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The Tragedy of War

November 16, 2000 to January 06, 2001

For centuries, war has been as persistent--though not as prevalent--a subject in art as it has been in the history of nations. While there have been artists, such as Francisco Goya or Otto Dix, who created substantial bodies of work exploring the grim realities of combat, most artists ignored the theme. This, of course, is not surprising, for war is ugly. The Church and aristocracy, which traditionally supported art, naturally preferred subjects that bolstered their prestige and were pleasant to look at. Portraits of war heroes and battle scenes--often stripped of gore--commemorated the exploits of the victorious party. Why, after all, would an artist choose to depict war in all its true horror?

In Europe, the roots of (anti-) war art and of social protest art were closely related, while both in turn relied heavily upon printmaking. From the 15th century onward, printmaking was the art form favored by socially motivated artists, and the same circumstances that fostered the rise of printmaking helped make it an ideal vehicle for consciousness-raising. The breakdown of feudalism and the growth of cities provided the means for distributing prints, as well as a public to receive them. In addition to the obvious advantages that multiples had in reaching an audience beyond the elite buyers of unique paintings, many artists felt that black-and-white was best for essaying serious political or intellectual themes, which could too easily be swamped by the seductive color of oil.

War subject was a favorite subject among artists who wished to critique the existing order. Indeed, it was often difficult to untangle the causes of social inequity from the causes of war. When nobles fought in Medieval Europe, the peasants suffered. As the range of territorial battles expanded with the rise of nation states in the 15th century, the scope of devastation increased accordingly. Deteriorating rural conditions sparked repeated outbursts of agrarian unrest, until finally, between 1522 and 1525, the German peasantry staged a massive insurrection. Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation, called on the aristocracy to suppress the rebellion, and in the end, nearly 100,000 peasant men, women and children were murdered. This seminal revolt was later interpreted as a paradigm of class warfare by Friedrich Engels, who in 1850 wrote a small book on it in an attempt to forge a socialist alliance between the urban proletariat and the rural poor. Käthe Kollwitz chose to chronicle the "peasants' war," which by the early 20th century had become a touchstone for the political left, in her second print cycle (checklist nos. ___). The conclusion which Engels, Marx and others drew from the 16th-century rebellion is that under capitalism, the rich will always triumph at the expense of the poor.

This view reverberates throughout much European protest art: though armed conflict on a large scale must be organized by powerful and wealthy entities, those who foment and finance war seldom bear its full brunt. The 17th century was among the bloodiest in European history (the continent knew only seven years of peace), and it engendered the first great cycle of anti-war prints. Jacques Callot was a master etcher who spent much of his career serving the Duchy of Lorraine in the provincial capital of Nancy. Outraged at the barbarism of the French, who laid siege to the city and seized Lorraine in 1633, Callot etched what many consider his masterpiece: the eighteen-plate cycle Miseries and Misfortunes of War (checklist no. ___). The moral of Callot's tale is brought home in the final plates. After enduring grotesque torments, the war's victims lie dead, while the victors divide the spoils; for them, war has paid handsomely, and they will live to fight again.

The next great war series, Francisco Goya's Disasters of War (checklist nos. ___), was likewise the product of an artist who, after years of ministering to the ruling class, became profoundly embittered through exposure to war. By the early 19th century, Spain had lived under the Inquisition for nearly three hundred years. Church and State, tightly intertwined, enforced control with torture and censorship, while the vast majority of the population subsisted in poverty. In 1808, a bloody civil war broke out after the Spanish king voluntarily ceded his throne to Napoleon's brother. The French takeover provided the impetus for a showdown between those Spaniards who wanted a return to the old monarchy, and those who favored a more liberal constitutional government. Though Goya backed the liberals, his 82-plate etching cycle does not take sides: all combatants are equally despicable. The Disasters of War is a veritable catalogue documenting man's inhumanity.

The contributions of Callot and Goya notwithstanding, by far the largest and best-known body of anti-war art was inspired by World War I. There are many reasons for this. As the first fully mechanized war fought on a global scale, World War I exposed more people to the direct and indirect miseries of conflict than any prior engagement. The sheer senselessness and brutality of the slaughter were widely acknowledged by both sides. In the wake of the war, much of Europe teetered on the brink of revolution. Monarchs were deposed in Germany and Austria, and communism beckoned from the East. The Marxist vision of the evil capitalist war profiteer--so deliciously caricatured by George Grosz (checklist no. ___)--proved especially compelling. On the other hand, Kollwitz, who had been ready to mount the revolutionary barricades during the period when she etched the Peasants' War, was transformed into an ardent pacifist by the death of her son Peter on the Belgian Front (checklist nos. ___). Expressionism sanctioned an artist's personal experiences as viable subject matter, and the fact that many artists actually fought in the world war sparked an outpouring of grisly eye-witness accounts (checklist nos. ___). Last but not least, artists were surely encouraged by the fact that there was an audience for such difficult work. In the relatively liberal Weimar Republic, many members of the bourgeois intelligentsia supported the ideal of social justice.

