The Art of War and Peace
Hiroshimo, Malcah Zeldis
October 6, 2001 - September 1, 2002
Curated by Michael Bonesteel
In truth, there is only one war. It is the struggle between the power of good and the power of evil in one's own heart and soul. All other wars spring from that source and, in the end, can only be resolved within that place. Failing that, humankind continues to struggle on the outward battlefields, vying for power over one another, no matter what the cost in terms of human suffering or death. Not a pretty subject for an art exhibition, but one that is necessary and eminently worthy of our attention, for the artist does a brave deed by addressing the subject of war. He or she must wrestle with those powers of good and evil as they exist in the world, and in the process face what is good and evil within him- or herself. In some respects, even the most horrific examples of war can serve as a path to peace and healing for the artist and, hopefully, for the viewer as well. It would be an insult to label it "art therapy," for the works in this show go well beyond that category. Yet for many artists, the end result is bound to be therapeutic, bringing about a catharsis, an unburdening through images of that which is too painful to be spoken aloud. And if it has done its job well, it will speak to the viewer and allow whoever sees the work to come away with a better understanding of why war should never be considered a necessary evil, taken for granted or accepted as merely a fact of life. For those who have lived through war, it is an abomination, a moral cancer that is nothing short of socially sanctioned murder.
War can take many forms. As the events of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington DC so tragically illustrated, terrorism has put a monstrous new face on modern warfare by bringing the battlefront to our own backyard. In terms of selecting work for The Art of War and Peace, one was hard-pressed about exactly where to draw the line. There are collective wars between nations; wars between factions and races within nations; wars between gangs within neighborhoods; wars between single individuals; wars between man and animals; wars between man and nature; and wars within man himself. In short, wherever man is, there is war. Each war is equally devastating if taken to its extreme, and each war has its dire consequences. Take the war between man and mother earth, for example: the wanton destruction of the environment, the decimation of our forests, the chemical pollution of the air, water and food resulting in the extinction, first, of all animal life, and finally in the sickness and death of the entire human race. Our disregard for the earth upon which we live is nothing short of mass suicide, pure and simple. However, the scope of this exhibition did not allow us to explore in any great degree art involved with environmental issues or the chemical warfare against ourselves; nor was there space to explore the killing or mistreatment of animals. The sad fact of the matter is that it would be impossible to cover all the wars that have taken place in the present or in the past, between groups or between individuals, externally or internally. It is probably unnecessary anyway, for, in the final analysis, if you've seen one war, you've seen them all. All wars are really the same war. The only things that change are the faces of the perpetrators, the faces of the victims, and the methods of human slaughter.
Of the wars waged in one's psyche, we have focused upon those that are the direct result of external war. Some veterans and civilians have been psychologically damaged by war's atrocities and suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. They have, in a sense, internalized the war they were exposed to, and thus relive the war in their minds on a daily basis. We have included art relating to the subject of race wars, or, as it has been euphemistically referred to in the former Yugoslavia, "ethnic cleansing": the attempted genocide of Native Americans, Jews and African Americans.
The exhibition also contains works that examine the metaphysical nature of war and its various mythologies, such as Armageddon -- the final, decisive battle between good and evil -- as well as more personal and imaginary visions of war as hell on earth. But make no mistake, this can be serious business. If the ancient predictions echoed by some of these modern-day prophets of doom seem a little hard to take seriously, look at this way: splitting the atom unleashed the possibility of worldwide Nuclear annihilation, and we may have already signed our own death warrants as a species. It's bad enough that we have sacrificed our finest offspring, like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and John Lennon, to the easy availability of firearms by those possessed of malevolent, homicidal intent; but it's quite another obscenity altogether to allow the unthinkable to happen at the hands of some monomaniac who wants to play God. Is the gap between The Bomb and The Antichrist narrowing? Is gasoline already spreading toward the match that is about to strike?
Lest the viewer be overwhelmed by the darkness of such thoughts, we offer a powerful antidote in the work of artists who have trained their sights in a different direction. It may be a brave thing to wrestle with the demons of war, but it is braver still to envision one's ideals, to be high-minded enough to depict the glorious vision of that which is good and pure and holy in life, to take a stand against those who would ridicule and deride such efforts, to risk being labeled naive, unrealistic or cowardly. At a time when it is everything to be cool, and to be cool means being cynical and smug, it takes courage to cut through the crap and advocate the right to life in a world without war. Blessed are the artist-peacemakers, for they create the paradigm for a more perfect world of love and compassion, reconciliation and healing, enlightenment and brotherhood, global harmony and universal peace.
