Guilt-edged art: What right has art to address atrocity? What right has it not to? Kevin Jackson on the issues raised by Rwandan Stories

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Regular readers of these pages may already have seen a new poem by Ben Okri, 'Song for Rwanda', which was published here a week ago. Okri's poem will be broadcast by BBC 2 this week as part of Another Country . . . Rwandan Stories, a set of five 10-minute programmes commissioned by the Music and Arts department as a response to the African war. The other short films in the series are by the writer Michele Roberts, the art historian and poet David Dabydeen, the poet Fred D'Aguir and the journalist Mark Doyle.

Another Country advances perspectives on Rwanda which seldom find their way into news coverage: for example, Dabydeen's film 'The Black Body in the Bush' is, as he says, 'about how it was the Germans and the Belgians who introduced the concept and practice of genocide into Rwanda. I was trying to get away from the idea that these are just a bunch of black people hacking each other to death. . . and to ask questions about who makes arms for Africa, and generally about the dead hand of Europe.'

But by tackling a subject which is generally reserved for news and current affairs, Another Country also prompts a different order of question: should poems, films and other works of art about atrocity be regarded as keenly pertinent or as grossly impertinent? The latter possibility certainly occurred to Dabydeen, who was initially reluctant to accept the commission: 'It seemed narcissistic for me to parade my distress, my horror, my inner turmoil, and then get paid a thousand pounds for it. I have a lot of sympathy with the position that says you simply shouldn't do such things - you know, I hate those people who go off to Berlin and come back with their poem about the death camps.' (It was his feeling that important facts were being glossed over elsewhere that made him change his mind.)

There is obvious sense in such misgivings. For those who are comfortable and safe to wax eloquent about the wretched of the earth can seem at best a frivolity, at worst an obscenity. Despite the best intentions of the most gifted and earnest artists, the formal representation of atrocity will always be in danger of prettifying it, of turning it into an entertainment: recall the anger and soul- searching that attended the release of Schindler's List. And the offence is deepened if the work is seen to fall short of its higher aims.

In this century, not even as dominant an artist as Picasso has been immune from the charge of dabbling in the blood of strangers. While his Guernica may be widely regarded as an enduringly potent depiction of outrage - would a world that has supped full of horrors remember the bombings of 26 April 1937 so readily if he had never executed that canvas? - there are those who take issue with its extreme subjectivity and its lack of specific historical content. The critic John Berger maintains that another painting by Picasso in the same vein, Massacre in Korea (1952), strives so hard towards timelessness that it becomes self- cancelling: 'our indignation, which the painting was meant to provoke, is blunted'.

With less gifted, more frankly opportunistic artists, the case is simpler, and frequently repugnant. An eighth-rate painter will beef up his flabby work by cramming it with allusions to Dachau; a poetaster will try to pull ethical rank on the rest of us by displaying her or his excruciated sensibilities. Such work is parasitical on distant misery, and though the dying have better things to worry about and the dead are beyond caring, those of us in the audience still have the right to despise it.

And yet, if artists may be damned if they do have the temerity to confront barbarism, it is hard not to feel that they are more profoundly damned if they don't. To keep a decent silence does not seem adequate, since it implies a surrender to the philistine view that the arts are fundamentally unserious - agreeable or stimulating for hours of relaxation, but without bearing on the serious business of the world. If artists turn their backs on slaughter, they may either condemn themselves to perpetual irresponsibility or tacitly side with the murderers.

The view that artists should just shut up, forget about current affairs and get on with their little games would not have made much sense to Milton, who wrote a sonnet about the massacre of almost 2,000 Vaudois in Piedmont almost before their blood had drained into the soil, or to Shelley, who put the Peterloo massacre into verses as soon as the news reached him in Italy. Steeped in an awareness of the classical doctrine that the role of art was not simply to delight and move but to instruct, they were not so troubled as writers of our own day about what practical good their words might do.

Our climate is more guilt-ridden, which means that we tend to be most easy with those works which, echoing Whitman, can legitimately say: 'I am the man (or woman), I suffered, I was there': the novels of Primo Levi, the poetry of Paul Celan, the music of Terezein, or (a rather less drastic instance) Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, which was written and first performed in a German POW camp. The most highly regarded artistic responses to the Nazi genocide by those who were not themselves among its victims have often taken up a dual theme: the unimaginable scale of the cruelty, the difficulty of decent speech on the part of those who went unscathed. The poems of Geoffrey Hill - 'September Song' from King Log, for example - have been justly valued for their extraordinary tact in this regard.

Poetry may indeed, as Auden insisted, make nothing happen, but on balance it seems better that artists should take seriously their traditional function of bearing witness. The result may be a great deal of offensive, self-important kitsch, but the alternative is a cynicism too corrosive for anyone's good. Besides, we live in a century so uncertain that even artists in cosy circumstances may unexpectedly find themselves in the place of those whose sufferings they have previously imagined.

In 1937, the Hungarian poet Miklos Radnoti was contemplating Shanghai and Guernica from a safe distance: 'People are murdered all the time, / Somewhere - be it in the laps / Of dozy valleys, or on watchful peaks / That peer; so what a cold comfort / To say, 'Ah, but it's so far off]' ' (English translation by Clive Wilmer and George Gomori, from Forced March). Seven years later, on 31 October 1944, Radnoti scribbled his last poem 'Postcards', into a notebook while on a forced march from Serbia to Germany. Nine days after that, he was shot dead.

'Another Country' begins tonight on BBC 2 at 7.50pm

(Photograph omitted)