“The task of art is enormous,” Leo Tolstoy wrote in his 1896 tome “What is Art?” He cited the civil measures of the day, from the court system to factory inspections, as profound factors in fostering freedom, then made an extraordinary assertion: “Art should cause violence to be set aside. And it is only art that can accomplish this.”
Less than 50 years later, fascism erupted in Europe, fueled by mechanized weaponry that could kill scores of people systematically and violently. Artists responded with highly emotional and shocking visions. In 1937 alone, we saw the creation of “Eternal City” by American Peter Blume and Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” Two years later, Bertolt Brecht premiered the play “Mother Courage and Her Children.”
Still, while these works focused on the issues that ignited World War II, they could not prevent the carnage. Tolstoy’s notions now seem naïve, as war is generally acknowledged as a reality of civilization.
“War is an aspect of the human condition,” says Marc Masterson, artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville.
It’s no surprise, then, that artists have provided abundant responses to a post-9/11 world and the Iraq war. One of the most strident in the theater world is playwright David Hare’s “Stuff Happens,” which traces the lead-up to the war. In visual art, last year saw the American presentation of the “Abu Ghraib” paintings by Columbian artist Fernando Botero.
Meanwhile, Louisville-area artists and organizations have addressed war and violence on local stages and in galleries.
In its regular season and its Humana Festival of New American Plays, Actors Theatre has explored questions involving various aspects of war and how it defines and defies American values. Following the Iraq invasion, it reached to another era for Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” which depicts the dilemmas that emerge in two families after their business’s defective parts lead to the deaths of many men during World War II. This season, ATL staged “Mary’s Wedding,” a romance set during World War I, and “9 Parts of Desire,” featuring a montage of voices of Iraqi women recounting the impact of violence and repression.
Last month, the Humana Festival opened “The Unseen,” a story of two prisoners who are systematically tortured and who discuss fantasies of escape. While the narrative hints at the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons, Masterson cautions against taking the play as a critique of torture.
“It’s about how we understand the world we live in,” he says.
This season, smaller local theater companies also have produced works informed by war and the post-9/11 world. Looking for Lilith produced plays about Iraqi women and the working women of World War II. The Necessary Theatre staged Neil LaBute’s “The Mercy Seat.”
While the Kentucky Center tends to present more “straight” than political theater — Dan Forte, the Center’s director of programming, notes that ATL fills the latter role — it has presented performances that speak to the current political climate. In 2004, the Center presented the premiere of the Paul Taylor Dance Company performing “Banquet of Vultures,” a chilling antiwar piece.
In the visual arts, Louisville artists have taken on the war in loud and soft tones. Last year at The Cinderblock Gallery, Michael O’Bannon exhibited paintings based on the Abu Ghraib scandal, and Aron Conaway and Hallie Jones presented “One Nation Under God: Operation Whitewash” at the Louisville Visual Art Association.
The latter was an installation with layers of white camouflage mounted throughout the main hall, with multitudes of tiny white plastic soldiers positioned on the floor and on white islands with tiny flags. An audio component sent snippets of Bush speeches echoing through the space. Conaway described the piece as a world where imperial designs and corporate interests conspire to create a homogeneous and dystopian global culture.
In “Ancient Time,” Louisville sculptor Joyce Ogden has sand from a slightly translucent and elevated cone sift through a tiny hole to trickle over a 5-1/2-foot, pellet-shaped element, resembling a bomb, before leaving a circular pattern on the floor. Before she created the piece, Ogden never saw her sculptures as political commentary. Only later she realized that while working on the piece in her studio in 2002, she had listened to National Public Radio reports about the proposed invasion of Iraq.
Frankly, however, Louisville and the rest of the country haven’t produced a large quantity of art that specifically addresses the war. It’s certainly not like the art of the late 1930s. The contemporary art of today that endures is usually subtler.
While Julien Robson, the Speed Museum’s contemporary art curator, found the piece by Conaway and Jones intriguing, he normally prefers more understated art. “The worst kind of work is the kind that tries to directly address the subject,” he says. What he admired about the piece was the questions it posed about the world.
Masterson espaused the same notion. “Art transcends society,” he says. “It has less to do with preaching about issues, but asking questions about being a human being.”
On that point, all interviewed agree: Exceptional art is open and asks questions; it enables viewers to come to art with their understanding of the world; and, through digesting what’s offered, it motivates them to examine their values, their actions and their position in the world in new or forgotten ways.
In an age when we are stampeded by screeds, where increasingly louder voices clamor to bash us into conformance, agitprop becomes suspect. With the introduction of terror and fear, not only dissenting but also questioning voices are at risk of being intimidated and rejected.
In these times, Jones sees art as a place of refuge, adding, “Art is one institution in which different perspectives are being preserved.”
As humans, we will be well served to recognize the danger of ignoring questions, and that the survival of humanity may depend on the survival of art.
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