Glenn Lowry: How contemporary art can change the world

Updated 8th September 2017
Glenn Lowry: How contemporary art can change the world
Written by Glenn Lowry
In April 2016, Glenn Lowry, long-time director of New York's world-renowned Museum of Modern Art, joined CNN Style as guest editor. He commissioned a series of powerful stories on the theme of migration.
I picked up The New York Times recently and was startled by the headline, "With Iraqis' Arrest in Finland, Atrocity Has Distant Fallout."
It made me think once again about how the chaos in the Middle East, the ongoing rise of terrorism, and the vast displacement of millions of people are increasingly part of our lives, no matter where we live.
According to the story, identical twins accused of shooting eleven people as part of a 2014 massacre in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, somehow joined the exodus of refugees from Iraq and Syria. The pair made their way to Finland, presumably across Eastern Europe, where they eventually settled in the small town of Forsaa before being apprehended.

A world in chaos

After more than a decade of war and civil unrest in much of the Middle East, the more than 10 million refugees from the region have joined with the 50 million other refugees worldwide to create a global humanitarian crisis that threatens to destabilize countries, inflame nationalist sentiments, and place millions of people in limbo for months, if not years, in barely adequate living conditions.
And behind all of this is the fear, in many countries, that among new and established immigrant populations are terrorists who may be plotting more heinous crimes like those that just occurred in Brussels, or the events that traumatized Paris twice in 2015.
"The Lovers" (2008) by Zineb Sedira
"The Lovers" (2008) by Zineb Sedira
When we are constantly bombarded by stories about the crisis, it is all too easy to become inured to the waves of people fleeing war and poverty -- until we are jolted out of our complacency by the image of a drowning child, or by rhetoric that smacks of Germany in the 1930s.
But it is also shocking when an art critic for Blouin Artinfo, writing about the worst art world moments of 2015, can say -- whether in earnest or ironically -- "Anyone asking what contemporary art can do about the refugee crisis: Hey, you know what contemporary art can do about the refugee crisis? Pretty much nothing. So let's move on!"
That is not my take.

The artist as activist

Artists have long been involved with political activism -- Goya's The Disasters of War series and Picasso's Guernica are but two examples -- and many deal with problems of migration, foregrounding its urgency in their work. Their projects not only make us conscious of the scale and impact of the refugee crisis on those who are displaced, they also remind us that this is not a new problem, and that migration is both a national and transnational issue.
Take, for instance, Jacob Lawrence, whose "Migration Series" of 1941 documents the movement of over 20 million African Americans from Florida and elsewhere in the South to the North, in the wake of lynching and persecution.
More recently Bouchra Khalili, a Moroccan-French artist now living in Berlin, has since 2008 documented the stories of those fleeing the Middle East. Khalili's The Mapping Journey Project (2008--11) charts in detail the story of eight clandestine journeys across the Mediterranean, making tangible the plight of those forced to leave their homelands and the invisible geographies they are creating as they move from one place to another seeking safe havens -- geographies that are reshaping the space between Europe and the Middle East.
The Dutch artist Lonnie van Brummelen's prescient 2004--05 trilogy "Grossraum (Borders of Europe)" examines three sensitive border crossings into Europe: Hrebenne, between Poland and Ukraine; Ceuta, between Morocco and Spain; and Lefkosia, between Greek- and Turkish-controlled Cyprus.
The artist portrays the people and the landscapes of these remote perimeters, diligently filming those who can enter into Europe and those who cannot, simultaneously revealing the tenuousness of the idea of Europe, and the amount of force required to maintain this fragile abstraction.

A growing crisis

"And the Migrants Kept Coming" (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence
"And the Migrants Kept Coming" (1940-41) by Jacob Lawrence Credit: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
Europe has always had difficulty absorbing its immigrant populations, especially those from the Middle East, and the current situation only puts more pressure on countries ill-equipped to deal with problems of difference.
Kader Attia and Zineb Sedira, Algerian artists brought up in France, explore in different ways what it means, emotionally and psychologically, to be caught in between these different worlds. Their work elegantly unpacks the subtle but deep-seated ways in which immigrant populations are excluded from mainstream culture despite official efforts to the contrary.
This problem, of course, is not exclusive to Europe. Turkey, which now has over 1.5 million Iraqi and Syrian refugees, is also struggling with how to deal with its marginalized populations.
Halil Altindere's powerful film "Wonderland" uses the pulsing beat of hip-hop music to dramatize the plight and anger of some of Istanbul's most vulnerable citizens -- including some with long-standing roots in Turkey -- whose neighborhoods are being reclaimed by the Istanbul Housing Authority for gentrification.
Housing, in fact, is one of the most urgent issues for refugees seeking asylum in Europe and elsewhere. There are camps like Zaatari, in Jordan -- with nearly 100,000 people housed in makeshift tents -- that are rapidly becoming quasi-permanent dwellings.
In Europe camps are rapidly being built in Austria and Germany, where harsh winter conditions add further complexity. And in Africa the situation is even worse, with camps like Dadaab, in Kenya, serving almost 500,000, mostly Somali, refugees.

Pressing questions

The issues raised by these camps, and by the refugee crisis in general, range from the social and economic to the humanitarian.
Can better and more expedient ways be found to absorb and integrate refugees into new communities? Is it possible to design better temporary dwellings? What happens when temporary camps effectively become permanent residences, as they have throughout the Middle East -- think of the Palestinians living in Jordan and Lebanon for decades now -- and Africa? How do we move past the anxiety that a small number of terrorists may be hidden among the millions seeking asylum to ensure that fair and equitable solutions are found for all?
These are just some of the questions that we must collectively answer if we want to prevent this ongoing crisis from turning into a bigger disaster. 2016 may well be a decisive year for all of us.