The Artist’s Choice

The Artist’s Choice

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso. 1937


For July, we have new flash fiction from Rebecca Lee, and new poetry from Joseph Robert.

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Having finished And the Show Went On, by Alan Riding, I was struck by several things. First of all, the obvious. When your nation is overrun by a foreign power, and you’ve lost control of your own country, do you continue to try to publish your work, paint your paintings, make movies, put on plays, give concerts, etc. etc.? Or do you go into hiding, withhold your art from the public? Or just leave the country? Are you really an artist if you don’t make art? And if your identity is tied completely to your art, to making it, to being what you make, do you, in a sense, commit suicide by going silent?

In France, many artists during the occupation chose to split the difference. They would continue to make their art, but they wouldn’t collaborate. Others felt that wasn’t enough. They had to turn their art toward the cause of resistance, or engage in actual battle. The book details the many intellectual résistants who chose that road. Some paid for that choice with their lives. Others barely survived the war, stuck in prison. Still others collaborated with the Germans and the Vichy government and paid the price after the war. There was a purge after liberation that presented moral and ethical dilemmas of its own.

Alan Riding makes the point that artists and intellectuals often were treated far worse after the war than business titans who had greater influence on the fortunes of the French. Wherein artistic collaborators were shot, imprisoned or banned from their livelihoods, it was extremely rare that heads of corporations, industrial titans, or owners of publishing houses suffered for their sins.

Of course, no one knew this back in 1940, when it all started. They couldn’t make their decisions based upon the liberation happening in 1944. No one knew, really, who would end up on top, though they certainly made educated guesses and placed their bets. Still, it’s a worthwhile exercise to imagine what we would have done in their shoes. Do your own political leanings come into play? Would you act based on your philosophical principles, or take it to a much more elemental level? Survival.

My own political and philosophical beliefs put me in direct opposition to the occupiers. I’m a staunch lefty, an egalitarian, a believer in real democracy. They were hard-right and against all the things I love and respect. But courage must come from somewhere else as well. It’s something that transcends politics, philosophy, or any abstract intellectual grounding. In any existential dilemma, something much deeper and more primal is at stake and the head can only act as a guide. It can only take you so far. The dilemma takes place outside your head, with blood, physical pain, misery and death all in the picture. The final word is left for your innermost being. Some call it the soul.


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