Art and the War

March 28, 2003

This essay written at the start of the Iraq War appeared in an edited form as “Art – A War Fugitive that Returns to Haunt” in The Straits Times (28 March 2003).

Art — not truth — is the first casualty of war. When war begins, without a single word uttered, art gets re-read in the head as a peacetime luxury. It becomes what you are right to dabble in so long as the truly important events have not occurred.

And when the crucial event itself proves hopelessly divisive, as is the case now with the US-led invasion of Iraq, this open secret becomes all the more catastrophic. When unprovoked unilateral war is waged by the most advanced and free nation beloved of thinkers from Blake to Baudrillard, art becomes not just awkward and irrelevant but speechless and homeless, a fool and a fugitive in its own space.

With a schedule of glamorous events further meeting us in spite of war, whatever good intentions there may be, the glaring rupture between culture and Realpolitik becomes infinitely more painful to watch. Indeed, it has been a while since our media coverage has looked so schizophrenic, with precision bombings and guerrilla assaults one minute and award ceremonies and pop concerts the next.

In times like this, if you have any opinion on the war at all, chances are, you will keep very quiet about art. It seems criminal even to try to wrest attention away from this focal horror of our lives; it seems wickedly apt to dismiss as vain, naïve or inhumane talk of such triviality.

But art’s deepest meaning is really better observed and studied now than in more innocent and prosperous times. I am not just about to rhapsodise absurdly about art; in fact, I will affirm your own suspicion that art is probably useless.

Art in itself changes nothing overnight. It can barely wring a uniform response, let alone secure a fraction of the audience needed to effect real change. Yet, from a political point of view, art’s strange link to human feelings can prove extremely useful for the pursuit of purely directed ends.

Indeed, when the pale dust of war begins to fly, you can rest assured that art will be conscripted to overwhelm another group of victims: us. For the propaganda wars have begun: words, images and gestures properly arranged for the eye and ear are able to forge particular visions through the backdoor of our imagination. Saddam Hussein knows this well, and Baghdad’s monuments testify to his understanding. But “Shock and Awe” is itself more akin to Sturm und Drang than you might think.

When objectivity is irretrievable, beauty becomes next-in-command.

It is no good that we pretend all this is far from true. Deny art’s dangerous slipperiness, and it will haunt you later in the shape of works or performances you know are mere soul-selling of inner failure, escapism and money yoked together.

But this emptiness, once confronted fearlessly, shows itself full of crucial forgotten issues: for one, the trauma of the helpless has always been art’s own starting-point. The artist in silent search of originality knows this best; so does he or she who pushes on in full knowledge that the best of times and the worst will equally eclipse all private efforts. Both respond from the start to an ethical call before which the kernel, the seed, always goes missing.

In this war, religious and social agencies may have answered with swift compassion and pledges of humanitarian aid, and this is good: they are sensing cries that can only be imagined but never heard. Yet, for every individual who does all he or she can but then feels nothing has been done at all, we have one more appearing to identify with the powerlessness that is art’s.

I dare say that, in one of those rare moments of global conflux, with this conflict which one may be willing but is truly powerless to prevent, we are seeing the traumas of the artist and the spectator finally becoming one and the same.

Indeed, many suspect that they do know how the present hostilities will end at least officially, how almost everything will henceforth be different and yet so little will change. We are worried too that for all that we feel today — our nearness to invisible sufferers, their fears and pains transcending distance — all this will be useless not just in political terms but, when the war is over for a year or two, in poor memory.

When you start asking whether such inner anguish is then for nothing and yet persist with the irrational need to hold on, you are in the realm of art.

It is perversely ironic that the hostilities tainting the creative vision with destructive agendas should be the ones enabling this quite obliviously. By granting us noisy voicelessness, they are displacing art’s original sentiments onto a traditionally passive audience of world and culture; they are making us all artists.

The war that spawns infinite new possibilities of dividing people will yet unite us in our ethical response, our singular feeling of incapacity and the sanctity of all pointless inner struggles enshrined in art.

Gwee Li Sui


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