image of the severed head to address one of the reasons behind acts of violence. The brutality of the stark images documents the act of killing and articulates the sense of empowerment felt by the perpetrator of the crime.
Adeela Suleman expresses the horrors of everyday violence by juxtaposing meticulously crafted images of suicide jackets with symbols of paradise, the supposedly promised destination of suicide bombers.
In her work Section Yellow, Bani Abidi reflects upon the anxiety caused by travelling, and its preparation, by creating silent narratives in spaces that regulate people. Her video The Distance from Here shows people waiting in spaces similar to visa offices, which have become increasingly inaccessible after the heightened security of 9/11.
Imran Qureshi creates floral forms in site-specific architectural spaces that resonate with the dualities of beauty and death. In Blessings Upon the Land of My Love (2011) he splatters a courtyard space with deep red floral forms that disintegrate into splashes of red paint evocative of blood. By delicately placing intricate floral forms next to violently applied colour, the artist comments on the transformation of city spaces from peaceful to volatile territories.
Interestingly, Boris Groys says that the relationship of the warrior and the artist in the classical age was mutually dependent. The artist of the classical age was the illustrator of war events and needed the warrior as the subject for his art. Similarly, the warrior needed the artist to document his heroic deeds and immortalise him.
This relationship no longer upholds in our current times. Artists have been replaced by the media machinery which portrays every act of the soldier/terrorist with an immediacy and superfluity never imagined before. The information accessed through the Internet and 24-hour television constructs people’s perception of the world. The images feed a market ready for their consumption. In fact, an element of theatricality has steeped into the manner in which news is now portrayed on television. Events are experienced almost directly by viewers via raw mobile phone footage taken by witnesses and uploaded on the Internet within minutes of their occurrence. As the visual culture of information is reinvented, artists find themselves competing at large with what Groys calls “commercially driven image-generating machines”.
Terrorists also use the language of the media to project themselves. Statements are recorded and uploaded or sent to television stations for transmission; videos of killings are posted to lay claim to acts of barbarity; photographs of terrorists are transformed into iconic images. All this is arranged with the same instantaneity of the media machinery. The media assists in building the terror persona by constant repetition and projection of events and their analysis. The artist has become truly redundant.
Then there is the theatrical spectacle of the terrorist act itself. Manon Slome writes that many artists and writers considered 9/11 to be a work of art with which few could compete. The German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen suggested that the 9/11 attacks were “the greatest work of art of all time” (although he subsequently insisted that he had been misquoted). The artist Damien Hirst also apologised for describing the event as “visually stunning”.
Tyler Cowen describes a spectacle as a performance or an event that is out of the ordinary. He believes that a good spectacle is one which involves thrills, bright lights and high volume, and one which can bring events or situations into focus by virtue of possessing these qualities. He draws attention to the employment of the spectacle by politics, sport and advertising, and even by oppressive regimes to advance their strength. This attention is what terrorists also seek, and they are supported by the spectacle of real time media coverage.
With overwhelming competition in the image-making realm in the response to terror, what role does the artist play? Does art now intend to simply illustrate the event, like in the classical age, and merely add to the plethora of images already accessible to the viewer? Does it intend to enhance an act of terror by showcasing it in the undisturbed environment of a gallery space? Or does it intend to facilitate the creation of a distance between the horror of terror and the viewership? What makes an artist’s work distinct from the image-making presented by the media and the terrorist to an ever-willing audience?
The artwork that raises questions beyond the documentative immediacy of an act of terror is both thought-provoking and engaging. Artwork that deals with the questions behind the entire machinery of terror and draws attention obliquely to the realities of everyday life in the face of terror, thereby presenting creative responses to violence, is more likely to remain distinct from the mass-produced imagery in the media market. Needless to say, there is a fine line between creating thought-provoking work and fetishizing violence; there is a clear danger of artists aestheticizing an act of terror through the art-making process and presenting a soft image of the act to a viewer.
This is in agreement with Groys’ views about the aspects that make artists’ response to acts of terror distinctive from the media machinery in the image making process. Groys believes the media images’ circle of influence is wider as compared to the art world’s smaller and limited circulation. In order for the media to have a wide impact it needs to employ a circulation of images that are recognisable and repetitive; in contrast, the art world’s images are imbued with a diversity of expression that allows an infinite variety of pictorial forms to sit next to each other. Besides being superfluous, images constructed by the media are also temporary. The art world constructs images that create a relationship of historical contrast between the past and present and allow critical discourse.
In a world defined by terrorism, the role of the artist in battling the influx of indiscriminate information and imagery by making socially conscious and critically aware work has become vitally important. The artist is equipped with a visual vocabulary more diverse and informed than the media machine. He can employ this diversity, and even the language of the media, to make work that talks back to media generated information and creates a ground for critical and analytical discourse.
Artists may be criticised for trivialising the horrors of war by making artistic interpretations of the reality of violence (and maintaining the fine balance between fulfilling a social responsibility and catering to voyeurism is the moral responsibility of artists). They may be censured for fulfilling their social responsibility by indulging with tragedies. But they are allowing for a critical reconsideration of the role of the image in a media-saturated world. As Slome neatly summarises, in the simultaneity of event and image and the ever-present fear of war and terror, the image is used not just for entertainment and information but also as a weapon and a shield. Through the work of artists we learn to distinguish between these differences and resist the manipulative strategies to which a media-driven society can be subjected.
Asma Mundrawala in an artist and Associate Professor, Dept. of Fine Art at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi
Farida Batool. Blow it Up, Blow it Down. Lenticular print. 12″x12″. 2004.
Sana Arjumand. Then their shadows fell from the sky. Oil on canvas. 4×4 feet. 2009.
Farida Batool. Love Letter to Lahore. Lenticular print. 20×29.5. 2006