On Thursday, renowned artist Daisy Rockwell will visit The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo for a free public discussion with Pakistan security expert C. Christine Fair. The divergent backgrounds of these two speakers raise a very basic question: What does art have to do with security?
In a post-9/11 world, security is commonly treated as a technical matter for the experts we entrust to protect us from the terrorist boogeyman. Yet one of the leading theories of security policy-making explains the process not as a technical matter of objective facts but as a sort of “performance.” In this paradigm, political elites convince the relevant audience that something poses such a threat as to justify extraordinary measures. In a democracy, that audience includes both policy makers and the general public, and the performance includes not just rational debate but also emotive imagery from news media, Hollywood or conscientious artists.
Daisy Rockwell is an artist who is well aware of this dynamic. As she explains online: “Traditional Indian rasa theory has helped me think about the iconography of the global war on terror. These paintings ask how images of terrorists and those fighting against terror make us believe in this rhetorical framing of our wars. How can we think beyond the iconic mugshots of alleged terrorists and suicide bombers, photographs of the destruction of the Twin Towers, the depravity of Abu Ghraib, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, missions accomplished, Barney Cam and White House Holiday festivities?”
Consider her work. After years of ignoring humanitarian tragedy in Afghanistan, the West’s campaign against the Taliban proposed that the way a society treats its women is the measure of its civilization (or barbarity). Chivalrous, perhaps, but this narrative is fundamentally patriarchal: women are portrayed as helpless and in need of male protectors. That’s what makes her work, Couple, so stunning: the woman’s powerful gaze seethes agency and she appears the more dominant of the two, her traditional attire notwithstanding. Such art challenges the established narrative.
This series also includes portraits of Colleen LaRose, an American citizen charged with terrorism (Jihad Jane), and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. More recent works portray former Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadafi and members of his all-female revolutionary guard (the “paramilitary Barbie” series).
Rockwell is not the only artist exploring these issues. Among others, Colombian artist Fernando Botero has toured internationally with a series of paintings depicting the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. “The whole world and myself were very shocked that the Americans were torturing prisoners in the same prison as the tyrant they came to remove,” says Botero. “Art is a permanent accusation.”
This type of critical reflection points to a much deeper truth about global security today: it involves much more than facts, guns and bare survival. It invokes fundamental questions about who we are, how we want to live, what values we want to protect, and what we are willing to sacrifice. Ten years after 9/11 we must (re)consider whether we support a vision of security based on constant suspicion, walls and force, or dare to imagine one based on communication, dialogue, and understanding. Critics charge that costly and cumbersome post-9/11 security measures have done little to make use safer.
Until recently, Canada championed one possible alternative known as “human security,” which centres on the needs of everyday people. Generally defined as “freedom from fear and freedom from want,” the concept is based on U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “four freedoms” speech (which also included freedom of speech and freedom of worship). To understand how culturally defined these freedoms are one can look to Daisy’s grandfather, Norman Rockwell, who in 1943 produced an oil painting to depict each freedom within a distinctly mid-century-American conception of modernity. A touring exhibit of the paintings raised more than $132 million in the sale of war bonds.
Given the value-laden nature of security, artists like Daisy Rockwell and Fernando Botero are doing something of profound importance. The most basic questions of our security have, for too long, been settled behind a veil of expertise and secrecy. These artists take these questions out of the hands of elites and place them back in the arena of public debate where they belong.
A rethink of security is long overdue, and a discussion that must happen in the public sphere, not behind closed doors. Daisy Rockwell will surely open that conversation here in Waterloo next Thursday.