Migration as Avant-Garde
A Book Review
They came out in the tens of thousands. In London and Paris, Dublin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin, and others, people marched in the streets. They carried signs and banners, urging governments to do something, anything. “Refugees Welcome,” they said, illustrated with a silhouette of a family fleeing for their lives: a father first, then a mother dragging a child, whose foot trails in the air in the rush. “Bring Your Families,” they said.
“Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples—if they keep their identity.”
Every day the news showed exhausted people hauled from dinghies floating in the Mediterranean into Italian navy ships; desperate families waited on the Greek island of Lesvos with little food and no running water; a human caravan snaked through the Balkan and Hungarian countryside.
Many countries failed to live up to the European Union’s human rights commitments. Macedonian, Slovenian, and Hungarian police had them chased with police dogs and water cannons. Czech and Hungarian authorities stamped their arms with indelible ink. If any image could prick Europeans’ consciences, surely it would be this one. It reminds us that some ugly canker lives, examined, treated, but still malignant, at the back of our minds.
At the train stations in Berlin, Munich, and Vienna, however, crowds gathered to greet the newcomers alighting from Budapest. Weary strangers were greeted with applause and flowers. There was candy and toys for the children. That was September 2015. It seems like centuries ago.
Photographer Michael Danner’s Migration as Avant-Garde: Photographs 2008-2017 shows 108 crisp images from that nine-year period from Germany, Gibraltar, Greece, Morocco, Romania, Spain, Tunisia, and Turkey. Danner accompanied Frontex (the European Border and Coast Guard Agency), German federal police, and volunteer workers, and visited refugee camps, relief organisations, and emergency shelters to take his pictures. The work has its origins, however, in Danner’s reading of Arendt’s “We Refugees.”
Danner’s book contains three quotations from Arendt’s essay. Each is presented in block capitals in white type on a black background (or vice versa). They look like slogans, as if they could be put on protest banners without further thought about what they mean. Danner’s use of “avant-garde” is, meanwhile, careless. It becomes, for him, a politically neutral way of talking about abstractions like “progress” and “pioneers.”
“Driven by the desire to give their lives meaning,” reads the blurb, “and guided by their own integrity, migrants bring new perspectives and points of view to our society.” Nobody living in a multicultural society can doubt this. Some welcome it. Others don’t want new ways of seeing or doing things, let alone new people. There is, similarly, no snug fit between this claim, Danner’s images, and the choice of Arendt quotations, let alone the avant-garde. To make sense of what Danner is trying to achieve, we need to read his photographs not only in terms of what he seems to mean by avant-garde, but Arendt’s comments on statelessness and “worldlessness.”
These problems show up in Danner’s use of one Arendt quotation: “Refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples—if they keep their identity.” In Danner’s rush to associate Arendt’s use of the word “vanguard” with the artistic avant-garde, he misses two things.
Danner’s images omit, on the one hand, the question of refugees keeping their identities. The only picture that comes close to this shows a pile of shoes and sandals. It is left up to the viewer to decide if they have been abandoned in haste or removed with care by Muslim refugees before prayer. In either case, Danner never deals with issues about “identity” and “difference” in cosmopolitan societies.
On the other hand, Danner’s selective editing misses out the next two sentences: “For the first time Jewish history is not separate but tied up with that of all other nations,” Arendt writes. “The comity of European peoples went to pieces when, and because, it allowed its weakest member to be excluded and persecuted.”
Danner decontextualizes Arendt. Her essay is specifically about Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. There is no problem with taking interest in Jewish exiles. They included some of the great names of 20th century culture from Theodor W. Adorno, Erich Fromm, and Arnold Schoenberg to Samuel “Billy” Wilder. There were also many non-Jewish exiles: Bertholt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Thomas Mann, and many others. Perhaps some of the 21st century’s great artists and writers jostle among the refugees fleeing Afghanistan and Syria. We live in hope, but only time will tell.
In one of Danner’s photographs, we see someone’s knee and hands hovering next to a pile of bright red watermelon slices. Will this juicy fruit nourish the mind of some as yet undiscovered genius? We don’t know. Nor should we. Nor should we accept the idea that Danner would be able to tell us. In another, a man basks in the sun. Will he write a poem about the warm kiss of freedom on his face? Will his face go down in history as a great pioneer of words or images or objects? We don’t know that either.
