Studio Notes: Death Becomes You-Really!

robert.e.lee & vincent van gogh

It is the intimate, personal, penetratingly perceptive touch,
indeed, that is equipped to furnish a chapter
that would have been missing were the camera exclusively relied upon.

--New York Times review of combat art show, 1943

One link between artists and soldiers is the promise of appreciation (immortality?) after death. There is no shortage of references to ‘tragic' artists in the canons of popular literature and a heroic soldier is more usually dead than alive. And if alive then far from the same person who left home. And artists of paint, word or film - it makes no difference - they’re so much better dead aren't they? People say those words to me quite seriously. “Your work will be worth more when you’re dead” with that desperate, jocular bonhomie that tries to hide their absolute conviction that this is God’s Truth. Like anyone with a physical defect, you smile and look over their shoulder, because you’re trained to ignore this. It’s not unlike living next to an international airport.

Sometimes artists get smart. I recently read a funny page online called Dead Artists Are Better. It links to many examples in literature, film theatre, music, anime, and poetry where artists try and use this unfortunate fact to wreak a profitable scam and pretend they’re dead. Love it!  Read: Dead Artists Are Better.

It’s a shame we rarely meet. Artists and soldiers are trapped in separate worlds, even though they both take risks that can send them nuts. The exception is war artists. Those embedded artists that today are in sad decline. The US army only has 3 on the pay roll, and nowadays insiste that they be trained soldiers too. By this requirement, much of what war artists used to say has been censored by the tribe. The "embedded" journalists of today experience a similar Stockholm Syndrome after the new basic training that journalists must complete to accompany the army into the field. And 3 artists reinforcing information ops has little to do with art and contributes nothing to our collective understanding of war.

In 1943 there were 42 US war artists at work across the world. That doesn't take away from the achievements of the officially approved war artists of the past, but times have changed. WLA Journal gives a better coverage of that subject than I will here.

PBS also produced a great website called They Drew Fire: combat artsists of World War II in which which they note that in March, 1943, those same 42 artists were sent a memorandum by the chair of the War Department Art Advisory committee, George Biddle, outlining their mission. I think it was followed more closely than today if you judge recent war art to the art of WW2 artist Leslie Cole. It read:

...Any subject is in order, if as artists you feel that it is part of War; battle scenes and the front line battle landscapes; the dying and the dead; prisoners of war; field hospitals and base hospitals; wrecked habitations and bombing scenes; character sketches of our own troops, of prisoners, of the natives of the countries you visit;- never official portraits; the tactical implements of war; embarkation and debarkation scenes; the nobility, courage, cowardice, cruelty, boredom of war; all this should form part of a well-rounded picture. Try to omit nothing; duplicate to your heart's content. Express if you can, realistically or symbolically, the essence and spirit of war. You may be guided by Blake's mysticism, by Goya's cynicism and savagery, by Delacroix's romanticism, by Daumier's humanity and tenderness; or better still follow your own inevitable star. We believe that our Army Command is giving you an opportunity to bring back a record of great value to our country. Our committee wants to assist you to that end. [citation]

I suppose people feel a war artist isn’t as necessary when soldiers are making videos and posting them from their mobile phones straight to the internet. You see, even on the battlefields, they're worried about the ultimate question: their ultimate worth.

The much revered soldier-poet of World War1, Wilfred Owen, perfected the combination of horror and criticism of war and war-makers in his personalized account of poison gas, death by cold, and of course death by the conventional use of weapons. He also captured the death of the human spirit like no other.

Where once war poets helped us to make sense and define the experience of killing and being killed, today we have the ubiquitous ‘war-porn’ to engage us, less as citizens and more as consumers of a fetishized product. Every soldier is writing his epitaph when he points his phone, hoping it distinguishes itself from the millions of other You Tube death metal soundtracks. In this act of desperate expression, a soldier crosses a line that an artist can understand. Is a war Artist trained and embedded by a military that has lost it's way really following the tradition laid down by Biddle in 1943? 


All text and images on this website are Copyright © to Carl Gopalkrishnan 2019