Looking at War: An Essay on Why Art Matters

Minneapolis curator and arts writer Tricia Khutoretsky on why art matters:

I’m not an army veteran. I’m not a politician. I’m not an activist or a lobbyist. I’ve never been to Afghanistan or Iraq. And yet, I can picture what it is like to be there.  I can tell you stories about the horror soldiers in battle experience, and the daily trauma a person in Iraq faces. I can talk about what this war means and the damage it has caused. And none of this knowledge is from anything I’ve seen on TV or read in newspapers.

Navigating the Aftermath, photograph by Sharolyn B. Hagen.

For over a year, I’ve worked as a curator for a non-profit organization called the Iraqi American Reconciliation Project (IARP), which develops programs and collaborations to help heal the relationship between Iraqis and Americans in response to the devastation caused by the Iraq war. It is an imaginary relationship that we, as Americans, have with Iraqis. Some of us might have actually met an Iraqi, but my general assumption is that the majority of the American public has not. The perception that we can’t relate to them as the victims of this war comes from an uninformed place. Assuming that Americans are not also victims of this unending war is severely delusional, though our pain is intrinsically and proportionally different. While Iraqis face a destroyed infrastructure, severely injured, maimed and disabled civilians, lack of electricity, lack of clean water and a dissipated middle class, Americans are saddled with an epidemic suicide rate of veterans, undiagnosed PTSD and a growing national deficit that trickles into every aspect of our quality of life.

As a curator for IARP, I’ve created exhibits of both Iraqi and American art reflecting from a variety of perspectives the Iraq war and its consequences. The most recent exhibit, Navigating the Aftermath, debuted at the University of Minnesota Regis Center for the Arts in February of this year and is since touring six locations in rural Minnesota. Despite my belief that I curated a worthwhile and informative collection of visual art, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to an often-troubling question crossing my mind, specifically: “What’s the point?” When you consider something as all encompassing, as tragic and as massive as war, how can artwork displayed on the walls of a gallery matter in the larger scheme of life?

Navigating the Aftermath, photograph by Sharolyn B. Hagen.

Exploration into the answer can start by asking yourself, as you stand in a gallery gazing at the exhibit that encourages you to think about war, “Why am I looking at this? What does this offer me?” I’ve thought about how to answer this question many times and concluded that the only way to respond is not to speak for you, but to speak for myself. This is what art has offered me.

Recently, for research purposes I viewed two local exhibits in one evening. The first, No Glory, at Form + Content Gallery in Minneapolis featured 13 international artists whose work examines the destructive nature of war, while resisting any glorification of it. As I spent time with the artwork, I was struck by the overarching feeling of emptiness that existed despite the intricate detail of each artwork. The gallery presented beautiful interpretations of devastation, as contradictory as that may seem. I stood and stared at the walls of art, watching as it begged me to look closer and feel something. The imagination and skill within each artwork encouraged awareness, regardless of the bubble of apathy and detachment that daily life encapsulated around me.

Navigating the Aftermath, photograph by Sharolyn B. Hagen.

Later that night, the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul held the opening reception for Deceptive Distance.  The exhibit brought together six Twin Cities artists who imagine the consequences of 9/11, both from their own perspective and that of others. The attempt is made by the artists to feel a deeper connection to the war, and to express it in an artistic manner. Notably all of the artists in this exhibit were women, the curator also a woman. Whether or not this was intentional, I felt a sympathetic softness within the collection, a feminine approach to the usual masculine edge in harsh war stories. I also found fascination in a contrast of artworks that were either immensely colorful or void of color altogether. It was as if the emotions presented were either intense or flat, without much middle ground. A true reflection of how we to react to discussion of 9/11, often passionately engaged or distantly numb.

It’s no surprise that we experience polarized reactions depending on the day. The politics of this war are complicated. Conspiracy theories along with overwhelming iconic moments are delivered to us in a meditated fashion ranging from the sentimental coverage of the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, backtracking to the capture of Saddam Hussein and his disheveled appearance, and then fast forwarding to the recent climatic and dangerous killing of Osama Bin Laden. Along the lines of packaged experiences, I once caught a show on television hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus where he helped soldiers surprise their loved ones with an unexpected homecoming. As I watched the stories of worry and separation followed by emotional reunions, I naturally shed tears, but at the same time I felt anger. I was angry that a television program led me to connect the effects of the war on American families at such a surface level and neatly wrapped up in a happy ending. I realized that not everyone spends their days as consumed with the subject as I do, and a television show like that one might be as close as they get. The media tells us what to feel and how to feel it, as if the moments of emotion about the war can be turned on and off by a switch.

Navigating the Aftermath, photograph by Sharolyn B. Hagen.

When you work with art as a tool for awareness, war is inescapable and consuming, regardless of the fact that the media are already moved on to next over-hyped, short-lived topic of the day.  While the media is tirelessly working to distract us, those affected by the war are yearning to share with us through so many artistic outlets, what they are going through. There is amazing art out there that people have taken the time to create and contextualize, to feel the healing effect of your attention and understanding.

Inside my world of daily experiences, I’ve had the opportunity to listen first hand to a young woman from Iraq talk about the difficulties she faces since losing her legs to an American missile in 2004.  I anticipated the personalization of her story into a book by Monica Haller and Clare Beer through the Veteran’s Book Project, a book that was later presented as an installation in our Navigating the Aftermath exhibit. Working with “10 Years and Counting” (10YAC), a national artist-led project marking the 10-year anniversary of our nation at war, I interviewed Sara Nesson, the director behind Poster Girl, a documentary about a female Iraq war veteran battling with PTSD.  For another article I learned about The Graffiti War Project, an effort by veteran Jaeson Parsons, to compile a book presenting an unconventional war record through the graffiti found in Iraq and Afghanistan by soldiers and locals.  One of my most profound experiences was a conversation with Michael Sheridan, a filmmaker who executed a film-training program in Afghanistan. The stories he told me in a short hour, of the traumatized people and the suffering country within which he was immersed, were eye-opening.

As I reflect on all my experiences understanding this war through art there is one word that comes to mind: powerful. This is how I feel about every story, painting, photograph, and exhibit. This is the reoccurring descriptor used by so many people who experience them as well. Art is emotional, it is stimulating, it is revealing and in that, it is ultimately powerful. So much so, that my personal perception of the war is not shaped by what I have heard in the media, but what I have learned, listened and seen first-hand in galleries, through film, photography, books and paintings. And as a result, I feel personally affected, I feel connected and I feel troubled. But above all, I feel informed.

What then, is the point of art as a way to understand this war? The point is that it allows you to find your own truth, to create your own reality and to see as many perspectives as possible. Within the art are contained real emotions, the first-hand reports, the memories and the sacrifices that you will never see on television or read in a news story.  This is about the energy contained in a work of art that can transfer to the viewer who can then share their experience with it. Indeed, art is powerful but it is sadly useless if it remains unshared. So as you stand in a gallery space looking at art about war, wondering how the experience could possibly mean anything to something immeasurable and unimaginable as war– know that standing right there and having that thought, means something. What you are able to experience is an account of history that becomes part of your memory of that history. The ability to tell it and share it in an informed way now and in the future will make all the difference.

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