Deep in the midst of the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict, Noah Berlatksy asks over at The Atlantic if anti-war art is truly possible. His qualified answer is that it is not possible—or is "nearly impossible"—to create anti-war art because art inherently "makes its subject interesting and arresting and meaningful" through narrativization, beautification, or aestheticization, as he demonstrates through a series of (cherry-picked) examples, including the famous "Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen (1917) and the less famous "Peace" by Rupert Brooke (1914). "[I]f war becomes a source of meaning, it seems like people, and nations, will continue to try to find meaning in the glory, or the ugly truth, of war," he argues. Because art creates "meaning," and "meaning" legitimizes the act or object to which it is attributed, and gives that act an illusion of purpose, it follows that art that aestheticizes or strives to "mean" cannot be "successfully" anti-war. Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), for example, packages war into a bildungsroman, which he claims renders it subservient to a tangentially relevant narrative, which thus compromises its anti-war message. Even art that is non-narrative, fragmentary, or explicitly gruesome often aestheticizes war, which makes it "appealing" to consumers, and this appeal, he implies, negates any work the art does to complicate or combat the war machine. For Berlatsky, it all comes down to the problem of "beauty" (and its lesser counterpart "aestheticization”): art inevitably tempers the brutality of war and atrocity by filtering that brutality into something structurally, psychologically, and emotionally palatable.
I commend Berlatsky for asking the question itself. The need for American poetry that at least considers state-sanctioned violence and its ramifications—the terror it inflicts on both non-Americans and American soldiers (see this article on working for the drone program)—is pressing, particularly as our local police forces continue to militarize (with the help of the Pentagon). It may not seem to the people (or poets) of the United States that we are "at war," with all our pleasant distractions and domestic quagmires, the almost tyrannical allure of both televisual and online entertainment, our gun problem that fuels our mass-shooting problem, our police brutality problem, our (entangled) problems of poverty, classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, with 9/11 now thirteen years past, Bin Laden assassinated, and our still-ongoing War on Terror happening distantly Elsewhere. Yet our nation is, indeed, engaged in multiple military conflicts. A poet in my doctoral program is on a leave-of-absence because he is serving overseas again; our drones remain active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. We subsidize other countries' operations. In response to the rise of ISIS, President Obama has again authorized airstrikes in Iraq.
Many projects exist online—such as The Holocaust Name Database, Humanize Palestine, and Naming the Dead—that identify victims by name and age (and sometimes a smiling photograph) to remind viewers that they were human beings before they were victims, soldiers, or "collateral damage." He loved birds like no one did. One time he gave me doves as a gift. Most poetry about war, violence, and atrocity similarly asks its viewer to identify or psychoemotionally connect with both aggressor and victim alike. One of the most important Holocaust poets, Tadeusz Różewicz, who died just this year, wrote visionary poems in which imaginable horrors chafe against remarkable moments of tenderness (read one here). Many contemporary poets have recently responded to current events with calls for empathy. Solmaz Sharif's poignant and necessary "Look" and "Drone" address the United States' legacy of devastation and terror in the Middle East with a dedicated eye: Shahida, headless, found beside Saad Mosque was a real person—a corpse found in Falluja after the siege—who is now buried in a makeshift cemetery in Falluja's football field, alongside hundreds of others ("killed because of four dead American soldiers," Mustafa Hamid told The Observer). It is not necessarily true that such artworks undermine an anti-war (or anti-violence) project because they make violence or war "appealing." To argue as much is to underestimate the collaborative power of empathy and anger. Whether narrative, non-narrative, or hybrid, works of art that encourage the viewer to see the "good" in the Othered enemy, or that humanize the dehumanized, perhaps make empathy and humanization "appealing," not the violence itself.
I put the term in quotation marks now because I do not believe that marking these distinctions in art—"pro" or "anti" war, political or apolitical, propaganda or "truth"—is productive, or even possible. Certainly the poet's rhetorical "intentions" have little to no bearing on how a work of art is experienced, and, anyway, I am averse to treating poems as arguments to be parsed and reduced to thesis statements.
But we are still in the realm of the "human," and still discussing work that aims to produce an empathetic emotional (ergo socialized) response: after identification with victims comes sadness for them, and then perhaps the kind of anger on their behalf (in the case of state violence, systemic violence, or violence the state predominantly excuses or ignores, such as rape or police brutality) meant to breed disgust and revolt. This is work that still is, in some sense, "palatable" to the average "consumer" because the successfulness of its strategy hinges on being "understood," or at least on engendering an identifiable emotion—on being acutely and particularly felt—and response. But what of art about war or atrocity that embraces ugliness to its extreme, or that makes the viewer flinch without relief? Art that actively deflects digestible "meaning" and the "appeal" Berlatsky claims it brings? Art that assaults by either public (e.g. the performance artist) or anonymous presentation (e.g. graffiti)? What about art about inhumanity that is anti-humanist, or that aims to be, or evokes, the nonhuman? "Conceptual" or "uncreative" art in which the artist avoids tampering with the "evidence" or inserting his or her magesterial "voice" into the work? And what about projects that do not re-humanize victims through an affirmation of their humanity, choosing instead to further accentuate the dehumanizing brutality, to focus the lens on the gross product of War, such as the corpse, the absence, that art cannot recover?
Let's consider, for example, Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn's visual installation The Incommensurable Banner (2008), a collage featuring photos of Iraqi "War on Terror" victims—those images too disturbing or politically controversial to be included in "mainstream" media outlets—that runs four meters high and eighteen meters long. The curator of the exhibition that featured The Incommensurable writes that Hirschhorn's piece "confront[s], not merely killing, but the extreme mutilation of bodies by cluster bombs, 20mm canons, hollow-point ammunition, indeed the entire, lengthy evolution of the means to tear apart flesh most efficiently." Hirschhorn omitted all context—including names—from the photographs because
When people ask who is this, what happened to them, and where, they distance themselves from what they are looking at. We are living in a dictatorship of information, of facts. We know everything, we know from our endless 24-hour news channels that every day 10 people die here or there. We want to know, but we don't want to see.
