What is the role of the artist in wartime? Answers to that question are many, but all are conditional. It is absurd to speak about "the artist" as monolithic. Artists' strategies for interacting with the real are as varied as the artists themselves. It might be equally absurd to speak of war in a similar fashion. Throughout history, wars have been waged for a multitude of reasons, the specifics of which we leave to the province of historians who, with distance and hindsight, are better able to piece together the logics of victor and vanquished.
War is eternal. It is constant, like a heartbeat, an ever-present part of the human condition. It is always with us, staining the whole of human history with the blood spilled. War is epic. It is drama on a grand scale, which is why it appears so often in works of art.
The Meridian Gallery's current exhibition, Art of Democracy: War and Empire, fills three floors with artworks that explore the subject of war in general, and grapple with the current Iraq war in particular. Forty artists contributed to the exhibition, deploying a number of strategies, only a few or which are, in my opinion, successful.
Many of the works in the show are loud and graphic, depicting battlefield scenes or instances of atrocity and abuse. They put the bloody reality front and center, confronting the viewer with the ugly barbarism of battle. Others employ a gallows humor, mocking the warmongers (mostly members of the Bush Administration), twisting the players into grotesque caricatures and scrawling their own nonsensical rhetoric across their mouths. It is as if the artists are attempting to shove the coarse words back down the throats that uttered them.
There is probably a cleansing function to this art. The anger and outrage must be exorcised in some way, but one wonders what this art is attempting. Is it educational? Informational? It is surely not being produced to change minds. Perhaps it is meant more as a rallying cry or, in some cases, an outcry. One cannot help but think that this work just feeds the thing it aims to combat.
The Bush Administration shows up in various guises in the majority of works on display: Bush as vampire; Cheney as Pinoccio; Condi as dominatrix; the Bush Administration as hydra doing battle with the Statue of Liberty. Pointing fingers and calling names is what the Bush Administration does best. They have set the stage and are its major players. The only choice is to react. The artist who responds is trapped, becoming a prisoner of his or her own message, a message that itself imprisons. As long as the Bush Administration remains the subject, the real costs of war need not be examined.
Juan Fuentes's Children Die in Stupid Grownups War is a black and white image of a man carrying a dead child with the title written across the bottom of the print. After all the clever agit-prop on display, this one image pretty much says it all. There are consequences to war. While most of the other artists in the show would like to argue about the absurdity of a phrase like "collateral damage," Fuentes demonstrates its human form through the voice of a child, depicting how innocence is lost in a time of war.
Favianna Rodriguez does similar work, with bold prints and simple slogans like War Targets Poor People of Color. Rodriguez and Fuentes refuse to argue the specifics of this or that war, or to debate the potency of nationalist symbols, in favor of demonstrating how wars are fought over the heads and through the bodies of the disempowered.
For those with a little extra cash on hand, David Jones's Lead Shirts offer a practical -- and stylish -- approach to life during wartime. For only $999.99 you can be the proud owner of one beautifully-tailored button-down dress shirt fashioned out of lead. In classic style, with lots of detail work, these garments are designed to protect the wearer from harmful nuclear fallout in a time of increasing uncertainty. What's great about the lead shirt, beside the fact that it will go with just about anything, is how it reveals the fragility of the post-911 world and lays bare the futility of our efforts to shield ourselves from harm.
Scott Anderson's The Condi Bomb, Weapon of Missed Diplomacy and Messed Democracy is a painting of a war machine called the "Bababa baba Iran," which looks like an improvised Swiss army knife in tank form. Like something out of Mad Max, the machine is hobbled together with thumbtacks and glue, its weapons are punchy fists, pointy sticks and a carrot. A Fox TV satellite dish, a piece of pie, a rubber chicken and a sad teddy bear are all taped to its surface, reminding us how much we "supported the troops" in Iraq, forcing them to improvise their own armor in the midst of battle.
Anderson's painting floats above an installation of War Toys by Bella Feldman. These metal and glass sculptures come in many shapes and sizes. Each object seems to be constructed for a different purpose, which is purposefully obscured. Some look like testicles on wheels, others like long knives. The glass feels fragile, the metal tough. Some knives point inward, others out. These "toys" look both mean and vulnerable at the same time, making one wonder if war isn't self-breaking. Even the title reminds us that, to a certain extent, war is a game.
What these toys are and what they are designed to do is open to interpretation. While contemplating them, we are free. This exhibition has turned the Meridian Gallery into a battlefield of ideas, a war of images about war. Feldman's War Toys invite dialogue and translation. That's where art, especially art concerned with war, should take us -- to an open place, one where we are free to do the work of understanding. This would be the place where conflicting ideas, cultures and nations could safely meet.
Art of Democracy: War and Empire is on display at the Meridian Gallery through November 4, 2008. For more information, visit meridiangallery.org.