Art and War: “Art is a most uncertain instrument”


“But there is hope that man may change, for two factors work on him that might disinfect him. One is art. These days have given us the chance to test the artistic process, and judge whether it is a tool that does honest work or whether is simply makes toys for the childish. […]

What is art? It is not decoration. It is the re-living of experience. The artist says ‘I will make that event happen again, altering its shape, which was disfigured by its contacts with other events, so that its true significance is revealed’; and his audiences says, ‘We will let that event happen again by looking at this man’s picture or house, listening to his music or reading his book.’ It must not be copied, it must be remembered, it must be lived again, passing through those parts of the mind which are actively engaged in life, which bleed when they are wounded and give forth the bland emulsions of joy, while at the same time it is being examined by those parts of the mind which stand apart from life. At the end of this process the roots of experience are traced; the alchemy by which they make a flower of joy or pain is, so far as is possible to our brutishness, detected. What is understood is mastered. If art could investigate all experiences then man would understand the whole of life, and could control his destiny. […]

But such deliverance will not come soon, for art is a most uncertain instrument.”

Rebecca West, writing in 1941 in the face of a next war [World War II] which bode to be more terrible than the last, in the Epilogue of her travelogue and history of the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. (Plus a lively Interview with The Paris Review)

Nato Thompson of Creative Time brings a discussion of arts and the military into the present day with a look at the Iraq War and Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24. This new article for e-flux compares the tactics of General Petraeus now dominant to counter-insurgency efforts with community-based art, resulting in a strange meld of points-of-view.

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