Broken Bodies, Broken Forms
What relation does art bear to suffering?
By Roy Scranton
June 5, 2017
Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles; Random House, 320 pp., $28
“This Report Contains Graphic Content,” the video warns; “Viewer Discretion Is Advised.” A man lifts a dead girl from a hospital bed while music oddly reminiscent of The X-Files theme plays in the background. The film cuts to a room full of bodies—children, old men, women—killed by sarin gas. Then the dirty, bloodied five-year-old whose shell-shocked face the world came to recognize as #SyrianBoy, Omran Daqneesh. Finally, a montage of corpses and trauma care connected to April’s chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria.
Watching these images does not make me a better person. They do not help me understand the Syrian civil war, honor the dead or help the living, or ease anyone’s suffering. They might shock and appall, unless I have been numbed by the proliferation of such images, as many people have. So what are they for? Would it be better if I wrote a poem for Omran Daqneesh? Or painted a picture, like the one Dana Schutz painted of Emmett Till’s battered corpse, Open Casket, which sparked such a furor at this year’s Whitney Biennial? What good is art about war, or racism, or any other kind of human suffering? What relation does it bear to its subject?
Questions like these emerge whenever we reflect on the encounter between the concerned citizen and representations of suffering, especially but not only representations of war, especially but not only representations intended to be appreciated for their aesthetic form. This encounter is the subject of Sarah Sentilles’s book Draw Your Weapons, which approaches its subject through two loose narratives, one about a conscientious objector who refused to fight in World War II, the other about an art student on the G.I. Bill who had served in Iraq, and—in the aggregative style made influential by Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and David Shields’s Reality Hunger—an associative collage of impressions, comments, quotations, facts, and reflections.
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Roy Scranton is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and the novel War Porn.