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The Artist and War

ART TIMES July, 2005

Any artist who decides to confront the subject of war, comes to it by various routes and for different reasons.  I became involved when, as a soldier in WWII — from a Normandy Beach head and on through France, Belgium and finally into Germany — I witnessed war perhaps too closely.  A hospital ship brought me back and after six months in various Army hospitals, I was declared "as good as new".

But, having survived, an artist, especially, cannot ever fully recover or forget the experience.

Always too observant, the artist relives everything, again and again, until there seems no choice but to confront and attempt to transform those memories into art.  On this journey — as an artist revisiting the fields of war — you leave behind all baggage from this world of easy comfort, inflated ego and expectations of worldly rewards.  Only when stripped of all preconceptions, pretensions, ulterior motives and theories, only then do you have a chance to catch an intimation of the ghosts still haunting those blood-soaked fields.  What you dredge out of its bowels are not meant to be art objects or commodities. 

To look into the face of war, ultimately, is also to confront oneself, to see ones’ own reflection, and this reflection is unsettling.   Deep within that reflection may lie a monstrosity, dormant but easily roused by the first shrill bugle call.  That bugle call — shrill as well as seductive — can rouse not only mindless mobs but also "civilized" men of learning and culture, even artists and poets.  Those who are caught up in war and survive may therefore have a special obsession — they must "bear witness".   The real horrors of war, however, are beyond imagination or description. "Hell"? — a fine poetic metaphor, but no more.  All the descriptions, all the pictorials, all the warning signs prove inadequate, even meaningless.  War becomes a spectacle, too easy to dismiss as, possibly "inhuman".  War, however, is all too human — in its most horrible and lowest aspects, its mass-hysteria and madness, which has always proven highly contagious.

Inevitably, questions loom, beyond the boundaries of art, but touching on history, the origins of fanaticism, nationalism, patriotism, militarism, even the problem of testosterone and, ultimately, the question of morality:  Might there be a connection between ethics and esthetics?   Finally, yet another question nags: "Did I succeed? Can others now see what I saw?" The answer is "no". No matter how well articulated or skillfully recreated, "horror", for instance, means little except to those who have also experienced it.  What is outside common experience cannot be conveyed in its full dimension. There remains this wall separating the initiated from those who did not come that way.

War is a subject like no other, whether still life, landscape or the nirvana of abstraction. Perhaps, it is no fit subject at all.  Throughout history, the artist's depiction of war has always been one of glory and heroics. It was only in the 19th century, when Goya, coming face to face with the atrocities of Napoleon's war in Spain, that, finally, war was depicted in other than glorious colors.  In this, our Modern Age, in its fragmentation and surreal disjointed imagery, Modern Art may reflect the age of  "total warfare", even as it attempts to escape into trivia.

But, how is one to transform "war" into art?  Whatever any past examples, you can follow only what you have seen with your own eyes, your own authentic experience and the tonalities and colors, which reflect that experience.  Color, for instance. What color?   During some of my worst moments of war, all color seemed to have disappeared. The sky, which a moment ago was blue, appeared washed out into a bony whiteness and all else appeared as an almost monochrome range between black and white. Even the color of blood was not red but black.  "A momentary, temporary color blindness" I was told.   Color may not only be objective but also subjective, filtered through each individual's state of mind.  As for the "right" medium, collage or assemblage appear most appropriate — piecing together bits and fragments torn out of another existence and then resurrected.  "Resurrection" (as an art form) may indeed be a fitting metaphor. Style?  War is not stylish, and does not lend itself to any certainty of style.  But no matter which style or medium, one may be as good as another, though none can reflect the true nature of war, not even the camera.

Picasso once said, perhaps a bit arrogantly: "I do not seek; I find". But what if, in this descent into darkness, there are no guideposts?  Neither intellect nor reason, theories or concepts turn out to be reliable guides but mere predigested clichés. You rely on memory and intuition, guided, goaded and abetted perhaps by some muse.   Art, it has been said, serves perhaps some therapeutic function, a catharsis for the artist as well for society.  Perhaps, the main function of art is not merely to reflect reality but to transcend it, and in this transcendence, even defiance, redeem the worst of bare reality.  In spite of the reality of war can we go on creating art?   "No" declared the writer Adorno "after Auschwitz, writing poetry is barbaric."  I disagree: We need art always, especially after a disaster.

"In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good,” wrote Anne Frank into her Diary before she was hauled away to perish in Bergen Belsen.  But, could Anne Frank have persisted in her innocent dream had she survived and emerged from that nightmare?  Could she still proclaim "people good in spite of everything"?  Having seen and been part of the barbarism called war, can an artist still see the world beautiful and glorious?  An existential question: Is the world beautiful in spite of ugliness?    Dreamers all, the answer must be "yes".   We persist in our dreams — call them delusions or illusions — but without dreams what are we?  If we cannot see beauty, goodness and light despite the darkness, then, and only then, do we condemn ourselves to remain in darkness. Eventually, through art perhaps, we may succeed in transforming ourselves into the image of our dreams.

(Si Lewen lives in New Paltz, NY)

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