Monday, June 03, 2013

ArtSake: What is the artist's responsibility to history?

At ArtSake, Karen Shepard asks "When artists explore a period of history through their art, what is the artist’s responsibility to that history? Which truth – historic or artistic – is of greatest importance?" It's an interesting question, and one I would not pose lightly to those of us who trace our roots back to the Secret War for Laos.

 There, so much of our history was sanitized, obfuscated, eradicated or spun to meet the needs of political expedience rather than any particular objective narrative. When we write in English, are we obliged to prop up colonialist narratives of who we are, or to provide a counter-opinion? We might not necessarily need to contradict everything that's been said to date, but we are increasingly losing the ability to respond meaningfully to our own stories, let alone hold onto them.

 You can not yet walk into the Museum of the Lao American Journey. And when we do create such institutions, are we obliged to present only the safe version of that story, or are we allowed to challenge ourselves and grow from an open-minded assessment of our failures and missed opportunities too?

Unsurprisingly, the blog by Shepard is frustrating. It's framed as an academic, detached question. It does not take into account that for many refugees, to engage our history with our art is also an act that can lead to very real and tragic consequences. Challenging those who are in power controlling the narratives has more possible results than being denied tenure or losing a book deal. From torture to exile and execution of family members or the artists themselves, wherein do we find the bravery to confront those traumas?

Can an artist from the Lao secret bombings who is prospering in Minnesota, one of the leading manufacturers of cluster bombs that now contaminate 30% of her former homeland, reconcile with that history and make statements that are profound and honest?

For the artists Shepard interviews, none are currently in situations where someone's community and family can be jeopardized by the art they create. I agree with the importance of trying to honor the truth of history, but Lao and other artists from Southeast Asia still have a great deal of complexity they must confront when addressing history through their art. Sometimes, they must be like Galileo, forced to denounce his own discoveries. But what can we do to resolve such tensions?

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