Art, Emotion and IR

January 10, 2007

In searching for readings to help students understand the post-modernist search for answers in IR, I came across an article by Roland Bleiker entitled “Art After 9/11” (Alternatives 31:1, 2006). In it, he asks whether art has been overlooked as a tool to help us to understand and hence grapple with complex global phenomenon such as terrorism.

While security threats are becoming increasingly complex and transnational, our means of understanding and responding to them have remained largely unchanged. They are still based primarily on strategic expertise and corresponding militaristic and statecentric ways of articulating defense policy…

The article begins by stressing that 9/11 did not constitute simply a breach of security, as it is generally understood: a violation of national sovereignty, a failure of the state’s intelligence apparatus, and a shattering of a deep-seated sense of domestic security in the United States. The terrorist attack also, and perhaps more importantly, precipitated a breach of understanding. Prevalent faculties, including reason, were simply incapable of grasping the event in its totality. Policy analyses in particular were unable to capture and deal with the emotional side of the events—a shortcoming that explains the astonishing outpouring of artistic creativity in the months following the attacks…

So the question is, does art “have the potential to capture and communicate a range of crucial but often neglected emotional issues” that are integral to our understanding of terrorism?

Can fiction … express certain aspects of terrorism better than a straightforward factual account? Can we see things through visual art that we cannot express through textual analyses? Can music make us hear something that we cannot see? If aesthetic engagements are indeed qualitatively different from others, what is the exact political content and significance of this difference? How can the respective insights be translated back into language-based expressions without loosing the essence of what they capture?

One of the visual artists that Bleiker looks at to ponder this question is Australian painter Gordon Bennett. Two works in a series that he did are reproduced below (uploaded from the Greenway Gallery website).

NOTES TO BASQUIAT: 911

by Gordon Bennett (2002)

911 [2002] by Gordon Bennett

911 [2002] by Gordon Bennett

These reproduced Internet images don’t do the works justice, but I do believe that these works do capture emotional insights that are missing in written, verbal or even photographic accounts of the event. Visual art speaks to me in a way that makes it more difficult to distance myself from this event.

While we are trained to approach IR in a rational and objective manner, is that emotional distancing process detrimental to effective public policy decision making? For example, Samantha Power once wrote that one of the reasons why the Clinton administration was a “bystander” to the Rwandan genocide was because of a bureaucratic culture that taught policy makers that acknowledging emotion and suffering was weak minded. Has the denial of these emotive elements in our IR scholarship contributed to inadequate or flawed policy responses? My instinct is yes, but probably not in most cases, since as we have all experienced, emotion often clouds clear judgement.

No one would deny that the study of global politics requires systematic rational analysis, but given the importance of identity to global security, artistic expression can contribute to that endeavor by broadening our understandings of trauma and how it shapes political communities.

Perhaps I need to invite someone from the fine arts department to help co-teach this class?

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2 Responses to “Art, Emotion and IR”


  1. Yes, if we could accept textual analysis on art, literature, movies, mangas and so on is pretty subjective. A case in point is the concept (or “theory”) of “national allegory” suggested by a Marxist theorist called Fredric Jameson. Jameson argues that since The Third World is structurally different from The First World in terms of economy and political system, all Third World texts (for example, fiction) are always allegorical and should be read as allegory of the cultural experience of the Third World countries. For example, a personal growth story written by an author who was born in Argentina could be interpreted as the story of Argentina’s search for its own national identity. (Could you imagine that the Hong Kong movie “Happy Together” (1997) is possibly to be read as a story about whether Hong Kong would get along with mainland China happily after the return of its sovereignty?)

    Jameson’s “national allegory” has been challenged by many scholars as he did not clearly establish an essential link between “Third World texts” and the cultural experience of “Third World countries.” But Jameson does open up an alternative way to study literature. In fact, “national allegory” has been borrowed by some literary and film critiques to interpret cultural texts. (To me, a researcher’s “reading” of a studied text is often complicated. Whenever “national allegory” is to be applied, s/he has to make reference with many literary works and films relevant to the text chosen to be studied at the same time…) Anyway, as deconstruction of cultural texts helps us unfold the ideologies underlying a piece of artwork, literary theories could contribute to the study of IR. [Frankie]

  2. lmcinhk Says:

    Frankie —

    I hadn’t heard of this scholar, but it sounds very interesting. Again, it makes me think that perhaps I need to introduce more fiction into our theories course….

    Thanks for your comments. LMC


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