Almost any newspaper is filled with stories about conflict from around the world. Even in the deepest province the reader will find a report on atrocities in Darfur or suicide bombs in Iraq. Images of war have become frequent guests on TV screens in households around the world. For someone not keenly interested in Foreign Policy the stories and images might get blurred: Somalia - Darfur; Iraq - Lebanon – it all looks like the same madness; violence on a scale almost unimaginable and seemingly never ending. The political leaders of some countries have made it very clear who are the “good” guys and who are the “bad” - who is “with us” and who “against”. Demonization is an old political tool used to manipulate public opinion to support policy measures. Foreign policy is no exception.
As any advocacy group knows, people get tired of watching disasters unfold. Human compassion gives way to apathy when “conflict- fatigue” sets in. And political rhetoric and manipulation make it easy; a demonized “other” deserves to suffer - he has become less “human”, and that almost officially so. It is hard to break the walls thus erected.
How do you make people recognize the human in “the enemy” How do we crack the wall of manipulated perception?
I believe that Art can be instrumental in breaking this perceptional wall. Any expression of Art - be it music, dance, sculptures or paintings - reaches its audience on a different level than analytical reports or TV images do. Art tells stories of human emotions and speaks in a universal language – it is intuitively understood. Intuition can not be manipulated.
A recent article in the New York Times reported about two US artists – Julia Meltzer and David Thorne - who moved to Damascus in March 2005 with the idea of assessing the toll exacted on ordinary Syrians by the tension between the governments of Syria and the US.
Their Damascus’ stay resulted in three videos documenting how people experience the fear of conflict and how it registers in their daily lives. I watched the video (accessible through the article’s website) and found it an incredible, forceful rendition of human fear and anxiety. This video – and I am looking forward to visiting the Whitney Museum to see the other two – illustrates the power of Art in proving the humanity in “the other”.
And why would this matter?
There is the common understanding that public opinion shapes a government’s actions; at least in a democratic political system. In non-democratic systems, citizens have less chance to shape their destiny and are at times forced to watch while their well-being depends on another public supporting - or not supporting- their respective government’s political agenda. It is an extreme form of two publics being connected in an ill-balanced manner. Public opinion can transcend borders; not only when it comes to possible warfare but also in regard to any other international engagement, be it diplomacy or aid policy. It is this interconnectivity that makes it so important to defy attempts of demonization and to unravel them whenever they occur. I will continue supporting the Arts wherever I am and wherever I go.
Photocredit: Rami Farah, in “Not a matter of if but when,” by Julia Meltzer and David Thorne (Whitney as shown in NYT 6/3/08)