"I am not only a pacifist, but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace . . Is it not better for a man to die for a cause in which he believes, such as peace, than to suffer for a cause in which he does not believe, such as war?" - Albert Einstein, from an interview on a visit to the United States, 1931
On the Battlefront
He's five feet two and he's six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He's all of 31 and he's only 17
He's been a soldier for a thousand years
He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain
a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
and he knows he shouldn't kill
and he knows he always will
kill you for me my friend and me for you
- Buffy Sainte-Marie, from the song "Universal Soldier"
Soldiers march through the The Art of War and Peace in various mediums and uniforms. Life-sized Prussian military men constructed in wood. An African American infantryman painted on metal. Laotian soldiers woven in textile. Vietnam vets drawn on paper. The reasons for their fighting are largely forgotten, but their battle experiences tie them together here in savage pact of violence, terror, blood and death. They are, indeed, "universal soldiers," human cogs in a timeless war machine whose ultimate aim is to turn living beings into cannon fodder. Major wars and world wars have a strong presence in this exhibition, while others, like the Gulf War and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, may seem under-represented. Still others, like the Korean War or the Israeli-Palestinian War, are not represented at all. But this is not about specific conflicts as much as it is about the universal phenomenon of war, and how war has been "unofficially" and intuitively depicted by artists most strongly affected by it.
One of the interesting things about the earliest wars represented here is that they tend to be straightforward works of reportage, like a wooden construction of the battleship Maine from the Spanish-American War, or paintings of an American Civil War battle scene, or the Lusitania sinking at the start of World War I. There is very little personal or political commentary evident, either because the artists who created the works did not actually live during the eras depicted, or they simply chose not to editorialize about them. These are historic pieces, viewed from a distance, without any particular prejudice or point-of-view. But this approach begins to change as we near our own time, and with the events of World War II still alive within our collective memory. The artists who fought or lived through "The Good War" sometimes document it with an almost clinical coldness, but just as often other sentiments creep in, such as social criticism, black humor and the beginnings of horror or outrage. By the time the Vietnam War rolls around, attempts at portraying war objectively or without feeling are rare.
What is rare, however, is the heroic glorification of war so often found in pre-19th century paintings and the propaganda art of the 20th century. This is not to say that there are no patriotic feelings among the artists here. Instead, however, there seems to be a separation between an artist's patriotism and his or her attitude toward war. Rather than expressing patriotism, the artist is compelled to express feelings about the war experience itself. In this first, introductory gallery, artists are concerned with the literal realities of war, from the physical look of soldiers in uniforms and their various weapons to events like Antietam, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Mai Lai. The most disturbing realities of war, such as death, dismemberment and the violation of civilians are noted, but an exploration of the ramifications of such atrocities find their fullest expression in the second floor galleries.
"Every war already carries within it the war which will answer it. Every war is answered by a new war, until everything, everything is smashed." - Kathe Kollwitz, from a letter (1944), quoted in The Diaries and Letters of Kathe Kollwitz (1955)
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the soldiers gone?
They've gone to graveyards every one.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?
- Pete Seeger, from the song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (1956-1960)
This verse from Pete Seeger's anti-war song has a timely, if unpleasant, ring to it in the light of an alarming statistic about Vietnam War veterans that has been bandied about of late. It has to do with the notion that more vets have committed suicide in the years following the end of the war than died during the entire course of the conflict. True or not, and without going into the reasons why the suicide rate is so high among those who served in Vietnam, it illustrates with a vengeance the fact that, in war, nobody wins; everyone loses. Some soldiers die on the battlefield, others are wounded, not just physically, but psychologically, and suffer lingering deaths over the course of the rest of their lives. Today, it's called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but in World War II and Korea, it was labeled Combat Fatigue or "Nerves." During World War I, they called it Shell Shock. And as far back as the American Civil War, arguably the first conflict to witness the mass slaughter of modern warfare made possible by Industrial Age technology, it was refered to as Soldier's Heart.
Yesterday and today, the victims of Soldier's Heart return from the frontlines only to confront their own personal war inside their heads. How does one live with the memory of seeing comrades blown to pieces, or of having to commit murder oneself -- perhaps not only the killing of enemy soldiers, but of women and children? There also are civilians touched by war who never quite recover. And the picture becomes even more complicated when we factor in people who may have been traumatized by other things in their childhoods, repressed them, and then have them triggered by new, war-related traumas.
While several of the artists here address the wars they experienced in their work, others have found it too upsetting and painful to do that, so we have included their work on different subjects as well. Some of these practitioners are patients in mental hospitals who have acquired major artistic reputations around the world, but who would never have ever conceived of making art in the first place if it were not for the dire circumstances brought about by war.
Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames
Made a marble phone book,
carved all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
I smell something burning
hope it's just my brains.
They're only dropping peppermints
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.
- Adrian Mitchell, from the poem "To Whom It May Concern" (1965)
You've got to be taught to be afraid
of people whose eyes are oddly made
and people whose skin is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught
You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you are six, or seven, or eight
to hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught.
- Rogers and Hammerstein, from the musical South Pacific
In the 20th century alone, millions upon millions of people have been slaughtered in the name of, well, let's use the sanitized contemporary term, "ethnic cleansing." Mao's "Great Leap Forward" was responsible for the deaths of 30 million people. Stalin's rural collectivization movement murdered 25 million. The Turkish annihilation of Armenia, five million. Congo's King Leopold, five million. Pol Pot in Cambodia, three million. Various wars in Latin America, two million. Not to mention uncounted millions in Tibet, Bosnia, Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa and South America.
