Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

German Expressionism, American silence

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Near the end of its just-closed exhibition “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse,” Museum of Modern Art curator Starr Figura installed The War (1924), Otto Dix’s 50-print portfolio about hell on earth. The War is one of the 20th-century’s most intense, gut-wrenching artworks. Nearly every rectangle is crammed full of horrific grotesquerie such as gas-masked shock troops, splayed corpses, and decomposing heads.  Like Goya in The Disasters of War, Dix used an inexpensive, broadly distributed medium to say Yo lo vi, I saw this. (And Dix did: He was an early volunteer who served in the infantry and in a machine-gun unit, on both the Eastern and Western fronts.) The War may be fifty sheets of black-and-white, but it is bloodier than a Chaim Soutine side of beef. [Image: Otto Dix, Shock Troops Advance under Gas, from The War, 1924.]

Dix wasn’t the only artist in MoMA’s riveting exhibition who served in World War I and who was affected by the experience. Kirchner, Beckmann, Barlach, Grosz and others all did too. As you might expect, their art was often motivated by what they saw, be it on the battlefield or on the home front. It’s here in works such as Beckmann’s The Grenade, Grosz’s Attack or Erich Heckel‘s Two Wonded Men. “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse” is a reminder of how different art was in France and in Germany after World War I: In Paris many artists spent the late teens cranking out salon cubism. In central Europe artists grappled with what they saw in the trenches. Back in France, serene neo-classical themes and treatments were all the rage; in Germany and Austria, artists made crucifixions and pietas.

As I looked at the war-sourced pain that German artists poured out onto paper and canvas, I thought about American art now: For most of the past decade we’ve fought two wars, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and America’s military and spy service have routinely attack suspected aggressors in other countries, including Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. [Image: Otto Dix, Dying Soldier from The War, 1924.]

You’d never know any that from looking at American contemporary art. The experience of war is substantially absent from recent American art and from America’s art museums. I can think of just one prominent recent example: Omer Fast’s The Casting (2007), which is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. It cleverly explores truth and reality in the context of an American war which was initiated by governmental untruths. (The museum exhibited it in 2010. In London, the Tate Modern recently exhibited the war-related work of photographer Simon Norfolk.)

This is no one’s “fault”; it’s simply America’s experience of our wars as reflected by America’s art. (Well, that and American contemporary art is so intensely commercial that artists make what Larry wants to sell and what Dakis and Eli want to buy.) Early in the 20th-century, in America and elsewhere, wars were fought by citizen-soldiers. As MoMA’s exhibition demonstrates, the avant-garde German artists community fought in World War I. Today our wars are fought by professional soldiers and by government contractors. The opportunity to fight for one’s country, which helped lead to two of the 20th century’s great art movements, dada and surrealism, is no more. (In a quite different way, artists’ service in the military helped lead to the American post-World War II art boom, via the education enabled by the GI Bill.) By 1957 times had changed so much that Robert Smithson’s commanding officer at Fort Dix sent him home with an honorable discharge. The officer believed that continued military service would negatively impact Smithson’s creativity.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, our first real exposure to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars is coming only now, as Congress and the White House negotiate to raise the U.S. debt limit — and whether to slash federal spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, infrastructure and even defense. According to recent reports, the Obama administration and House Republicans have been discussing federal spending cuts in the $2 trillion to $4 trillion range. That news was on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold. Last month Brown University researchers pegged the cost of wars started by President George W. Bush to $3.7 -$4.4 trillion. The New York Times did not report that figure. According to the Washington Post, the tax cuts that the Bush administration pushed through Congress just as America was going to wars cost as much as $1.3 trillion. For most Americans, our experience of our wars is via spreadsheet, not via battlefield. [Image: Omer Fast, still from The Casting, 2007.]

Spreadsheets don’t make for great art. If there’s a significant ballet, opera, symphony or another important fine artwork about America’s 21st-century wars, I don’t know about it. Hollywood made a few films about the Iraq war — “Lions for Lambs,” “Rendition,” and “In the Valley of Elah” to name three — but despite being filled with big stars, each one bombed both critically and financially. Hollywood moved on.

Walking through “German Expressionism” I noticed another way in which war is mostly absent from our art: New war-fighting technology and techniques were prominent throughout the show. Aerial bombardment impressed and stunned German artists so much that Ernst, Grosz, and Dix made art specifically about attacks from planes. So too poison gas. In a century during which artists were particularly fascinated by the new, it’s no surprise that artists chronicled the vanguard of war-fighting techniques. [Image: George Grosz, Air Attack, 1915.]

For much of the post-war period American artists have been fascinated by same as well: James Rosenquist was so impressed with the atomic and hydrogen bombs that he made American power the major theme of his art. Today, Trevor Paglen reminds us that our intelligence apparatus is disarmingly ubiquitous. However, our newest war-fighting technology is pretty much absent from American art, at least for now. The world’s newest war machine is America’s unmanned aerial vehicle, the pilotless drone that our military and spy services have wielded to much-publicized effect (and apparently civilian casualties). I bet that changes.

A museum can’t exhibit art that mostly doesn’t exist and critics can’t review art that doesn’t exist. Still, we can notice it. MoMA’s “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse” wasn’t just an eye-opening look at great German art, it was a reminder of how easy most Americans have had it.

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  1. Tyler Green says:

    Yes, exactly, and Holzer doesn’t get there for me.

    Rosler does — big time, see here — but I guess what I was getting at was more first-hand, observed experience translated into art. (But likely did not make clear enough.) Fast’s piece has that, in a very specific way. And Rosler’s too… in a completely different, equally specific way. Probably should have included her in the post, thanks.

