Today I am reposting a powerful call to action from artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, head of the Interrogative Design Group and professor in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. For decades, Wodiczko has been carrying out large-scale public and community-engaged design projects addressing social issues, many related to the causes and consequences of war. In 1998 he received the Hiroshima Art Prize for his contributions to world peace. In this essay, Wodiczko calls on fellow artists to turn their talents toward dismantling the “culture of war.”
The 70th Anniversary of the Hiroshima Bombing
“Nuclear weapons have changed everything except the way we think.”
– Albert Einstein
To Fellow Artists
Seventy years ago Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed with the use of nuclear weapons. The atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima killed women and children in addition to soldiers. Within three miles of the explosion 60,000 of the 90,000 buildings were demolished. While Hiroshima’s population had been estimated at 350,000, almost one third, approximately 70,000 people died immediately. In three years the total death count from radiation and wounds reached 200,000 and as of today stands at 297,684.
Hiroshima is the exemplary site in our living memory of destruction and disregard for human life. It is the historical and ethical referent that compels us to condemn all acts of war and urges us to end the perpetuation of war.
Questions concerning “why” Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed with nuclear weapons are pointless and ethically insulting, implying that there might be acceptable explanations and “logical reasons” to justify the atrocities. The cause was the war itself. If there had not been war there would have been no bombing of any kind.
There would be no war – and no Hiroshima bombing – if there had occurred a change in our “way of thinking.” Our eternal assumption that conflict can be “resolved” by war, and that the path to peace is war must be changed. “The way we think” is assumed to be immutable by our national cultures. In fact all nations and nation-building societies and their governing bodies cultivate such a notion.
To end the perpetuation of war demands ending the perpetuation of the very idea of war. International laws, treaties and UN conventions are only pieces of paper as long as they remain contradicted by the actual practices of nation-states and statehood-seeking groups that everlastingly drag their ideological patterns, rituals of culture, and cult of war through the centuries.
The processes of preparing for, waging, and commemorating war are seen as essential elements of history, rooted in human psychology, admired as a martial cultural tradition that, with a powerful intensity of emotion, remains central to the lives of those who participate in it.
The motivation to fight and die in war is preserved by a war culture that manifests itself through uniforms, war games, parades, military decorations, and war memorials (including statues and shrines, triumphal arches, cenotaphs, victory columns, and other commemorations of the dead), as well as the creation of war art and military art, martial music, and war museums, not to mention the popular fascination with weapons, war toys, violent video and computer games, battle reenactments, collectibles, military history and literature.
The Culture of War makes men and women face death willingly, even enthusiastically. War is a destructive, self-destructive, mass operation, and the Culture of War reinforces its social pathology and its function as “an end in itself.”
Some facts are so enormous that we do not see them. The largest such fact is that war poses a mortal danger to our civilization. Our blindness results in a tolerance, passivity, and silence when faced with the international legitimacy and popular acceptance of the culture of war. Such silence and passivity is closely related to our denial, blaming of others, and inadequate effort in taking actions towards eliminating war. It all leads us to the point of annihilation through nuclear warfare. Public attitudes are a symptom of the contradictory condition in which we claim a critical stance against war while simultaneously we pay taxes that support war and enthusiastically attend war parades and war films, with their necro-orgiastic spectacles.
Changing such deeply-rooted cultural acceptance of war needs a pro-active approach that combines critical interventions that disrupt, ridicule, and unmask our hypocrisy with new transformative projects: projects of the kind that engage the cultural and pedagogical sphere, directed to all, but especially the young.
We must contribute to this complex task through our own individual and collective experimental and proactive projects. We must do so through collaboration with those from other fields and disciplines, engaging anyone who can contribute their commitment, experience, knowledge, sensitivity, and talent to the cause.
As psychoanalyst Hanna Segal has pointed out, “the war manifestations are despised and regularly denigrated as atavistic and irrational while secretly or openly embraced and celebrated.” The Culture of War consolidates this psychological division of our souls. To challenge such a schism requires an exceptional investment of political will, ethical energy, cultural imagination, intellectual depth and artistic vision.
In such a complex war-ending project, the preferred term should be “Un-War” rather than the word “peace,” because peace is not a simple matter. To end wars, one must first confront the social and cultural phenomenon of war and recognize how firmly war is entrenched in our singular and collective minds. Un-War is the new state of mind that enables the process of understanding, uncovering, and undoing war. It acknowledges that war exists as something hidden within us, which must be brought symbolically and culturally to our singular consciousness before matters erupt into bloody conflict. The other implication of the term Un-War is that war is an old state of mind and a mental condition installed in us from without, through the Culture of War. We must culturally uninstall it.
