Culture / March 14, 2024

Art During Wartime

Can it really be that to call for sympathy with victims of murder and kidnapping is necessarily to demand violence in return?

Barry Schwabsky
A person views Pablo Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid on April 3, 2017. (Denis Doyle / Getty Images)

As Israel’s brutal attack on the people of Gaza continues unabated, to allow ourselves to even think of questions of art can feel shamefully beside the point. And yet art does have something to offer in times of crisis—precisely when it questions its own significance. What, in the face of war—and in one’s helpless distance from a war that cannot be ignored—makes art worth doing? Modern war, by its very nature, seems to defeat the imagination, defeat sympathy, defeat any attempt at a breadth of understanding. It focus the mind on the immediate, and on the all-important necessity of distinguishing friend from foe. This puts it at odds with everything we hope for from the creative vision.

No wonder that the art of the 20th century—an age that witnessed war on an industrial scale and out of all proportion to previous experience—contains so little direct expression of its ravages. The exception that proves the rule is obviously Picasso’s Guernica, but even that harrowing masterpiece, which rubbed the world’s face in the enormity of what had transpired in the massacre of innocents in the hitherto-obscure Basque town, also registered a kind of detachment from the violence it depicted, through its grisaille palette, which—as Peter Schjeldahl, shrewdly observed—“by evoking the look of a newspaper, factored in the modern experience of comprehending catastrophe (and of inflicting it) at a distance.” Commissioned by the Spanish Republican government and, after being exhibited at a world’s fair in Paris, sent on tour to raise funds for refugees, the painting was, unashamedly, a work of propaganda as much as a work of art—and as effective as it was, as propaganda, because of its artistic power.

Yet, in the midst of World War II, hunkered down in an occupied Paris, Picasso did not depict the events going on all around him. The darkness of the time was translated, instead, into austere still lifes with meager meals and skulls evoking hunger and death. “I have not painted the war,” he said, “because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict.” When he finally produced his allegory of war in The Charnel House, 1944–45, it revived the black-and-white of Guernica, but to less effect.

But the question of whether and how the horror of war can be portrayed in painting goes back much further than the 20th century, though perhaps it became more fraught then. I think of Peter Weiss’s great, still not completely translated, symphonic novel The Aesthetics of Resistance: its anonymous narrator, a young German Communist trying to spiritually and physically survive the 1930s as history takes him from the underground in Nazi Berlin to the Spanish Civil War and then exile in Sweden, where he falls into the orbit of fellow refugee Bertolt Brecht.

In doing so, he continually wrestles with the political meaning of artworks such as the Pergamon Altarpiece and Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. It is Bruegel’s Dulle Griet (1563)—not, in fact, a painting of war but the illustration of a Flemish folktale about a harridan who leads an army of women to the mouth of hell—that moves him to wonder “how it could ever be possible to convey impressions of war, since even in precise descriptions they always lost something of their essence. There was something alien that clung to the experiences being conveyed, realistic depictions were only able to cover a tiny detail, under which lay the nightmarish terror, the panicked confusion, unresolved.” But in Bruegel’s fantastical vision, he feels, “[t]he combination of the spawns of madness with the gestures and movements of startled, agonized individuals, created a situation that approximated that derangement and clairvoyance we had sometimes felt, if only for a few seconds” in battle in Spain. “In those moments, staring at sand dunes and piles of stones, faces would emerge from furrows and holes, roots, charred beams would transform into bodies laying in wait, dust-gray shrubs on the edge of paths turned into the raised limbs of guns, and from this threshold between flash-like impressions and delusions other apparitions proliferated, characterized by the disgust that was never far from fear.”

Do these hallucinatory sensations conveying the reality-unreality of the experience of war have any purchase on the art being made in our present time of war? It was with that question in mind that I went to New York’s Jewish Museum to see the exhibition “7 October 2023” by the Ukrainian-born Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky—a set of a dozen paintings on paper, produced in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, displayed in a black-walled room. I left with skepticism. The sense of immediacy afforded by Cherkassky’s faux-naïve figurative style hardly seemed up to the task of conveying the enormity of the events of that dark day. She wants to evoke empathy with the victims—naturally enough. But in trying to do so she wallows in kitsch. One example, a work showing several generations of a family taking refuge in a safe room, shows why: They all gaze out with big sad eyes, as if they already saw themselves as constituting a tableau composed for no other reason than to solicit a viewer’s emotion, rather than expressing any organic relationship among themselves, let alone agency. The fact that she directly quotes the famous bare light bulb that casts its stark illumination over Guernica only highlights the disparity between them: Cherkassky simply does not have the same faith in her art’s power to affect the viewer without, as it were, insisting on what the affect ought to be.

