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On Art and War

March 12, 2015

It was a dark and stormy night


In fact, it was neither dark nor stormy. The air in Mosul was crisp, and the sky was a soft shade of orange. This was no Bulwer-Lytton novel, the flames consuming the central library of the ancient Assyrian city were quite real. On the night of the 22nd of February, 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant burned 100,000 books and manuscripts in what the UNESCO has since called ‘one of the most devastating acts of destruction (…) in human history.'


‘One of.’



The library of Alexandria. The monasteries of England. The ‘Gallery of Kings’ of Notre Dame de Paris. The Entartete Kunst exhibit. The bridges of Florence. The Buddhas of Bamyan. The libraries of Kabul and Baghdad. The ruins of Nimrud… Almost never in history has war on man not gone hand in hand with war on culture. To defeat a man, you must take away his life. To defeat a people, you must take away its art.


At first glance, the relation between art and politics appears non-existent; the aesthetes and daydreamers of this world tend to shy away from the no-nonsense pragmatists who reconcile its balance sheets and run its governments. Examples of schisms abound. Here are two of my favorites:


From 1914 to 1918, World War I was raging through Europe while Claude Monet was painting water lilies in his garden in Giverny. And in the spring of 1940, Germany was invading France while Henri Matisse was desperately trying to capture the brightness of the little white and yellow daisies growing in the fields of Floirac on canvas.



Some saw these artists as callous and insensitive, and their work as out of place and time. Perhaps. Or perhaps painting hazy flowers was about as consequential to the outcome of a war as the maritime weather conditions off the coast of Normandy on D-Day. In other words…




A people’s identity is defined by its ideas, and the main vehicle for these ideas is art. ‘Art is the most intense form of individualism,’ said Oscar Wilde. Art cannot be defined, regulated, or homogenized. It is a testimony to the history that precedes it, the environment that molds it, and the events that inspire it. Art is, in other words, a tyrant’s worst enemy.


Imagine, if you will, a revolution. Any revolution: French, Bolshevik, Chinese, Arab, religious, economic, cultural, sexual, Green, Orange, Rose. Its success depends on a surgical rupture with the past; out with the old ideas, in with the new. A cultural and artistic table rase. Burn the books, slash the paintings, behead the statues, for 'history is written by the victors.'


‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’

– George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four


Aristotle believed that man is, by nature, a political animal. That means two things: first, that we are social creatures. Second, that all forms of expression, including art, are influenced by society, and are therefore political.


Because art is open to interpretation, ‘it opens the floor for debate, philosophy, critique and inspiration. […] Art provides us with one of the few remaining playgrounds for intellectual skirmish, a place where spoon-feeding is actively repressed and where disagreement can, and does, lead to lengthy, passionate discourse.’ – Dickon Stone


Art cannot be separated from politics, any more than it can be separated from the nature it represents. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and vocal critic of his government’s democracy and human rights record, said: ‘if somebody questions reality, truth, facts; [it] always becomes a political act.’


The Nazis burnt Picassos, Dalís, Ernsts, Klees, Légers and Mirós years before they built Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Birkenau. Case in point.



Wilde, whose one hundred and twenty-seven year-old essay by the same name inspired this blog, believed that art was the only way to improve the moral condition of humanity. Monet and Matisse interpreted light and questioned color. Their paintings captured moments in time, their flowers wrote history.


Aristotle and Wilde may have had fundamentally different views on many subjects, but they both believed in the elevation of man through politics and art. Interpretation, freedom of expression, debate. In case you were ever wondering, that is what this column is all about: ‘the artistic and contemplative construction of a world more real than reality itself.’


Over, of course, afternoon tea.


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