Monday, April 16, 2007

More on Combat Art

Larger version of this photo here.

I was cruising Reddit, just a bit ago, and I ran across a link to Eisenhower's oft quoted "Chance for Peace" speech, which features this quote, you've probably seen on bumberstickers:

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

Since this speech happened to be published on the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Page, I thought I'd look around. My mother is an archivist with NARA, and happens to work at the Eisenhower Library, so I felt some familial obligation to do so.

Anyway, browsing the site, I found this page about Ike's painting. I found it pretty interesting, and rather than paraphrasing, will quote it at length:

Eisenhower was proud to have a hobby in common with Churchill. In 1958, Ike helped arrange for an American tour of the paintings of Sir Winston, who wrote that he would never have done it without the encouragement tendered him by his friend, Ike. It was the first time that a large exhibition of Churchill's paintings had ever taken place. Almost ten years later, in June 1967, Ike had his own exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York City. He consented to this because it served as a fundraiser for Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York, which opened in 1968. Most of the paintings were borrowed from those to whom he had made gifts. Upon seeing the exhibition, in his usual display of modesty, Ike said, "There are a half a dozen here that I would like to burn right now." He commented that if friends hadn't asked for them as memorabilia, most of the paintings would have ended up in the furnace. The paintings subsequently appeared on calendars and in print portfolios and in a large format book called The Eisenhower College Collection: The Paintings of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

"Whether you feel that your soul is pleased by the conception or contemplation of harmonies or that your mind is stimulated by the aspect of magnificent problems or whether you are content to have fun in trying to observe and depict the jolly things you see, the vistas of possiblity are limited only by the shortness of life. Every day you may make progress; every day you may be fruitful, yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb." Winston Churchill, Painting as a Pastime

Eisenhower quoted these words from his statesman friend, because he felt they so "matchlessly described" his feeling about the "exhilarating moments of creating a picture" and the corresponding battle for proportion and harmony. He left in his art a unique visual record of people, places and things that mattered to him. His paintings depict the character of people, the history, and heritage of architecture, the beauty of landscape and his love of color. Painting was important to him, because he gave it his time, and time to him was "Frequently...a more valuable coin than money."
Eisenhower Paintings

It got me thinking about my recent post on Combat Artist Micheal Fay, and the strange things that come up when you start mixing the martial spirit with aesthetics. Immediately Miyamoto Musashi springs to mind when contemplating these issues. Generally considered the greatest swordsman in feudal Japan, his true martial legacy is as one of the greatest strategists of all time, on par with Hannibal, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz. Musashi was also a highly accomplished artist. Is this an anomoly? Was he possessed of a personal philosophy or disposition which facilitated his accomplishments in these (to us) seemingly disparate fields? Were there cultural influences at work in his development of skills and talents? Our modern view of military and creative endeavors as being antithetical is certainly not something which has always existed, and the cultural values of feudal Japan bear this out. There is a difference between a warrior and a soldier, and Bushido at it's best is a warrior's code more than a soldier's ethic.

"When I apply the principle of strategy to the ways of different arts and crafts, I no longer have need for a teacher in any domain." - Miyamoto Musashi

All this contemplation, made me go back to Fire and Ice, SSgt Fay's blog, and start digging through his archive. Serendipitously, I came across his artist statement for a show he had a few years back with the same title as his blog.

It is also my hope that my work, though grounded in realism, is more poetry than prose, and more art than journalism. I do not want my presence in these pieces to be distilled away. I was there, in the heat, watchful and tense at the beginning of a dawn raid, surrounded by children at the edge of a soccer field littered with live mortar rounds, and bouncing down an Afghan highway pocked with shell holes and bordered by minefields. I have looked into the weary campfire lit faces of my fellow Marines in unnamed places and felt time suspend itself, and in that moment found myself wondering who's faces are these; Union soldiers before Fredericksburg? Roman legionnaires during the 4th watch of the night? Or, Greek hoplites facing Troy?

It has often been my field experience, while doing a sketch or a watercolor amid my fellow Marines, that my mere presence doing art has a positive impact, even during the most trying circumstances. This consequence was something I simple had never anticipated, and it has made me acutely aware of the humanizing effect doing art can have in the midst of war, one of the most de-humanizing of experiences.

Perhaps, the phenomena of the warrior artist stems from something as simple as the fact that war is conflict, and conflict is a crucible which reveals much of the human spirit and character which is obscured in day-to-day life. And it is exactly these kinds of revelations which fascinate many artists, and have fueled some of the greatest art.

One of my favorite comics artists, Joe Sacco, though not a member of the military, seems to be fast becoming a combat artist. His comic following a group of US Marines in Iraq can be seen here. (Warning: It's a 37mb PDF, so it may take some time to load.) This comic was published online by the Guardian UK, and is also featured in The Best American Comics 2006 Anthology. He has a new comic about training the Iraqi military in this month's Harper's but you have to be a subscriber to view it. In an interview in Mother Jones magazine a couple years back he had this to say about his realtionship to conflict:

MJ: Is becoming a conflict junkie an occupational hazard?
JS: I think it’s inevitable with anyone who’s covering these kinds of things—it’s interesting and on some level it’s just an adrenaline rush. Of course, I’m drawn to a place like Iraq because it’s the biggest story of our generation.

I'll end this ramble on the Art of War, a little closer to home, with Olympia native Jeff DeLaCruz. Jeff was activated and deployed to Iraq during his senior year of college. He was granted permission to photograph his experiences there, and upon returning home began showing his photographs under the collective title, A Soldier's View.

On November 27th 2004, only 2 months after returning to the United States, the photographer received news that two Iraqi interpreters, whom he had become extremely closes to, were driving home, stopped in Al Hilla and beheaded in an alley. One of the interpreters left behind a widow and 8 daughters.

The photographer was devastated by the news and decided it was time for a change. He started getting professional help and found it difficult but began to review his images finally. A benefit fund was started by another team member to bring the daughters over to the United States to go to school to honor their fallen friend. Displaying the images was a way to raise money for the family and another cathartic way to heal the wounds the war had left him with.

The realities that exist in war transcend politics and emotional simplicity. Just by looking at the show you'll see things that both conflict and support both pro and antiwar arguments. The extreme emotional and situational complexity of the war in Iraq cannot be surmised in a single phrase and therefore a simple, "I support or don't support the war" is not sufficient. This is why it's important that this show be seen, because finally there is a face people can relate to, something dynamic people can hold on to and a complexity that emotes a true rounded emotion that accompanies every tragedy we as humans experiences.

If you think this post has a hidden political agenda, you're wrong. Read that last paragraph again.

A previous meditation on the evocative powers of realistic art.

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