Art on war, war on art
By Fuad Arif
“…if no agreement can be reached between particular wills, conflicts between states can be settled only by war”
“How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don’t think”. -Adolf Hitler
War has always threatened the death of individuals and possibly the destruction of one or more cultures. It was dangerous for these reasons, but only for these reasons, in spite of war’s horrors our species itself was never under assaults. The dinosaurs and the Dodo bird might have gone forever, but we human beings would continue to inhabit the planet no matter how we haunted and slew each other, or that is what we use to think.
Any war fought after one of the biggest blazed ever seen by humankind over Hiroshima can now lead to the possibility of human extinction. Ever since August 6, 1945, it has been clear that the fundamental problem of war has changed. And if human continue their past pattern, it is terrifying to know that sooner or later there will be a war between two or more nations, each of which have atomic arsenal. Then and this is clear from our human track record, no matter what is promised, no matter what treaties or concordances have been negotiated and sign on papers, there is a harsh conclusion that the leaders of that losing nation will somehow unleash its nuclear weapons. The response is unavoidable. Nor can an effective defence against nuclear weapons work for very long. In all our long history of developing offensive and defensive weapons, the balance between the two has repeatedly shifted back and forth. No matter how good a defence is, new developments always give tribute to the offense and then later, vice versa.
My understanding is that there is one ‘basic’ or least almost universal, tension that seems restricted to human beings in being human beings. This is the problem of how to be both an individual and a part of something larger than oneself. A bird appears to have no trouble being a bird, experiencing both its own uniqueness and its relationships among other birds. To a bird these two needs seem to offer no contradictions; to human being they often do. A cat apparently has no trouble being a Persian cat, a Siberian Lynx or a Maine Coon and a cat, all at the same time. A human being frequently has a great deal of trouble being, ‘Ahmad’, ‘Ah Chong’, ‘Muthusami’, ‘George’, ‘Mary’, ‘a sweeper’, ‘a teacher’, ‘a male’, ‘a woman’, ‘a Malaysian’ and even a human being.
If we look through present-day academic textbook in subjects such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology, we see occurrence after occurrence of constant conflict and interplay between these two forces. On the one hand is the drive to be more and more oneself, more and more unique and individual, heighten and strengthen one’s experience and being. On the other hand is the drive to be accepted as a member of a group, not to stand apart as an outsider, in order to be a full-fledged member of a tribe or in a larger domain, a state. These are frightening conditions within human ‘basic’ behaviours if one would to think of any possibility that human being can live together peacefully. Because if we were to browse back to our own human histories we all know that it is otherwise.
But let me come forth to my discussion pertaining to the matter of art. In a world that has got use of war being a part of its reality, how do people such as the art community can have any implication towards what has been going on with men obsessive nature to kill and conquer? If so, then what is the critical concept within which their effect can be understood? How can paintings or sculptures can have any ideal consciousness towards whoever is viewing them? Can they change people perception on the reality of war (which we seem to get from books and magazines we read or broadcast news we see and hear from the media)? Or how about purchasing and displaying such artistic objects in our homes or public spaces, does it contribute to any significant changes in its existence to make ‘war not exist’? Can they in turn reveal the conditions of belief that produce them? These are some questions that were looming in my mind when I first knew that I would be doing a write-up on this subject. Not that I am questioning the artist intention or even asking people to judge ‘the rights and wrongs’ about his works, but for the sake of our “own consciousness” in understanding why we are here, looking and admiring the physical present of the artist touch, I think it would do us and the artist some justices in understanding our attitude towards this culture. Otherwise we will lose any real meaning in our existence in making sense of our existence as a society that seem to take great love and interest in art.
Because one of the most ironic thing about all of this is that, the ‘being’ of war as we know it, has always been a part of our reality; (as a specific example) in term of its value as a thing of commodity and in term of the ‘survival factor’ by which some of us live and make sense (use) of our life from its existence. Harsh as it may sound it is an unavoidable paradox. In the local art world for instance who cannot recognise Bayu Utomo famous works ‘When humans treat humans’ and ‘Win & Lose’. The first, depicting a familiar prisoner-of war figure and the later a four panel mix media drawing of army personal and children of war, both are ‘collection’ of the National Art Gallery. Or on a much bigger scope we have Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, Christian Boltanski’s ‘Altar to Chases High School’, Anselm Kiefer’s ‘Margarethe’ and Leon Golub’s ‘White Squad V’ all are ‘collection’ by wealthy individuals and bourgeoisie institution. Beside the unsympathetic reality of war, war (art) as we know it is a part of commodify object. Whether it is because of the exchange value or sign-exchange value to which it is able to bring about towards a particular individual or a particular group’s interest. By this comes the condition of power, fame and prestige. Just imagine if one would have the famous ‘Guernica’ as one possession, wouldn’t that mean something!
In another side of this proviso, Jean Baudrillard seem to offer yet another concept that characterize a pessimistic situation, whereby works of art are part of a totalizing image-culture characterized by the supremacy of consensual, ‘televisual imagery’. Put in another way, contemporary cultures are increasingly dominated by organization of high-speed visualization and false consciousness. This organization can produce, for example, feeling of shock and awe at the spectacle of destruction on the September 11 or feeling of abjection (the state of being cast off) produced by photographs of American abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib. However Baudrillard argue, such feelings are only virtual responses to representations: the lived and the represented are identical. For him these images are ‘war porn’ in the ‘customary rule of the world of making everything visible in a desperate simulacrum of power’. To follow Baudrillard argument, many galleries and museums are full of ‘art porn’. In a statement made by Gregory Green:
“The voluntary relinquishing of responsibility for our lives, actions, and truths is the true source of our destruction. Freedom from this system of control based upon perpetual fear and misinformation is required for our survival. The myths and systems that maintain these realities must be removed.”
My duty here is not to disturb anyone’s authority or even disrupt anyone’s mood in enjoying and marvelling pieces of art that are display in this gallery. Merely I am trying to present alternative views of different parameters that some time can obstruct our understanding towards ‘alternate realities’ that exist within our human mind and experience, which most of the time we live our life without realising these conditions have existed (or can exist). By which in a strange but humanistic way somehow human has always need the ever present of war in making life “as it is”, which in turn is a very scary notion indeed. Other than that as a brief observer, I would like to make it clear that I can never be out of touch with my own judgment of taste. Therefore I have refused to stated down any judgement of values that I have or might have towards any of Shafee Ramli’s paintings, collages, assemblage and sculptural pieces, nor would I give descriptive interpretation toward his artistic objects because simply said, for that division, it is best to leave it to him, by which I truly believe he is more than capable of doing so.
Before I end, I wish to conclude that the capacity of art (unique but some time not so exclusive) to expose the systems and forces of ideological production and as a cultural conditions remains vital. Only that at the same time, in our time, we recognize, cynically but necessarily, the extent to which art is also, always, a symbolic expression of the culture of capitalism. Certainly art embodies capitalist mythology in the figure of the artist as someone whose labour is not alienated, but owned, individual, expressive and resistant and who produces a commodity whose infrequency and specialization calls all other values into relief. And amongst this ‘value’ WAR is one of them.