In late October, The School of Visual Arts held its 23rd Annual National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists, entitled Visions of War: The Arts Represent Conflict.
In late October, The School of Visual Arts held its 23rd Annual National Conference on Liberal Arts and the Education of Artists, entitled Visions of War: The Arts Represent Conflict. The week of events included a play, a panel discussion on photography, and a series of films exploring the emotional scars of war. The conference was held at the Algonquin Hotel, and I sat in on one of the sessions called Images of the Other.
One man, Carl McBride, shared his photography from Saigon, where he had been deployed during Vietnam. Brian Winkenweder addressed various artists whose work acknowledged the human cost of war. He delved into Lévinas’ theory of the other, explaining that one must dehumanize in order to rationalize killing. Winkenweder discussed the art of Suzanne Opton and Daniel Heyman, arguing that art can re-humanize the Other.
An audience member found fault in his language, saying that the word “re-humanize” implies that the other was at one point not human. An interesting debate sparked around the role of an artist, but time was limited, and the last speaker, Pier Marton, changed the lecture to a new tone. His lecture was more animated—at one point he screamed to evoke the sounds he heard as a child from his neighbor, a World War One veteran who had screaming fits.
Certain questions ran through my mind as I sat in the small room, ignoring the cold draft coming through. Can the arts offer a form of healing from war? I thought back to the words a five year-old girl had said to me the other day, “When I get older, I want to be mean.” Though this inclination is quite different from killing, I wondered, where does this violent desire root?
I had a chance to speak with Pier Marton the following day, and the following are excerpts from our interview:
Jaclyn Alexander Why did you want to speak at this conference?
Pier Marton Possibly the fact that my grandmother was asked to take a shower at Auschwitz which clearly can mark generations thereafter. Another factor was when Susan Sontag asked me why I had not gone to a war zone, I said to her, “I don’t need to go to a war zone, I hear the bombs all the time.” I’m connected to war in that way, my parents survived the war, and I grew up across the way from somebody who had screaming fits. It was very, very loud, and not just representing pain, but a very raw scream that went on and on. It wasn’t just, as I did at the conference, a few seconds…When you listen to that and you cannot find out anything else except that this man survived the trenches in World War I, that’s not a sufficient answer. Messages carry through, and I’m the recipient of that message, and I have to somehow deal with it. I become a witness to his life.
JA How do you deal with it?
PM I deal with it by being at the conference, by talking, acknowledging something. You witness something, everything affects you. We differentiate between the normal world, which allows us to go on automatic, and the other parts of life that wake us up in some ways. We can’t go on automatic when threatening events happen around us. And in those moments, we feel we owe something to those occurrences.
JA What about the fact that this conference revolved around War and Trauma in the Visual Arts?
PM I don’t think the answer for me is whether it is art or not art. If something needs to be expressed. If there is a conference that is art, that is a good context, but it doesn’t have to be art, it could be anything you want, sociology, psychology, living. I tell my students, it’s a quip, that I was looking for a department called “Life, Film and Media Studies” but the closest I could come to this was “Film and Media studies.” (laughter).
JA How do you think one can make sense of violence?
PM One doesn’t need to make sense of violence because violence has no sense. Do you remember the image of the book that I included called “Making Sense of the Holocaust”? I was mocking that attempt. I don’t think one can make sense of it. Unfortunately, one has to at times live through violence. One cannot digest violence; war is not to be digested. Yes, you have to process, but that is different from digesting. Processing means dealing with emotions that were stirred up with the event of violence, but that doesn’t mean that you have digested it. The reason I screamed, beyond just relaying the scream, was that there is a scream all the time, everywhere. You could say, “explain, say this in clear language,” but the scream is the true language. Back to Artaud’s quote, “true language is incomprehensible.”
JA Do you think violence is inevitable?
PM That’s a good question. I definitely cannot answer; I wish I could say it’s avoidable. But it hasn’t stopped; we haven’t seen any signs of the end of the violence. It’s quite likely, despite our wishful thinking, that it is going to go on. We’re devising remote ways of having remote war in Afghanistan. We’re devising fancier and fancier ways of killing, but I don’t think we are devising fancier ways of not killing. We’re going in the wrong direction, but we are going forward, it’s obviously not anything I would like, but I don’t think I can stop it. I can talk about it, that’s about it.
JA What role can art play?
PM The way most people approach any question is, “Are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Are you adding to the problem or are you alleviating the suffering? Are you helping people become more conscious?”
You never know if you are really helping when you’re doing something, but if there is fire you try to extinguish it, and beyond that, it’s very complex.
I’ll see birds that are attacking each other and I think, “Do I intervene here?” These are birds harassing each other. But who am I to say in the order of animals that I know what’s best for them? It’s easy to think or feel you are right; it’s much harder to know you are right.
Pier Marton is on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. He works with desktop video and graphics, performance, installation, and sound. His pieces revolve around issues of ethnicity, violence, and spirituality.