Susan Hol – Report on NGE/DAA-conference “Art and War”

The Art and War Annual Conference of the Dutch Association of Aesthetics on 18 and 19 April 2013 was inspired on the festivities in remembrance of the peace treaty of 11 April 1713 in the Utrecht city hall. But why then chosen for Art and War as a theme instead of Art and Peace? Strangely enough it was very difficult to find examples of art regarding peace, while there were ample examples of artists working on war.

The kick-off of the conference was for Cornée Jacobs with her ‘Image formation concerning conflict areas’. She took her audience to the areas of conflicts in Afghanistan, Iran and Israel and wondered if artists are able to break through the restricted and unilateral representations we normally are confronted with about those areas through the traditional mass media and bring a more balanced picture. She showed an example of the Israeli artist Ronny Edry, who initiated the project Israel loves Iran on Facebook and other social media. You see people connecting to each other on facebook as individual human beings loving other human beings and thus break through their negative notions of each other. ‘But’, asked someone in the public, ‘is it art?’ Another of Jacobs’ examples was clearly more accepted as art: the tapestry Ghoska Macuga made of big black and white photo’s that were made in Kabul and Kassel. The Kabul tapestry, which shows the ruin of the Queens Palace, was shown in Kassel and refers mainly to the past. The Kassel tapestry, showing the Orangerie which was destroyed during the war, was shown in Kabul and refers mainly to the future. These artists confront us with ordinary people in conflict areas and in doing so induce questions like: who ís exactly the one that keeps these wars alive if almost everybody wants a normal and peaceful daily life?

After a lively discussion about the topics risen by Cornée Jacobs, Karin de Jonge continued with a paper on ‘Constructed memories as cultural icon’. Karin de Jonge questions the value of memories represented by artists in their work. Gerhard Richter and Thomas Demand for example use photographic images of important historical traumatic events, like war and all the awful things that go with it, to re-create a memory that was represented in the photographic image. Richter, as a painter, gives his own style to the re-creation. Demand, as a photographer, builds a decor that matches exactly the photographic image, chooses the exact same standpoint as the photographer did in the original photographic image and makes thus a exact copy of that original photographic image. After that he destroys the decor. The photo of Demand is thus a photo of a decor made by means of a photo of an important historical traumatic event. Which leaves us with the question of its historical value: is the work of Richter and Demand a good way of keeping the collective memory about important historical traumatic events alive or does it become a sort of Disneyworld, that is a flat surface with no underlying deeply felt trauma.

Leaving the audience with many questions, Karin de Jonge makes place for the next speaker: Ling Zhu, with her lecture ‘True Pain is not the Pain We Suffer, but the Pain We Inflict – Paintings of Wars and Conflicts by the Chinese Artist Li Yan’. Zhu discusses the work of Li Yan, a Chinese artist based in Beijing who uses photographs by Western war correspondents as the starting point for his paintings. According to Zhu, Li Yan succeeds in his work to convince us of the universality of the distortion of humanity in wars. This is in contrast to the photo’s he uses, in which the human being appears as a specimen through which the suffering manifests itself. The way Li Yan presents his work, in small images interacting with each other, stresses a sense of violence and aggression. In contrast to photo’s, which proclaim neutrality and objectivity, Li Yan’s paintings take, according to Zhu, a standpoint and leave the viewer with the feeling that true pain is the pain we inflict.
The discussion as a result of this and the other two interesting lectures was continued during lunch.

After lunch it was time for Dutch artist, Rob Scholte, the keynote speaker who spoke about art about war. His talk was preceded by Gino van Roeyen and Rob van Gerwen about copyright and Scholte’s art.

As Gino van Roeyen puts it: Although art is generally considered to be the territory of absolute freedom in which creativity should thrive optimally, it can also be the arena of virulent copyright battles. And he convincingly argued for that point with numerous hilarious, paradoxical and also sometimes saddening examples of copyright battles.

Rob van Gerwen introduced Rob Scholte with a short lecture: ‘The Right to Copy and the Obligation to Watch’. He started by distinguishing pictures from images. The world around us consists of images, in all sense modalities. These images are not like snap-shots; they are processes, and people perceiving them are part of them. Pictures, in contrast, are motionless two-dimensional snap shots, taken from these images. The distinction allowed him to put the following: Copyright protects the makers of pictures from theft, but cannot at the same time also protect the image that these makers took from the things. The question is who ‘owns’ the image, a question Rob Scholte continuously triggers with his work.

Rob Scholte did a non-stop talk by heart about his motivations connected with copyright and his work. He has become mixed-up with the world of the right to copy, thought that through and mixed-up with a number of new works the copyright world. See for example his Self-portrait and the works he made with cigarette packages. He regrets the other side of all this copyright fuss, namely that the way he learned his skills as an artist, by copying the work of others, is no longer freely available: there is always that risk of a lawsuit about copyright.
This inspiring lecture had also come to an end, but lively discussions were continued during the tea/coffee break. Because of that, the conference continued a bit later than planned.

Two, rather specialist, Heidegger-inspired lectures followed. Kees Vuyk: ‘Art at war with itself: bourgeois culture, avant-garde and Heidegger’ and Martin Kuka: ‘War in a peaceful scenery’. Vuyk introduced his lecture as ‘an investigation in progress’. He showed his public some contradictions between art in the bourgeois culture and avant-garde art. Kuka confronted Heidegger’s discussion of the Van Gogh painting (A Pair of Shoes) and the painting of an ancient Greek temple with some Heraclitean passages, to loosen some of Heidegger’s criteria.

