The role of art in times of war

Kyiv, Ukraine – You don’t have to go far outside of Kyiv to see how the massacre of civilians and the crushing of culture still comes one after another. In Borodianka, the nucleus of Russian atrocities about 45 minutes north of here – the road is slower now that bridges have been torn down – the windows of the Palace of Culture are shattered; Its concert hall is strewn with dust, and ticket booths are tattered. Halfway between the capital and the Belarusian border, I had to twist my body through crooked studs to enter the flat Ivankiv Museum of History and Local History, its statues now engraved, and its embroideries burnt. It is much worse in the east.

Here in Kyiv, masterpieces, like many of their earlier compatriots, went underground. The Khanenko National Art Museum, in an old mansion on Tereshchenkivska Street, has smaller rubens: a small oil painting of a river deity, usually on a blue wall below a fine art porthole. I couldn’t see it when I walked there; The whole group is in hiding.

In the early days of the war, when Kyiv was besieged on all sides and half the population of this city fled, many Americans in the arts wanted to know what they could do, other than the things everyone should do: support charities and support refugees. Museums and orchestras made their required statements of disgust and loyalty. He sang the Ukrainian national anthem at the Metropolitan Opera. A cold Ukrainian folk song “Saturday Night Live” opened. We’ve all now internalized the participatory perks of social media: you have to interact, you have to share. Algorithms do not favor Rubens’ tale.

The authorities of Ukraine, even the actor turned commander-in-chief, were not shy about encouraging the field of international culture to support the war effort. President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the enthusiastic crowds at the Venice Biennale and Cannes Film Festival. Grammy too. “On our land, we are fighting Russia, which brings terrible silence with its bombs – dead silence,” the president, in his oil shirt, said to Olivia Rodrigo, Jasmine Sullivan and the rest of the assembled stars. “Fill the silence with your music.” (John Legend followed him, glancing at the piano for soldiers to “drop those weapons”: it was probably an embarrassing message to defenders against imperial conquest.)

Those of us in the rich and secure parts of the world, rich and secure as long as nuclear weapons remain sheathed, surely get Something of this cultural solidarity. And during a war as morally unmistakable as this one, sure, why doesn’t the local flamenco company say “Ukrainian Slava” after recognizing the land? But this is the reduction of this historical war to just another war.current thing“Already overshadowed, in the United States at least, by new domestic assaults. Crimes against Ukrainian civilians still occur daily. The death toll on the front lines is still appallingly high. If we are to stick to wartime culture, it can’t just be a means Other broadcasts, not when louder mics speaking in accessible languages ​​fail to turn our heads.

Why listen to music, Why do we look at art and why do we go to the theater and the war is raging? twenty years ago, in these pageswhile the pile in Zero was still ablaze and the long war in Afghanistan was just beginning, critic Margo Jefferson gave an answer that always stuck with me.

Jefferson wrote that the reason you need art in wartime is that “history cannot exist without the discipline of imagination.” Through art we establish parallels between the past and the future, near and far, abstract and concrete, which cast doubtful certainties. We look and listen in such a way that thinking and feeling parallel each other. And in troubled times, this kind of cultural appreciation can rise from the analytical level to the ethical one. If we pay close attention—a task that becomes increasingly difficult with each meme blast and the start of the iPhone—art, literature, and music can give us enhanced faculties of seeing our new present as something more than a stream of words and images. They can “provide ways of seeing and organizing the world,” Jefferson wrote at the time: “Not only our world, but those worlds elsewhere of which we know so little.”

Those cultural figures we celebrate who lived through the war, from Sophocles to Wolff, from Goya to Chaplin, and from Kikuji Kawada To Wole Soyinka, Know more than we do that the clarity that art can provide is not what you get from a lecture or a news report. This does not mean that high culture will naturally get you out of barbarism. Dictators can love ballet as much as Democrats. It also does not mean that the representation of war is an impossible project, or that the genres of documentaries or testimonies have more limited goals than abstraction or epic. Foreign and local artists have depicted the war here face to face since the inception of the fighting In fact It began eight years ago – in the satire of Ukrainian director Sergey Loznitsa”Donbass“, in Serhi Zahadan’s raw novel”the orphanageOr in the award-winning, deep war series by Polish photographer Wiktoria Wojciechowska.sparks. “

It is simply saying that the best art that depicts war is important for her sakeIts full value lies in a world beyond communication or advocacy. Implicitly, we already know this: There is a reason why PicassoGuernica“The year 1937, which defined a world of grief in the bombing of a Basque village, was invoked amid the bombing of Fallujah, Aleppo and now Mariupol, while Meru”Aidez L’Espagne“A more urgent cry for help was made that same year, it just became a historical artifact. There is a reason to go back to the romance of ‘Casablanca’ when we think of refugees in wartime, and its thriller”Battle of AlgeriaWhen we think of the anti-colonial struggle; why did the hieroglyphic “Blowin’ in the Wind” endure more than many outspoken protest songs.

