Saturday, November 01, 2014

War, Commemoration and Art

In my last piece, I commented on a visit to see the field of ceramic poppies filling the moat at the Tower of London. This remembrance of the sacrifice of a generation is attracting huge crowds, so much so that yesterday Tower Bridge station was closed to prevent dangerous overcrowding.
The art critic Jonathan Jones has written a piece criticising the installation as inappropriate and as giving a false picture of the terrible cost of war – he prefers realistic depictions of corpses and injured troops. There has been a storm of protest against his views.
There is enormous scope to argue about whether the installation is art (and I explored the concept of what makes good art a long time ago and still stand by those views) and what is the best way to remember the fallen. In this case, although the poppies do constitute what I regard as good art (original, thought-provoking and transcending the medium), this is not the point. They are there to help us focus our thoughts. The blazing field of red is not adorned with flags or banners, photographs weapons or stirring messages. Jones’ dismissal of it as “A UKIP-style message” is wrong. It speaks directly to us of loss. Its message could not be plainer. Whether the dead fell in vain or not, they are remembered.
Jones also deplores the installation on the grounds that “the first world war was not noble”. There is a lazy (but wholly understandable) view that the war was meaningless and achieved nothing. But it did achieve something, although it took the second war to complete the job. It prevented Europe from the domination of absolutist, militaristic states. A war won by Germany would have started the process that Hitler pursued – the subjugation of as much as possible under direct German rule, the uprooting and destruction of any peoples deemed un-Germanic and the glorification of war and monarchy as the ultimate purpose for having a nation state. The writings of the Kaiser, Moltke and others directing the German High Command* during the years before the war make it clear that they despised liberal democracy, popular rule and freedom of expression and believed that history justified the “strong” doing whatever they wished to the “weak”. It was a disaster that these views could not remain confined within Germany and were the driving reason behind Austrian adventurism in the Balkans that in turn provoked the onset of war. But we can be proud that we helped put a stop to it.

*see Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns Of August” and David Fromkin’s “Europe’s Last Summer” if you want some evidence.

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