Horizon Line

Art, war and aesthetics

In Ukraine, the Russian invasion has been damaging for the region’s arts scene and its cultural heritage. The sad destruction of the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum at the end of February meant 25 works by the revered folk artist Maria Prymachenko (1908-1997) were lost. And images of protectively-shrouded sculptures appear from Ukrainian cities daily, amid legitimate fears of bomb damage.

Image 1: An anti-war banner using imagery from one of Mariya Prymachenko’s paintings

Prymachenko’s work (image 1) has quickly become a national symbol of peace and resistance, with stories of people risking their lives to save her paintings from the smouldering rubble. Such universal, timeless art is both a comfort and a rallying cry for a struggling nation. But what role can contemporary art and artists play in warfare today? How can they help us better understand the chaos?

Artists have traditionally been narrators or illustrators of conflicts. The dynamic was set for centuries: the warrior fights and the artist draws or paints, and there’s co-dependence in that relationship. Art, in effect, had a monopoly on the production of war imagery: Benjamin West’s The Death of General Wolfe, 1770, is one example of many. Ever since photography was invented, this monopoly has been gradually eroded. Recently, with “the war on terror”, the contemporary warrior (and by extension the state) has no longer relied on the artist to depict their actions. The media machine and endless proliferation of digital images mean the artist is redundant: no artistic intervention is necessary to allow images of conflict to circulate. 

Image 2: Still from a video showing a Ukrainian destroying a low-flying Russian helicopter

The art critic Boris Groys wrote in 2003 that “Bin Laden is basically a video artist who produces videos and distributes them through Al-Jazeera and other media concerns.” Video is also the medium of choice for militant groups such as Islamic State, whose barbaric, barely believable videos of beheadings can be seen as creatively staged events, with uniquely recognisable aesthetics. What’s significant in these videos and images is that the conflict overlaps with its own documentation, and therefore its simultaneous representation. This simultaneity is undoubtedly true of the war in Ukraine: a video of Ukrainian forces shooting down a helicopter with a missile dominate its documentation and representation (image 2). As with media made by the Islamic State, these videos circulate widely on platforms such as Telegram, Reddit and Twitter before being officially “verified” by global media outlets. 

The war in Ukraine is in many ways anachronistic: a distinctly twentieth-century conflict with its mass of troops and tanks. Unlike the increasingly hidden conflicts of the 21st century, which are dominated by the machine visions of unmanned drone strikes and cyber wars, its representation is easily constructed through soldiers practising rudimentary photojournalism: a medium that embodies speed and intimacy. 

Image 3: Steven Curtis, “The Enemy”

The Vietnam War is often cited as the first time war was “brought home” in all its gory detail, since it was the first to be televised. Certain images have come to define its representation, but these are exceptional ruptures in what was a tightly controlled media machine – the US had dedicated Army and Marine photographers who worked for military magazines. Each roll of film was sent back to the Pentagon for review before being published; images of atrocities were those that slipped through the net. One notorious example was Steven Curtis, a Marine photographer expelled from his platoon for taking this photo (image 3)which showed Army of the Republic of Vietnam soldiers celebrating the death of an NLF (“Viet Cong”) activist. 

It’s impossible to censor images in the age of digital media, but this means images play a more central role in war itself: in the information war. During the Romanian Revolution of 1989, the revolutionaries took over the TV station instead of government headquarters. Images have become an active participant in making meaning, not just a documentary record. Twenty years later, the 9/11 attacks took place in the most media-saturated city in the world: the production of news images was part of the anticipated effect. Recently, the academic Julian Stallabras described the Iraq war as “a snuff movie for domestic consumption”, demonstrating how these conflicts are almost staged for the camera. 

Image 4: The empty cave where one of the monumental 6th century
Buddha 
of Bamiyan stood in Afghanistan. The Taliban destroyed it in 2008

For over a century, therefore, this media-making had rendered artists mere accessories to representing direct conflict (aside from the odd “art” photographer such as Don McCullin). But what’s new is how this media re-asserts the primacy of images as a carrier of truth: contemporary images of conflict images haunt our subconscious more strongly than the work of any contemporary artist. Even images of art’s destruction are often more powerful than art itself (image 4). So how can artists remain relevant in the production of images? How can they stand out amid the saturation of digital mass media?

To step back, the artist and author James Bridle has posited we live in a “New Dark Age”, in his 2018 book of the same name. Despite the abundance of data and information, we find ourselves lost: polarised by fundamentalism and populism. Alongside this abundance of images, real power is becoming invisible. Bridle neatly illustrates this through reference to the New York Stock Exchange’s UK Data Centre, which sits on top of a hospital: “For a rent of a few thousand pounds a year, the machinery of private finance perches on the crumbling infrastructure of the welfare state: all that money, flowing invisibly just a few metres above the patients inside. This is how a difference in visibility translates into a difference in power.” 

Image 5: ‘Look N° 1’, 2010, Adam Harvey

The artist’s role in depictions of war (and power) doesn’t lie in the production of new images, but instead in developing new ways of seeing. It lies in aesthetics becoming investigative and having real-world consequences, and much of this is bound up with understanding and countering machine vision. Artists such as Hito Steyerl, Trevor Paglen and Adam Harvey are all taking on this mantle. Harvey’s Computer Vision Dazzle concept created a range of make-up concepts which stop facial recognition algorithms working (image 5), for example. 

Image 6: From the interactive presentation of Forensic Architecture’s
2019 project “The Battle of Ilovaisk”

Forensic Architecture is a multi-disciplinary collective that expands our understanding of what art can mean in relation to modern conflict like Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Made up of artists, lawyers, coders and machine learning experts, the collective acts as an investigative taskforce, creating videos and aesthetic presentations of state violence and human rights violations, to correct official narratives. They often exhibit presentations in galleries and museums and were finalists in the 2018 edition of the Turner Prize. Their 2019 project The Battle of Ilovaisk (image 6) aimed to prove the presence of Russian military presence in Ukraine during the 2014 battle against pro-Russian separatists for control of the town of Ilovaisk, in Donetsk, a fact denied by Moscow. The resulting interactive platform was eventually used as evidence at the European Court of Human Rights. 

These artists help us to see war, and the world, in different ways. For their work to be recognised as having artistic value that’s not solely aesthetic (in the sense of being beautiful), we as viewers need to expand our understanding of art from something passive and reflective into something collaborative, technologically driven and investigative. Then there will be light in the new dark age. 

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

Arts & Culture

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