Photo by Johnell Pannell on Unsplash

Where There Is No Art

There Is No Hope

When the Twin Towers fell, my son was watching Sponge Bob Square Pants on the television and to adults, the cartoon hardly reached the heights of art but to the young boy, it was gleeful escapism, something that we need to protect and embrace during these bleak times of war.
Art is under siege as it always seems to be in times of war. Invaders have historically plundered art to demoralize and dispirit their victims and to brutally emphasize their power and their claims that the art of the vanquished were an affront to the history, values and culture of those who invaded.
The Russian invaders recently burned around 25 paintings by celebrated Ukrainian artists as local museums housing the paintings have been destroyed in Ivankiv near Kyiv. Among the art were works by the notable Ukrainian primitive folk artist, Maria Primachenko, who died in 1997 at age 89. A peasant woman, Primachenko was involved with drawing, embroidery and painting on ceramics. Іn her childhood Primachenko was afflicted with polio, which later influenced her art through compassion for people and nature.
A Wikipedia article noted that her works were “mysterious and emotionally charged” and that they reflect the traditions of Ukrainian masters who “have brought forth their understanding of good and evil, of ugliness and beauty.”
In the Nazi years, modern art was considered a “degenerate” product of Jews and Bolsheviks and a threat to the soul of Germany. In preparing the nation for war, Adolf Hitler ordered in 1937 that around 16,000 works of “degenerate” art be seized. Hitler rightly feared that art can give people hope, can bring clarity to disaster and it can bring beauty into a place where only despair and tragedy prevail.
Book burnings were organized, artists and musicians were dismissed from teaching positions, and curators who had shown a partiality for modern art were replaced by Nazi Party members. Many artists, including Kurt Schwitters, David Ludwig Bloch, Nandor Glid and Arno Nadel, were interned in labor or concentration camps.
Tyrants have long understood that in conquest, art and religious symbols must be destroyed in an effort to destroy hope. The Taliban of Afghanistan plundered museums and public works of art, most notably the obliteration of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan also known as the “Bamiyan Massacre.” In March 2001, supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict against un-Islamic graven images, including but not limited to, all idolatrous images of humans and animals. The well-coordinated and media sensationalized dynamiting of the giant Buddhas was the Taliban’s outwardly dramatic expression of their quest to exterminate all “idolatrous” and unIslamic images from Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic past. The Buddhas were seen as transcendental images and key symbols in the rise of Mahayana Buddhist teachings, the antithesis of Taliban belief construct and rule of law.

ISIS destroyed a 12th century mosque and its iconic leaning minaret in the Iraqi city of Mosul. The mosque, which is also called The Grand Mosque, was known for its 56-meter high leaning minaret, resembling the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi knew the propaganda value of the mosque and chose the site in July 2014, to declare the militant group’s self-styled “caliphate” after ISIS swept and captured large chunks of territory that summer in both Iraq and Syria.

Art gives a communal relief and support. A Beethoven symphony can lift people from the imprisonment of their conditions. You hear the blues and you can become a little less blue. You can see a Picasso rendition of the horror of bombing of Guernica, Spain, and it somehow makes a bit more sense.
During times of war, great artists are inspired to depict brutality in ways that pierce into the heart and provide fuel for empathy by showing that suffering is the same for anyone, regardless of their race, color, religion, gender or ethnicity.
“The Disasters of War” was a series of of 82 prints created between 1810 and 1820 by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya. Art historians view the series as a visual protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–1814 and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814. The prints were not published until 1863, 35 years after Goya died, when it was considered politically safe to distribute the sequence of artworks which criticized both the French and restored Bourbons.
French photographer Mark Riboud, who died in 2016, was one of the only photographers allowed access to both North and South Vietnam in the 1960s as well as one of the first Westerners to photograph Communist China. One of his most famous and searing photographs is titled “Flower Child.” It was printed in TIME Magazine in 1967, and shows a 17-year-old high-school student, Jan Rose Kasmir, in the thick of an anti-Vietnam War protest at the Pentagon, as she holds a single chrysanthemum inches away from a legion of soldiers whose bayonets nearly graze her body.
More recently the works of England-based street artist, Banksy, have appeared around the world on streets, walls and bridges. The artist, Banksy, a pseudonym, combines dark humor and graffiti to create political and social commentary. Banksy’s works have dealt with various political and social themes, including anti-war, anti-consumerism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, nihilism, and existentialism. His works also deal with the aspects of the human condition like greed, poverty, hypocrisy, boredom, despair, absurdity, and alienation.
Among his more famous works is “The Son of a Migrant from Syria,” murals created in France depicting lives of migrants who attempted to enter the United Kingdom, including one mural depicting Steve Jobs as a migrant. Another marks the 100th anniversary of the British control of Palestine, and includes creation of the “Walled Off Hotel” in Bethlehem, which is open to the public.
Destruction of art, whether it is printed, painted, sculpted or performed, is not the sole work of invading armies. It is the school board in Tennessee which earlier in the year, banned certain books it deemed unacceptable to youths, that were later burned in a scene reminiscent of the Nazis. In 1966, angry people in the deep south burned Beatles records and southern radio stations stopped playing Beatles music after John Lennon argued in an interview that the public was more infatuated with the band than with Jesus.

And closer to home, art fell victim to another pernicious antagonist when the Morris County Arts Workshop (MCAW) in Chester was forced to close due to lack of funding. As is typical, governments place the arts in lower esteem, leaving art programs often the first to fall in times of budget cuts.
The non-profit, community based organization dedicated to art, music, language arts, health and cultural programs, was founded in 2003 by Chester resident, Jane Shatz. The program relied heavily on tuition it received from offering after-school arts programs. But much of the funding dried up during the months when schools were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And so, it didn’t matter if the enemy was a tyrant or the tyranny of money, another art program was destroyed.
We desperately need art to survive and artistic expression is being assaulted externally and internally in worse ways than it has in a long, long time.

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Phil Garber

Phil Garber

Journalist for 40 years and now a creative writer