What is the point of art? Debatable. What is the point of war art, that is, art concerned with human conflict? Straightforward – to seek to either promote or discourage war. There is no in-between. All war art is propaganda, either for bigotry or for equality. Those who think that they escape this dichotomy are not just mistaken but are, unwittingly, often, lining up in the ranks of bigotry
In this sense, war art is the same as war reporting. There can be no such thing as impartial war reporting because impartial means indifferent. When you do anything, you are partial to some aspect of it, as that is why you do it. News broadcasters, like war artists, cover war for a reason.
The devious news broadcaster hides behind the veil of political impartiality to pretend that they take no sides. They report ‘the facts’ soberly, without judgment. Yet, in reporting without questioning, they are parroting. This is stenographic journalism and it is taking sides because, naturally, authority and power have the biggest voices and the stenographer repeats the loudest voices. This is especially the case in war, where authority has a near monopoly on evidence and analysis which is kept secret from the public on ‘national security’ grounds. Then, for ‘impartial’ news broadcasters to uncritically repeat the facts of war fed to them by authority is to clearly take sides.
Devious war artists sometimes hide behind the veil of political impartiality too. They occupy a corner called sentimentality. They present themselves as horrified onlookers, like angels fluttering over the battlefield. They often tell the personal stories of human suffering, especially of wars and genocides of long ago. There are two things they will not mention in their effusions of pity: the inconvenient political truths of war and the even more inconvenient truths of blood being spilt now, in present warfare.
One understands the political agnosticism of the desperate or ignorant. Take soldier war poets. Their depictions of the personal horrors of war might be hi-jacked to deflect the suffering of current wars but their intent is the opposite. They sought to warn of the horrors of all wars. One can also forgive the Military Wives’ Choir of the BBC for singing about their “prince of peace” in the army. Their personal concerns and ties overshadow the political facts.
However, the war artist, be it painter, poet, photographer or singer, who is in a position to stand back from personal ties and examine the political facts has no excuse for producing sentimental or abstract war art – unless he or she is a pro-war propagandist.
War artists must address politics to discourage war. Unfortunately, this irritates the authorities who are busy conducting wars and eliding responsibility for innocent deaths and maiming. As a result, the artist can find themself suppressed. They might not be imprisoned, as political artists are in some countries, but they may be refused exposure or opportunity. Then, there is a choice to be made for artists, do they give up success and admiration to remain on the side of human equality – and suffer the snubs, ostracism and struggle commonly faced by dissidents.
Some artists try to avoid this moral quandary by political compromise, examples of which can be found in almost all major war museums. Such artists are permitted to denounce wars and killings of long ago to their hearts desire – but not the current wars. Not the Imperialist invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, nor Yemen and Somalia, where the US, with the approval of their British allies, are conducting drone attacks and killing civilians on a regular basis. Not Libya where, in 2011, NATO defied its UN mandate of acting to protect civilians to conduct a several month long campaign of air strikes. Present and recent suffering and deaths are often out of bounds – unless artists produce pro-war material.
In truth, there is no real compromise between the two sides of war art, bigotry and equality. To produce work that sentimentalises past suffering which is long beyond help, without addressing the fresh blood and flesh being spilt today, is to distract attention from that which is most important and connive with the warmongers.
However, if that suffering of the past can be connected to the present, to bring alive the faces of the victims of tomorrow, to slow the wheels of the war machine, then the artist is truly on the side of human equality.