It is hard to open the pages of a newspaper or magazine today without being confronted by news of the refugee crisis. “More than one million refugees cross into Europe!” “Half a million apply for asylum in the EU!” Headlines are saturated with alarmist rhetoric, counting on the bloodless gravitas of numbers and statistics to move the desensitized news consumer to action, or at least to contemplation. While the constant coverage is meant to reassure readers that this humanitarian emergency will not go undocumented like many before it, it often comes at the cost of the refugees’ humanity. There are moments, however, when the world stands still in horror from the depiction of tragedy, like a lifeless child overturned in the sand. The photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the toddler boy whose body washed up on Turkish shores after his boat capsized trying to reach the Greek island of Lesbos, elicited a public outcry different than the staggering statistics broadcasted on the news. Even the iconic images of overcrowded lifeboats have become somewhat commonplace, no longer inciting shock from the routine news consumer.
At a certain point, journalism falls short in expressing human suffering in all its facets. Sometimes, only a photograph, a painting, or a film—art—can fill the void that journalistic objectivity often fails to capture.
Art has the power to be provocative in ways that traditional media cannot be, but its mode of untethered free expression can put it in an ethical gray area. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei recently released a photo of himself lying facedown on an Indian shore imitating the infamous photograph of Aylan. While Ai has a history of making politically dissident art, this photo was met with special controversy, construed by some critics as presumptuous and egotistical. Ai’s past work concerning the refugee crisis, notably his recent installation of 14,000 refugee life jackets affixed to the columns of a Berlin monument, has not drawn the same criticism. It was the personal nature of the photo—the notion of Ai as a stand-in for Aylan—that invited such a divisive response. What to some seemed a powerful representation of human tragedy was to others an opportunistic ploy for attention.
“The ethics of art-making in a humanitarian disaster are complex,” writes Canadian Art journalist Benjamin Hunter, “with the cult of ‘the artist’ often becoming messily entangled with their good intentions.” This holds true, especially for the recent work of British graffiti artist Banksy concerning “the Jungle,” the notoriously overrun and underserved refugee camp in Calais, France. Banksy’s art is known for being hypercritical of European governments, pointing to the hypocrisy and racism behind the brutal treatment of refugees. A recent stencil outside the French embassy of London portrays Les Miserables’ Cosette holding the French flag, arising from the smoke of an overturned canister of tear gas. The mural features a scannable code for smartphones that links to a video of a raid on “the Jungle” in Calais, where police are shown shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the camp. At this past summer’s Dismaland, a temporary art installation styled as an amusement park in England, lifeboats filled with the floating bodies of migrants filled the park’s central fountain. After the park was disassembled, Banksy re-used the materials to build a small housing project in “the Jungle” camp, atop which sat the refashioned Dismaland sign, now reading “Dismal aid,” a scathing indictment of Britain’s aid to help the refugee effort. While the sign makes an inflammatory statement, it has a diminished impact in a place where people have endured perilous conditions to escape life-threatening situations—residents of the camp later took down the sign.
Essentially, the artistic imperative of politically-charged art—to provoke discussion—is more precarious in a situation where humanitarian violations are being committed. The same unwritten ethics that go for the art of political revolutions or movements may not apply. These are not an empowered people fighting against an equally empowered establishment; rather, these are an abused people facing, from one side, a harmful government, and from the other, the disjointed and embattled political framework of European lawmakers. The power dynamics are so asymmetrical that a sign reading “Dismal” above a camp housing project could potentially discourage instead of empower. This insensitivity is what lands big-name artists like Banksy and Ai Weiwei with accusations of flashy opportunism.
Out of the media spotlight, some of the most authentic work emerging from the crisis is coming from the victims of displacement themselves. The British Council ran an exhibition this summer called Syria: Third Space, highlighting pieces from displaced artists from over ten countries, who received small grants to produce their work. The exhibition housed many multimedia projects, including a particularly striking stop-motion video titled Without Sky, created by Syrian artists Mohamad Omran and Bissane Al Charif. The video, less than three minutes long, depicts the gradual destruction of a white model city, providing stark commentary on the violence and mass destruction in Syria. These representations are powerful, especially because they are coming from people inside the conflict. With the legitimacy of experience, these artists are not subject to the same ridicule as their more removed counterparts. However, this art remains almost entirely confined to the limited domain of specific galleries and exhibits. This doesn’t minimize its symbolic impact, but it does reduce its ability to influence sociopolitical discourse. Artists like Ai Weiwei and Banksy cannot personally share in the experience of this crisis, but their art has the power to reach a broader audience because of their prestige.
Ultimately, art is powerful precisely because it is freed from the constraints of objectivity. Art can be partial, profane, and offensive, which is why it can access a part of the human psyche that journalism cannot. However, in the midst of a crisis so contingent on the preservation of human life and spirit, artists—especially big names like Ai Weiwei and Banksy—can find themselves on ethically-questionable terrain in their effort to portray the human face of a depersonalized conflict.