The Art From War

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes if he’s a painter, or ears if he’s a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he’s a poet, or even, if he’s a boxer, just his muscles? On the contrary, he’s at the same time a political being, constantly alive to heartrending, fiery, or happy events, to which he responds in every way… No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy. – Pablo Picasso

The NSA collects your phone records, Google patrols your WIFI, and to protest an American military operation, one requires access to a Free Speech Zone—these days, privacy is a myth, civil liberties are a dying breed, and we all live in a state of perpetual war. As protests engulf Brazil and thousands take to the streets in Turkey, as the war in Syria rages, the troop draw-down in Afghanistan endlessly sputters on, and the Mexican drug wars deal out endless doses of death, it is easy to lose sight of the nomadic conflicts in the Sudan and the Somali civil war. And yet, just when the overwhelming ubiquity of war threatens to render these horrors banal, the art world has once again turned an all-seeing eye to creative work that addresses issues of conflict.


These days, there is an appetite for work that plumbs the depths of despair, destruction and death to wrestle with the the realities of war. And with drones patrolling the U-Bahn, Obama extolling the virtues of spying on each and every one of us, and great swaths of one of the world’s most significant monuments to artistic freedom in the face of tyranny falling at the feet of high-rise developers, now is the time to see what today’s artists have to say about war.

The War At Home

As it happens, Berlin is currently playing host to staggering works of brutal genius addressing the atrocities of war. At KW Contemporary, Kader Attia juxtaposes the disfigured faces of World War I soldiers with damaged African artifacts. Attia stresses the specific significance of global conflict in our time; the reality that “[the] bling-bling era couldn’t last any longer. Art practice is linked to war. The relationship between war and avant-garde art is extremely tight.” And over at the Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle, Imran Qureshi incorporates personal observations of everyday life in present-day Pakistan into haunting homages to the violence that prevails at home and abroad.

The work of Imran Qureshi at Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle. Photo: Chris Phillips

And yet, for those of us cocooned within the bubble that is Berlin, sedated by hot summer nights and dosed with ice cold Berliner, it can be easy to overlook the relevance of conflict to the artistic life of this city. Easy until you personally recoil in horror at the threatening hum of the drones patrolling the public transit networks, until the East Side gallery truly disappears, or the next unexploded bomb is discovered at Hauptbanhof. Then, perhaps, Trevor Paglen's achingly beautiful photographs documenting drone flights over the American Southwest will strike a new chord, Syrian artist Tammam Azzam's photographs depicting iconic works of art by Goya, Klimt and Mattise projected on bombed out alleys throughout Damascus will carry new weight, and the sculptures Mozambican artist Gonçalo Mabunda crafts from deactivated weapons will read just a bit differently.

The Personal Is Always Political

After all, the most powerful art historical records of conflict are personal stories as often as they are political messages. Picasso’s Guernica was a unique response to the bombings devastating his beloved Spain, and German artist Helmut Herzfeld, often heralded as the inventor of photomontage, was inspired to this new artistic enterprise in part by frontline German soldiers evading censors by clipping snapshots and photos to send with their letters home. Depictions of war and human suffering comprise some of the earliest and most achingly heartfelt creative endeavors across all cultures.

Currently at KW Contemporary, the work of Kader Attia featuring wooden busts of injured soldiers. Photo: Chris Phillips

Yet traditionally, these depictions of the utter brutality of man’s impulses towards man have been collected, curated and maintained by our cultural institutions; it is only recently that the popular art market has developed a taste for blood. At Art Basel, Liz Essers, director of the South African based Goodman Gallery notes that, “Perhaps some of the hardest-hitting works, which deal with radical social issues, are destined for institutions or museum collections, but on a smaller scale, we are seeing a rise in private collectors buying works with a social conscience.”

Out For Blood

Perhaps the simplest explanation for the growing demand for socially conscious artwork comes from Katerina Gregos, the curator of Newtopia: the State of Human Rights, an exhibition that took place in Brussels and Mechelen, Belgium, last year who remarked to The Art Newspaper that now more than ever “we live in volatile and uncertain times.” 

The work of Imran Qureshi at Deutsche Bank Kunsthalle. Photo: Chris Phillips

There is perhaps no single event that better demonstrates the impact of these uncertain times on the art world than that single moment that altered the center of politics: 9/11. Jordin Isip, a New York-based painter, reflects exactly this reality when commenting on the trajectory his work has taken after 9/11, “Afterwards I couldn’t do anything; I didn’t want to make art, or think about art. I was depressed, angry, sad and scared. People I knew were missing. Witnessing a grand atrocity like that was confusing. I felt a visceral sickness and conflicting emotions and thoughts were racing around my head. I could not make sense of it. With time passing, it is still incomprehensible but it will probably enter my artwork. I think more social or political art is created during wartime because people’s lives are affected more directly. People need to talk about it, express themselves, and speak through their art."

The End Of Peace

As the perpetual war Orwell predicted rages on across the globe, fewer lives are left untouched by conflict and the contemporary art world is changing to reflect this pugilistic phenomenon. Just as the Alexander Mosaic defines for us the Roman Empire, Winslow Homer represents the American Civil War, Picasso encapsulates the Spanish Civil War and Leon Golub tells the story of the American occupation of Vietnam, today’s artists are re-presenting to us the meaning of war and redefining our understanding of the human impact of conflict. And if, as many believe, times of great suffering produce artistic masterworks, we may just be due for a renaissance of sorts—in Berlin, Basel and beyond, the evidence of a growing wave of creative genius rededicated to an engagement with human conflict mounts as cities crumble, weapons stockpiles grow, and the dividing line between war and peace fades from sight.

Article by Hannah Nelson-Teutsch