The Art of War

A Brief History of Protest Art

"War. It's So-o-o-o 20th Century!" declared one of the more humorous posters in Washington Square Park on March 22, dissing the bombing of Iraq as only a New Yorker can. It's true this war feels like a replay—of the Gulf War (perhaps), of Vietnam (more likely)—but the rallies also have their aspects of déjà vu. With artists out in full force and posters plastered with images of Guernica, could it be that protest art is also oh-so-20th-century? Remember a time when artists (and other living things) believed that art could make a difference?

For the past decade, the New York art world seemed to have retreated into an exceptionally apolitical version of postmodernism, convinced by a combination of theory and action movies that a digitally enhanced future would favor spectacle over reality. Now, with the advent of an all-too-real war presented as mere spectacle by television, artists are suddenly faced with the very surrealistic task of making reality real. So it's not surprising to see—both in works on view at galleries and in the strategies of the burgeoning anti-war activists—a reprisal of the imagery and the sincerity of earlier periods of art history. One of the first anti-war actions, "From Goya to Golub," a May 2002 slide show mounted in Hollywood by curator Nina Felshin for Not in Our Name: ArtSpeaks Against the War, says it all. Artists today are looking back to a time well before Matthew Barney to find the inspiration to address the issues of the present conflict.

"People look to the arts when the world turns very, very dark," says Connie Julian, national coordinator of the Artists Network of Refuse and Resist!, an organization that has been staging anti-war actions ever since the World Trade Center disaster, though even she has trouble thinking of works from the past decade that would offer much insight into the problem at hand. For Julian, GuernicaPicasso's monumental response to the Spanish Civil War, which set off a recent controversy at the UN—is the example on everyone's minds these days. "We need works that encapsulate the dramatic turning point that humanity is confronting right now."

Goya's etching Esto es peor (This Is Worse), from his Disasters of War series
image: Francisco de Goya/Sammlung Olbricht, Essen
Goya's etching Esto es peor (This Is Worse), from his Disasters of War series

Picasso is not the only artist to emerge in the modernist era addressing the travails of armed conflict. In the aftermath of WW I, whole schools of poets, writers, photographers, and artists attempted to make images "to end all wars." Kathe Kollwitz, who lost her son on the battlefield in 1914 and her grandson in the next war in 1944, made depictions of the ravaging effects of war on the mothers and widows left behind. Otto Dix made corrosive images from his experiences in the trenches. John Heartfield practically invented photomontage in order to turn Nazi propaganda back on itself and raise the public consciousness of the dangers of fascism. While these—and scores of other artists of this period—addressed the issue of war head-on, others responded by making works that embodied the insanity of war. Movements as diverse as Dadaism, surrealism, futurism, and constructivism all were rooted in the shake-up of values in the aftermath of WW I. In fact, it's impossible to imagine a history of 20th-century art without war.

Of course, depictions of war have been around ever since armed struggle became a foundation of Western civilization. Archaeologists have found images of the Battle of Kadesh, circa 1275 B.C., on papyrus scrolls and wall reliefs; the Trojan War is central to the art of the Greek vase. But by and large, art history's view of war is that of the rulers and the victors. While allegorical works such as Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (1504) or Brueghel's Seven Deadly Sins (1557) can be interpreted as illustrating the travails of humanity under siege, neither artist could be defined as anti-war. With the advent of romanticism and history painting, a few artists took the opportunity—between portraits of generals and kings on horseback—to vent about the price of war. In The Consequences of War(1638), Peter Paul Rubens expressed his views on the Thirty Years' War through Roman mythology, showing Venus struggling to restrain Mars from unleashing his fury on Europe.

But the more modern perspective of artist as anti-war iconoclast is most often traced back to Francisco de Goya and his cycle of 80 prints, The Disasters of War, five of which are currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum. Created from 1810 to 1814 during the Napoleonic occupation of Spain, the series depicts both the invasion and the resistance, with both sides engaged in acts against humanity. "Goya is fascinating because, though completely implicated in the court of Charles IV, he also maintained a private, independent, and satiric posture," explains Met curator Gary Tinterow. Goya himself felt that Disasterswas too inflammatory to be published in his lifetime, so the series was not released until 1863, when artists in the vanguard of modernism, such as Daumier and Manet, found inspiration in its imagery.

Across the Met in the Assyrian gallery, artists gathered on March 5, Moratorium Day, to stage a more contemporary version of anti-war art-making, a "Draw-In for Peace," organized by Artists Against the War, and focusing attention to the wealth of archaeological treasures in Iraq, as well as the human life, that could be destroyed by American bombing. "If you are a serious artist, you don't want to make work that is thought of as agitprop," says Joyce Kozloff, one of the event's organizers, "but now I feel that what I want is to learn to do that and fast."

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