Among the thousands of people who are forced to leave their war-torn countries, or because they are persecuted by dictatorships, fewer and less of these people make it to Europe. Among those who succeed, very few are welcomed with dignity or are offered a path to integration. And if it is offered to them, it is usually to confine them to difficult jobs that Europeans no longer want to do. Few people (they exist) can resume their medical or engineering studies.
To make matters worse: no one asks if perhaps there are artists among these people who deserve to be encouraged, helped and treasured. Either because they were artists in their country of origin; or because, if placed in promising circumstances, they could flourish as artists.
This was not always the case in the past. France, in particular, has a long history of welcoming artists from war-torn countries or difficult situations; and who were welcomed here in a way that had allowed them to flourish. And there were also people who came to France before starting a career in the arts, but they also participated in the construction of French culture.
Without going back too far, to cite Leonardo da Vinci, (an artist known in his country, who crossed the Alps by the same paths that some undocumented immigrants nowadays follow), we can mention among these emigrants Juan Gris, Pablo Picasso, Amadeo Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Constantin Brancusi, Nicolas de Staël, but also in literature Irene Nemirovski, Marina Tsvetaieva. And also, in movies and music. They were generally welcomed with open arms, well received and protected. Or at least they found support from a number of people.
What about today? It’s much rarer. Young artists who have come from elsewhere without proper documents, status or network are given very little help and support. More generally, this is true for the entire European continent, which is more closed than ever, and has cut off the most fertile branches of the tree of its future.
Certainly, among these poorly received migrants, there are some who succeed in establishing themselves, thanks to enlightened gallery owners or attentive amateurs. And there are also wonderful initiatives to support them, such as the “Atelier des Artistes en Exil.”
Today, in France, it is generally known that there are many young cooks, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, singers, dancers, filmmakers, photographers, who emerged from these exoduses, and who have already shown great promise for the future of their relevant art.
Today, are we certain that among the undocumented migrants we expel and abandon on our roads, who beg in our streets and who survive in poverty tents in our cities, or that we confine to forced labour, there are no other great talents in one artistic field or another?
The point here is not that only artists should be saved: every human being deserves to have equal rights to compassion and assistance. But, if we take the cynical and selfish point of view of those who, in France, hide behind the defence of French identity to justify the refusal any external contribution, can we not recognize that these migrants have made an immense contribution to the culture and identity of the nation that received them? And that French identity would not be what it is without the contribution of these migrant artists.
Let us look differently at those we do not want to see, and let us welcome, with delight, what they have to contribute to our common greatness.
My editorial of the Journal des Arts