Current Issue

Cover of April 2024 Issue

And maybe there’s good reason not to have that faith. It seems that we have lost some of our ability to empathize: Horrors compete with horrors, and we only feel for some of the victims at the expense of the others. At a public conversation at the museum in February, demonstrators denounced the exhibition as “a pro-war show…trying to stir up revenge and retaliation” and “imperial propaganda”—an unlikely construal of the intentions of an artist who, according to The New York Times, has previously depicted Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

But these days, arbitrary imputations of intent seem de rigueur. Everyone is supposed to have the right to determine what everyone else means when they use slogans like “from the river to the sea” or “bring them home” (and whatever you do, never ask anyone what they mean, because the answer might deprive you of the pleasure of denouncing them). Maybe that’s the trouble with slogans. Can it really be that to call for sympathy with victims of murder and kidnapping is necessarily to demand violence in return? Those who believe this need to examine their own consciences. Let’s not become so morally degraded. Despite everything, it should still be possible to feel the suffering of fellow human beings, whether they are Israeli Jews or Palestinian Muslims. Instead, we find an effort to erase the memory of one group or another.

Whoever we are, we should remember that we can all, sooner or later, fall into the category of victim. In place of Cherkassky’s failed effort to individualize the victims and create a direct bond with witnesses through the gaze, I found a better response to Weiss’s call for an art conveying the experience of war through hallucinatory excess in another recent exhibition, the Swiss artist Thomas Hirshhorn’s “Fake it, Fake it—till you Fake it” at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea. Hirshhorn asks the relevant questions:

How to do art in times of war, destruction, violence, anger, hate, resentment? What kind of art should be done in moments of darkness and desperation?… How to continue working—as an artist—and in doing so, avoid falling into the traps of facts, journalism, and comments?

His massive installation was a frantic exercise in—excuse the term—overkill, featuring row upon row of crudely constructed cardboard office desks topped with cardboard computers and other devices whose “screens” are endless images of military personnel at work and the bottomless devastation of war.

Which war, or wars? Ukraine, Gaze, Yemen, Sudan, Tigray? Reduced to rubble, one street looks much like another. Like Picasso in 1937, Hirshhorn asks us to come to terms not only with the violence that surrounds us but with our mediated relationship to it. Rather than trying to separate friends from foes—making a cut that is already an incipient form of violence—he wants us to reflect on the ubiquity of the aggression in which participate, whether vicariously or otherwise, and which can always return against us.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation.

More from Barry Schwabsky Barry Schwabsky Illustration

Artemisia Gentileschi's “Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes” (detail), c. 1623–25.

A Hidden History of Europe’s Pre-Modernist Women Artists A Hidden History of Europe’s Pre-Modernist Women Artists

A recent exhibition documenting four centuries of art from female painters and illustrators provides a new way of looking at an era of art history where women are often left out.

Books & the Arts / Barry Schwabsky

Isaac Julien at the Tate Britain, 2023.

Isaac Julien’s Truth Isaac Julien’s Truth

Dealing with time, race, and utopias, his work challenges conventional notions of where film belongs and should be consumed.

Books & the Arts / Barry Schwabsky

Hannah Arendt, in a black and white photograph, sits in front of a wood paneled wall wearing a white jacket

Tomorrow’s Antisemitism Today Tomorrow’s Antisemitism Today

While real antisemitism is rearing its head, the assurance that “anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic” can feel like gaslighting.

Barry Schwabsky

David Velasco on April 18, 2018, in Milan, Italy.

Once Upon a Time in “Artforum” Once Upon a Time in “Artforum”

Artists and critics are polarized—and under great pressure from both sides of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Barry Schwabsky

A security guard stands in the doorway during a press viewing of

What Museum Guards See What Museum Guards See

A recent memoir by Patrick Bringley about his time working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrates the intimate knowledge guards possess of the pieces they protect.

Books & the Arts / Barry Schwabsky

Jimmie Durham in London, 2015.

The Unsettled Life and Art of Jimmie Durham The Unsettled Life and Art of Jimmie Durham

A retrospective in Naples magnifies the mystery of the conceptual artist’s work. 

Books & the Arts / Barry Schwabsky