afterword | steve j. stern
the artist’s truth | the post-auschwitz predicament
after latin america’s age of dirty wars
A
fter an era of massive atrocity, much of it against unarmed people in
the name of national salvation or social revolution, hard questions
arise. First, even if one sets aside the problem of divided memory
about the recent past, is truth-telling possible after a reign of violence so extreme
it defies human imagination? Or is truth an illusion? Is it a conceit that merely
restores a semblance of normalcy?
Second, if truth-telling is indeed possible, what can art understood in the
broad sense that includes literature as well as performing and visual arts
contribute to its making? How do we understand truth when considering the
full range of expressive culture? What is the artist’s truth?
Such questions have taken on urgency after Latin America’s age of “dirty
wars” in the late twentieth century. Whether one refers to dictatorial regimes of
the 1970s and 1980s in Southern Cone countries such as Argentina and Chile,
where rulers used a myth of war to gain freedom of action against citizens re-
defined into the enemy, or whether one refers to war regimes that indeed pitted
state forces against armed insurgents, as in Peru and Central America in the
1980s and early 1990s, states organized “dirty” war. The dirty war was the zone
of atrocity torture, mystery disappearances, body hacking, massacres where
normal legal rules or cultural taboos did not apply, not even the rules of war.
It was also the zone where states could contest the truth of the deed by deny-
ing knowledge or inventing cover stories. Dirty war granted the right to violate
anybody who stood in the way, or who might serve as a frightening instruc-
tive example for others, or who might serve as an instrument of complicity or
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