Periodically I go to the National Art Gallery to look at the exhibits. I love the works of Abdul Latif Maulan; his work has a viscerality and intensity that imbues his subject with a larger-than-life energy. I am particularly fond of his tepak sireh series; they evoke a nostalgia of a time long gone and elucidates Malay sensibilities and culture beautifully.
An artist captures a moment, a thought, an emotion, a memory in his/her artwork. A skilled artist can present it in such a way that an untrained audience can appreciate the message conveyed in the piece and it enriches their experience. The plebeian me only appreciate art that is clear; i.e. abstract paintings and sculptures hold little interest for me.
The subject matter in art is a matter of personal preference. Human or animal figurines, still life and landscapes can tell a complex story with nuance and dimension that is both proffered by the artist as well as imposed by the viewer themselves. If the art resonates with you, the experience can transcend your sensory memories and invoke emotion and passion.
War art is not new; it is a popular subject and theme for artists since the development of cave paintings. Classical paintings in Europe often portrays war scenes from historical battles. I was introduced to this idea from my favourite Mary Jo Putney book, River of Fire. The only difference between the war art in the classical painting and what we see now is the diversity of artistic media available; from oils, chalk, water colour to digital photography.
I find the idea of capturing the experience of war using art intriguing. The US Marines and US Navy have artists in their ranks who are deployed in wars, carrying art supply along with their heavy packs. A mini view of the Navy art gallery as well as the Marine combat art is available online.
Illustrating war provides a very intimate view of the combatants; telling stories that would otherwise be watered down or distorted by the media. It helps to humanise the combatants and to underscore the humanity (or lack of) of the all of the engaged parties. I don't know if anyone who look at these images and still see war as romantic; to me they underscore the price that are paid by both the combatants as well as the non-combatants in the conflict.
Will art help to make an unpopular war more palatable or a popular one more acceptable in general? I don't know. Michael D Fay and Kristopher Battles are two Marine artists who capture the engagements in which they participated in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their work is beautiful, even as the theme and subjects can provoke strong negative emotions. Sgt. Battles and Chief Warrant Officer (Rtd.) Fay offer us another facet to the war that is often contemptuously dismissed, particularly by opponents of the American occupation.
Frankly, I think the American occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan accomplished little of what they set out to do; it is unlawful and a gross violation of human rights and national sovereignty. I do wish that the American troops will withdraw from both countries and let the Iraqis and Afghan people rebuild as they see fit. If they are wont to kill one another without an occupying force "maintaining peace", by all means let them. These are lands that have not seen peace without an iron fist; their people are not ready for the American brand of democracy, as well meaning as those tenets are. It is doubtful that the occupation actually helps to reduce terrorism in the world. However, the hidden strings being pulled and people benefiting from this atrocity that is paid with blood and pain on both sides of the conflict means that there is no easy way out of it.
This is beautifully illustrated by Dark Side of the Sun by the glorious Tori Amos.
Let us all work towards peace for everyone.