"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Art in a Time of War

"Guernica" by Pablo Picasso

A perennial question among artists is What is the function of art in a time of war? Art has historically served both the propagandistic purposes of the state as well as the protestations of dissenters. Much of this art, of course, has been and continues to be overtly "political." We are in an age in America in which it seems that--when they do produce overtly "political" work--artists rarely produce work favorable to the wars of the state. It's not a popular stance among literary types, to say the least.

In my mind, it is completely appropriate for artists to be aligned against the purposes of war, and I would argue that, generally speaking, this stance is faithful to the age-old function of art. 

The state's message in a time of war is a message of dichotomy. The language and images of the state, the military, and the media are focused on differentiating the enemy from us. It is the state's goal to subtly convince the public of essential dissimilarity between us and them

Consider the ever-present lauding of "democracy" in American political speech in times of war and "military action." Politicians speak of democracy as a good in and of itself in an attempt to justify the imposition of it on other nations, as if democratic nations had never committed atrocities of their own (e.g., the U.S. fire bombings and nuclear bombings in Japan, which targeted civilian children, women, and men, killing between 500,000 and 1,000,000 civilians). 

The tactic of the state, the military, and the media (in general) is to present us with simplistic, easy-to-swallow lies about ourselves and about the other. These lies boil down to plain dichotomies: We are virtuous. The enemy is evil. We are reasonable. The enemy is unreasonable. We have a superior political system. The enemy's political system is fundamentally flawed.

The artist, on the other hand, most often does the opposite -- that is, the artist bears witness to the essential similarity between one human and another, and by extension, between all humans. Joseph Conrad beautifully expressed this idea in his famous "Preface":
"[The artist] speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation -- and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts: to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity -- the dead to the living and the living to the unborn."

While the state, the military, and the media are engaged in oversimplification, the artist is engaged in complexities. Again, here is Conrad:

"[A]rt itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life, what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential -- their one illuminating and convincing quality -- the very truth of their existence. [...] [T]he artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal. His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities -- like the vulnerable body within the steel armour."
In fulfilling this vision of art's function, the artist need not write overtly about political matters or about the war(s) at hand. It is the empathy itself and the acknowledgment of both fundamental similarity and unsoundable complexity of the the other expressed in the artist's work that performs this function, regardless of subject or setting.

Yeats, in his poem "On Being Asked for a War Poem," seems to disparage the idea of writing a poem about war (also see Robert Pinsky's interesting recent post about misremembering this poem):

On Being Asked for a War Poem

I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.

The possibility that Yeats seems to have overlooked in this response, however, is the possibility that a work of art need not overtly address the positions or policies or statements of the state -- instead, pleasing that young girl or that old man might itself be the function that counteracts the machinations of the state.

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