Bob and Roberta Smith’s emphatic 1997 painting reads “MAKE ART NOT WAR.” But what about making art about war? With the wars and violence taking place across the world right now, can art help us understand and interpret the pain and tragedy?
Whilst war art of the past may have been a genre where violence was endorsed and its leaders praised, war art tends to now attempt to take a more truthful stance – where war is exposed in the worst of its brutalities and atrocities, and where artists set for anti-war messages. The power of this can perhaps be characterised by Picasso’s Guernica (1937), where death, grief and torment permeate the fragmented canvas. A tapestry version of the work is displayed in the UN, and significantly, when the deal was signed about the Iraq War in 2003, a blue curtain was put over it. Evidently therefore, it has pronounced symbolic power, but why was this not enough to prevent the war?
If Edmund Burke’s theory of ‘the sublime’ teaches us anything, it is that the human response to seeing pain and suffering indirectly is incredibly complex – it is something that appeals to us. If humans therefore in some unconscious means are attracted to works depicting terror, can war art actually have the opposite effect?
There are certain works, where the Romantic vision of the sublime does overpower the artists’ intentions. Delacroix’s Massacre at Chios (1824) seems to me to be an example of this. Delacroix seeks to highlight the brutality and horror of war; he does not glorify suffering, nor display victory, instead his painting takes the perspective of the defeated Greek people, who are about to be enslaved by the Ottomans. Yet the work undeniably holds a compelling and beautiful intensity, as seen in his dramatic handling of figures and expressive brushstrokes. It is a powerful and visceral depiction of war, but its sublime qualities mean that viewers are more absorbed and entranced by the painting as a work of art, rather than as an anti-war piece.
Is the challenge for war artists therefore to ensure that their work captures the direct experience of war, where viewers cannot assume the position of merely being a voyeur, and where the fact that these are real events becomes inescapable?
Perhaps this is what Jeremy Deller’s intention was when he created It is what it is (2009), the crumpled and battered remains of a car, untouched by Deller that was blown up by a suicide bomber in a Baghdad market in 2007. Deller intended the work to be politically neutral, for it to not convey a message in and of itself but for it to spark conversation and discussion. Inevitably, viewers take their stance on how they interpret the work, but there is no prompt from Deller as to how they should respond to it, given it is essentially an artifact of war. Now exhibited in the Imperial War Museum in London, the car’s jagged and rusty appearance at once shocks and intrigues viewers. Although perhaps not his intention, the attention that Deller’s piece receives could be considered exploitative of those who experienced the real suffering in Iraq.
What if we turn to the press and the media? The printing of pictures of destroyed cities and the victims left behind is considered as simply reporting events, sharing what is happening in the world. But if the emotional response to the sublime is inevitable with any depiction of war, is this just a commodification of suffering, a way to get readers’ interest and attraction, almost as a form of entertainment? Moreover, the misconstrued notion that war photographs are straight-forward and merely the truth is tackled by Susan Sontag, in her book Regarding the Pain of Others, as she writes that a photograph “cannot be simply a transparency of something that happened. It is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude.”
It seems therefore that ultimately whilst war art can stimulate powerful, potent messages and attempt to expose real experiences directly, the power lies with us as the viewer to not assume a position of a passive spectator, a bystander, a consumer.