Truth and conscience, and with them art, are the first casualties of any war. The impending U.S. invasion of Iraq has already provided us with two major examples of this. The first of these was the cancellation by First Lady Laura Bush of a White House Symposium on “Poetry and the American Voice” scheduled for early February 2003, once it was discovered that some of the invited poets were voicing opposition to Bush administration plans for an invasion of Iraq and might use the occasion to address the conscience of the country on the war. (Upon receiving the White House invitation, as explained in this issue, Sam Hamill, founding editor and co-founder of Copper Canyon Press, issued a call for the establishment of Poets Against the War. His call was answered by thousands of poets, including many of the country’s leading literary figures, who offered their antiwar poems. Some of this poetry protesting the impending war is printed for the first time in this issue of MR.)
The second example of how art has become a casualty of the present war campaign is the covering up of the reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica in the United Nations in New York. Sixty-six years ago this month, in the late afternoon of a busy market day on April 26, 1937, Nazi bombers dropped incendiary bombs and other explosives on the town of Guernica (also spelled Gernika) in the Basque region in Spain in one of the first massive aerial bombings of civilian populations. In carrying out the bombing, Hitler’s Germany was assisting its fascist ally, General Francisco Franco, against the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War. The bombing of Guernica was designed to break the fierce resistance of the Basque population. In three hours of relentless bombing 1,600 civilians were killed or wounded. The town burned for three days. The civilian carnage in Guernica outraged the entire world. On May 1, 1937, more than a million workers demonstrated in Paris in the largest May Day crowds ever seen in that city, with many of the demonstrators protesting the bombing. On that same day Picasso began his sketches for his painting, Guernica, one of the greatest paintings of the twentieth century and the best known artistic expression of the horrors of war. The painting in black and white was approximately eleven feet high by twenty-six feet wide. In it could be seen dead, dying, mutilated, and shrieking women, men, children, and animals—spotlighted by lights from above.
New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had a tapestry made of Guernica for New York’s State Capitol and in 1985 (the same year that the original painting, which had long resided in New York, was sent from the United States to Spain) this tapestry was put on permanent loan to the United Nations, where it was hung outside the Security Council chambers. Television cameras have often panned across the tapestry as diplomats have entered and left the council chambers. However, in late January of this year, U.N. officials began placing a blue drape with a U.N. logo over the Guernica tapestry during reports by weapons inspector Hans Blix regarding Iraq’s compliance with U.N. resolutions on the elimination of its weapons of mass destruction, and during U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speeches arguing for an invasion of Iraq to be carried out by the United States. Officially, the reason for shrouding the tapestry was that it had been necessary to move the microphone for the diplomats in front of the tapestry instead of its usual location because of the crowds of reporters and cameras that had to be accommodated. Showing the tapestry in the background in televised broadcasts, it was claimed, would not signal to viewers that this was the United Nations. But privately U.N. diplomats indicated that the United States had leaned on U.N. officials to cover the tapestry since images from the world’s greatest painting on the horrors of war could only interfere with U.S. efforts to sell the war.
There are profound ironies in all of this. The covering up of the Guernica tapestry symbolizes the lies and cover-ups that have characterized this campaign for a war on Iraq from the start. In canceling the White House poetry symposium Laura Bush declared that it would be “inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum”—as if art had no proper connection to politics. Yet, the real purpose of the cancellation was political—to prevent a forum for artistic expressions aimed at stopping a war of aggression. The shrouding of Guernica—so that hundreds of millions of television viewers would not see Powell’s argument for war being made against the backdrop of the most famous antiwar painting of modern times—speaks volumes about the administration’s stance (via Laura Bush) that art should not be mingled with politics.
Here it is well to remember that Picasso himself was often treated during the Cold War as a controversial figure because of his political commitments, particularly his membership in the French Communist Party. Pressed by a journalist on this subject in March 1945 he wrote:
What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far, far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war (quoted in Russell Martin, Picasso’s War, 2003, p. 175).
The war he was referring to here was of course the class war. And for ordinary people caught up in this class war and promoting the cause of humanity in an inhumane world, military force has always been the greatest enemy. One of Picasso’s great paintings, Massacre in Korea (1951), shows his outrage in the face of the massive U.S. military intervention in Korea. Often treated as a mere work of propaganda because it targets the United States rather than Nazi Germany (as in his Guernica) as the perpetrator of atrocities, it nonetheless cries out to the conscience of the world. As in his more famous painting, Picasso expressed here his “abhorrence of the military caste” and the “ocean of pain and death” that it produced. No other message is so much needed in our time.
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