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Politics and the art of war

By Greg Barns - posted Friday, 31 August 2007

Exactly 90 years ago, the English poet Wilfred Owen wrote Anthem for Doomed Youth, perhaps the most poignant artistic expression of the horrors of World War I. It is a short and brutal, yet eloquent poem - a creation borne of an artistic mind which had impressed upon it at first hand the immense suffering and destruction wrought on the fields of Belgium and France between 1914 and 1918.

Its opening line is etched forever as a vivid summation of the reality of what was to be the war to end all wars:

What passing-bells these who die as cattle?


World War I was the making of Owen as a poet. The sheer scale of human suffering that transpired as a result of the use, for the first time, of modern warfare technologies such as mustard gas and tanks, seems an odd inspiration for poetry, as it does for music or art. Yet this was the war which spawned a unique generation of vital cultural engagement.

Alongside Owen stand scores of others whose experiences during World War I became an integral element to their artistic development. Owen's friend and literary contemporaries Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden produced poetry which, compared with their pre and post war work, is edgy and searing. The composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams's Third Symphony is an extraordinary powerful and disturbing requiem to the thousands of dead soldiers that the composer found each day in his role as an ambulance driver on the Western Front. And then there are artists such as Paul Nash and CRW Nevinson, the latter whose modernist canvases so confrontingly illustrated the dehumanised modern industrial battlefield. Or the Australian war artist George Lambert, whose portraits of Palestine and Gallipoli, are anything but propaganda pieces.

World War I not only unleashed the creative mind in a hitherto unprecedented fashion, but it ensured that the artist was an important participant in the setting of conflict. Twenty-five years after Owen's Anthem, Time magazine carried a photograph of the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, wearing a fireman's helmet, on its front cover. Shostakovich's brittle and defiant Seventh Symphony stands as a symbol for the Soviet resistance against Hitler's invading armies, but carries within it a cry for an end to senseless destruction on all sides. It is an artistic creation as powerful in meaning and symbolism as Pablo Picasso's 1937 famous painting Guernica, depicting the Nazi bombing in the Spanish Civil War.

Modern warfare needed the artist. Because there had to be some way of making sense of it all, and to counter the deception of politicians who started it. The art spawned from modern large scale conflict did not reassure, but it allowed the individual to find some meaning in the inhumanity of humankind. And the artist stood as hero - a mythical figure defying evil. Particularly so in the US in the lead up to, and during World War II, when legions of Jewish musicians, conductors and composers fled their native Germany and Austria to rebuild astonishingly successful careers in America, and in doing so literally become household names in that country.

The creativity spawned by the Vietnam War underlines the centrality of the artist to public perception of modern warfare, and changed voters' perceptions of conflict into the bargain. As Faoud Ajami observed earlier this year, the Vietnam War was a “well written” one - referring to the torrents of words written by authors such as Graham Greene in The Quiet American and Frances Fitzgerald in Fire in the Lake. Similarly, the Vietnam War saw news photography replace poetry and music as the forensic verifier of this new reality.

It was the art which lay behind the imagery of the look of sheer terror on the faces of fleeing villagers which helped turn America's conscience away from the fight against communism towards the immorality of Vietnam.


But today, it is almost unimaginable to claim that artists are playing such cathartic and interpretive roles in the conflicts of our time - the war in Iraq and the post 9-11 war on terror. Today's artists are relegated to a sideshow alley in these conflicts. We are told that the struggle against al-Qaida and its allies is nothing less than a fight to save Western Enlightenment traditions against a medieval monotheism. Surely this is ripe for artistic expression of the immense consequences?

Now is the time for the artist to say “something” just as Owen, Picasso, Shostakovich did when the world most needed their eyes, ears and souls to give expression to the chaos that was all around.

But what might today's artists “say” about the war in Iraq or the war on terror that will serve as a powerful enough manifesto to ensure our society is made uncomfortable by the symbolism of its content or that we are given an inspiration to find common ground? What is the antithesis of the state of war?

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First published in The Age on August 25, 2007.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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