Can art help us make sense of war? War itself is a senseless act, and therefore looking to art to decipher its meaning, might be pointless. At the same time, art can communicate the reality of war in ways that journalism can’t. Art can also provide us with the emotional vision that can help us imagine a post-war, post-crisis future. But for the moment, while the war is ongoing, what the art world can do best is mobilise its network and help directly Ukrainian artists in practical terms, as well as make the world aware of the rich Ukrainian art scene, writes Charles Green.
Around the world there are artists, art museums, collectors, curators: all have passionately responded to the war in Ukraine. They all want to help; they want us to help. Understanding the facts is clear enough. But does art help us make sense of war? The answers are neither simple nor comforting and, mostly, depend on who ‘us’ is. If ‘us’ is the world of artists, art museums, collectors, curators—the so-called art world—then all that effort is speaking to the already converted. But if ‘us’ means a wider society, then ‘sense’—by which we commonly mean understanding and comprehending—isn’t what art does best, compared with its immersion, intense affect and emotional jolts that are, if truth be told, disconnected from good intentions.
That is why autocrats from Stalin to Mao have always distrusted artists and writers, and why novelist George Orwell and poet W.H. Auden distrusted good intentions after both had experienced wars firsthand. Art about war can do many things, but it cannot make sense of war. Instead, I wish to shift attention off how art might make sense of war and, instead, note what art can do in the face of war.
The world of art and the war in Ukraine
The art world itself can indeed do good, and art and artists need its help. Take the invasion of Ukraine. First, Ukrainian artists (along with much of Ukraine’s artistic heritage) are threatened and displaced, seeking refuge in the country’s west or joining the vast migration further westwards. Many artists, of course, have taken up arms or are participating in the war effort across the nation. According to art industry media, hundreds of artists have found temporary refuge in hastily arranged, locally generated artist residencies in Carpathian Ruthenia, a scenic, mountainous region in the country’s far west abutting Poland and Slovakia.
Second, the international art world has hastily discovered that Ukraine has a rich, vibrant art scene. The war has also catalysed cultural connections with Ukraine. London-based Art Newspaper devotes a regularly updated section, Russia-Ukraine war, to the crisis. Save Ukraine Art 22, a consortium of mostly Italian art conservators, art museums, curators, and companies, is collecting and dispatching specialist art conservation materials to rescue Ukrainian art from the effects of war. At the Biennale of Venice, the international art world’s premier showcase of contemporary art which opened at the start of May, a temporary Ukrainian Pavilion has been constructed at the very centre of the Giardini, the park where national “pavilions”—quaint, World Exposition-like, small buildings managed by a select group of nations—are scattered amongst green, treed gardens. The pavilions consist of a short, circumscribed list, reading like a League of Nations roll-call from the 1920s, assembled according to an Italian perspective on the world. They include most West, Central and Eastern European nations but not Ukraine, which is normally allocated an exhibition space at the far edges of the Biennale’s vast second site, the Arsenale, a cavernous complex of buildings that had once been shipyards and rope-making factories, or else in a deconsecrated churches or minor palazzo somewhere in the city.
None of this is to make sense of war, but it would seem more relevant in the moment that the vast international art industry helps Ukraine in practical terms.
Ukraine’s temporary pavilion right at the centre of the contemporary art world is a deliberately charred, wooden structure with art inside. This is the way the Biennale’s organisers show their solidarity with the country, by providing a few of its artists with an enormously prominent venue. Meaning, prominent in the art world, a world that encompasses not just artists but also a large proportion of the world’s mega-wealthy. After Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the crowded vernissage (the opening celebration) by video link, people ask why would he spend time on such a niche event? One cynic answers, where else could be get to address all the world’s big arms dealers at once? A couple of minutes’ walk away, the regular, castle-like Russian pavilion is shuttered, watched over by a lone security guard who endures the scowls of hundreds of art dealers, museum directors, rich collectors, and glitterati.
Around the world there are benefit art auctions and exhibitions where the proceeds of sales are donated to Ukrainian NGOs. The great Canadian-Ukrainian photographer Edward Burtynsky donates his prints. He had been about to embark on a new series of his panoramic photographs focusing on the black environmental heritage of Ukrainian industry, has reflected in an even darker tenor (if that is possible) on his Ukrainian origins and our 'predator species running amok.’
