Conflict and War: How Art Comes Into Play In Difficult Times

Tima Jam

Art is a powerful and incredibly malleable tool. That’s why at times of conflict and civil unrest, …

Art is a powerful and incredibly malleable tool. That’s why at times of conflict and civil unrest, artistic production is often mobilised to support people in their causes. Yet as is well known, it is difficult to control the meaning of an artwork, which is usually volatile and fluctuates between the aggressor and its resistance. 

Regimes are fully aware of the subversive potential of any form of artistic expression, that is why art is usually one of the first areas which an oppressive regime tries to control and regulate according to their ideologies. However, for the resistance, artistic expression can be a (useful) channel through which oppressed voices can be heard and acknowledged. Resistance groups use art in a variety of ways, perhaps the most significant is their use of art’s ability to unite, support, aid, and instil hope amongst their ranks. In challenging times of conflict, it is usually key for resistance groups to maintain morale of, and support for, their fellow fighters. 

In recent years, other sectors in the art world have also been outwardly involved in situations of conflict, with institutions voicing their stance on the matter with uncontestable clarity. International boycotts affected by artistic institutions may not appear to have the greatest effect in aiding certain groups in their struggles. However, these instances usually identify for, and signifies to, the international community the perpetrator and resistance in a particular conflict. Exposure through artistic institutions in this way can completely reverse the trajectory which a period of conflict is headed. 

 

 

Such involvement of art and the art world has been the case for the Russo-Ukrainian war. Since the Russian invasion into Ukraine in February this year, the art world has responded to the act of war in various significant ways. Museums, auction houses, and other institutions have begun boycotting against art buyers and donors from Russia. Sotheby’s and Ketterer Kunst have made the move to ban some of its Russian buyers in response to the recent aggression. Various Russian auctions at Christie’s, Bonhams, and again, Sotheby’s have been cancelled in light of the recent events. The Tate has also cut ties with two of its Russian donors. Although additional political and social factors must be involved in the decisions these institutions have made thus far, their broadcast of their support for Ukraine conveys a distinct and clear image to members of the art world and beyond of their stance in this conflict. Arguably, outward claims such as these could signal institutional (pandering) for merit in the eyes of the public. However, by moving against Russia from such a perspective, these institutions nevertheless signalled to the wider public the power of art in influencing social support for or against one party or another in a situation of conflict. 

Together with this institutional response, artists worldwide have also shown their support for Ukraine in various ways. From fundraising endeavours for humanitarian aid by selling rare and original works like those who have come together and donated their prints to support the activist non-profit organisation ARTISTS at RISK, to NFT transactions and the mobilisation of Street Art through murals and installations, the wider art world has so far been fully submerged in their efforts to elevate the situation between Ukraine and Russia. Notably, the Ukrainian government had begun accepting cryptocurrency as a form of donation towards humanitarian aid and support for their people. In this case, NFTs are used as a tool to raise large sums of crypto in support for Ukrainian defence and other humanitarian endeavours. This decision made by the Ukrainian government revolutionised much public opinion towards the buying and selling of NFTs, which has become increasingly infamous since its boom in the early days of the pandemic. 

For artists and art workers of Ukraine, the rest of the world has responded in several ways in support of their careers. Apart from various cultural boycotts against Russia by prominent art institutions, many museums in surrounding countries offered promises of refuge and safety in their spacious halls, whilst others offered positions in their institutions to those qualified as curators and other museological positions. It is important to note here that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict also affected many Russian artists and art workers who disagree with the decisions that their government has made against Ukraine. The art world has also been sympathetic towards dissident Russian artists and art workers, launching funds to aid their careers alongside others specifically targeted to help Ukrainian refugees. The nuance and indeterminacy of this conflict is brought to the fore in the art world at the Liste Art Fair in Basel, where two Russian galleries gave up their spots in the fair to 2 Ukrainian galleries in a move of solidarity and support. 

On the other hand, one of the most devastating impacts of conflict in terms of art and cultural heritage is the damage caused to art and cultural monuments and sites in war. UNESCO has voiced concerns about the damage currently done to Ukrainian cultural heritage by Russian airstrikes and bombings. Emergency grants have been set up to remedy and protect heritage, culture, and art in Ukraine since February. 

It is evident that art has been playing a major role of influence in the war between Russia and Ukraine. However, this phenomenon is not an isolated incident. Art has always been mobilised at times of conflict by both parties in order to garner public support for one side or the other. The most common association between conflict and art can be found in forms of propaganda posters, especially those in circulation in the Allied countries during the First and Second World War – addressed directly by the soldier depicted on the posters, male viewers were persuaded, either by fear of guilt and shame or patriotic honour in serving their countries, to join the Allied forces. Still from the same period, war often made its way into the content and subject of artists’ production. One only has to take one glance at the artistic oeuvres of John Singer Sargeant, Kathe Kollwitz, and Henry Moore to see the devastating impact of war and conflict on artistic production as well as the human psyche. Amongst the various forms of art mobilised in times of conflict however, it appears that Street Art has become the overarching medium through which sentiments of the public had been expressed in times of oppression and tyranny. 

 

Street art has become a trend in the past few years in the world of contemporary art, and this popularity is also reflected in its contribution to raising awareness for oppressed groups during times of conflict. The most common technique associated with the label, ‘Street Art’, is graffiti and public mural art. A few prominent examples include The Syrian Banksy Project – a remodelling of the style of the anonymous political street artist, Banksy – during the Syrian conflict and the use of graffiti images in the Palestinian Struggle. Public, and painfull visible, these images are immensely powerful and influential in motivating the public against tyranny and towards the side of resistance. Alongside the rise of international media and video/image documentary technology, these visible embodiments of struggle, although often physically removed with impressionable speed by the oppressive party, are able to circulate on the internet amongst international communities in all corners of the world. This circulation of images has succeeded in voicing the struggles of the resistors and raising awareness to the cause of their resistance, especially towards the Western public, developments which have the potential to change the trajectory of conflict and war completely. 

Another form of Street Art most commonly associated with conflict is the installation of statues in public places. The recent controversy over the Colston statue in Bristol is an example of the political implications of artistic objects. A former slaver and founding father of Bristol city, Colston’s statue signified to the oppressor and the resistance drastically different histories and represented opposing ideologies, and its removal has been ridden with tension, with many insisting the statue must remain in Bristol for the sake of memorialising Colston’s heroic deeds not only in founding the city, but also his contribution to the British trade, which at Colston’s time, mainly consisted of the trade in slave goods as well as slaves themselves. Similarly, the presence of public statues have also caused considerable controversy in the former British colony of Hong Kong. The Colour Orange, also known as The Pillar of Shame, created by the Danish artist, Jens Galschiøt, commemorates the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. The physical monument was intended by Galschiøt as a reminder and signifying of human rights violations committed in June that year. That the artwork has been recently removed under new laws governing censorship and political freedom testifies to the powerful ability of art in motivating the wider public to action against the oppressor. 

Art is intimately connected to every aspect of human life. Arguably, in times of conflict, art’s influence on human relations intensifies as it is able to motivate us and change our minds in significant ways. 

 

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