War Art, What Is It Good For?

For a devastating Twentieth Century of turmoil, for one

According to the philosophy of liberal nations, war is defensible only as a last, pragmatic resort, after all political means have been exhausted. Of course that's not why the world fought two wars within the first three decades of the Twentieth Century. With tens of millions slaughtered, plus the legacies of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, few can really support the idea of Western civilization being the paradigm of human development that eighteenth-century Enlightenment tried to make it. How did we manage to defend the indefensible? Maybe because in the Twentieth Century we perfected a particular form: propaganda, the art of manipulating information to further one's cause at the expense of another. This is the theme of "Weapons of Mass Dissemination: The Propaganda of War," an exhibit at Miami Beach's Wolfsonian-FIU and superb testimony to how we learned to explain away human carnage.

In a propaganda war, enemies know how to get at each other's closeted monsters. Stand before the realistic Italian 1944 piece from Dante Coscia, depicting a Boer, Egyptian, and Arab, hung as targets of plunder by the British. "For Great Britain, all the peoples are equal," reads the toxic message -- not off the mark in the context of British Imperialism. Is this a Nietzschean subversion of values? Perhaps war brings out the worst in all of us.

Take our stereotyped depictions of the Japanese during World War II: Kill the Jap is a coin-operated machine, whose game consists of buying poison balls that roll into a wooden soldier's mouth. In Keep Jap Terror From Your Home, a photo ad showing a sweaty Japanese soldier clutching his knife behind a windowsill lined with furry little stuffed toys, the message of savagery against the innocent is crystal clear, with even a contemporary feel to it.

The art of war makes up "Weapons of Mass Dissemination: The Propaganda of War"
The art of war makes up "Weapons of Mass Dissemination: The Propaganda of War"


Through March 1; Call 305-531-1001.
The Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave, Miami Beach

See firsthand how a foe's presumed might can be belittled by comical depictions, to the point of mockery. A good example is Bowl Them Over, a poster intended to boost the production war of the Allies, where Axis leaders Mussolini, Hitler, and Tojo appear as bowling pins being hit by a huge ball reading "More Production." As one weighs the image against our post-Cold War sensibilities, even Japan's scummy role in World War II may not justify the exaggerated message.

Experience how effectively propaganda appeals to pity and fear. Stop by the gruesome This Is How Children Die In Madrid from 1936, with its Constructivist-like counterpoint of red and black. It asks: "Is The World's Conscience Silent?" Or Criminals!, the 1938 Expressionist ad executed in black, thick-brushed with an anxious pulse, from the Marxist Unification Party.

El Nuevo Orden del Eje from 1944 is one of my favorites, finely achieved by Edward McKnight for the Office of Inter-American Affairs. For this anti-Fascist message, imagine a Classical bust of some Erich von Stroheim look-alike, sharp-toothed, wearing a monocle and dribbling iniquity, with an acid-colored background. Victoria (1945) from Taller de Gráfica Popular is through and through Mexican in its style, again part of the anti-Nazi warfare. Rendered in red and black, Hitler's head appears smashed into pulp, his eye pierced by a bayonet amid a pile of Nazi hardware.

I found some of the statements ahead of their time in their sort of proto-Pop flavor, like the one showing a self-assured all-American worker wearing a metal hat in front of a yellowish setting; in red letters it delivers: "We are building this dam to make power to roll the aluminum to build the planes to beat the rats."

Propaganda can also reach the minds of children. At the Wolfsonian check out a subtle tools-of-indoctrination vitrine: an Italian game where the Allies are portrayed as ducks. Or the French-collaborationist book La Bête est Morte, depicting an all-animal world conflagration where Fascism ends up winning -- talented and a 1940s DC Comics rip-off.

There are kitschy souvenirs: a well-preserved 45 rpm vinyl containing a speech from President Roosevelt with Arabic inscriptions from 1941. I much loved a 1942 "Victory Swatter" with this inscription: "This swatter can't be used to battle the Japs, but the steel saved in the wire handles can."

Bolshevism is Murder (1942) pits religion and politics. A woman weeps before her hand-tied dead husband and daughter, both lying next to a bloodied Christian cross -- used perhaps as a tool of rape. The portrayal of Soviet atheism as evil is good at showing how well religious beliefs can be used to ignite hatred. Not much has changed when we hear the vitriol and see the skewered images from groups of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in our 21st-century conflicts.

That is of course why "The Propaganda of War" is so relevant an exhibit. Yes, one can find defensible reasons for waging war, but we must look at such a choice with an awareness of our past mistakes.

For those of us who altogether missed New York at the end of the 1960s, Joan Jonas's Crossed Waves, After a Long Train Ride, a live performance at the Moore Building, was a treat. Only we aren't in the late 1960s.

Granted, Jonas is a pioneer of video/performance art and a significant influence in the genre. In her experiments of three decades back, Jonas successfully incorporated the malleable properties of video to explore the female body and self. Generally her performances included one-on-one confrontation with the audience, where the immediacy of video lends itself to conceptual musings. For Jonas video is a mirror and a masking tool, her body an art object. In this performance at the Moore she presented "a work in progress," as she put it. It featured almost half an hour of elliptical narrative with another female performer, who helped her present themes emblematic of her early video work: female gestures and archetypes, the use of disguise and masquerade, ritual objects, and ceremonial self-examination. She delved into mirrored images, manipulations of reflective space and spatial ambiguity, and drew on the floor and on her body to add layers of meaning -- all Jonas signatures. We saw this veteran wearing a thin veil headdress, or costumed as a dancer with torso, arms, and legs appearing disembodied.

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