The most infamous of the bunch, of course, is Nazi Germany's genocide of 6 million European Jews, plus several million more Catholics, Romanies and mental patients. And no matter how much exposure there is on subject of the Jewish Holocaust, one can never quite fathom the depth of inhuman, calculated evil that kept one of the most heinous atrocities in history running for years like clockwork. The agonized faces of concentration camp victims gaze out from the art in this section. Anne Frank is portrayed, as well as a scene that delineates the whole ugly picture, from ghetto to deathcamp, oven and mass grave.
While the Holocaust was certainly a monumental low point in the 20th century, it was preceded by several monstrous models right here in the good ol' USA, namely the genocide of the Native American people. Adolf Hitler, in fact, came up with the idea of concentration camps by reading about Indian reservations in American Wild West novels. The nearly successful eradication of Native Americans by the US Army is represented here by work documenting battles between Kiowa war parties and the cavalry. The enslavement of Africans during the founding of our nation resulted in another shameful legacy that continues today in the race war between African Americans and white supremacists.
"Our human situation no longer permits us to make armed dichotomies betwee those who are good and those who are evil, those who are right and those who are wrong. The first blow dealt to the enemy's children will sign the death warrant of our own." - Margaret Mead, from Continuities in Cultural Evolution (1964)
Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks
You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly
- Bob Dylan, from the song "Masters of War" (1963)
In this gallery, artists move away from depicting specific historic wars to generalize about the nature of war itself, using it as a springboard for highly imaginative political, philosophical or religious commentary. In the process, they uncover archetypal roots, map metaphysical terrain and invent personal mythologies in order to express their own viewpoints on the subject of war.
Included here are scathing critiques of the military industry in a number of fantastic and incredibly complex paintings. There also are compartmentalized canvases presenting in graphic detail scenes of Armageddon -- the penultimate war of good vs. evil -- originally envisioned in the Apocalypse of St. John. Of this ilk are those who put their own lurid and dramatic spin upon apocalyptic prophesies, and bring them to life with weird, macabre forebodings. One rather chilling, end-of-the-world/Armageddon-themed painting depicts Christ crucified on a mushroom cloud. Other similarly vivid scenes seem to have been plucked from some strange parallel world governed by supernatural forces.
A little more down-to-earth, but still bathed in an otherworldly light are imaginary works illustrating the rebellion of innocent children against depraved adults attempting to enslave them. Allegorical tableaus by another artist draw on imagery from World War II. Political satire is expressed in carved wood by several artists who mount a spirited attacks on politicians and the military, while the political sentiments in other works are more serious and sobering. A "totem pole" carving of the figures of Christ, Satan, Martin Luther King, Elvis and Hitler, with the title These Few Have Influenced Millions, is a paradoxical visual statement that nevertheless contains an unvarnished truth that is stranger-than-fiction.
"Do I fear the tyranny of a world government? Of course I do. But I fear still more the coming of another war or wars. Any government is certain to be evil to some extent. But a world government is preferable to the far greater evil of wars." - Albert Einstein, from "Atomic War or Peace," Atlantic Monthly, November, 1945
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
No religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
- John Lennon, from the song "Imagine" (1971)
Many of the combat veterans in this exhibition witnessed the deaths of fellow soldiers. Some of them were moved to make works of art expressing the pain and sorrow they felt, but others made works that appealed, instead, for peace and human enlightenment.
Jesus Christ, the archetypal Prince of Peace, is depicted by a number of artists in this final section, while other notable peacemakers make appearances as well: Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator; Mahatma Gandhi, the father of nonviolence; icon of self-sacrifice and holiness, Mother Teresa; and slain Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King. We travel from updated versions of The Peaceable Kingdom to Mexico, where one artist became fascinated with a revolutionary group who turned from guns and hand grenades to poems and manifestos. Similarly, a series of Andean tapestries call for peace between the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, movement and the indigenous people of Peru. Striking more whimsical notes, one artist fabricates his own band of imaginary peacekeepers, while another presents happy creatures enjoying Peace in the Valley. Majestically hallucinogenic landscapes and idyllic cityscapes are offered in peaceful paintings of a new golden age filled with verdant hillsides, giant flowers and joyful children.
The landscape of the mind is also addressed in this brave new utopian age of peace. In a scientific approach to attaining nirvana, conceptual city called The Aetheiapolis is comprised of 32 individuals from the present, 16 from the past and 16 from the future. Drawing upon the electrical and psychic circuitry of a giant jellyfish genetically programmed to reach a diameter of 650 feet, 32 astral projection chambers are mounted at the ends of its tendrils, with 32 time machines located between each tendril. Controlled from the astral projection chambers, 16 time machines are tuned to space-time coordinates of the past and 16 to coordinates of the future. Through electronic and psychotronic devices, the resonant frequencies of the 64 souls are converged so that passage from the fourth dimensional realm (reason) to the fifth dimensional realm (pure thought) can be accomplished.