Given the massive amount of text that World War II generated and is still generating, it is curious that this war inspired considerably less significant art than the first world war. World War II, after all, was the 20th century's one "good" war, so perhaps artists felt that to question it would have been to make light of the Nazi menace. Nevertheless, there were those, such as Hans and Lea Grundig, who at great personal risk created anti-Nazi print cycles while living in Hitler's Germany (checklist nos. ___). There were also exiled artists who, like Grosz, tried to warn the world of Nazism (checklist nos. ___). Gradually, however, the competing ideologies of fascism and communism cast the pall of propaganda over all politically charged art. We now know that even postwar abstraction was used as anti-Soviet propaganda: supported by the U.S. government and the CIA because it symbolized expressive freedom and lacked the left-wing taint of Depression-era social realism. After World War II, neither mainstream artists nor their public had much taste for disturbing imagery. While there were exceptions--such as the paintings of Leon Golub or Vietnam-era protest posters--for the most part we relied on television and photography to show us the face of war.

Within this context, Sue Coe is an anomaly. In a sense, she is a throwback to the eras of Goya and Kollwitz, artists whom she fervently admires. Coe believes that art can reveal reality in ways that TV and photography can't or won't, and she believes that printmaking can be used to reach people beyond the elite crowd that frequents galleries and museums. Her print cycle The Tragedy of War (checklist nos. ___) was begun as the United States was bombing Kosovo, and completed as the Middle East stood at the threshold of war. Perhaps our visual culture has changed since the time of Goya, but sadly the culture of war has not.

Like the other artists whose work is included in the present exhibition, Coe uses two methods to explore the theme of war: symbolism and realism. Symbols--such as the ubiquitous skeleton that stalks many artists' battlefields--are deployed to deliver an anti-war polemic. Realism, on the other hand, exposes the horrific cruelty of war, forcing people to confront truths they would sooner ignore. The Tragedy of War, however, differs from the war series of such predecessors as Callot, Goya and Dix, in that unlike these artists, Sue Coe never experienced war at first-hand. Since the Civil War, no war has been fought on American soil, and it has been over half a century since a significant number of our citizens engaged in battle. College deferments in the Vietnam period and an all-volunteer army thereafter have ensured that our soldiers are drawn principally from the largely voiceless lower classes. Coe's war series is about alienation; it is about the way a comparatively comfortable America has distanced itself from an extremely troubled world.

This is not to suggest that we do not live in a very violent society. Violence oozes from every crack in our stable façade. It is evidenced in our road-rage warriors and our schoolyard shootings, and less spectacularly, in the lives of thousands who live in drug-infested, crime-wracked neighborhoods. The much-discussed violence that permeates television and film serves to inure us to the genuine impact of human viciousness. The violence that has recently surfaced in the work of such contemporary artists as the Chapman brothers is presented as if in quotation marks. This is not real violence, the filmmakers and artists appear to be telling us. This is merely a fantasy of violence; it is entertainment. Coe's thesis is that we toy with violence and ignore its pervasiveness at our peril.

Beyond that, The Tragedy of War prompts us to examine the causes of armed conflict in the hope that we may one day be fortunate enough to eliminate it. The socio-economic theory of war still has merit, for all wars benefit a robust international arms industry, and many battles are fought for financial gain at the expense of poorer, weaker peoples. Yet the rabid hatreds that have fueled conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East indicate that more than a worldwide capitalist conspiracy is at work here. Sigmund Freud believed that aggression was an innate instinct that found its preferred outlet in what he called the "narcissism of minor differences." Freud speculated that, in order to bolster their sense of identity, people naturally unite against those who are perceived as strangers in their midst, a phenomenon which he felt explained the age-old persecution of the Jews, as well as the constant sparring that afflicts border territories. Today's resurgent biological determinists might ascribe this same aggressive instinct to genetics or testosterone, the male hormone that is also found, albeit at lower levels, in women. To this mix of theories, we can add the voice of feminists, who have long remarked that women are not only far less combative than men, but are also among the principal victims of war. Of course, if war is instinctual--psychological or physiological--then the prospects of eliminating it seem bleak.

It is perhaps the greatest weakness of our time that we feel powerless to effect change or even influence our own lives. Masses of us do not vote, or vote believing in our hearts that the process is a fraud. Biological determinism is an easy out, because it reassures us that there is nothing we can do anyway. We therefore prefer to keep unpleasant realities at a safe distance, convincing ourselves that conflicts in far-away places like Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka or Israel have nothing to do with us--that is, until they do. And then we demand an antiseptic war, with few or no American casualties, the other side be damned. But we are part of the world, and we cannot abdicate our responsibility for what we do with our lives, or what we allow our government to do with the lives of others. Ultimately, this is the message to be derived from Sue Coe's The Tragedy of War.