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Artists and war

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The  media stampede eastwards to the impending war in Iraq is in full swing. From Doha to Kuwait hotel lobbies are crowding up with bush-jacketed reporters and pale faced technicians whose metal cases contain a proliferation of devices to transmit images, sounds , voices and written accounts to every corner of the world. In this flood tide of imagery and opinion is there still a place for the artist? What is left to say, and how can a transient observer any longer see or understand the diversity of actors involved in this complicated event?


In the fifteenth century , when Paolo Uccello’s painting of the rout of San Romano was commissioned, the artist played an essential part in the commemoration and celebration of war. But the San Romano picture was painted for a victorious elite; four hundred years later the battle artist was communicating to much wider and more critical gallery audiences. In 1874 , when “The Roll Call” by Elizabeth Thompson (later Lady Butler) was exhibited at the Royal Academy, its impact was immediate and the picture had to be protected from excited crowds. The 1870s public was visually aware , photographs, etchings and illustrated newspapers depicted current events and personalities. Thompson’s approach was unusual but at the same time intellectually accessible to crowds of voracious admirers. The composition was direct and confrontational, ranks of Guardsmen faced the observer , traumatised by battle and exhausted by a hostile climate and terrible living conditions. The pathos was in the detail, the soldiers hands clasping , touching, wiping and shielding their emotions,  and  along the line,  their dress and equipment disturbed by a violent encounter. Thompson’s observation of military groups was convincing. She had never seen a battle but her research was thorough and sympathetic; the result was intuitive and gripped the public attention. Long after the hostilities had ended, her huge commissioned canvasses became the icons of the battles they claimed to represent. The archives might contain better records but public memory was more readily stirred by a picture or a poem so  that for example in “Scotland for Ever”,  it is the Scottish troopers galloping towards the observer in a melange of red tunics and grey chargers , painted decades after the engagement, that become a visual reference for Waterloo.


By 1914 British artists and London galleries were in the thrall of post impressionism,  and in the war that followed, the relationship between artist, patron and the rank and file in the trenches altered. Total mobilisation meant that an entire generation of artists, writers and poets now experienced war, not as spectators but as participants. Whether German , British , Italian or French their retrospective versions of what had happened to them  were direct, brutal and far more intimate than anything the art establishment had seen before. During and after the hostilities, angry and unsentimental images were created by leading sculptors and painters, who were also sailors, infantrymen, gunners, sappers and medical orderlies. Their works survive and continue to be exhibited in their own right as part of our modernist heritage, but in this case depicting the principle actors, the infantrymen in the torn up landscape of Nash’s  trenches, the casualties in Spencer’s clearing station, miners digging in Bomberg’s sap, gunners running and falling before Robert’s  waves of gas and mainly  just troops - waiting , resting , sleeping  and gazing out with tired eyes. More powerfully than anything before them , it was the enlisted soldier artists of 1914 –18 who described with such competence both the experience of battle and a society that had  so ruthlessly pressed the war  to its conclusion. 


By the end of 1945 , the relationship of the artist to the warrior had grown more institutionalised. Kenneth Clark’sWar Artists Advisory Committee enlisted artists to create eye-witness accounts, a record of life in wartime Britain and of the war abroad. In addition,  society and the establishment needed artists for their own purposes, for the design of camouflage, for memorials and for propaganda. The official war artist was part of the order of battle. Although this special category was less acquainted at first hand with the long term discomfort and trauma of frontline service, at least three official artists were killed  by enemy action.


Above all they were competent observers and there was plenty to see. The war was visible, air combat could be watched like a mass spectacle, staged above London’s parks and gardens and in a blacked out city, the strange night life of the air raid shelter provided Henry Moore with rows of maggot-like sleepers.  The more explicit images of war were by now increasingly provided by newspaper photos and the cinema newsreel. Two successive wars had involved the entire populations of many countries and  it was not surprising that the scrutiny of these events had involved the most influential and talented artists in the northern hemisphere.


 However the relationship between warrior and artist was soon over and in the following decades the distance between them became hard to bridge. After the war, retrospective battle pictures,  commissioned by officer’s messes and institutions, were no longer executed by mainstream painters. Many of them were poorly conceived, pedantically representative and  lacking the energy and intuition of their Victorian predecessors. Meanwhile leading US and European artists were becoming less dependant on patronage. The increasing value of gallery art allowed the successful to turn away from fulfilling the expectations of the establishment. Their independence was reinforced in the 1960s by a wider and more vociferous rejection of authority that spilled out onto the streets and campuses of Western cities in the form of anti (Vietnam) war  demonstrations.


The public was becoming visually richer as each decade passed; the artist was now struggling against brighter and bigger images of television ,  cinema , the ubiquitous video camera and the pop industry . Under the constant pressure of fashion and the need to shock, artists began to communicate to a narrower elite, their images grew progressively more esoteric and less accessible. The focus of the leading edge became inwardly personal with a growing contempt for the uninitiated public;  canvasses appeared blank or smeared with body fluids,  colonoscopic videos displayed the artist’s insides and installations were made up from intimate garbage.


During the same period , the warrior passed from one strategic era to another  and the nature of collective violence altered. Conflict moved beyond the horizon and beyond the consciousness of the rich and safe. The massive, conscripted forces of the Cold War were restructured to become small and professional and now represented only a tiny proportion of the population. To the uninitiated public the contingencies to which they deployed were as complicated and obscure as a Turner prize exhibit. Complex humanitarian emergencies seemed to involve so many armed groups and  different actors, manipulated by an array of foreign interests and international organisations of which the international military force was only one small part. Above all the majority of casualties were civilians, fleeing from genocide, fighting as militias, fighting as children, starving to death and generally abandoned by the rich- safe countries,  where art communities tended to work and flourish . 


The visible surfaces of a complex emergency are now recorded with increasing facility by the international media; images of the oppressed and dead become the icons of a new strategic era.  But in truth so much more is happening. In time and space the conflict zone spreads far beyond the immediate lens of the press camera. Despite its familiar icons of starvation and of displacement,  the  complex emergency is a poor subject for a transient observer. Civilians die like wild animals, alone and unobserved , killed by garden implements, diarrhoea or exhaustion. There are no epic scenes of battle, no massive armies on the move and few heroic acts that can be celebrated in bronze or painted canvas. Instead it is the self destroying anguish of the relief worker , the black despair of the military observer impotently watching the long rituals of genocide that have become the meat of film and television drama. But not of art.


In a time of war, however distant, artists are faced with issues of magnitude. For moral, humanitarian  as well as historical reasons , what happens in Iraq is crucially important. It may be expressed as a tiny incident to explain the greater narrative of violence,  like the victims of Goya’s firing squad, or as a great cry of outrage, protest or sorrow like Picasso’s Guernica.

And if war has become formless, an abstraction, with violence done on different planes and in many dimensions at once, that is not any longer an obstacle for the artist. The formless and dynamic nature of post modern art frees the artist to take on the equally formless and dynamic nature of post modern violence. So where are their creations ? where are the images of Srebrinica, Rwanda, Phnom Penh, Freetown, Mogadishu and all the other terrible events of the 1990s ? Are the Turner prize aspirants completely unaware of what happens in the rest of the world or  too self indulgent to care?

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