Editorial: Art and War - Publication: Direct Art - Issue: Fall 2001

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"There are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument,"
- William Shakespeare-Henry V.

As the reverberations of operation "Infinite Justice - The War On Terror, " and ensuing populist nationalism seep into the collective psyche, what effect is it having on the artists of America? How are they translating the rage, bloodlust and melancholia haunting the globe? War -- grotesque, evil and horrific is often perceived as something morbid, something unsavory, something to be shunned or feared. Is it wise for the artist to tackle such a theme when endeavoring to market their wares to an American public keen to decorate their living rooms and offices?

Perhaps the reaction of wider America, post September 11 can serve as a gauge. Various commercial radio networks exercised some bizarre censorship with one network issuing a ban on songs such as Don McLean’s "American Pie" and John Lennon’s "Imagine." Meanwhile, in the real world, two performances of the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen were cancelled in Germany after the avant-garde composer called the attacks "the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos." Alarmist behavior followed suit with The Empire State Building’s art gallery removing a 1945 photograph of a plane crashing into its facade.

Even for the chronically fickle, the events of Sept. 11 are hard to ignore. For some, it’s a shocked reaction to the apocalyptic visions of the WTC collapsing, for others it’s America’s bombastic nationalism, or even fear of future breaches to our civil liberties. Ultimately each trigger recounts familiar territory, synonymous with wartime throughout history.

Traditionally, art has prospered during wartime. From pre WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Korea, to the Gulf and Bosnia. Observing a few hallmarks of the last 100 years or so spans everything from Goya to Beuys and beyond. Capturing the terror, cruelty, and pathos of war, Goya’s "Desastres de la Guerra" cycle (etchings created between 1810 and 1816 and printed in 1892) was acknowledged as one of the first non heroic representations of battle.

About 150 years later, Joseph Beuys announced, "To make people free is the aim of art, therefore art for me is the science of freedom." As a German who shared the devastation and guilt of World War II, he was able to mine and transform his experiences, just as he transformed common materials into art. A perhaps apocryphal story was told of Beuys being rescued by Tartars and wrapped in felt and lard to keep warm during wartime service.

In Felt Suit (1970), a multiple of sewn felt, Beuys plays with the idea of felt as a protective, magical material. This felt suit is no ordinary suit, it is contemporary armor made out of humble cloth. An empty shell, without the human presence, it vibrates meaning and power, valid more as an idea rather than as an object. Beuys as a conceptual artist used nontraditional materials to call the tenets of traditional art into question. For him, art was not about beauty, but communication and freedom.

Fellow German artist, Helmut Herzfeld was contentiously acclaimed as the inventor of photomontage, having inspired everyone from Warhol to Robert Heineken. In the early forties he changed his name to John Heartfield as a deliberate protest when he heard about the anti-British WWI German slogan "Gotte Straffe England" [God punish England]. Heartfield was inspired in part by frontline German soldiers evading censors by clipping snapshots and photos sent with their letters home to compose what are regarded as the first photomontages. http://burn.ucsd.edu/heart.htm.

For most Americans and Europeans, the Bosnian War, like the Gulf and Afghanistan was played out in the flickering images of television news. Yet another set of images, more permanent and profound, played an active role. Molding public sentiment and calling attention to the plight of the Bosnian people, for three hellish years, Bosnians plastered the walls of their towns with messages of anger, frustration, desperation, resistance, and hope. Former Bosnian aid workers Daoud Sarhandi and Alina Boboc have since gathered over 180 of the most dramatic wartime posters, largely created by Bosnian artists and graphic designers at the height of the war. Fascinating on both political and artistic levels, they provide a harrowing account of the war and put a human face on this seemingly incomprehensible conflict.

Okay, so there’s some meaty insights into wartime art. For the writer, each begs the question, do periods of human suffering produce superior art?

Written by Craig Stephens

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