The Incommensurable is certainly shocking, disgusting, and profoundly disturbing, as well as ethically complicated. Once you finally force yourself to look at the photographs—to commit to seeing, rather than scanning—as one reviewer did, your eyes might lock on "a torso, the lower half a mash of purple; a body, its head lying nearby; a dark red smear that was presumably once human." The curator called this inhuman smear "abstract." Simply assembling "found" images rather than, say, altering them (or otherwise commenting or editorializing) resists the aestheticization that bothers Berlatsky, but it also prompts questions of exploitation and consent.
Yes, in choosing to expose the corpse rather than memorialize the life, Hirschhorn both accentuates our sense of vulnerability and implicates us as contributors in the military operations we support with taxes and votes (implicated regardless of whatever our personal stance on the necessity or value of such operations might be). Moreover, by removing all context or identifiable information, the work not only evades the "filtering" effects of "informational" language, but also erases the lines that "official" language draws among the dead, i.e., between "militant combatant" and "civilian," or "target" and "casualty." But The Incommensurable also frustrates another kind of identification—that social identification between the viewer and the photographed subject. When we see portrait of the dead—the woman's unadulterated smile at her wedding, the boy's school photograph, or even the unmarred face of the cadaver—we recognize ourselves and our own stories in it; the photograph approximates a mirror. Hirschhorn's project both invites and denies this empathetic connection. We know the corpse is human, but we do not recognize ourselves in the mirror—in the body the bomb scattered across the dirt, the caved-in face, the "abstract" smear of material that "was presumably once human"—though we know intuitively that we should. We cannot quite say that the smear is, or was, "a man."
From this disconnect arise those agitating waves of fear, anxiety, and nausea. Certainly it is natural to feel nauseous at the sight of mortal wounds, and this response can perhaps be deemed empathetic. But this revulsion is not the site of the project's power. The project's power lies in our inability to locate ourselves in that human "smear" or "mash" wrought by twenty-first century weapons technology—this feeling that we should be able to connect with the figure, to find our common humanness, but cannot—that rouses a visceral disorientation that can only be described as uncanny horror. The collection of photographs swells to overwhelm the viewer, like the wave of blood in The Shining, and when the wave breaks what remains is not explicable "meaning," not the familiarly discursive narrative that recycles itself across eras ad infinitum, not quite discernible sadness or anger or helplessness on behalf of victims, but the nightmare residue: a sensation of wrongness, like a nightmare-splinter in the brain, that is not easy to extract or even understand. And perhaps better to not understand it as we understand certain other feelings, such as sympathy and anger—to not have a word to describe exactly how we feel and why—because then the sensation would be easier to resolve, and what we have resolved is no longer our problem. What has been reconciled is more easily forgotten. Horror awakens us, lingers within us, and the discomfort maintained by that lingering is important.
Can any poem approach the experience—the simulated and lasting horror—of The Incommensurable, a project that shocks us in part by omitting language (which, according to Hirshhorn, creates comfortable distance by filtering, describing, critiquing, contextualizing, translating)? Many poetic investigations of war and violence treat language as a surrogate body, as the mutilated material in itself; syntax, form, and even words themselves are torn apart, scattered or smeared across the ground of the page or screen. Ironically, however, perhaps the poetic project that comes closest to the experience of viewing The Incommensurable is Fitterman's Holocaust Museum, a project in which the photographic evidence is not provided or simulated but erased, leaving only the contextual information: names, dates, circumstance. Fitterman lists caption after caption without their photographic referents. If the images of Hirshhorn's banner gather to rise like a wave, the captions on Fitterman's page lie atop one another like bodies in a pile. Here, "[l]oss—erasure and absence—is made palpable by the marked suppression of the missing photographs," as Charles Bernstein writes at Jacket2. As in The Incommensurable, if we truly attempt to look—if we do not only "scan" or "read" the captions, but engage with the project's visuality (i.e., it's lack of visual material)—power here lies in that perpetual frustration of human identification and recognizability. Again and again Holocaust Museum invites us to access only to deny us access, and as we mentally circle the holes where the images should be, try to imaginatively reconstruct the face we know should be there—like the ghost-word on the tip of the tongue, the ghost-memory at the brain's periphery—we find ourselves in the realm of horror, somewhere within the void represented, within that psychoemotional space both inexplicable and irreconcilable. If the photograph—at least the portrait—approximates a mirror for the viewer, the viewer here sees not quite emptiness or blankness, but a disfigured or distorted echo of the human who had been.
Much powerful and complicated work "about" war and violence cannot be considered "anti" (or "pro") because it resists both argument and aestheticization. It asks difficult tasks of us, both emotional and intellectual. But even much work about violence that is explicitly and discernibly "rhetorical" or aestheticized—such as the poem that produces the familiar empathetic response—still retains value beyond the rhetorical or aesthetic.
When we were little girls, my friends and I used to play the game Bloody Mary in the bathroom at the roller rink, which had no windows and thus was very dark with the lights turned off. It's a simple game: alone and in total darkness, stand with your back to the mirror and say her name thirteen times, then turn around to face her. We feared we'd see her—this woman covered in blood, who would kill us—in the mirror, and were relieved to see our selves instead, though sometimes we thought we'd caught a glimpse. But for a moment in the turning, we were unsettled and amorphous, at once the corpse, the threat, and the familiar face, and perhaps the most potent work about war, violence, and atrocity blurs these lines for us, and cultivates for us an experience too complex to be explained.