The following is an interview with Alex Danchev, author of On Art and War and Terror. (The book is currently on sale during our special offer on politics, political theory, and political science theory titles.)
Question: Art and war and terror sounds like a lot for one book. What’s the idea?
Alex Danchev: The idea is to see how art, of all kinds, can help us to understand what Winston Churchill called the terrible twentieth century (and the terrible twenty first). And to see how people’s lives can be described and redescribed, imagined and reimagined, through art. So the book traffics in war art, war poetry, war photography, war films, war stories, war diaries, and the like, but also in war itself – the First World War, the Second World War, the so-called war on terror that we’re still wrestling with. In other words, it deals in blood—“blood like a carwash”, as Christopher Logue’s Homer has it—and in tricky issues like political legitimacy, moral authority, civility, depravity, honor and conscience, as well as strange things like senseless kindness. What it tries to do is to chart a way through all this, by putting the imagination to work, employing its second sight, if you like, piggy-backing on its moral benefits. The credo of the book (and the author) is something the poet Seamus Heaney has said, which I think is very profound: “The imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it.”
Q: We haven’t seen much imaginative transformation of human life in the war on terror, have we?
AD: One of the chapters in the book tries to address that question directly. It asks whether the cinema has yet found its voice in the war on terror. What kind of movies are war-on-terror movies? Are they different from other war movies? Are they any good? What can they tell us? It may be a too soon to ask for a masterpiece. All Quiet on the Western Front came out in 1930, the book on which it was based in 1929, fully ten years after that war had ended. Is there a kind of ten-year maturation period, I wonder? That said, I think there are at least two war-on-terror movies that will last: In the Valley of Elah by Paul Haggis and Standard Operating Procedure, by Errol Morris. I discuss both in the book, focusing on Standard Operating Procedure, which is essentially an investigation of the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib, making use of some remarkable interviews with the Military Police who served there. Morris calls it a nonfiction horror movie, which has echoes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and I believe it will come to have a similar status.
But there is another way to approach the war on terror. It seems to me that the most illuminating writing on “the dark side” of this struggle is by Kafka, who died in 1924. The Trial and In the Penal Colony capture so much of what went on. So I’ve written another chapter on “Kafka and Abu Ghraib.”
Q: I’m curious about this idea of “putting the imagination to work.” What is it, exactly, that artists or artworks can do for us when it comes to history, or politics, or ethics? What do they know?
AD: That’s a hard question, and an important one. Another poet, W. H. Auden, said that the primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. He went on: “I do not know if such awareness makes us more moral or more efficient: I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive.” Armed with art, in other words, we are more alert and less deceived. Susan Sontag used to say that a photograph can’t coerce. That it won’t do the moral work for us. But that it can start us on the way. I believe that too. I take seriously the idea of the artist as moralist, or “moral witness”, however unfashionable that may be. In a nutshell, I suppose the book is dedicated to the proposition that art makes us feel—or feel differently. That it makes us think, and think again. Art is the highest form of hope, as the painter Gerhard Richter has bravely said. Richter’s pictures of the Baader-Meinhof group, the German terrorists of the 1970s, are another example of what I mean: they too are explored in the book. Painters and paintings know a lot more than we give them credit for.
Q: What other works do you use in the book?
AD: I use war photography—the classic “thousand yard stare” photographs by people like Don McCullin and David Douglas Duncan, and also the more recent, after-the-battle photographs of destruction, desolation, and bones. I think these photographs are extraordinarily powerful. I try to use them to make an argument about the ethics of responsibility—that our responsibility to others does not consist in doing Good, with a capital G, but rather in doing small acts of “senseless kindness”. That’s a marvelous expression, I think, borrowed from the Russian writer Vassily Grosssman, who wrote a great book about the Soviet experience of Second World War, Life and Fate. He was persecuted by Stalin because of it.
I use a Cubist painting by one of my favorite painters, Georges Braque (Picasso’s friend and rival and collaborator), to trace the life of a painting—its biography, if you like—in order to try to say something about the idea of authenticity, in art and in life. It seems to me that, in politics, authenticity is the key to success, especially in the long run. Why did Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton to the Democratic nomination? Isn’t part of the reason that Obama appeared to be more authentic than Clinton, was that she often seemed not to know how to best behave in the circumstances—to show emotion or not show emotion, for instance?
I use an extract from the greatest long poem of the First World War, “In Parenthesis” by David Jones, to explain what happened to a man called Basil Liddell Hart, later a world famous-military writer, when he disappeared one night into Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme.
I use J. M. Coetzee’s prophetic novel Waiting for the Barbarians to question the crude opposition between civilization and barbarism, so often made in the war on terror; the idea that “we” are civilized while “they” are not—whoever they may be. With Geoffrey Hill, “I have learned one thing: not to look down/so much upon the damned.”