Liberal Education IV, or: conflict as context for artistic expression

Liberal Education 3010

A topics course

Instructor: Dr. Bruce McKay

“This course will consider the problem of genocide from a number of perspectives through a number of theoretical frameworks. We shall ask such questions as: Can we more fully define genocide? Why, in particular, is genocide a problem? Is it a solely modern phenomenon or do other aggressive acts in history constitute genocide? Why is it so difficult to take action when we know that it is occurring? What can we do about it? How can people bring themselves to enact such crimes against fellow humans? What should the role of the arts be in understanding genocide? How can we remember genocide while at the same time reconciling the events of the past with the necessities of the present and future?”

I truly believe in how art can not just reflect present situations, but inform responses to them. Society uses artistic expression as a way to inform the world of context, as well as a way to express complex and often intangible emotions and thoughts in ways that can be consumed and internalized by others. Art is merely a response, to one thing or another. Dadaism was a response to Modernism, today’s contemporary artists use both as inspiration to inform their work. Artists such as Philip Glass exemplify this melting pot of artistic movements.

This is especially poignant in times of high emotional crisis. No better exemplified than the art that came out of crisis of genocide. The Holocaust is very well-known for this. The quality and intensity of artistic expression that evolved and came out of Theresienstadt was/is breathtaking. Pieces of music that express the range between trying to survive and outrage at circumstance, the simplistic perspective of children’s art, and the complete farce that was the camp by construction.

The stage for the Holocaust was set here, a wooden face of supposed ‘humane’ living conditions so the international bodies could be trot around to ensure that Nazi Germany was maintaining a level of decency. In hindsight it is easy to be sick over this systematic and morally reprehensible level of deception. Of the 140 000 prisoners, 90 000 were sent to death chambers across the Third Reich and 33 000 died in the camp itself.

Out of this, prisoners, many of them accomplished and brilliant musicians whose contribution to the world had been cut short or marred by these conditions, did achieve a level of emotive expression which speaks to the need and responsiveness of art itself. The inherent quality of artistic expression ensure no bonds are placed and that structure, medium, choice, and subject are flexible; allowing the artists to do what is best for the needs of themselves and their audience. It allows those using the holocaust as their context to express their perceptions, their experiences, and their emotions.

Each piece of music, writing, painting, drawing etc… is the strongest piece of history, we as a post Holocaust society, could ask for. It speaks louder than any of the statistics ever can.

Today, victims of genocides and ethnic violence present a distinctive artistic presence. Those who use their mediums as a social means express their _____ in pieces that were meant for the world to see. To see and to understand, because it is as real as a history book. It is written by the victims, without inhibitions and intact with its original intent.

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