Artistic representations of crises have grown more prominent in recent years as global crises broaden and touch a wider range of individuals worldwide. Today, the word crisis might come prefaced by anything from refugee to humanitarian, political to economic. As “crisis” becomes part of our daily vocabulary, its representations have also diversified and begun to humanize those for whom crises are a daily reality.
Observers of crises often rely on the news for information. However, news often reduces crises to statistics and broad trends. As technology and social media character limits reduce individual attention spans, news outlets seek to condense information into digestible charts and buzzwords. At the height of the European refugee crisis in 2016, the BBC posted an explainer for the migrant crisis in “seven charts.” After U.S. President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis in the United States a public health emergency in October, the Associated Press neatly tied up the current state of the epidemic “by the numbers.”
When news sanitizes stories, however, art of all sorts has the potential to humanize them. Anonymous street artist Banksy touched hearts when the world woke up to find he had sprayed an image of a little girl being lifted by balloons onto a wall in the West Bank. Artist Dana Schutz sparked heated controversy when she represented Emmett Till, a 14-year old African-American boy lynched in 1955, in an abstract painting in response to the contemporary high-profile murders of African-American men by white police officers in the United States. In October, artist and activist Ai Weiwei released Human Flow, his latest documentary; in it, he brings viewers directly along refugees’ long walks to shelter and into refugee camps across 23 countries in a powerful style reminiscent of his roots as an artist.
All three examples, using varied mediums and stories re-imagined, revisited, and real, reinject empathy and compassion into our understanding of crises. They humanize individuals who make up the staggering numbers that make news, and thus offer an emotional complement to the broad overview that sanitized charts provide. After all, one can only see numbers so many times before they lose their initial dramatic effect.
While this humanization is necessary to avoid a sort of crisis fatigue among audiences whose lives remain untouched by these events, artists must ensure to also use their art in ethical ways. Dr. Seth Perlow, an English Professor at Georgetown University who takes an interest in the ethical dimensions of crisis narratives, told The Caravel, “stories about global crisis frequently negotiate the limited scale of a single person or community responding to an event that spans oceans and continents.” However, one refugee does not represent all refugees, nor does one opioid user speak for all those struggling with opioid addiction. Artists representing individual stories, Dr. Perlow said, “run the risk of effacing important differences among individuals and cultures, differences that inform how people experience a given crisis.”
These ethical concerns should not deter artists from representing crises as they see fit. Rather, they should remind artists and audiences alike that just as numbers hide distinct stories, each individual’s story remains unique. As long as artists do not force individual narratives to speak for wider crises, they have an incredible potential to continue humanizing global crises.