Somewhere in the gaps between form and meaning, between image and plot, between thinking and feeling, art gives us a view of human suffering and human capacity that testimonies, or even our eyes, cannot always. These acts of war are not important because they are “objective”—or, to use the hollow phrase in our day, “it is necessary. “It is important because it reasserts the place of form and imagination in times that would deny their potential. They tell history in scales and depths that notifications simply cannot push, and propaganda doesn’t care. It is what allows us to discern, in the daily tide of imagery and madness, any meaning on the launch.

Let us leave the contemporary offensive and return to Florence: a tourist mecca now, a military stronghold in the days of Rubens. The war he drew had just begun, but Mars was already carrying a blood-soaked sword. As he advances, he is looking at his lover, Venus, who is desperately trying to restrain him.

But love is nothing now. Mars is in the grip of another woman, the wrath of Alecto, whose hair is standing on end and her eyes bulging with madness.

Look beyond the faces, look at the bodies. Big Gods writhing and rolling as they stumble left to right. The innocent little figures slipped and crashed.

When Robbins began painting Consequences of War around 1638, the Thirty Years’ War was only 20 years old. Never before has Europe known an orgy of death like that of Rubens. It wouldn’t happen again until the 20th century. Compare this painting with Rubens’ earlier paintings of mythical savagery, such as the anatomical one”massacre of innocents(circa 1610), and you’ll see how the afterimage bleeds, gathers, pools, flows, and ripples.

Instead of depicting battles and epidemics head-on, here it is as if draw herself He went to war. Robbins, amidst unprecedented violence, realized that the era had transformed the excesses of the Baroque into a style of realism.

Or in other words: he understood that the extremes of the Thirty Years’ War demanded a severe limit in form, and that a symbolic representation could show something that other representations could not. It was a point he emphasized with the last major character in Consequences of War, located on the far left. She is a young woman in a tattered, non-reverted black dress. Her arms were directed toward the sky, her red cheeks stained with fat tears. This weeping woman, as Rubens wrote to his fellow Florentine painter, is l’infelice Europa: “Unfortunate Europe which has suffered for so many years plunder, anger, and misery, and which is so damaging to everything that it needs no further detail.”

So harmful that they don’t need more specs. Even in the mid-17th century, scenes of brutality were so strong and persistent that the whole of the Thirty Years’ War could be dressed up in Europe’s tangled dress, its shaggy hair, and its hot pink face. If images of war were so ambient in the 1630s, I don’t even know how to begin to measure supersaturation today. However, the images of depredation and misery of our time have less moral impact each year – as we learned frighteningly during the Syrian Civil War, very possibly the most documented in human history (to this date).

The ubiquitous images and constant testimonies of Syrian atrocities over 10 years had an impact close to zero. And I can feel her on the ground, this month, amidst the hand-held cameras of this horrific war and poignant propaganda, her live feed of Kh-22 missile strikes, minute-by-minute Telegram updates of eastern horror, and her Instagram posts from a 4-year-old with Down syndrome. Killed by a Russian missile in a park in the city: These assaults in Ukraine have already become something else to pass in the past, just as we passed through Damascus and Aleppo.

The war eventually became A reflection of the digital addition that the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk It has been identified as the primary challenge for artists and audiences today. On the phone screen, everywhere “somewhere”, Tokarczuk regrets Nobel Lecture 2019: “Somewhere” some people drown while trying to cross the sea. “Somewhere,” “for some time,” “sort of,” the war was going on. In the deluge of information individual messages lose their contours, dissipate in our memory, become unreal and fade.” How can any image of war compel us, how can any work of war art maintain its importance, while swimming upstream in a river of incombustible content? Soldiers possess Also phones along with their AK-74 rifles, and every day since February 24th brings something else fleeting.

Our only chance to get from “somewhere” to somewhere lies, according to Tokarczuk, in a paradigm of artistic creativity that breaks the singular first-person principle of state modernization, seeking “a story that would transcend the non-communicative imprisonment of the individual himself.” American culture has become afraid of stories like this—more universal stories, more inclusive stories—but writing them has been the task of wartime artists since Aeschylus began.”Persians. “One cultural commitment we can make, like Yesterday’s world Turning into a mist, it is to rediscover the full human cost of our perpetual battles, even if their reflections in art are bound to be piecemeal. From these fragments we may get a glimpse of the consequences of war and the dangers to come that we will not have the luxury of scrolling any further.


Peter Paul Rubens, “Consequences of War,” via Uffizi Galleries.