the role of art in catastrophe is not necessarily a moral one— the artist knows the futility of reason or beauty or even thought in the face of pain. it is a point of disillusionment for any artist who is aware of the world around them; this notion of how dare I. how can I. when we awake enlightened of meaningless horrors, the preoccupation of art affecting the universe can seem unbearably narcissistic.
there is nothing moral about painting a starving child, or photographing a city block masticated by floodwaters; there is no fine justification for art. we may look upon the work—the monochromatic mural of ai weiwei or the photographs of the world trade center imprinted upon puzzle pieces by christoph draeger—and understand their message. we receive their intentions and are touched by it. we can—or some may even say, must—use our work as a method for our advocacy, but even if their resonance is measurable, it is ultimately an ambiguous and diluted force against the evils we combat.
but in the aftermath of disaster we are left with our humanity. whether it be our own pain or the empathized shocks of another’s pain, it is necessary to reinstate the self, the emotive, uncaptured, living self upon the land that cruelly continues. as we see from the kobe artist horio sadaharu, the work he created after the devastation of his hometown during the hanshin-awaji earthquake kaleidoscopes in the vivid and maddening strokes that glare upon the pages, furious and ruinous. pools of black overwhelm the collapsed urbanity, concrete snapped like matchsticks. the calamity is here, yes, but so is the artist. he has been reborn a witness. it is a creation in collaboration with the pain, and no— not everything has been overcome, not everything has been forgiven, but something has emerged from the self, and it declares itself, triumphant.
there is the question of who “owns” the right to create on the basis of a disaster. is it only the victim? would anything else be considered exploitative? but that notion undermines our capacity to know one another. it dangerously perpetuates notions of property upon the universals of shock, loss, anger, grief. that is not to say that there does not exist work that is exploitative, but that work stemming from empathy should not be invalidated. trauma is not a legacy, and though there are ways to steal it and to tarnish it, there are no limits to its effect. one of the foremost functions of art is to provoke conversation, and one cannot have a conversation without response.
regardless of justification the need to create is indefatigable, and that is a relief. paul celan affirmed; “there is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a jew and the language of his poems is german.” it is an impossibility to be free from the desire to speak, and it is a certitude to which we must give thanks. how much I have learned from those who have conceived from catastrophe. how I have felt myself change. perhaps the ripple that has touched me has failed to further social transformation, perhaps it has failed to serve a purpose, but the movement that has transpired from one mind to another is a force nonetheless. the determination that culture should survive is not narcissistic; it comes from knowledge that the arts are a formidable construction of the world experienced. things did not simply happen; we lived through them. a muteness would be agonizing; it would be lethal.
we make art so that we may remember, so that we may have catharsis, so that we may speak in the name of justice or sympathy, but ground into the foundation of those sentiments is one, pure brightness: the declaration of our consciousness. as jack behar said; “we have been strangely exhilarated to contemplate a world in ruins in which all that is left is the wayward ego matched to a future it must create out of nothing.” disillusionment will continue, but alongside the conviction that we must not leave ourselves in crisis. it is not nothing.