As this year’s summer drew to a close, the picture of drowned three-year-old Syrian Kurd Alan Kurdi reverberated around the world. Picturing Kurdi face down and washed up on a distant Turkish shore, the photograph exemplifies the global refugee crisis, and the media’s interest in it. According to figures discussed by the International Rescue Committee this week, there are now approximately 20 million refugees in the world—around 10% of them in Turkey—though migration levels are hitting record numbers across Europe day after day.
Some of the media’s values—resonant imagery, high event magnitude, time sensitivity—are shared by visual art discourse. The same pictures that are reproduced, reiterated, and distributed widely by online news websites impact and influence artists, who may have first-hand experiences of the issues in question. Their motives may be documentary, cathartic, or they may have no motive at all—and their art may differ in its longevity and the attention it receives. While the influence of migrants on U.S. culture needs little explanation, there is a prevalence of artistic material dealing with the movement of refugees and migrants across the world, and not only in the historical record.