Thinking like a soldier

One of my all time favorite books is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. In it, Fussell looks at the World War I through the eyes of the hyper-literate soldier poets and writers whose names we still recognize today: Rupert Brooks, who died before his fellow literary artists began to realize that the war was merely a giant hopper for bodies; Robert Graves, who survived by viewing the war as a farce and a play; Siegfried Sassoon, who entered as an idealist and left as a grim, anti-War voice; and Wilfred Owen, who found war horrifying and then, when given the opportunity to leave, insisted on going back to become a war hero. It is Wilfred Owen about whom I write today, since there is a very moving article about him in The Telegraph:

It is true that he was not among the first to answer the call to bash the Boche. Indeed, he seems to have been a rather fey and precious young man, first as a vicar’s assistant in Berkshire, and then as an English teacher in France.

When he finally decided to join the Army (through the Artists’ Rifles, to fit with his own idea of himself as a poet, despite the fact that he was unpublished, and, frankly, not very good, either) he was repulsed by the coarseness of the men among whom he found himself.

But his letters to his mother – our main source of information about his life – show how much he changed. Initial distaste at the vulgarity of the sweaty, noisy men among whom he was obliged to live became a genuine love.


The vital event was the horrific experience of having to take shelter from German artillery fire on the side of a railway embankment. Owen was trapped there for days, lying amid the remains of a popular fellow officer. It triggered shell-shock.


The most remarkable aspect of Owen’s stay at the hospital, though, is the fact that he emerged not merely as the author of some of the most stunning poetry of the 20th century – and the voice of a generation – but that he was also determined to return to the front line.

Sassoon begged him not to go, and even threatened, at one point, to stab him in the leg to prevent him doing so.

But Owen would not be deterred, and the man who returned to France was a superb soldier. In one attack, in which he captured a German machine post and scores of prisoners almost single-handed, he writes to his mother with the extraordinary expression that he “fought like an angel”. The events earned him a Military Cross.

The last letter home, written at the end of October 1918, describes how he is sheltering with his men in the cellar of a forester’s cottage in northern France, before an attempt to cross the canal that marked the front line.

Crammed into the smoky fug – he says he can hardly see by the light of a candle only 12 inches away – the men are laughing, sleeping, smoking or peeling potatoes. “It is a great life,” he writes joyfully, and goes on, “you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”

Utterly wrong, then, to think of him as some sanctimonious hand-wringer. The paradox of Owen – that he had become a first-rate warrior while abominating war – is what gives his poems their unique strength.


And yet Owen did not live to see peace himself. After sheltering in the cellar, he and his men were deployed to the banks of the canal, at Ors. In the early morning of November 4, 1918, they were given the order to storm the canal, in the face of withering German machine-gun fire. Owen never reached the other side.

Seven days later, as his mother stood listening to the church bells peeling for the end of the war, she received the dreadful telegram with the news that her precious son was dead.

I think many in our military today would understand how Owen managed to have fear and a joyous camaraderie living side by side within him.  My Dad, who fought at Crete, El Alamein and all over North Africa for five years, still looked back on his service during WWII as the best days of his life.  They were the worst days, too, and came back to haunt him when he was dying, since the hallucinations always focused on key battles, but I don’t think he ever felt as alive, involved and engaged as he did surrounded by his brothers in arms.

Incidentally, if you would like to read Owen’s most famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, you can see an annotated copy here.

It was shocking then. Now it’s just bad.

There’s what I consider an intentionally funny story today about a radio station afraid of reading Howl on the air because it’s afraid it might run afoul of FCC rules governing broadcasting:

Fifty years ago today, a San Francisco Municipal Court judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg’s Beat-era poem “Howl” was not obscene. Yet today, a New York public broadcasting station decided not to air the poem, fearing that the Federal Communications Commission will find it indecent and crush the network with crippling fines.

Free-speech advocates see tremendous irony in how Ginsberg’s epic poem – which lambastes the consumerism and conformism of the 1950s and heralds a budding American counterculture – is, half a century later, chilled by a federal government crackdown on the broadcasting of provocative language.