The point is that Arendt’s statement is specifically about Jews, some of whom were well known in their home countries but anonymous in America. They also lived in a very different international legal climate than refugees today. Jews were targets for totalitarian regimes’ use of denationalization. Statelessness was, as a result, thought to be “primarily a Jewish problem.”
Refugees face other conditions. The post-World War II political order is, at least in part, defined by how each individual has basic human rights at a national and international level. When Arendt was writing, however, the stateless had lost the protection of a government of a nation-state. They required their legal personhood to be safeguarded by international agreements as a result. The legal personhood of today’s refugees is threatened, however, despite guarantees from internationally recognised political bodies.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), for example, recognises the right to seek asylum. This is taken further by The Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951/1967). Article 15 of the UDHR provides the right to nationality. States cannot arbitrarily take away a citizen’s nationality or deny them the right to change it. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), meanwhile, requires states grant all the individuals residing in their territory and subject to their jurisdiction a set of rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.” Article 16 of the ICCPR aims to address the problems arising from the legal dispossession of personhood. This was central to Arendt’s analysis of rightlessness. “All persons are equal before the law,” it states, “and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law.”
It is also unclear what Danner means by “avant-garde.” There are at least two options. He could be saying migrants and refugees share the “energy” of avant-garde art, defined by the principles of novelty, rejection of tradition, or collapsing “art” into “life.” Or he could be making a soberer point, comparing refugees to the immigrants and outsiders who formed avant-garde groups in the early 20th century.
Edward W. Said, for example, argues that modernist culture was what it was at least in part because of the “external pressures on culture from the imperium,” including people born in imperial outposts moving to metropolitan centres (especially Paris). Said refers to Conrad (born in Poland), Eliot and Pound (Americans in London, Paris, and Venice) and Joyce (a Dubliner in Trieste, Zürich, and Paris). We could add F.T. Marinetti (born in Alexandria before moving to Paris and Italy), Chaim Soutine (a Lithuanian Stetl Jew in Paris) and Picasso (a Spaniard who contributed so much to the Parisian avant-garde). Joyce is Said’s test case, writing that Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses, testifies to a new presence within Europe, a presence rather strikingly described in terms unmistakably taken from the exotic annals of overseas discovery, conquest, vision. Only now instead of being out there, they are here, as troubling as the primitive rhythms of the Sacre du printemps or the African icons in Picasso’s art.
Danner’s images and description of his project suggest he means that refugees have a kind of radical force, like those of avant-garde works of art, and not necessarily that people fleeing war-torn countries will collaborate with each other and make new avant-garde cultures. Danner does not seem to be saying that refugees will turn their new homes—probably in working-class neighbourhoods—into salons. He does, however, seem to be saying that they have an energy that liquidates the old ways of doing things and allows we privileged, untraumatized, Europeans to see ourselves and the world anew. This makes it sound as if the kind of cultural “hybridity” they might help bring about was avant-garde in its own right instead of being a fact of life in multicultural societies. In either case, Danner misunderstands Arendt.
For the most part, it is not clear what we are seeing or why Danner is showing us. The banal computer equipment Frontex use, rows of empty chairs, piles of brooms, a trashcan covered in stickers with peoples’ names written on it. Sometimes Danner shows us the sea, but it always looks “picturesque”, like an appealing place to swim for western tourists, but never the treacherous space refugees have to cross to reach safety. Danner has removed the sea’s unpredictability and danger by adding violet, yellow, and blue filters. This makes these images look like amateur holiday snaps destined to live a second life as screensavers when it’s time to go back to work.
The images are most effective when they show uniformed officers, the first appearance of what Arendt calls the “arbitrary rule by police decree” that dominates the lives of the stateless. The image of an Italian woman officer standing guard doesn’t help, though. We see her brooding over the cruel rippling Mediterranean, like the Roman sea goddess Salacia in a fetching Armani-designed uniform, as the sweet creamy tang of her supermarket own-brand sun lotion mixes with the sweating stink of the huddled masses.