Meanwhile, in isolated Russia, thousands of artists—even veteran activists and hardened protesters like the remaining members of artist collective Pussy Riot—are fleeing the country for havens in Georgia or the Baltics or the West.
None of this is to make sense of war, but it would seem more relevant in the moment that the vast international art industry helps Ukraine in practical terms. And veterans of war often dispute with patriots that there is meaning to be discerned anywhere in war.
All research shows the arts help people to reconnect, develop empathy and deepen appreciation of social diversity.
Making art about war
Back to the questions with which we started. Less important at this point is international (by which I mean, non-Ukrainian) artists helping us understand war. At the present time and into the future, celebrities expressing solidarity through art is meaningless compared with practically helping Ukrainian artists and photographers to sustain themselves. Same with art about climate change compared with supporting political and social action against climate warming.
Later, of course, everyday Ukrainians will make art and music and will find spiritual wellbeing, as people always have, in creativity. All research shows the arts help people to reconnect, develop empathy and deepen appreciation of social diversity. Meanwhile, there’s little dignity in foreign artists being part of Dark Tourism or Grief Tourism—in travel to make art in places of current death and tragedy—unless there is genuine benefit to the local community: no art about us without us. So, there is not much good in “us” supporting Western artists and photographers to document the war compared with empowering Ukrainian artists to do the same work instead, given their need. Journalists have already been urging their employers not to send in photographers but use the pool of gifted local Ukrainian photographers.
War shaped the emergence of contemporary art.
Thinking about art in this time of war can be a revealing process. My research tells me that war shaped the emergence of contemporary art, but I set that against the knowledge that war and art are relegated within mainstream art to a minor art genre (war art). Accounts of war in art occur in essays on individual artists, or nation-bounded surveys of national collections such as those of the Imperial War Museum and its equivalents in Canada and Australia.
The war in Ukraine and Russia’s invasion is added to a host of other ongoing crises: the climate, the pandemic, and social justice. As has been the case with all those crises, artists will inevitably reflect on the war. A place for art, as there is for journalism, will involve thinking about war, but not necessarily, if artists are honest, the reverse. War does not mean we think about art. But we should.
If we are to creatively and sensitively respond and adapt to the current cascade of catastrophic turbulence, we may need the emotional vision that culture and art awakens and fixes.
Solutions to grand problems usually centre on accepting change, and pivot around facing up to the survival of the present into the future. Though conflict across the world has been perpetual and relentless, comprehending big change proves hard for the world to accept, as debates about climate policy amply demonstrate. All this despite almost universal acceptance of the catastrophic impacts of war, forced migration, conflict and forest fires. In my own country, Australia, 10% of Australians reported being directly threatened by the 2019-20 bushfires; about 1.8 million people were forced to evacuate homes. In the face of this, our hope of surviving and thriving is predicated, as it has always been, on imagining the future before it arrives and positively influencing how it is shaped.
This is a political and pedagogical task, just as the war in Ukraine is a diplomatic and a military task. But these are, in the end, also cultural tasks. If we are to creatively and sensitively respond and adapt to the current cascade of catastrophic turbulence, we may need the emotional vision that culture and art awakens and fixes. As I noted before, research shows that the arts help people to reconnect, develop empathy and deepen appreciation of social diversity. The creative arts engage the broad public because they are so deeply valued. Again, in Australia, the Australia Council for the Arts’s 2015 report, Arts Nation, found that 85% of Australians believe the arts make life meaningful and that more Australians go to art galleries each year than to watch football. This has only increased. By 2019, a vast majority of Australians engaged with creative arts, with even more recognising the positive impacts of the arts than in 2015. Seven million Australians experienced Indigenous arts in 2019, doubling the figure from 2009. Connecting Australians found all the key metrics for Australians’ involvements with the creative arts were increasing (albeit before COVID19).
Perhaps the creative arts can communicate the reality and depth of crisis and war that logical argument alone cannot do, because of the vividness that captures imaginations, a quality that Renaissance writers theorised. So, if we are to creatively and sensitively respond and adapt to the current cascade of catastrophic conflict, we might just need the emotional vision that culture and art awakens and fixes, for art from Hans Holbein to Hito Steyerl vividly communicates to people the survival of the past in the present, and the survival of the present into the future.