American artists do not comprise a monolithic group to be counted on in any one way. Like all of us, they are individual citizens first and foremost, and must decide for themselves what they think of their country’s conduct in the world — how our elected leaders are acting as their representatives — and whether they approve or disapprove of their policies and conduct. In that sense they are no different than anyone else. That said, artists are also especially attuned to the rights and voices of the individual in our society. Free expression is their stock and trade and their creative expressions have lasting value. The importance of what the artist offers us all was eloquently stated long ago by Joseph Conrad in the preface to one of his fine novels.
He wrote: “[The artist’s] appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring — and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which in not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and therefore more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”
As the conflict with Iraq rages on, you can safely bet a dollar or two, and all those our government is spending on the war, that artists are paying close attention to the “official” use of language and images, as well as the torrent of images and commentary spewing forth from the mass media. Many artists are also scrutinizing what isn’t being placed in the “frame” of public view. From all of this some artists have come to accept that our country is leading a “Coalition of the Willing.” Others are vehement in asserting that America is leading a “Coalition of the Coerced” or a “Partnership of the Pressured and Persuaded.” Almost all will likely continue to express genuine concern for the ranks of volunteer soldiers now immersed in combat on our nation’s behalf and risking their lives through such service. It’s impossible to know, of course, how many artists deem the tremendous destruction and killing underway in Iraq repugnant, but it’s clear that many are recoiling strongly from carefully crafted military slogans such as “Shock and Awe.” Phrases such as this sound so totally brutal and call to mind the “Shuck and Jive” offered forth by our government during the era of the Vietnam War. It’s also not hard for many to see that what our government is calling “Operation Iraqi Freedom” might well be viewed by others as “Operation American Invasion.” And since artists continuously embrace and trust their own subjective experience in creating their work, as well as understand the real value that objective criticism plays in the realm of culture, are they not right to now be raising an eyebrow and sharpening their ears — as many of them are — when beholding some correspondents on live–feed television riding into battle behind U.S. tanks and troops in retrofitted Hummers, slipping in voice from reporting on “they,” to speaking, almost thrillingly, of “we.” This 24 hour-a-day visual and audio spectacle of war is not only featuring unprecedented quantities of firepower, technology and speed, but also saturation barrages of information that must somehow be sorted out, absorbed, rejected, deflected, digested and understood. The vast conflagration before us all is surely shaking human perception to its very core in many respects. Some artists will simply confront this experience in a very direct political manner, registering either a citizen’s endorsement or protest of the war. Others will somehow transform this complex human experience in ways none of us can yet fully anticipate. And since our president and his senior advisers cannot tell us with any degree of certainty where this war is really leading America and the world at large — might it not be wise for every one of us in this country and learning community to stay keenly attuned to what we are seeing, reading, hearing and discussing everything we can from as many sources and perspectives as possible? I hope this will be possible, as befits a healthy university and democracy.
Jock Reynolds is the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery.