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History, both past and ongoing, has always exerted a particular pull on the artist in search of a subject. “What happened here? What is happening here?” the artist asks when entering a room, a nation, a political current. If the question hasn’t already been answered, or if no one seems to want to answer it — particularly if someone seems determined not to have it asked, let alone answered — the artist’s antenna rises. There is a story here. And down the rabbit-hole they go, encountering realities that engender demands and provoke more questions.
In the ugly moments of history — times of conflict, war, oppression or censorship — two questions are provoked, over and over: what is good art in such times? And what good is art in response to such times?
Artistic form is a starting point to answering the first question. Photographers are, by almost universal agreement, the most powerful artists of the ongoing. They make the world “see” what is happening in other nations, other neighbourhoods, and they implicitly ask the question: now that you have seen, what are you going to do about it?
Graffiti artists play a less heralded, but nonetheless significant, role — marking streets as belonging to art rather than tanks, to the people rather than their oppressors. And poets, particularly in parts of the world that retain traditions of turning poetry into song, can give a people their anthems of resistance and their ballads of sorrow. Of course, no art form is in service of one kind of politics only; militaristic songs, hate-filled graffiti and triumphalist images are also produced during conflict.
I will never forget sitting in London with the writer Hisham Matar in the early days of the Libyan revolution, watching footage on his laptop of thousands of people in Benghazi, standing together singing a poem, which Matar and his mother sang along with them, thousands of miles away. I assumed it was an old song, a Libyan equivalent to Pakistan’s “Hum Dakhain Gay” (We Will See), which was first written by the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in 1979 during the military dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and was later adopted as the anthem to the successful protests against the military government of Pervez Musharraf in 2007. But no, Matar told me, the poem had been written just days earlier and everyone already knew it by heart.
Other forms such as novels or films simply need a different time span to be produced. Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian novelist and columnist, spoke in 2014 of the fine poems that had been written during the Egyptian revolution of 2011. In contrast, she said that works of fiction about that conflict had “not ripened” yet.
Soueif added that, as the times and truths were becoming murkier and more layered, she was finding it harder to whittle her analyses down to a newspaper column, and that perhaps the best way to engage was “in a more imaginative way”, via a novel. She spoke of this prospect as “that horrible plunge, that horrible risk” — the horribleness and riskiness being embodied not by the response a novel might receive from those on the other side of history but from a failure to achieve the high artistic demands necessary to conveying such complex truths.
Weighty subject matter does not lighten the demands of craft; it increases them. If you doubt this, go and look at Picasso’s painting “Guernica” for a while, even at a screen-sized reproduction. Perhaps the answer to the question “What is good art in such times?” proves itself unchanged by the removal of the last three words.
The thornier question, then, is “What good is art in response to such times?” Can art stop massacres, overthrow dictators, remove hatred from the world? Patently not. “Guernica” was painted in 1937 but did nothing to temper, let alone prevent, the aerial bombardments of the second world war.
Some art can be produced in the eye of the storm, but it does not affect the raging of the storm in any decisive way. The agents in control of the narrative during any time of strife are never the artists. When a threat to a nation or tribe or ideology is identified it brings with it the widespread belief that “decisive action” and “unity of purpose” is called for, rather than the representations of nuance and complexity with which artists are often more comfortable.
But just because art cannot stop a storm from raging doesn’t mean it is powerless to alter the experience of being trapped by the storm. Recently, in Bosnia, I heard the retired army general Jovan Divjak talk about the role culture played during the siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s. Concerts and plays were performed by candlelight, art exhibitions honoured those who had died; art reminded people of humanity, he said, and kept their spirits strong.
In the end, history outlives its actors and their acts, and this may be where the most important role of the artist comes in. In an essay that considered the artist’s role in bearing witness, Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer and political activist, wrote: “Writers cannot indulge the hubris of believing they can plant the flag of truth on ineluctable territory. But we can exclude nothing in our solitary travail towards meaning.” That “solitary travail” is not the work of those who want to control a narrative but of those who are determined to follow one, no matter if it leads them down the darkest of paths.
But why bear witness? Why walk those paths and take others along with you? The easiest answer is: to deny those responsible the glorious places in posterity that they crave. But it isn’t, it shouldn’t be, about them. The most oft-repeated answer is Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But surely we are past believing that it is only forgetfulness that can make us repeat our worst actions? If 71 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the new prime minister of the UK can assure the nation of her willingness to use nuclear bombs, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, what business do we have pretending there is any threshold of horror that humanity is not willing to cross more than once?
Here is another way of looking at the question. What is the cost of continued silence? How do you measure the crime of failing to acknowledge those who resisted, those who were lost, those who still live with the wounds? You write or paint or sing their stories in order to give those people voices again, to give them back a place in a history that wants them erased. That is where you start — and in doing that you might discover something easily forgotten in the midst of history’s terrible repetitions and the gathering clamour of hate-filled voices: grace.
Because, there are always those who resist, those who remember, those who believe the world could be better and whose bravery shames us for giving in to the apathy of pessimism. When we bear witness to horror we also bear witness to resistance. We give the lie to those who claim no one can be held responsible for certain attitudes or actions because they are universal. Sometimes, shattering the myth that “everyone” is complicit is the start of a conversation about the ways of complicity, the cost of resistance, the path to justice and the nature of humanity itself.
The Italian novelist Italo Calvino said it best: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognise who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Kamila Shamsie’s novel ‘Burnt Shadows’ was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction