Spencer Selby, Island (2006) (click to enlarge)
How does war affect your ability to enjoy your personal life? There are times moments really of plaintiveness caused by the needless deaths in the specious war in Iraq; this fact doesn't affect me enjoying my personal life per se, but it does cause sad moments thinking of the young men and women who will never have families; it often leads to feelings of helplessness. I once followed a web link to the New England Journal of Medicine that showed operating rooms at battalion aid stations, and the sight of young men with their bodies torn open was nearly too much to bear. It reminded me of the awful photos of soldiers disfigured in World war One in the German anti-war book Krieg dem Krieg (War against War). At times like that, personal enjoyment of anything takes a back seat in life, to say the least. Do artists have a duty to acknowledge war in their work during wartime? I would say in general, yes, but it is not for every artist to react with his or her art; that is, I think of the late poet Richard Hugo's advice to be wary of any event that appears that it should have a poem written about it. That is, any art cannot be forced, and perhaps that's why Billy Collins refused to write a poem based on 9/11; I wrote a few myself, but discarded them all because they were basically lousy the writing forced and vague. If so, to what extent? Must artists be consumed by war? I have read works by poets such as John Ciardi, who wrote excellently about the exigency such as war; however, when they write of other things, they seem poor. Of course this is a subjective observation. Still, I think of poets such as many of the British 'trench poets' of World War One, or poets who wrote of the Holocaust, who wrote beautifully of the pathos of war and its related horrors, and that appears to be the only subjects they wrote poetry about. I recently wrote a review of Brian Turner's book Here, Bullet (Alice James Books 2005) a collection of poems based on Turner's war experience in Iraq in 2003. His poems are ineloquent but remain important just like many of the early poems written by veterans of the Vietnam War.
So the issues are problematic and tied to the quality of art in general. I must say that the best war poetry I've seen and I am mostly thinking of Vietnam War soldier poets who only wrote of their combat experience years, if not decades after, the war. I think of Yusef Komunyakaa who wrote his volume of Vietnam War poems, Dien Cai Dau, fourteen years after he left Vietnam, Doug Anderson's The Moon Reflected Fire, written in 1994, and Bruce Weigl's later Vietnam war poems included in his book The Unraveling Strangeness (better, in my opinion, than his earlier collection, A Song of Napalm). The late Simone Weil once said that "distance is the soul of beauty," and indeed, time has that refining quality that contemporaneous moments don't seem to have. Of course there are obvious exceptions to this: Wilfred Owen comes immediately to mind: a soldier-poet who wrote his great war/anti-war poems of World War One all before he was killed in 1918. Can art not dealing with war matter during wartime? Yes, it must go on, as life in general must, or as major league baseball continued during World War II. We find a lot of instances where art whether painting, fiction, poetry, drama, and even plays, is often about contemporaneous wars but in an oblique way. Thus they expand our knowledge and appreciation of how deeply war, and particularly the loss of life, become embedded in the pathos of wider humanity. But even if the art has nothing to say about war it should still go on; If not, then an enemy wins in a gratuitously pernicious way by robbing us of more than loved ones it reaches in and takes even more of our existence, hence giving the enemy's guns a synergy we needn't allow them to have.
Jeffrey C. Alfier
Ah, the questions of war. War and art. Art versus War. What aspect of life does war not effect? What moment in time has some war not raged plaguing citizens of this earth with its tribulations? Art throughout the civilized time span reflects whatever socializing aspects humanity's leaders burden upon us. When one country lives in peace and another in fear of persecution by the evil war mongers we can truthfully determine that art imitates life by the creative product of it's artists.
Yet, does the artist have a social responsibility to incorporate war into their art or become consumed by the politics of governing bodies? Can we still feel the joys of a sexual culture overwrought by violence? Perhaps, it is our duty to create the beauty that rivals the human nature to inflict suffering upon each other.
The artist always represents the freedom in creation. Are artists ever bound to thinking a certain way, acting according to set standards, or obliged to give into the box? Great artists have existed to represent all sections of life. Unbound to anything except the motive of what fuels the passion to express the creation in no certain terms. Artists come from all walks of life and therefore present view points that span the gamut. No artist in any genre is obligated to create anything at any point in time that they do not feel is relevant to the art within despite the loathsome acts of those around us that affect us in one way or another.
Sex in art, in the media, in our beds is not a sin nor should it ever be a source of guilt within consent even in the most immoral of war times. Our sexual nature as human beings instinctively drives us to intercourse when it is cold outside, in sweltering heat, at anytime we feel aroused. Sex is the one escape nature gave us without causing harm to our bodies. The orgasm is the only release we are equipped to accomplish that clears our minds momentarily from the grief that surrounds us. From innuendo in art to close up crotch shots in pornography sexual stimulation exists to free the orgasm. Masturbation is universal proving also that art imitates life, while life imitates art.
Wartime in this great American machine will influence many aspects of our lives. Will the artist be the conduit for it or against it or the conduit at all? Will sex always be a part of culture regardless of popular opinion or associated guilt? Aren't we still free to express ourselves as people and artists and sexual beings as long as we do not endanger those around us? It is a gift to be a free American. It is a greater gift to be a free American artist. We can choose our subject matter. We can put our hearts and minds into it. Our duty as artists is to influence life for the better dependent only upon the conditioning that forms our perspective from the point in existence that we call our own. This is our purpose, our reason to create.
We live in a country of vivid entropy and where once artists began or led the sound of outrage, we say and hear nothing. We have fallen into this reverse mirror image of what we were. Mothers are alone in their grief, and the suburbs seem to be immune to any of the war's violence. I never hear it spoken about. Even my writing groups have fallen silent. I worry about this a great deal, how to become alive like we once were, how to fight the good fight of nonviolent protest. ... words and sense are covered by canned music, by instantaneous gratification, and we all live lives of quiet desperation. We have forgotten our past. Even in reading a two year old copy of the New Yorker, I can see how quickly we forget.
Mary C. O'Malley
War happens. Bombs fall. Children run screaming bleeding. Women are raped at gun point. People die and turn into statistics. Sometimes it happens outside your door or millions of miles away. Everyday you turn on the TV or read the paper your senses are beaten into submission by visions of death and dying, pain and suffering. Should I as a common man a bystander really with no power to change the course of things react in anger, in pain, in sheer helplessness? Is my reaction going to make a difference? My life is defined by the things around me. I react to what impacts my life directly. If am living in a war zone I would be running for cover not thinking about sex or art. But let's say there is a war happening in Iraq and though it would effect my life in this connected world, my reaction would be much more impersonal. To the media like any other agent of big business, sex is sex and war is war. It's a matter of rating and readership. War happens. And there is nothing I can do to stop it. All i can do is get out of the way and save my sorry ass.
war sex = fast, or forced and unlimited access to what doesnt exist (example = religion, morals)
art or a certain creative effort, is kind of the opposite: a slow road to very little of something very real, but maybe less graphic, less verifiable. in some way, art often appears to be waiting for nothing. the image of a naked body instead looks like a very convincing shortcut to something that might otherwise be close to impossible (which i think is what reality actually is all about, it avoids those guarantees that wars often supply in order to render the blood acceptable.
i think that the artist's mind, and especially his work, has no access to the idea of war, because the understanding of war implies some sort of complete lack, or absence, of creativity in order for that mechanism of violence to grow. the amount of people who believe that rumsfeld is an intelligent american is at the core of war going. it's hard not to be lured by the power of that most available idea of what intelligence might look like.
organization of art is in some way harder to survive in, than organization of war is, because there has always been a strange desire in all societies to invest in acceleration. in that way, sex and war make societies look like they're moving, whereas the passive, slow response of art, its unavailability, and its lack of enemies, make things look like they're slowing down. the action in a shakespeare play or in a cave painting is enormous, but the lives of those involved in the representation, and its process, is something very remote, obscure and questionable, in comparison.
whether it's art or war, though, it promises the same thing to those who have decided to embrace it. both roads promise answers in exchange of extreme courage, and equally charge unaffordable prices for those answers or make them almost impossible to find.
the parallel of despair, in war and in art, is probably the one thing that gives this whole question a certain meaning.
One of the most interesting and valuable of the traditional military arts draws its inspiration in part from the natural world. Camouflage. I say in part, because there are two very different aspects to camouflage. The first that comes to mind is the element of hiding or concealing. In evolutionary-biological terms this has led to moths that blend in with tree trunks, caterpillars that look leaves, frogs that look like grass, fish that look like rocks, etc. Militarily, one thinks of disguising assets or facilities from attack-the weapons depot that's made to look like a hospital.
But there is another equally important aspect to camouflage which has more to do with artifice and therefore the sneaky species, humans CREATING THE PERCEPTION OF TARGETS WHERE NONE EXIST. This strategy serves a dual purpose of provoking the enemy to waste ordnance and resources (thereby further revealing overall capability), but perhaps more importantly, it helps to undermine the opponent's confidence in their intelligence gathering and campaign planning ability.
Unlike the task of concealing or protecting true targets, the creation of illusive targets has a clear and strangely insidious psychological component. Indeed, while it may require the same or even a greater level of physical theatricality, it may be more properly thought of in terms of "psych ops" and the art of propaganda (it's worthwhile reviewing the origin of this term).
Taking a larger view, one could argue that these strategies are constantly in play whether open aggression or formal military action is under way or not, therefore in a very real sense, war is always in progress.
One could go still further and make the case, that so-called "war time," as in the case of what is happening in Iraq, is the ultimate example of camouflage, for it serves both to hide and conceal a broad range of government activities which might otherwise be more closely scrutinized, as well as to distract attention away from the continuous nature of implicit conflict. Most significantly of all, "war time" creates the consensus illusion of opposition and therefore strengthens internal purpose. Indeed, there can be no Us without Them. There can be no USA without Them.
The bodies of the dead are very real and no disrespect is meant to anyone on any side, if sides there are. But if we see a flag-draped coffin and draw some conclusion about what is happening "now," than we have fallen for an illusion. We have focused on an isolated product or event and ignored a vast, historic and self-sustaining industry upon which so many of our faiths and privileges uncomfortably depend.
So, in answer to any question about how we should feel in "war time," I say, do not ask for whom the bell tolls, the clock has no hands. It is a bomb that keeps exploding, whether it shatters our complacency from time to time. Or not.