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Contemporary Art and Political Views

This essay discusses the ways in which several contemporary artists have dealt with war in their artworks.

I Introduction

Art has always been a legitimate means of expressing the artist’s views on current events, politics, and the government. In some cases, art has spoken out with tremendous power, as in Pablo Picasso’s classic anti-war mural “Guernica.” Art has proven to have an important voice in the public arena, though that voice is not always comfortable to listen to.
This paper examines some contemporary art that deals with war. I’ve chosen this subject because it’s rather on everyone’s mind right now, and a true consideration of the horrors of war might be useful in order to remind everyone just what’s at stake.

II The Works

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I mentioned “Guernica,” which of course is Picasso’s devastating depiction of the Spanish Civil War, painted in 1939. The painting is too early for our consideration, but it leads into the Second World War, and the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is one of the most horrific events in human history, and it continues to hold a terrible fascination for us. Chicago artist Pearl Hirshfield in an “installation artist” who, in 1989, created an artwork that she hoped would allow visitors to understand and feel what it must have been like for those who were being taken to the death camp at Auschwitz.
An “installation artist” creates a total environment; a walk-through exhibit, rather than a painting or photograph.

In Hirshfield’s case, she has tried to recreate the feeling that people might have had as they were rounded up and herded onto the trains to the concentration camps. Her exhibition is on-going; the first reference I found to it was 1989, when it was described thusly:

“At the entrance to “Shadows of Auschwitz” … Hirshfield places a quote by Primo Levi. ‘Beyond the fence stand the lords of death, and not far away the train is awaiting…’ This sets the physical and emotional mood … The spectator is drawn into a darkened interior space, where the artist makes use of an array of vertical mirrors to effect dramatic changes in light and shadow … The “height” of the experience awaits the viewer at the other side of the fence, where he encounters his own reflection with numbers across his body. The numbers are the actual Auschwitz numbers …” (Shendar, PG).

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It is Hirshfield’s intent, and that of other artists concerned with the Holocaust, to make sure that the event is brought home to viewers viscerally: she wants them to feel it. Her art seems to be representative of the 1980’s, which “… expressed a heightened anxiety regarding the gloomy end of the twentieth century, [and] which offers only a dark apocalyptic vision of the future.” (Shendar, PG).

Hirshfield has created other equally disturbing installations dealing with the Holocaust, including one in which the visitor “…enters a narrow corridor bounded by fences and paintings to suggest brick chimneys.” (Baigell, PG). According to this source, artists like Hirshfield want to make the Holocaust real, to keep it alive and “prevent it from becoming literature.” (PG). This installation went to Savannah in 1999 and has been seen in many cities around the country since it first appeared.
This is one of the most important statements to consider with regard to art: it is a medium that demands a great deal of those who come to it. It’s not a book that we can put down when it becomes too ugly: a photograph, painting or installation may well cause such a strong response that we have to deal with it on its own terms.

I suppose it’s also a glimpse of the obvious to state that most art is anti-war; indeed, with the exception of the current U.S. Administration, it’s very difficult to find anyone who thinks war is a good thing. Artists in particular, who are generally free spirits and liberal in outlook, don’t find war something that should be celebrated or glorified.

Another source discusses an exhibition at (oddly enough) the Imperial War Museum, London that featured a great many anti-war paintings. In 1991, John Keane painted one work that particularly stood out as a significant protest; it’s entitled “Mickey Mouse at the Front.” Keane’s subject is the Gulf War, and Keane makes us queasily aware of the fact that many people believe it was fought for oil, just as many believe the next one will be.

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In Keane’s composition, “Mickey Mouse, a symbol of America’s commercial interests, sits on the sand surrounded by old dried stools [human excrement] and sagging barbed wire, while to one side is a poisoned palm tree bending over in pain, like someone retching their guts out. The mixture of mess and farce is a strong reminder of the waste and shabbiness of that oil-fired war.” (Whitfield, PG).

The painting aroused tremendous controversy, as might be expected, because Mickey Mouse is such an American icon. However, it is the purpose of art to arouse strong emotion and force us to face those parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. Surely one of those is that part of us that refuses to so much as contemplate the idea that war is ugly, not heroic; miserable, not a grand adventure; horrifying, not noble.

One other form of art has always been strongly involved in social issues, particularly in pointing out the boneheaded behavior of many politicians: political cartoons. Since the September 11 attacks and the increased saber-rattling of the U.S., protests have sprung up and anti-war cartoons have proliferated.

In addition, artists and cartoonists have been “reworking” old posters from (apparently) the Second World War, using the previous illustrations but adding new words. The effect is startling and very effective. They have even used a Nazi poster that is particularly unsettling. It shows a full-color painting of a strapping young man, a blonde, carrying a flag that says “News Channel” (it’s partially obscured but you can make out the words.) In the main part of the poster, superimposed over his body are the words, “Ein Volk. Ein Reich. Ein Fűhrer. Ein New Channel.

FOX NEWS: Die amtliche Nachrichten – Fűhrung des Hiemat.” And across the bottom of the cartoon drawing it says “The Official News Channel of the Homeland.” That is, of course, the translation of the previous line. (The rest of the poster says “One People, One Nation, One Leader.”) (Kurtzman, PG). (There are dozens of cartoons/drawings here by many different contemporary artists.)

There has been a good deal of discussion lately, on the Internet and elsewhere, about the parallels people are seeing between the current U.S. Administration and Nazi Germany; however, it’s rarely been displayed so explicitly. This powerful image is disturbing because it makes a comparison most Americans find unthinkable. In other words, it does what good war art does—it makes the viewer think about what war really means.

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III Conclusion

Anti-war art makes a very strong statement, as it must. As Hirshfield’s commentators suggest, it is not enough to read about things, we have to see and feel them if they are to retain their impact. Reading about something is not the same as being part of it; reading is an act that by its nature removes us from the event we are reading about.

Art is far more immediate.
Because of this, artists have always been in peril when they oppose their governments; the “powers that be” understand the visceral appeal of artwork and often try to censor it so as to quell any opposition to their policies. If we—or other nations–are to remain free societies, our artists must be allowed to create their works of dissent and protest without fear of censorship. They give us a tremendously valuable means of seeing those things we might otherwise prefer to ignore.

IV References

Baigell, Matthew. “Persistence of Holocaust Imagery in American Art.” Pearl Hirshfield [Web site]. Undated. Accessed: 24 Feb 2003.

Kurtzman, Daniel. “Political Humor.” [Web site]. 2003. Accessed: 24 Feb 2003.

Shendar, Yehudit. “And the Lion Shall Dwell with the Fish.” Pearl Hirshfield [Web site]. Undated. Accessed: 24 Feb 2003.

Whitfield, Sarah. “The Spoils of War.” New Statesman 30 Aug 1996: 39. Retrieved 24 Feb 2003 from The Gale Group, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA at:!xrn_3_0_A18655972?sw_aep=sddp_main

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