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.