Syria on the Screen

Lucky to be an Art Student


At the end of an art history class I took last semester, we learned about the Ashcan school, which was not an organized group or movement but rather a hodgepodge of painters connected by their choice of subject matter: scenes of the urban quotidian in America with a focus on the poor and working-class. In the art world, they were rebelling against American impressionism, the institutional choice of the early 20th century. Though their work was not political in itself—they were simply taking advantage of the greater range of the American experience that could be represented in urban America— they were deemed anarchists by mainstream society. The problem lay in that what they painted was frightening to those who did not live it.

About a week after this class, it was finals. I had secluded myself in a dark, freezing corner of the SciLi, telling myself that the horrible heating and cooling system would keep me more alert as I studied for my art history final. This was the same night that many Syrian refugees were denied their evacuation relief by the United Nations and their live videos were smattered all over Facebook and Twitter. I would watch one of these demoralizing videos from my corner and then look up at my peers, buzzing around the library, the stress and concern and pressure that has burned in them throughout their lives as students emanating from them like a poisonous smoke that we have all gotten used to breathing.

It is hard to be a student. We are lucky to be students.

I told myself to snap out of it. That yes, the world is a terrible place, but right in that moment my job was to study for a test, to get a good grade, to inch closer to my degree—to inch closer to the comfortable life I will most likely lead. But when I looked down at the notebook in front of me, I realized that I had last written “Winslow Homer, The Sharpshooter on Picket Duty” five times in a row. It was then that I told myself I needed to snap out of something entirely different. What was I doing memorizing the names of paintings?

I packed up my things and walked briskly home. I got in bed and started watching video after video, reading article after article about an unthinkable, unimaginable humanitarian crisis that our inaction—my inaction—had brought to this point. Our apathy had forced men, women, and children, standing in the shadows of bombed out buildings, enmeshed in the ruins and tragedy of their former lives, to look and to beg for the world to see their humanity and help them. I felt that by continuing to study, I was denying my own humanity, staying ignorant of its potential. So I donated $20. I watched and I read until I felt confused and distraught and dehydrated, my body responding physically to watching horrors unfold from the warm confines of my bed.

The pain and confusion I felt that night and in the following days only made it harder and more confusing to be a student. In order to get back to the stress and worker bee buzz of the Scili basement, I told myself that if we don’t exercise the rights we are so wildly fortunate to have, then where will those people in tragic circumstances run to? Today, the answer to that question has never been more volatile, more uncertain, more heartbreaking. We can protest and call our members of Congress. We can stay informed, but sometimes it feels like I am drowning in the hurt of it all. I am lucky to be a student. I get to memorize the names of paintings. I know I am lucky. But sometimes it is hard to be a student, to be me, just as sometimes it is hard to be you. So where do we draw the line? I want to serve myself and those I love, but it feels too naive and uncaring to watch the world go up in flames from my computer screen.

The Ashcan school artists were deemed anarchists, yet all they were doing was expressing themselves by interpreting their world through art. Perhaps they chose to paint scenes of the working-class and the poor, of those whose lives were not like their own in order to highlight a part of the world and a type of people that many choose to ignore. It is hard to be a student and a person with friends and family and emotions and stress, to build a life and pass exams. It is hard to be a student, but I am so lucky to be a student. I have to remember that, or I will lose my sanity. I have to take that luck and pass it on, but in order to do that I must allow myself to succumb to the whirling mess that is my ordinary, lucky life. Keeping that in mind, and keeping in mind that my stress and fears are real, I can hopefully someday transcend my privilege.

Their work was not inherently political, but they were deemed anarchists. I hope that this wasn’t a mischaracterization. I hope that some small part of each one of them was an anarchist. I hope that you are too. I hope that I will find it in myself to be.