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You live in Des Moines, Iowa, and are a published novelist with a modest reputation based on your narratives about white middle-class domestic crises. You also serve in a National Guard military police unit, and your company is called up and sent to Iraq to function as MP’s in Abu Ghraib Prison, west of Baghdad. There, you observe and strongly disapprove of the unlawful abuse and torture of the inmates, many of them innocent Iraqi teenagers snatched from the streets. Do you continue to write narrative still lifes or do you bracket your customary subject in order to bear witness, to broadcast as widely as possible the unlawful, immoral treatment in Abu Ghraib?
You are an “Aryan” painter living in Berlin during the Reich. You have heard and read about the extermination camps. You have seen Nazis violently mistreat Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. Appalled colleagues and friends — most of them Aryans like you — have left the country. You yourself are appalled at the Nazi practices. At the same time, you continue to sell your pictures — oil and watercolor renditions of rustic woodland scenes — and make a respectable living in Germany, so you choose not to leave the country, at least physically. Mentally, you have separated yourself from the ongoing atrocities. You have, in Hannah Arendt’s words, embarked on an inner emigration, and in keeping with this “emigration” your art does not in any way reflect the Nazi virulence.
In a time of wide-scale ethnicide and systemic demonizing, consider, if you will, whether the attempt to remain hors de combat represents integrity or silent complicity, as with the hypothetical Aryan artist embarked on his “inner emigration.”
The AIDS pandemic and the punitive official ideology that exploited it generated in the US in the late 1980s a host of visual artists and writers, many but not all gay, who “bracketed” their current projects to help establish ACT-UP and its artistic wing, Gran Fury. Among other accomplishments, these related groups created, or greatly reinforced, a “crisis art” to combat in potently imaginative ways the official propaganda directed against gay males. It is fair to say that without the brazen interventions of ACT-UP and Gran Fury the institutionalized hate-mongering would have taken an even greater toll on homosexual communities.
Does that intervention by writers and artists constitute an abandonment of “esthetic integrity?”
Not when (to quote one of ACT-UP’s battle cries) Silence = Death.
To put it differently: The directed crisis art produced by ACT-UP and Gran Fury might be called, in the British art critic Victor Burgin’s words, a “situational esthetics.”
With wars in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and potential US (and other “First World”) involvement in Pakistan, Iran, Georgia, South America and elsewhere; with the tragic effects of global warming every day more evident; with the national economy in collapse mode; to what extent should Hannah Arendt’s “inner emigration” admonition apply to writers and artists in 2008?
Respond in any form you choose (social critique, aphorism, graphic, etc).
This question is included in issue #42: The Artist in Wartime. Copyright © 2009 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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