We need art now more than ever. Specifically, we need protest art. We need to both study it and make it. Through protest art, horrors and atrocities are portrayed with vividness and emotional power that a simple retelling cannot communicate.
I think of Guernica, a place I know almost nothing about. What I do know, however, is that it was bombed horribly during the Spanish Civil War, and that thousands upon thousands of people died there. I never learned that in a history class, however. I learned it from a painting by Pablo Picasso, titled Guernica.
When you see the painting, what strikes you are the broken, contorted, geometric people that are writhing, screaming, begging for an escape from the horrors they are experiencing. They are innocents, horribly being slaughtered as though their lives were nothing. The people in the painting are not real people, they are too abstract to be real.
But the feelings portrayed far exceed anything expressible in simple restating of what happened at Guernica, which, while still harrowing and disturbing, fails to capture the psychological chain-reaction that affects millions of people. Looking at Picasso’s Guernica can teach a great deal, not only about a historical tragedy, but about why art is necessary: it captures something impossible to communicate through plain facts.
Every time I studied World War II growing up, we unavoidably discussed the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which was unanimously seen as a necessary evil, but ultimately a good thing. But then I watch a movie like Grave of the Fireflies, and have a very hard time believing that. Reading that 80,000 people were obliterated in an instant passes me by as a tremendously sad fact, but seeing that suffering in a Japanese film taps into something deeper.
Grave of the Fireflies is an anti-war film, it shows not by vicious rhetoric but rather through artistic expression, how despicable war is. It also is a film that gently reminds us that from January 1944 to August 1945 the United States dropped 157,000 tons of bombs and killed over 330,000 innocent civilians.
I could go on, but I think one more example will suffice. Throughout my many courses that covered World War II over the years, the bombing of Dresden never arose. The first time I learned about Dresden was through Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. To read on Wikipedia that 25,000 people died in Dresden is one thing; it is an entire other thing to see how, through his art, Vonnegut shows how that bombing Dresden not only destroyed an entire city and many of its occupants, but also the psychological lives of thousands of disillusioned soldiers. How, so overwhelmed by the atrocities committed by their own country, soldiers will do anything to escape reality.
Before criticizing that I would rather evil regimes keep on keepin on, I am thankful we fought Nazi Germany, for example, but it is important to think of events like Dresden, which teach us that even in our best attempts to do the right thing, we can commit complete atrocities. We cannot always do the right thing, it is impossible.
Art, protest art, is needed now more than ever. When I hear my president say “I would bomb the shit out of them!” (them being ISIS, but really he means Iraq and Syria) I tremble and feel ill, because all I think about are the doomed faces in Picasso’s Guernica, the harrowing descriptions of a wasteland that was once a beautiful city called Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five, and the completely obliterated innocents in Japan. But these are only three little and personal examples.
Thankfully, there are people taking initiative. MoMA recently set up installations from Muslim countries in order to support those who are in danger of following pattern set up by numerous examples in the past. The power of protest art gets at the importance of art in general. Protest art isn’t just something we should have because it’s interesting or cool to look at, we genuinely need it.
I thank God that his word is simultaneously truth and beautiful art that shows us that the greatest atrocities are committed by ordinary people like you and me.
God’s word is a good reminder that when it comes down to it, when we argue that people should be bombed because they “deserve it,” that in reality, we all deserve to be air-raided and blown up and annihilated for eternity.
And my examples given here only cover massacres and wars. Art can serve to inform us about race, gender, and politics in ways otherwise impossible.
This quotation from Slaughterhouse Five succinctly illustrates why we need art to show us atrocities; mere facts and simple sayings cannot even begin to actually contain what we feel, and it is through art we can tap into the incommunicable:
“[T]here is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like "Poo-tee-weet?”