In the new media landscape, the “Howl” controversy illustrates how indecency standards differ on the Internet and on the public airwaves. Instead of broadcasting the poem on the air today, New York listener-supported radio station WBAI will include a reading of the poem in a special online-only program called “Howl Against Censorship.” It will be posted on, the Internet home of the Berkeley-based Pacifica Foundation, because online sites do not fall under the FCC’s purview.

As you can see, the story makes a big point out of the fact that, 50 years ago, the Supreme Court held that it isn’t absence. That’s as may be. The problem, of course, isn’t that the overall work is obscene, it’s that it uses obscenities that are banned from the airwaves, because we are making a last ditch stand to have someplace where our kids won’t have to hear those words. Even the news report notes that standards differ on the internet, where parents can theoretically place blocking software, and public airwaves, where there’s nothing between a kid and whatever garbage may come spewing out of the radio dial.

Anyway, reading this silly story about a tempest in a teapot had me going back to look at Howl. How dirty is it, I asked myself.  I can confidently say, after struggling through the first two verses that its dirt is irrelevant. It’s just awful. Its only virtue 50 years ago was it’s shock value. Nowadays, where nothing is too shocking, it has nothing going for it. It simply stands out as a boring, somewhat illiterate screed by a very angry man.


A few weeks ago, I did a “what is art” post. Aaron Johnson, an artist who uses a cartoon panel for social commentary at What The Duck, must have caught that post, because he was kind enough to send me a link to today’s cartoon. I have to say, “by George, I think he’s got it!”

(For reasons that are unclear to me, I can’t get a link directly to the cartoon panel. If you go there and don’t know which cartoon I’m talking about, it’s the cartoon for today, Friday, September 21, 2007, aka WTD 308.)

But is it art?

Frankly, I don’t care if this is art.  I think it’s wonderful.  As someone who never got past drawing a square or two on my Etch-a-Sketch, I was awestruck by what Jeff Gagliardi has done with the same medium.

What is art?

In the old days — pre-camera — I think that it was pretty easy to answer when asked “What is art?”.  Art served four major purposes: to elevate God, to aggrandize the rich and powerful, to decorate spaces, and to record images in a pre-photographic era. Some stuff was good, some stuff was awful. The good lasted.

And then the world changed. No one in the West wants to elevate God anymore. Indeed, the most elevated art amongst the self-styled “intelligentsia” is that which denigrates and insults faith. Witness the self-styled intellectuals’ aggressive defense of the Dung Virgin Mary or Piss Christ. And please remember that these “art” pieces were not meant to be political statements, a la the Danish cartoons, which were directed at freedom of speech and religious expression through the press. Instead, these attacks on religious icons were intended to hang in museums as “artistic statements,” whatever the heck that means.

The rich and powerful no longer turn to art to aggrandize themselves, either. They collect it, but they are not personally memorialized in it.  Where we once had Van Eyck delineating Arnolfini and his wife for posterity’s sake with meticulous attention paid to their faces, clothes and exquisitely furnished home, we now have a raft of magazines and TV shows devoted to celebrity culture. If only the celebrities would figure out that it doesn’t aggrandize them, it just makes them look greedy, shallow and awful. But that’s a post for another day.

Decorating private and public spaces? Well, in the average person’s home, that’s a service provided (and provided very nicely) by places such as Target and Ikea, which sell decorative materials by the yard. They make for a pleasant environment, but I don’t think anyone would argue that they’re art. The concept of bringing an artistic aesthetic to buildings seems to have gone out with the utilitarian era that was ushered in after WWII. Some modern buildings designed by famous architects may be considered art in and of themselves, but the concept of painted walls, decorative pediments, external sculptures, etc., is dead and gone.

And then, of course, there’s the whole sense of art as a record of the here and now. There is no need in a photographic age for Canaletto, with his perfect representations of Venice; Rembrandt, bringing 17th Century Holland to life; John Singleton Copley, faithfully recording the faces of 18th Century America; Thomas Gainsborough, doing the same for 18th Century British gentry; or Jacques-Louie David, recording a revolutionary change in French thinking and politics.  When everyone has a camera, these artists’ skills have become completely redundant and unnecessary.

