by David J. LaBella
Art has been a vital part of our collective social conscience since the earliest beginnings of human history. Visual and performing arts have highlighted events that range from heroic to uplifting to dastardly and murderous. Many of the most famous works created in any medium have dealt with the manner in which interactions between individuals and nations have transformed history and colored the narrative of the human experience; some allowing an insight into happenings that defy our ability to put into words our feelings toward the excesses of ambition and emotion to which we are capable of succumbing.
In the years before photography and electronic media, the arts, particularly painting, served as the conduit through which ideas, opinions, and interpretations of the march of history through the ages flowed from the creative impulses of the artists to their audience. The better-known among the artistic community, dependent on the patronage and favor of the ruling elites for commissions and exhibition space, would routinely depict the wars and other newsworthy ventures of their homelands in a manner that would assert the moral and institutional character of the leadership that directed the fortunes of the nation/ states to which they belonged; it was, therefore, unusual that the paintings they produced did anything that stepped beyond the bounds of their allegiance to the ruling class and to the values and ideology that promoted their interests. Their work is hardly what one might consider to be a documentary summary of the battles and seminal events that earmarked the historical record of their nation – their executions represent the occasion in an idealized manner that rarely owed anything to factual record. Nevertheless, by the Romantic Age the work of many of the European and, later, American painters began to reflect a growing social consciousness that demanded a more open-minded interpretation of the political and military landscape; the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were marked by a rising tide of popular revolutions and widespread unrest that drew together all social and economic classes and affected virtually every one of the Western nations. Gradually, instead of depicting only the events that their patrons wished to commit to canvass, artists painted scenes drawn from the seemingly endless series of revolutions that convulsed Europe throughout the years following the American War of Independence. The middle and lower classes of the heretofore rigidly stratified European societies sought to break down the limitations imposed on them by their rulers and achieve for themselves a measure of the freedoms that American democracy espoused.
Art has been a vital part of our collective social conscience since the earliest beginnings of human history.
Paintings that captured the chaos and desperation of the French Revolution appeared almost as quickly as the events themselves unfolded. Reactionary monarchists and loyalists to the status quo vied with anarchists, socialists, and revolutionaries who cherished rights and concepts that would liberate them from their hereditary disadvantages. Whilst royalty succeeded in seating itself in the halls of power for some time, the ensuing months would see them toppled from their thrones and replaced by coalitions of fractious, distrustful alliances of revolutionaries that would prove unfit to govern and would fall once again. All the while, artists recorded the ebb and flow of the fortunes of the upper classes and the downtrodden alike, and some of the most moving artwork of the Romantic Age has come down to us from those turbulent years, as has the tradition of the artist as social commentator unable to deny or turn away from the churning train of events that characterized the nineteenth century, painters assumed the role of journalists documenting what they saw in the streets. The fact that they did this remains even if their works still fell prey to the excesses of technique and allegorical baggage that clouded their ability to depict reality and allowed their political inclinations to express themselves in the works they produced.
A well-known example of this idealized documentary-art is “Liberty Leading the People” by Delacroix (1830). Done in the florid, vivid style that sprang from the sensibilities of late Romanticism, the painting depicts a heroic montage in which Parisians, leading an armed insurrection against the monarchist King Charles X, rise to the banner of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Passionate figures reflect the will for liberty that moved the spirit and character of the people, rather than representing an accurate record of any actual events; so much so that the government, fearing the incendiary message that appeared to glorify the anarchistic tendencies of the Paris mob, bought the painting but kept it hidden from public display, where it remained until the passing of the reign of Louis-Philippe in 1848. The scene juxtaposes the brutality of the insensitive regime with the aggressive humanism that had brought revolution to France only three decades before, and skews reality toward the fantastic in its use of allegorical references to express its point of view.
The late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century and the evolution of Expressionism into the myriad forms of Abstraction that spawned Modern Art witnessed a series of changes that affected the relationship between art and the events that marked the transition of the Industrial Revolution era into the modern age of the twentieth century. Radical technological advances affected the lives of everyone in the industrialized nations of the West. Many of these changes liberated people from the dreadful toil and desperate poverty they had known as their only birthright throughout the previous years of the industrial economy, but other forces at work within the social and political fabric of some of the most advanced nations foreshadowed the horrors and tragedies that the new century would soon unleash across the globe. Mass production and mechanization combined with imperialism and exceptionalism permeated the ideology of the rising Western powers. Nationalism, pretensions to racial an cultural superiority, and industrial growth provided a great deal of the impetus of the series of wars that punctuated international affairs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, beginning with the Crimean War and culminating in the two World Wars. Mankind’s ability to unleash ever more efficient means of destruction and genocide threatened the very fabric of civilization.
