Artists on the most-wanted list

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Though this reflection will surely offer the chilliest of cold comfort to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the playwright, poet and environmental activist now under sentence of death in Nigeria, his experience of political punishment puts him in some highly distinguished company. Like his most assiduous supporter, the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Saro-Wiwa has known exile as well as imprisonment; and exile has been such a common experience of writers and other artists, from Ovid to Solzhenitsyn, that it may now be regarded almost as a badge of honour, a token of moral seriousness.

Earlier this year, the BBC's John Simpson published The Oxford Book of Exile, an anthology of writings by and about those forced to live outside their homelands. Many of the exiles to be found in his book were writers by accident rather than profession - ordinary people driven to lamenting their condition in letters and diaries and speeches. Quite a few, though, were already poets, playwrights or novelists: Ovid, banished to Tomis on the Black Sea for publishing a poem deemed to incite adultery; Dostoyevsky, sent off to Siberia on a charge of treason; Osip Mandelstam, serving five years of forced labour near Vladivostok for writing an epigram about Stalin; Breyten Breytenbach, seeking refuge in Europe after a prison term for "planning terrorist acts" in South Africa.

Simpson's book runs to some 350 pages, and might have run much longer, even if its scope had been restricted to the 20th century, which may come to be regarded as the century of refugees. Just as in previous times - think of Dante, weaving complaints about his banishment from Florence into the Commedia - artists have made telling records of these flights and relocations. And yet a curious, largely unprecedented characteristic of the modern period has also been the frequency with which artists have sought out the experience of exile even when not forcibly driven into the state by dictators or advancing infantries.

If one were to draw up a map of 20th-century culture in terms of forced exile and voluntary expatriation, not only would surprisingly few of the familiar landmarks be missing (though it's true that Kafka was a bit of home-body), but the chart would provide some interesting, not to say scenic routes into the heart of modernism. In fact, several such charts have already been drawn.

Towards the end of the 1960s, the young Marxist historian Perry Anderson wrote an essay entitled "Components of the National Culture" - greatly influential in some quarters, roundly derided or ignored in others. This text offers the bracingly fundamentalist proposition that the entire cast of British intellectual life (wickedly anti-Marxist and mulishly anti- theoretical, in Anderson's view) might be attributed to the arrival on our shores of "white emigre" intellectuals, refugees of one kind or another from the political upheavals to our east: Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper in philosophy, Lewis Namier in history, Ernst Gombrich in art history. (One of the ironies of this line of argument is that dialectical materialism is itself a product of exile, hammered out in the British Library during Marx's stay in London.) Most of the Socialist intellectuals running from the ruins of Europe booked longer journeys, and wound up in America: Adorno and Horkheimer on the west coast, Marcuse initially on the east.

Whatever the limitations of this reading (and another Marxist historian, EP Thompson, was quick to point them out), Anderson was plainly not far of the mark in noting the common factor of emigration among his various thinkers; and the similarities become still more striking in the case of the artists of the first half of this century. The genius of modernism was not a place - not even Paris - but displacement.

Virtually without exception, every artist in the modernist canon was compelled by temperament or circumstance to move away from home: TS Eliot, a son of St Louis, Missouri, coming to England and re-inventing himself as a classicist, Tory and high Anglican; Ezra Pound from Hailey, Idaho, moving restlessly from London to Paris to Rapallo in search of a new Renaissance; James Joyce and his younger admirer Beckett quitting Dublin for Paris. DH Lawrence took off for Ceylon, Australia and Mexico; while the novelistic generation immediately preceding his now seems dominated by two neo-Englishmen: Henry James, born in New York, and Joseph Conrad, ne Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski, born in the Ukraine, whose father had also been a political exile.

As in literature, so in the other arts: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (French, with an adopted Polish pendant to his family name) joined the peripatetic Wyndham Lewis (born, the reference books say, in Canada) in constructing their short-lived Vortex in London; the Spaniards Picasso and Bunuel re- imagined painting and the cinema in Paris, while the sculptors Brancusi and Giacommetti also found their way to the City of Light; and Stravinsky left Russia for Paris and, later, America.

And exile could affect the subject, even the form of their work, as well as being its circumstance. Pound, looking away from the West towards ancient China, wrote one of the most enduring poems of the First World War period, a translation from the Chinese entitled "Exile's Letter", publishing it next to his version of an Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Seafarer", on similar themes of homelessness. (Across the channel in the trenches of France, meanwhile, troops were singing a demotic variation on the same themes: "It's a Long Way to Tipperary".)

Both Pound and Joyce adopted Homer's Odyssey, the West's oldest tale of a wandering exile, as the basis for their two central works, Ulysses and The Cantos. Beckett abandoned not only his motherland but his mother tongue, choosing to write in French; Joyce (whose fictional surrogate Stephen Dedalus had vowed himself to "silence, exile and cunning") made up a language of his own for Finnegans Wake out of the Indo-European tongues that he heard in cosmopolitan and expatriate communities in Trieste and elsewhere.

The examples set by the early modernists were not lost on their juniors, and the expatriate Paris of Joyce and company overlapped with the expatriate Paris of Americans Abroad: Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller and the rest of the gang, lured as much by the favourable exchange rate on the dollar as by the city's reputation as the home of wild art and wilder living. But the cultural drift eastwards was already going into reverse, first with the flight of white Russians of Nabokov's generation away from the new regime, then with the German Jews and leftists as the Nazis came to power.

Probably the most extraordinary product of this latter migration was the dazzling constellation of talent that washed up in Hollywood - the obvious destination for stateless artists, since the American movie industry had been created by and for recent immigrants, and had always keenly recruited any European talent that might bring in money or prestige. Besides directors such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Max Reinhardt, Hollywood provided a home for writers (Brecht, Doblin, Remarque, Heinrich and Thomas Mann), actors (Lorre), artists (Man Ray) composers (Eisler and Schoenberg and Stravinsky)... a heady crowd, seasoned with the likes of Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, pacifist mystics who, like WH Auden in New York, had their own reasons for jumping the Old World.

Some of those who stayed and fought the European war begrudged Isherwood and co their place in the sun; some of those who tried to thrive in Hollywood could not stomach it, and returned, as Brecht did, to climates that were gloomier in all respects. In general, though, the image of expatriation and exile has gained not only in easy glamour but in hard-earned authority throughout this century, particularly after Solzhenitsyn's revelations in The Gulag Archipelago of the torments suffered by his countryfolk in "inner exile", and its corroborations by Andrei Sakharov and others forced into exile in the West.

Such testimonials dovetail with, and in some respects underwrite, one of the most enduring myths of post-Romantic art: that art should always be oppositional, "agin the government", and that the artist should be a type of inner emigre - an exile even at home. When voiced too strenuously by those of us who live in the cosiest, most pampered sections of the First World, this line can sound like the worst type of self-glorifying cant. But when illiberal governments decide to make metaphors of exile literal, whether by sending people to Gulags, divorcing them from their homes by lethal fatwa, or exiling them from life itself, it takes on a nobler sound. And however grim the outcome for Ken Saro-Wiwa, his supporters can at least reflect that history now tends to respect and remember the exiled, and forget or despise those who drive into exile.