So I’m back to the title of my post:  In a modern era, what is art?  In many ways, I’m tempted to fall back on Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart’s famous formulation for pornography, which is that you know it when you see it.   Potter Stuart, of course, wasn’t thinking of every individual getting to define pornography, he was thinking more of community norms.  What looks like art in New York, is smut in Kansas.  It was a sort of workable definition in a pre-media age.  It’s an impossible one in an internet and cable TV era.  But that, again, is a story for another post.

Of course, with an unanswerable question like “what is art” floating around today, it was inevitable that the elite art world would get its knickers in a twist about what deserves to be in museums.  San Francisco’s De Young Museum is trapped in that debate right now:

These should be good days at the de Young Museum: The new building in Golden Gate Park has drawn a record 2.5 million visitors since opening in October 2005, with plenty of crowd-pleasing exhibitions.

Yet that seems to be precisely the imbroglio facing John Buchanan, who as director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco since early 2006 has overseen not only the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum but also the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.

Despite the booming attendance, some local artists, art dealers, collectors and other frequent museumgoers have begun to question Buchanan’s priorities, wondering whether he is more interested in fluff than fine arts.


Popular exhibitions of costumes and jewelry have aroused the most displeasure from the local art crowd. Have the days ended when the Fine Arts Museums curators could originate or share in challenging projects such as “Picasso and the War Years, 1937-1945” (1998), “Beat Culture and the New America, 1950-1965” (1996), or even the 2006 “Monet in Normandy,” a show full of instructive surprises that its blockbuster credentials belied?

The de Young’s current photography retrospective “Hiroshi Sugimoto” should allay such concerns, as might the October opening of “The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend.” Both shows touch a level marked by artistic high points in the Fine Arts Museums’ collections.

But other items on the long calendar inspire skepticism. Consider “Marie-Antoinette and the Petit Trianon at Versailles” at the Legion in November, which will assay the taste of Louis XVI’s reviled queen through paintings and decorative arts, and later shows devoted to glass artist Dale Chihuly, whom most critics regard as an interior decorator, and fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.

As for me, I’m squarely in the Buchanan camp.  I think modern art should foster pure aesthetic delight, especially since the alternative advanced by the high brow art crowd is usually just anti-establishment garbage meant to show what deep thinkers the artists and their audiences are.  (Please see my second paragraph, above.)  There’s also a lot of garbage tweaking, a la the Emperor’s New Clothes, where “artists” are manifestly just passing dribble on to the art crowd, delighted in the knowledge that there are rich and snobby suckers born every minute.  Don’t believe me?  Tell me what you really think about De Kooning’s work?  Many years ago, I saw pictures very much like these now showcased at New York’s MOMA, with crowds of drooling art lovers commenting on its profound meaning.  I guess I missed my profound meaning class, because to me it looked just like a scribble, showing no talent, beauty or meaning.

Did you also note in quoted material above that at least some of what the “art crowd” wants has everything to do with anti-establishment statements, and almost nothing to do with skill and aesthetic beauty.  They’re clamoring for “Beat Culture and the New America,” which definitely changed America’s look, but did little for its aesthetics.  Most of the stuff was unadulterated garbage, something I know since I spent about a year at a University Library cataloging a collection of this garbage that someone kindly donated (I guess his garage got too full).

On the other hand, there are few things more beautiful, complex and wondrous than Dale Chihuly’s glass works.   They are mind-boggling examples of tremendous technical skill mixed with an overwhelming visual power.  If that’s not art, I really don’t know what is.  And though they come from a much different era, exactly the same can be said of the objects with which Marie Antoinette surrounded herself at her Petite Trianon.

So, I guess, to me, modern art can be about “statements,” but it also must be about beauty — the imaginative, visually pleasing outpourings of our most skilled craftsman, from the historic era to the modern one.

What say you?