Now We Burn Art

January 14, 2018

“everyone who could draw drew the sea (…) the sea means freedom no one can control or own, freedom for everyone.” - MANSOOR ADAYFI, a freed prisoner from Guantanamo.


The John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City has put up a controversial art exhibit called “Ode to the Sea” that features 36 paintings, drawings and sculptures - all stamped with the words “Approved by US Forces,” The art was made by prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the exhibition gained worldwide news coverage due to its artists. In November, the government stopped releasing any art from Guantanamo Bay, reportedly in response to the exhibit. Art from Guantanamo was already censored. No art that revealed anything about Guantanamo or that portrayed the United States negatively would be released and the art was inspected by experts for secret messages. The US government gave no explanation for its change in policy, apparently, it doesn't have to, because, according to the Army, the government owns art created in Guantanamo- despite the fact the artists were held there without trial; against their will. Because of this policy, the government can do what it wants with the prisoner’s art. Prisoners cannot take their art with them when they are freed now so instead the army will burn it. A lawyer representing three Guantanamo Bay prisoners said, as quoted by the New York Times, “one of my clients was told that, even if he were ever to be released, that he would not be able to take his art with him, and that it would be incinerated.” Art in Guantanamo has not fared well. It has been forbidden, censored and now it will be burnt.


The Third Reich hated modernism (what it called degenerate art). They deemed it insane and insulting to morality and society. The Nazis removed over 20,000 pieces of art from German museums and put them in a special museum created to mock the art. The “museum” showed the art as corrupt, evil and nonsensical. Some of the art the Nazis sold, but much of it they burned. Art made by Jewish artists faced the same fate. The Soviet Union also practiced strict censorship against art, it had a whole office dedicated to deciding what books and paintings the Soviet public could or could not see. Religious art and the books or paintings of people the government had killed or exiled were banned. More recently, ISIS has destroyed tons of art in order to destroy messages they don't agree with. They burned books from libraries in Mosul that they believed promoted infidelity or disobeying their god and destroyed statues they believed promoted following false idols.


Governments destroy and censor art in order to get rid of its message, the Nazis hated modernism because it didn't focus on an idealized image of Anglo-Saxon society. It blurred the lines between bad and good, beautiful and horrid. It scorned the absolutes that the Third Reich was built upon. The Soviet Union censored any art that criticized the government or didn't perfectly fit communist ideals. ISIS destroys art that promotes anything but following their extreme form of Islam. Governments also censor art because it connects and humanizes people, making it much harder to demonize an enemy. Nazis mocked and burned Jewish art, the Soviet Union banned the art of exiles and religious people, ISIS destroys the art of so-called sinners.


The United States government is censoring the art of prisoners from Guantanamo Bay for the same reasons. First, the United States didn't release any art they didn't agree with. Now no art can leave our island dungeon. Our government would rather burn art made by prisoners than let it leave Guantanamo because it proves that the prisoners are humans - not monsters. Because the art depicts the views of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners and humanizes them, it makes the public ask questions about Guantanamo we couldn't when the prisoners were just “the worst of the worst”. Questions like; Who did we put in Guantanamo Bay? What exactly did we do to these people? Was torture really necessary? The government has no good answers. 779 people have been kept at Guantanamo, 41 remain. The Trump administration has freed none. 8 have been convicted in illegal military commissions, of these three were completely overturned and one was partially overturned. Only one prisoner was found guilty in a legal court case. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former senior State Department official, declared “There was no meaningful way to determine whether [the prisoners] were terrorists, Taliban, or simply innocent civilians picked up on a very confused battlefield or in the territory of another state such as Pakistan.” The government offered thousands of dollars to anyone who brought in a person they said was a member of ISIS and some prisoners weren't even vetted by any Americans before being sent to Guantanamo to be tortured. Wilkerson testifies children as young as 12 and 13 were shipped to Guantanamo and so were men in their 90s. In Guantanamo, prisoners were beaten by guards, forced into ice baths and waterboarded. No communication with families was allowed, even for prisoners who had been found innocent and were just being held - sometimes for years - until a country would take them. Even with extreme security measures and constant supervision, seven prisoners managed to commit suicide. Yasser Zahrini was taken to Guantanamo when he was 16. He committed suicide at 21, becoming the youngest person to die at Guantanamo. Many other prisoners attempted suicide, Majid Khan reported trying to commit suicide by chewing through his own arteries because the conditions at Guantanamo were so bad. On top of that, according to a Senate committee investigation, torture was a completely ineffective means to gain truthful information and the CIA lied about the about gaining helpful information from torture.


The United States committed war crimes, now it is demonizing its victims. The Guantanamo Bay prisoners' art is their best way to connect with the public, so our government would rather burn their art than let it reach the eyes of American citizens. If you are an American Citizen like me, you must be outraged, we cannot let the abuses in Guantanamo be forgotten or diminished, let us make the art from Guantanamo the most famous art in the world and show our fellow citizens the people our fear and hate destroyed.

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