Artist and War
TIMES July, 2005
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
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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