A completely different lecture followed after that. Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin took her audience to Northern Ireland and large murals of key events from the history of conflict and violence. Her lecture ‘Art, Peace and (Local) Politics: The Contested Status of Derry’s Bogside Murals‘ focused on the (often not identified) artistic terms of the murals. The argument for valuing these murals on their own artistic terms and as a consequence the preservation of them, was based on the thought that the murals should not be viewed individually, as separate works of art, but collectively, as a site specific public installation that is integrally, narratively and contextually, linked to its immediate environment. Though the argument was understandable, a discussion arose about the question of preservation of murals. When, so was asked, one makes a painting on an outside wall of a building, isn’t one implicitly accepting the possibility of its vanishing during several years?

After a day full of appealing ideas, arguments, insights and original thoughts, with plenty of time to exchange thoughts on the issues, it was time for further lively discussion during some drinks and a lovely dinner.

The next day, April 19th, started off with Dutch artist, Irene Janze‘s lecture ‘Appropriation of the public space by a site-specific art intervention is an act of war’. She sees public space as an active ‘doing’ that takes part in the constitution of art interventions. In some public spaces your artistic interventions are welcomed with open arms, nobody protests or call the police and the artist even gets positive publicity initiated by the minister of public affairs. In other public spaces artistic interventions are fought like war. There is protest against every centimetre the artist uses for an intervention, the police is called, the artist arrested. Striking about these two very different ways of dealing with art in public space is that the warmly welcomed artist worked in a poor residential area, whereas the ‘warzone’ took place in a rich business district. Janze took her arms and started with http://www.burojanze.nl/, http://www.logolengte.nl/.

A very different ‘warzone’ was taken into account by Neli Dobreva in her lecture ‘Gazing at Humanized Terror: Boteromorphs at Abu Ghraib’. She highlighted the perspective of the aesthetic notion of sublime as a problem of philosophy of history and the pragmatic concept of ‘kitschification’, applied to mass consumption of Trauma and Memory phenomenon. A bit like the above mentioned Disneyworld by Karin de Jonge.

Anno Dijkstra, Dutch artist, told us about his project Nachtaarde, in which he places several small sculptures in public space, just for the sake of placing them there. It appeared that most people took the sculptures with them, but some started looking around actively for the sculptures in their neighbourhood to collect them. Yet another threw one in the dustbin, comparing the sculptures with rubbish. Most people didn’t immediately, if ever, see that the sculptures took after news photos of distressing events like murder, hunger and torture. They were just happy with the lovely sculpture. Yet, once at home with it, they struggled giving it a due place. One couple could not find a proper place for their sculpture in their home, garage or garden and put it back on the street again.
During the short brake all sorts of passionate discussion arose spontaneously, which caused a rather big delay.

So Rob van Gerwen, the next speaker after the brake, had to be very strict with time. His lecture: ‘Public Art Site-Specific? A Conflict of Sorts’ was an example of a carefully thought out argument which raised questions like: must the artist only consider his oeuvre when he is asked to make a work for public space or is he obliged to consider the meanings already dormant in the environment, and who are the keepers of these meanings? Was Richard Serra right to place a gigantic corten-steel plate on a square, hindering the inhabitants in their daily routing or are the inhabitants right in protesting heavily against this artwork they find extremely disturbing? Several other examples were discussed.

Annelies Monseré presented ‘What experimental philosophy can and cannot do for the philosophy of art’ to an audience familiar with such experiments in the 1960’s. So although the line of thought was interesting, it caused a few protests about the origin, validity and legitimacy of it all. Which was in a way amusing (a little ‘war’), because nowadays, experimental philosophy protests against the philosophers ‘armchair’ intuitions on what art is. A better way to create and test theories of art is, according to experimental philosophy, survey intuitions of ordinary people. Monseré argued that whatever outcome such surveys would deliver, they could never solve issues of normativity.

After lunch, Karen Simecek presented ‘Evaluating War through Poetry’. What has war to do with poetry? Some poems do justice to war experiences of human beings, whether you were a soldier or a victim of war. Poems can give insight in individual experiences which makes it easier for the individual reader to reflect in a self-critical way about war and its (negative, but also positive) consequences. Her examples clearly supported her case.

Kris Goffin spoke about ‘Background feelings shout musical moods down. The emotional arousal of music’. Does music evoke moods instead of emotions? No, states Goffin, it evokes background feelings (Damasio) such as energy, excitement, wellness, tension, relaxation, surging, dragging, stability, instability, balance, imbalance, harmony, and discord, thus introducing a term to reconsider successfully the mood theory. ‘Music does not feel like moods feel, it sounds like moods feel.’

The epilogue of the conference was for Paul Cortois and Oleg Lebedev. Cortois presented ‘Towards a philosophy of hatred: under the spell of Hans Keilson and his adversary’. He discussed Hans Keilson’s Death of the Adversary in which, among a lot of other things, is shown how the adversary may turn into a subject and an object of hate, depending on the nature of the aggressor. Hatred is an important tool in enabling someone to fight another human being, but the other side of it is projection, which connects someone tightly to his enemy and above all that gets reason for existence from this hatred-relation with his enemy.

Last but not least it was Oleg Lebedev‘s turn to present a paper on Schiller: ‘Is Schiller a revolutionary thinker? On Spieltrieb, harmony and class struggle’. Is it possible for aesthetics to bring peace? Making use of the idea that a capacity of art is to neutralize common divisions of society, allows to a consideration of a positive answer to the question. The rounding up after that put an end to an inspiring, lively, sociable and pleasant conference!

Nederlands Genootschap voor Esthetica, Apr 29th, 2013

http://nge.nl/report-on-ngedaa-conference-art-and-war/

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