One way to deal with the problems of Danner’s book is to compare what Arendt says about “loss” in “We Refugees” to the double losses of statelessness and “worldlessness”. Refugees and the stateless lose not only their homes, or the comforting feel of “normality.” They do not just find themselves living outside the bounds of legal protection, but the very possibility calling the world “home.” In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt writes that
Seyla Benhabib rightly points out that Arendt is here moves between two registers of how human beings have a right to a place in the world. On the one hand, a “phenomenology of worldlessness”. On the other, “the loss of the public sphere by the stateless.”
The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer a matter of choice, or when one is placed in a situation where, unless he commits a crime, his treatment by others does not depend on what he does or does not do. This extremity, and nothing else, is the situation of people deprived of human rights. They are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the right to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion. Privileges in some cases, injustices in most, blessings and doom are meted out to them according to accident and without any relation whatsoever to what they do, did, or may do.
The phenomenological issue comes down to how the political lives of human beings must take place in a space of public appearances. The possibility of acting and speaking in public is, however, precisely what is taken away from people when they become stateless. There is no forum for them to discuss their fate, or how they could participate in a new home; no speaking-to or being-spoken-to, no response from authorities or fellow citizens.
The stateless are, thus, under threat from experiencing what Arendt calls “worldnessness.” Not only do stateless persons exist in a netherworld with few institutional or legal safety nets to cushion their fall from legal personhood, they are sometimes reduced to a living in a constant state of “necessity.” The stateless have, according to Arendt’s tripartite distinction between “labor”, “work”, and “action”, fallen from a position where they could participate in action to one of mere bodily toil. This is especially important in making sense of what Danner is trying to say.
Arendt writes that labor “corresponds to the biological processes of the human body.” To labor is to be locked into the most basic natural cycle of breathing, eating, living, growing, and dying. Labor meets the “vital necessities” to ensure that not only the individual can survive, but that the species as a whole can go on. Work, meanwhile, is about making and building things so that human beings can see something of themselves reflected back at them in the world they live in. Through these processes, the world can continue without us in it once we have died. Action, however, is about making political bodies and keeping them going, ensuring that human beings and the world they have made can be remembered by future generations.
Arendt has little to say about avant-garde art. She does, however, give art a place. Art is, for Arendt, the only kind of thing made by human hands—that is, the only kind of “work”— that is close to either thinking or action. Danner’s use of the Arendt quotation, however, ignores how refugees, by virtue of their statelessness and potential worldlessness, have had their capacity for action, or for making works of art that come close to action, removed from them.
They have fallen, or been pushed, far below the standards of what Arendt calls “homo faber”. For Arendt, artists and poets represent “homo faber in his highest capacity.” Refugees rather live in a condition more like that of what Arendt calls animal laborans. They have been turned into the kind of beings who must not only struggle to produce the most basic necessities to sustain life, but for whom the human body is
This is not a condition to be celebrated. To be reduced to an animal laborans is to be denied the very condition for the possibility of doing anything creative, making any art, or being involved in “avant garde” activity. There can surely be little glamour in reflecting on your own alienation from a point of total alienation or worldnessness. It is not that it is impossible to make any art under these conditions. It is certainly possible. Some of it may be very good indeed. The problem is rather that the material, emotional, “spiritual”, and political impoverishment of this situation makes it very difficult to do so. The turmoil and pain felt by refugees certainly isn’t an artistic situation in its own right. To think so is adolescent at best, and emotionally, politically, artistically, and spiritually illiterate at worst.
thrown back upon itself, concentrat[ing] upon nothing but its own being alive, and remains imprisoned in its metabolism with nature without ever transcending or freeing itself from the recurring cycle of its own functioning, but “caught in the fulfilment of needs in which nobody can share and which nobody can fully communicate.
 Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” (1943), in The Jewish Writings, ed. by Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken, 2007), pp.264-74, (p.274)
 Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees” (1943), in The Jewish Writings, ed. by Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken, 2007), pp.264-74, (p.274)
 Arendt, “We Refugees”, p.274
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), (London: Penguin, 2016), p.378
 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (London: Vintage, 1994), p.188
 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994), (London: Routledge, 2004)
 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p.379
 Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp.387-8
 Seyla Benhabib, Exile, Statelessness, and Migration: Playing Chess with History from Hannah Arendt to Isaiah Berlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), p.111
 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp.7-9
 Arendt, The Human Condition, p.173
 Ibid. pp. 115, 118-19
Max L. Feldman