Evoking emotion and rejecting repression through art in the Middle East

Joseph Botman makes a case for the importance of the humanities in contemporary society

Early Byzantine art.
Early Byzantine art. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In our modern-day culture of reverence for empiricism, the arts are often unfairly judged to be inherently inferior to the sciences. Leaving aside the obvious counter-argument that, in fact, many large corporate firms such as McKinsey, Barclays, or even Google employ scores of humanities graduates in top positions, there is an additional, two-fold case to be made for the necessity of art, which might be equally utilitarian as the case usually made against it. From the freemen of Ancient Greece to repressed citizens in the conflict areas of the near East today, the arts have remained an integral cornerstone of humanity’s survival.

The importance of visual art for the beholder lies in its ability to evoke emotion through recognisable scenarios, associations, or empathy. By evoking those emotions, the observer has the opportunity to release them (together with other pent-up emotions) rather than keeping them in, which results in a certain mental purification (usually called catharsis). By experiencing these emotions in a more ‘sterile’ environment, rather than in real life where they might have consequences, it is then possible to be more level-headed in day-to-day life. An important and concrete example of this phenomenon would be the art published in the Turkish satirical publication Penguen, of which two authors have recently been charged with insulting President Erdogan. By dealing with negative emotions concerning the regime in their country in a humorous way—humour is one of the best cleansers of the mind, as the authors of Greek comedies already knew—the Turkish citizens are less likely to have this bottled-up anger come out in ways that might have dangerous consequences, and the burdens placed upon them may seem more tolerable.

Another form of art, different from comedy and satire, that is of great importance for those under oppressive or repressive circumstances would be the kind of art expressing endured suffering, uncertainty, and other negative emotions. Any burden is made more tolerable by the knowledge that there are others struggling in similar ways and visual art uniquely allows, due to the exact associations and evocations varying from individual to individual, for the portrayal of the experiences of one to be a reflection of the experiences of many others as well. The Syrian artist Ammar Azzouz, for example, recently had his work ‘Chaos of War’ on display in London, where he now works as an architect. This watercolour painting portrays an abstract, disfigured body, which would evoke different substantivized memories and fears for each, yet speaks of shared and recognisable pain.

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Art also has the ability to convey strong emotion, being a form of self-expression for the creator. This is particularly evident in works produced under repression, since they tell us about their necessity through both their contents and the circumstances of their creation. It is clear that culture produced by individuals suffering indescribable horrors is very important to preserve their experiences.

For art allows the artist to experience a certain catharsis by sharing their ordeals (much like a therapy group can help against traumas), and makes it easier for others to start to compre- hend through feelings, rather than reasoning, what suffering exists in our world. A second point, however, deserves far more attention than the cold reasoning above: in many cases, artists in oppressive regimes are risking their very lives to create their art, highlighting the fundamentality of creativity to humanity.

This is currently evident across the near and middle East. Ali Farzat, a Syrian cartoonist, was pulled from his car in Damascus by masked men, presumably security forces, on the 25th of August 2011. They beat him severely and left him by the side of the road, where passers-by later found him and took him to hospital. These masked men told the artist it was just a warning. They ordered him to “stop satirising Syria’s leaders.”

Farzat responded that he would not give up on his art, and would continue to oppose the regime, despite the risks. Many other artists standing up for free speech have suffered similar fates, such as sketch artist Youssef Abdelke, who spent two years in jail under the regime of Al-Assad. Nevertheless, Syria’s artists go on, just as some artists have always done under repression: the human instinct to express themselves through art can in some cases even overpower the fear of death. Not to mention, their works help others in similar situations to cope with reality.

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In conclusion, denial of the importance of art is also a denial of a fundamental part of humanity in the observer—who can use visual media as a release from the emotions of everyday life—and therefore. also an invalidation of the immense sacrifices made by artists creating this art. Not to mention it rejects the urge and mortal need of the creator to express themselves in any way possible, especially when circumstances do not leave many options open to this end. Anything that is worth risking death at the hands of a repressive regime should be taken very seriously. The sciences further our understanding of ourselves and the world around us in physical terms, but if we want to understand concepts beyond the grasp of measurements and direct perception, if we want to understand our humanity itself, the humanities are invaluable.