Art and conflict

Not long ago, I received a ‘call for papers’ message concerning an inaugural conference to be held in the newly establish ‘Centre for the Study of Art and Conflict’ at the University for the Creative Arts. The conference would be convened to address the question: ‘what is the role of artistic practice in transforming individuals and societies in contexts of conflict?

I thought seriously about the question and then submitted an outline of a paper I wished to give. Although the conference organisers received a copy of my proposed paper I heard nothing more from them. I was not invited to give my paper! Since then a few months have passed and now, precisely because of the context of the real conflict in Ukraine, I updated the outline of the unwanted paper. Here is what I proposed, albeit unsuccessfully, to present to the conference:

Title: ‘From dematerialisation to de-radicalisation: an excerpt from a philosophical critique of art’.

Overall, it is now fanciful to believe that art has anything more than a peripheral role in ‘transforming’ individuals and societies in contexts of conflict.

Not so long ago it was possible to identify certain practices and manifestations of art that appear to have played a successful role in achieving such transformations. For example, in opposition to the class-based, oppressive and limiting culture of post-war Britain, the ‘counter-culture’ – with its striking new forms of art, theatre, films and literature – assisted in effecting forms of ‘societal’ liberation – such as the women’s movement, gay liberation and a more generalised freedom of expression. Although it is possible to think that these new forms of art were in the avant-garde of the social transformations it is not clear what was cause and what was effect. The radical arts may have actually been provoked by social, technological and ideological forces that preceded their manifestation.

Moreover, as Heidegger had already presciently noted, the dominant metaphor with which to characterise those emerging times was in terms of mining; everything was becoming ‘seized upon’ and mined for what it might yield. And, in no time at all, art and artistic practices were themselves being seized upon to further the interests of power, efficiency – and ultimately – the emergence of a more of less full-blown neo-liberalism – now identified by anthropologists as a global phenomenon. The arts – and especially ‘advanced’ art – were increasingly enmeshed in the market system. Worse, their role in the aestheticisation of reality, the proliferation of image-saturation, and the deceptive seductions of media culture constituted a departure or rupture from flesh-and-blood material reality. If anything, art has now come to consolidate, accentuate and collude with the differing nuances of neo-liberal practices and culture. Rather than catalyse significant individual or societal change it serves to sustain superficiality, deception and diversion.

Any number of case studies illustrate this thesis but here I mention just three: First, Elena Ferrante in her ‘The story of the lost child’ concludes that any so-called radical ‘art’ if not backed by organised power and collective struggle ‘is just performance’; Second, Adam Curtis in his brilliantly persuasive ‘Can’t get you out of my head’ finds installed a new ‘counter-ideology’ – an ideology that is sceptical of any ‘progressive programme’ – or of any genuinely ‘subversive’ art – an ideology that is marked by pessimism and nihilism. Third, the rise and fall of the ‘International Times’ – the radical ‘alternative-culture’ publication of the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated, ultimately, the hopeless belief that ‘somehow the old power structures and forms of social order would just disappear.’ In truth it is the power nexus of the political/economic order that really matters.

Unless of course, I am wrong: maybe the arts are now usefully and very successfully rendering people, as docile and distracted, as entertained and info-tained beings – and is thereby effecting a de-radicalising transformation: People are now mesmerised by their screens, are rendered the subjects of iconico-mania, and, de facto, are the unwitting recipients of countless environing ‘vessels of affect’ – keeping all of them (all of us) sufficiently happy and pleasured. In other words, the arts are, in the social context of conflict, enabling an anti-revolution – in large part because they turn ‘reality’ into an alluring social spectacle.

However, by way of redemption, Heidegger also posted a tantalising proposition. He held that we are all dimly aware that, as he put it, the world is ‘ungrounded’; there is no reason why we should do what ‘one does’ – i.e. why we should conduct ourselves as we do. God has not ordained it nor does our nature require it. And, for me, this is the psychological and physical space in which the artist can always move; in so doing, who knows what truth he or she will reveal? Who knows what transfigurations may come be actualised? Plainly some artists do use their talents, media profiles and performances to transform the consciousness, ideologies and belief systems of individuals – and even societies. Most recently for example, as a result of the appalling and evil invasion of Ukraine, some well-known figures in the field of Ukrainian music – such as Slava and Korolova – have done their utmost to foreground the realities of the conflict and to counter the false narratives that have become installed in various peoples’ minds.

