04 March 2008

The art of war crime

Most coincidences, of course, are made in our heads and not in the world outside. Their psychological impact on us is no less for that; perhaps more so, if anything. So it is with this one.

Today I am in London. I'm here for several reasons, but one of them is to sign a deposition in connection with a war crime nearly thirty years ago. Not a dramatically central deposition - in the big forensic jigsaw puzzle, I will be one of those small, featureless, indistinguishable pieces that make up the sky near the top left hand corner. Nevertheless, it has set me to thinking about war crimes.

I no longer find the term "war crime" as obviously clear cut as a concept in my mind as it was then, in that other life. There is a whiff of tautology about it: war is a crime. I don't for one moment suggest that the local village level atrocities which occur under cover of the larger one should be ignored, or allowed to slide away in a fog of ennui. Definitely not: people are all that matter, and they are wear the crime comes to roost. Nor do I suggest that armed action is always avoidable, either practically or morally. But nor do I any longer believe that these manifestations which we try to hold somehow distinct can really be morally separated from the larger atrocities of which they are part and parcel.

The small and sordid details I am asked to recall from three decades in the past were an outfall from part of the "great game" being played at that time by western and eastern blocks. While any prosecution (if it ever happens) will be aimed at one or more individuals, their actions were clearly part of that game and at least passively allowed by one of the principle players who will never be called to book.

The game continues today. The balance of power among the players has shifted. New players have come to the board, or raised their existing stakes; others have left it, or shifted their emphases, or fissioned. The essential nature of the game hasn't changed, however - and nor has the price paid by civilian bystanders. The death of Isra'eli civilians from rocket strikes is a crime; so is the more widespread death of Palestinian civilians from the Isra'eli retaliation. Both crimes are an integral part of the larger game. Both crimes derive from a regional situation born in earlier phases of the same game. The whole game is a war crime. The wars in Iraq Afghanistan are (as Dr C honourably and indefatigably continues to highlight) crimes - within the same larger crime, and constructed in their turn from smaller crimes.

But on most days I wouldn't have kicked off on this connection between crimes in different times, on different orders of sophistry and magnitude. That's where the coincidence comes in. This morning, early, as I prepared for the day, I checked Thinking through my fingers and followed his onward link to the website of Elin O'Hara Slavick.

Ms Slavick is a polemic artist. That is to say, her art stems from, is fed by, and serves as an activist extension of, her beliefs. One of her projects is "Bombsites", a visual catalogue of places which have been on the receiving end of US ordnance - which, as Ms Slavick observes, is pretty much everywhere.

Not that the US has any monopoly on either active carnage or uncaring disregard for human life ... on war crime, in other words. It is simply the largest and most successful wholesaler currently in the market. The rest of us differ only in having more modest means at our disposal.

I don't, to be honest, know for sure how I feel about polemic art. Part of me feels that it's not really successful as art ... but another part points out that it can be very successful polemic ... yet another argues that passion, the most important ingredient in art, is certainly never absent from polemic. And how can I look at the drawings of Käthe Kollwitz, then doubt that polemic can produce great art?

For the moment, at least, however, I am not particularly concerned with ranking Ms Slavick's work on the scales of artistic merit. It is her polemic that holds me. I share Jim Putnam's admiration for her activism. I am impressed that work such as hers can flourish under the wing of a US university. Most off all, I am glad of the mirror she holds up to our crimes - because they are our crimes, yours and mine. May there forever be people like her, to maintain the vital rôle of "education as a subversive activity"[1].

Localised one off atrocities on a (relatively) small scale can be blamed on individuals or units; but the bigger and more frequent they become, the more they need our complicity. Ms Slavick resolutely insists on our recognition that they are continuous, and on a global scale.

I said that I wasn't particularly concerned, here, with whether or not her work is successful art. So I'm not ... but it is successful art, anyway. There is passion, as I noted already; there is also the power to disturb, and one measure of success in art has to be the emotional response elicited from the viewer - if it isn't disturbing us, it's coasting along and not working for its living. From the notes about hostility to her, she has certainly elicited emotional response. She hasn't selected a pretty subject, but:

"Never get so attached to a poem that
You forget truth which lacks lyricism."[2]

[1]. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a subversive activity. (Penguin education specials.). 1971: Harmondsworth: Penguin..0140806067

[2]. Joanna Newsome, The Milk Eyed Mender, "En Gallop".

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