Visual and performing arts have highlighted events that range from heroic to uplifting to dastardly and murderous
Once again, there were artists witnessing the double-edged sword of modernity and the horrors that technological advancement and unchecked ambition set loose upon nations. Foremost among them were the pioneers of Modern Art, creating graphic representations of the unprecedented events that unfolded before their eyes. The German terrorbombing of the Spanish town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War was portrayed by Picasso in an unforgettable style that combined the shocking moral depravity of the episode with the impersonal, detached ease that military aviation brought to modern warfare; the canvas still provides a gripping memorial to the passing of the age of “gentleman’s warfare,” where campaigns were fought according to rules between forces in close contact with one another. Murder rendered antiseptic and convenient would soon become appalling even to the generations that had lived through the horrors of the First World War, which had settled nothing at the cost of millions of lives just two decades before.
Beginning with Roger Fenton during the Crimean War and Mathew Brady during the American Civil War, photographers in the field began to render wartime scenes on film. The Great Depression was trenchantly captured by Dorothea Lange and others – documentary photography began to assume the role that painting had served for so many years for recording the physical details and human dimensions of newsworthy historical events. And, to be sure, the twentieth century was a watershed on the dark timeline of man’s age- old affinity for self-destruction and mass killing. Well over one hundred million people met violent deaths at the hands of others or were left to die in man-made famines caused by warfare or nationalist intentions – in the two World Wars, in the Stalinist purges and in the paranoid cleansing of Mao’s People’s Republic of China, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in Korea and Vietnam, in Rwanda and the Balkans, in Biafra and Darfur and Ethiopia, in the orchestrated depravity of the Holocaust, in the endlessly volatile Middle East, in the vast reaches of Latin America, and in a heart-rending roll-call of locations where the events have passed nearly beyond our awareness into bitter memories and forgotten tragedies. Yet, despite all this, we are unable to recall any widely-known works of art that commemorate what transpired – it is as if, with the advent of electronic journalism, art gave up its honorable tradition of documenting such things.
It is true, no doubt, that in each of these cases there were and are still great works of art created that capture the moment in some form; it matters not at all if the technique and vocabulary of the works are in the modern form or in a more traditional form – they are there. But we do not know them, they do not have the notoriety that Delacroix and Picasso and so many others enjoyed; the works are lost in the blinding glare of CNN and its eager offspring, the online sources, and in the overwhelming glut of news- on-demand that we are bombarded with, if we choose to look. We have desensitized our most horrific human behavior, and that trend can be traced back to the live, dinner- time reporting of the Vietnam War. Previously to Vietnam, reporters and photographers, while embedded with forces on active duty at the front, were required to submit their work for censorship before it was released to the public (not unlike the censorship under which painters had toiled at the hands of their royal patrons in past centuries). In Vietnam, that all changed, and live news reporting dominated the airwaves and set the stage for the dizzying array of media sources that compete for our attention with images and dialogue captured at the point of death itself. This is precisely the role that artists had occupied for so many years, and while it is certainly true that their works were passed down to us through the prism of their sensibilities, mores, and values in a fashion that would inevitably alter the version of the true course of events that had taken place, it is also true that our over-exposure to reality has bred a callousness and a dismissive attitude toward violence and evil. We see it, we recoil in horror or empathize with those left behind, we even move to perhaps alleviate some of the suffering in the aftermath, and we move on until the next time we are faced with the darkness that blinds the eyes of human judgment and behavior. The twentieth century made us lose any means to account for our capacity to inflict harm on one another, and the final dissolution of empires and spheres of influence let loose centuries of pent-up regional, ethnic, religious, and personal animosities. One could never find a way to blame for this a Picasso or a Delacroix. Could we not find a compelling argument that would fix atleast some of the blame on our appetite for electronic reality?