So, to the question, ‘what is the role of artistic practice in transforming individuals and societies in contexts of conflict?’, I think it is worth revisiting Iris Murdoch’s belief that, although art is in fact a very different form of practice compared with philosophy, both are truth-seeking and truth-revealing activities. On her account it becomes relatively easy to insist that art necessarily plays a role in transforming individuals and societies in situations of conflict because the truths that they can reveal have the power to change minds, promote specific values and influence conduct. It is likely that some forms of art may be more effective change-agents than others: Music – and the moving image as well as forms of documentary – may stand a far greater chance that the sheer obliqueness of so much Conceptual art. And, just as Dostoyevsky pointed out that psychology is a double-edged sword and can be used by whomsoever to commend or condemn a person, so the arts, too, can be used to unsettle and radicalise or conversely to sustain repressive values. They can expose that which is morally and politically deplorable or they can serve the ‘oppressor’.

I shall conclude this brief essay by referring to a first-hand account which rather highlights the de-radicalisation of a form of art that was once considered replete with transformative potential. It is the case of ‘advanced’ art – the kind of art that finds its way into the ‘leading’ museum and gallery spaces of ‘Fine Art’. Just as I was beginning an MA in Fine Art Practice in the autumn of 2019, Will Gompertz was responding to the glamour and pizzazz of the Venice Biennale. This is what he wrote:

This week’s invitation only ‘Private View” of the Venice Biennale (which opens today) was one weird affair. It was like being dropped into the middle of a Wes Anderson movie. The place was heaving with characters. Artists, posers, dealers, curators, billionaires, bureaucrats, fakes, freeloaders, snobs, journalists, pseuds, hustlers, and narcissists all cramming themselves into tiny spaces and noisy halls to get a glimpse of some box-fresh contemporary art.

They are not a hip crowd like you might find at Coachella or XJAZZ in Berlin. They are more clamorous than glamorous. Art is a shared interest but not the thing that truly binds them. Money and status are the currencies that count. You don’t need both, but you sure as hell need one or the other.

All this means that the artist – if he or she is serious – has to have a very sophisticated knowledge of his or her value system, their ideological stance – and, on top of this, to have absolutely clarity about their underlying intentions. They have to have a deep level of personal insight – and that’s not easy …

Post Script: The word ‘dematerialisation’ was chosen by Lucy Lippard to characterise the shift in art that took place in the 1960s – and which referred to the fact that art was now supposed to be as much, if not more, about provoking ‘thinking’ and not just ‘looking’.

End note: I was moved to revisit the outline of the paper because I noticed that, despite the intense media coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, the University for the Creative Arts campus in Farnham seemed almost oblivious to the crisis. I had, at the very least, expected to see some posters about the conflict or expressions of support for the people of Ukraine – but none were on display. I had the distinct feeling that the ‘creatives’ were happily detached or insulated from a profoundly disturbing reality. I asked one young artist why there was not one single reference to the events in Ukraine. ‘To tell you the truth,’ she replied, ‘I don’t watch the news.’

2 thoughts on “Art and conflict”

  1. Well done Rob. The UCA was clearly not ready for this. Certain types of art thrive under fascism, as Hitler saw. See Riefenstahl. Let us see how Putin uses the value of art as propaganda. best wishes Peter

  2. Hello Peter! Thank you for your reply. Will Gompertz used to write some excellent reviews of various art events for the BBC and probably now belongs to an older educated but unfashionable ‘demographic’. There is an exhibition that has been going on in the James Hockey gallery, UCA, Farnham entitled ‘Documents from the edges of conflict’; Of it I can make three observations: first, it reflects a kind of ‘post-truth’ world that has abandoned any attempt to be objective; second, the work is, somehow, antiseptic; third, hardly anyone ever attends these shows – and so (apart from some sort of inner circle) it means very little.

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