  2. Amanda says:

    Both Jane Hammond and Jenny Holzer have done significant work on America’s wars.

    Holzer’s Redaction Paintings (http://www.cheimread.com/publications/jenny-holzer/) demonstrate how much information the government has withheld from us on the roots and costs of the war on terrorism, while Hammond’s Fallen, acquired by the Whitney in 2007 and shown across the country, (http://whitney.org/Collection/JaneHammond) illustrates the Iraq war’s ongoing toll in a way that is simultaneously difficult to fathom and deeply touching.

  3. Peter Schwarze says:

    Jenny Holzer has made a series of paintings and LED works based on declassified government documents that made up a large part of her traveling show that was at the MCA Chicago and the Whitney just a couple of years ago. Six paintings are now in the NGA collection. Martha Rosler has made a number of works that deal with the Iraq and Afghanistan. Rosalyn Deutsche, in her ‘Hiroshima After Iraq,’ has looked at projects that specifically treat the wars. I guess it depends on what you consider ‘significant’ or ‘important.’

  4. Tara Moyle says:

    Isn’t it partly a class issue? Artists need funding, and with so much public funding scant or gone these days, many must be privately funded to keep marking art. Which Americans see action in Afghanistan? Not the rich or privileged but rather mostly working class women and men who don’t have memberships at the Whitney. When they come home they’re not as likely to have the constructs necessary to go make art about it, or for this art to be seen. If they do make art about it, it will probably stay in smaller galleries.

    Those who are seen in the big US exhibits usually come from advantaged backgrounds.

    In countries where everyone goes to war and where the class divide works differently, the art that “makes it” to the public eye might be different as well.

  5. While it is not “first-hand, observed experience,” Krzysztof Wodiczko’s …OUT OF HERE: The Veterans Project certainly captures the experience in Iraq vividly. Though it is a video installation the viewer can’t actually see much of anything. One just hears the horror of an attack and it’s consequences. http://www.nyartbeat.com/event/2011/2328

  6. Luke Fidler says:

    Do-Ho Suh’s “Some/One” at the Seattle Art Museum might be not be first-hand experience, but it foregrounds the issue of identity in war from a soldier’s POV:


  7. Tyler you said, “A museum can’t exhibit art that doesn’t exist and critics can’t review art that doesn’t exist.”. I don’t know if it is fair to suggest that it does not exist. I think it is more fair to suggest that specific professionals within the art world are not looking for it… or are avoiding it.

    The problem — in my opinion — is that most of the mainstream art world, professionally speaking, leans to the extreme left. Think Jerry Saltz, think Jeffrey Deitch, think most of the big names. Those individuals are rarely going to write about or exhibit anything that is sympathetic to the experiences of our soldiers. It would take away from the common war monger rhetoric that they spew outside of their professions against the other side of the political fence.

    Beat the tired drum of being critical of Bush visually and it might stand a chance. Create war art that depicts American’s as the bad guys– or as foolish barbarians– and it might have a chance. After all, the mainstream art world tends to lump soldiers– and the military in genearal– on the conservative agenda pile — so art about those experiences would almost have to have an anti-conservative or anti-Republican twist in order to be considered. Extreme liberals like to view the military as the enemy– even though if it were not for our military they would not be able to speak as freely as they do. Food for thought.

    I also think that our museums have failed us due to obvious liberal bias and the dogma of the mainstream art world. Museums rarely look outside of the world of high profile galleries and art critics in order to find contemporary art that speaks for our times — and most of the art found there and written about clearly leans politically and socially left. Sadly, most are content with this.

    If an artist is not accepted into that structure, if you will, his or her art will stand little to no chance of being picked up by a museum no matter how powerful and thought provoking the artwork is. Point blank — we have a problem with lazy museum directors in the US and many art professionals who are more interested in voting booths and their personal thoughts on society and politics compared to capturing the thoughts of our times.

    You said, “MoMA’s “German Expressionism: The Graphic Impulse” wasn’t just an eye-opening look at great German art, it was a reminder of how easy most Americans have had it.”

    We have had it easy in the sense that we have not had war at home. That said, many families in the US were torn apart due to WWI and WWII.

  8. I want to add this as well — I’m no fan of Bush… but I find it ironic that there has been few exhibits examining the ills of President Obama in the same manner. He has made mistakes as well… he has made blunders that deserve visual criticism — but we don’t see it. Why is that? In many ways Obama has stuck to Bush’s policies — so where is the same level of visual criticism? I’m sure it is out there… but you will find few examples in high profile galleries, art fairs, and museums. Again, why is that?

  9. Clarissa Ceglio says:

    Interesting, provocative post. I’ve been compiling info on US museum exhibitions dealing with the current wars and while there have been several mounted by art museums and university art galleries, I’d have to think more deeply about whether any included works that engage the topics, etc., that you raise–and in the spirit that you raise. But, you’ve certainly got me thinking.

    As for Otto Dix’s “Der Kreig,” which MoMA showed selections of in a 1937 exhibit, one critic noted: “As anti-war propaganda, they constitute about the most persuasive material that could be presented. Some of the episodes are unspeakably, unmitigatingly horrible. These represent the nauseating dregs of modern warfare and have nothing to do with the bugle call of emotional response in the beginning or the triumphant waving of flags at the end. They bring before us naked and unrelieved the sheer agony of human disintegration … .”

    As national sentiment later shifted, however, from its “white ideal of peace”–which showing Dix’s work reinforced–so too did MoMA. It became a key creator of exhibits to rally the martial spirit.

    So glad that you keep returning to this topic of art, museums and the current wars.

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