Have you ever looked at a work of art and found it offensive? Feeling uncomfortable while regarding a work of art is one thing, but taking personal offense is another. Would you find a work of art offensive enough to kill the artist who created it? And, if you were an artist, and knew that your art could put your life in danger, would you still create it? It might sound incredulous to have to weigh the production of art against life and death scenarios, but for much of the world, it is indeed a tragic reality.
I grew up in a developing country in which freedom of expression was regulated by the government and it’s underground branches. If the power at hand determined that your art, (or your book, or your lectures, etc), were a threat to their power, they would issue death threats and then assassinate you. When I was eleven my father’s colleague was killed in this way. He was killed because his work felt like a threat to those who killed him.
Undoubtedly, artistic expression (as with every other means of human expression), can feel threatening to some, depending on how they interpret what is being expressed. If one experiences a work of art as directly challenging or threatening one’s lifestyle, or beliefs, or positions of power, they may simultaneously experience that work of art as a direct threat upon their very self. The most primitive response then is to eliminate the threat by destroying it at its source. It is an impulsive, fear-based, defense mechanism. Needless to say, it is also violently barbaric. Unfortunately, history is full of individuals who were killed for voicing their opinions. Artists were certainly not immune to this. In fact, artists are still being killed in contemporary society for expressing themselves through their creations.
Personally, I have never received death threats for making art. And, thus far, I have not had anyone tell me that they found my art offensive or threatening. Even when engaging erotic and religious themes in my photography (which are the ones which spark the most violent reactions in others), I have yet to encounter an individual who openly objects to my creations. I am most thankful for this as my art is my voice, and silencing it is just not an option.
Perhaps, it is easy for me to say that silencing my artistic voice is not an option when my life is not being threatened. Recently others have congratulated me for finding the courage to express my personal pain in my art, and I deeply appreciate their recognition of how vulnerable an artist makes her or himself when doing so. While this does indeed require bravery on the part of the artist, I cannot imagine how brave an artist must be to continue expressing their views through art, even when doing so could endanger their very life. Ultimately, how important is what we communicate through our art to us? Are we willing to risk our lives for it? Perhaps something to ponder as I create my next photograph.
I thank Jared Knight., a wonderful abstract painter and passionate supporter of the arts, who inspired me to write this blog by reminding me of the senseless death of artist Theo Van Gogh (great grandnephew of the famed Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh), who was brutally killed in 2004 for his film “Submission”, his final and most controversial artistic expression, a collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.