The task of dismantling the Culture of War requires the creation of new methods of transforming all war-based and war-bound cultures toward a Culture of Un-War as a global, national, regional, and urban project. We must do so on through the laboratories and experimental zones that are provided to us by arts funding, art education, art production and art-disseminating media, institutions, organizations, agencies and centers. We must do so as well with non-artistic governmental and non-governmental organizations, institutions and networks.
Culture, especially popular, artistic and media culture, is the field in which we work. We the artists know of the larger national culture – an essential part of which is the culture-of-war. We know it all too well. Such knowledge has been for a long time based on our own direct experience with it.
In fact it is we ourselves – artists and designers, including architects – who are profoundly implicated in reinforcing and disseminating the culture and cult of war. Since ancient times visual, sound, performance, and mixed-media artists have been major contributors to the culture of war: the massive presence in museums of military art and the participation of artists in war propaganda efforts and in designing symbolically and visually effective uniforms, armor and camouflage, as well as hundreds of thousands of artistically conceived war monuments, memorials and shrines that promote war as a way to make peace, or as a way of admiring killing and death as a noble duty and a sacred sacrifice.
If artists and designers have contributed to war through its aesthetic reinforcement, phantasms, war mobilizations, and indeed through warfare itself, they can certainly contribute to the opposite: the creation of a Un-War culture and the construction of a new consciousness toward a war-free civilization that generates the global abolition of war.
We are prepared.
We already know a culture with a tradition of opposing war, of opposing both war itself and the culture and cult of war throughout at least four centuries of anti-war art which engages visual arts, performing arts, media arts, music and poetry and literature projects, movements and campaigns. A number of important artists have questioned the assumptions surrounding war: Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, Édouard Manet, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Kathe Kollwitz, Pablo Picasso, Hans Haacke, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Yoko Ono, Barbara Kruger, Jochen Gerz, Ben Shahn, Walid Raad, William Kentridge and collectives such as Publixtheatre Caravan are just some among many examples of past and present anti-war artistic endeavors. Significant parts of this tradition include, after the First World War, Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War project and the Anti-War Museum in Berlin (shut down by the Nazis in 1933); John Heartfield’s photomontages satirizing the Nazis. Following the Second World War; there was also Robert Filliou’s Fluxus proposal for exchanging war monuments between adjacent countries and Yoko Ono’s “art for peace.” The Vietnam War ended in part thanks to resistance movements supported by anti-war artists. Artists have long been involved in conflict-transformation initiatives, war-related post-traumatic stress relief, and cross-cultural communication projects. Many war veterans and members of their families have become artists so as to better heal their emotional wounds and publicly share their war experiences, while addressing society’s lack of a truthful emotional comprehension of war.
Unfortunately, despite so many powerful anti-war efforts, artistic culture and to a large extent the entire contemporary Western visual culture, remain dominated by art that is either fascinated by war, emotionally distant from war, or – the most regrettable – silent about war. The number of artists involved directly in peace-building processes remains minuscule. In this situation, the deconstruction of the culture of war, while constructing a new culture of Un-War, is the most urgent project for artists to pursue.
Joseph Rotblat, recipient of the 1995 Nobel Peace Price, said: “A nuclear weapon-free world would be safer that the present one. But, because now we know how to build such weapons, the danger of the ultimate catastrophe would still be there. The only way to prevent it is to abolish war altogether. War must cease to be an admissible social institution. We must learn to resolve our disputes by means other than military confrontation.”
Let us state it again: Since the bombing of Hiroshima, we have faced the potential of war as total global nuclear annihilation. In our era of proliferation of nuclear weapons, the key condition for ending wars and maintaining peace on our planet, indeed the key to its very survival, is the disarmament of this culture of war, historically entrenched, even cherished by the nation-states — a dangerous condition from which all humankind suffers.
It is time for artists and designers to engage in urgent peace-building and Un-War projects, sharing their experiences, educating themselves and urging others to join war prevention and peace building organizations, institutions and networks, and to engage in educational and pedagogical work that intersects, supplements and informs through original artistic input in the fields of peace education, conflict transformation and mediation, post conflict studies, psychoanalysis of war and peace, positive peace building. These efforts must be in collaboration with art pedagogy, art education, art therapy, urban pedagogy, toy and game design, software design, media and instrumental research and other fields that can strive to change the way we think about war and envision an Un-War future.
The performance, design and media based un-war projects may include:
- New toys and electronic games for playfully learning conflict mediation and transformation methods, diplomacy and other forms of dealing with conflict without war, while inspiring non-violent discourse on the issues of war conflict and national cultures.
- Supplemental media based and spatial projects linked directly or remotely online to war memorials, memorial halls and other war related monuments, including sites of former battlefields, designed for discursive public engagement on the issues of war, conflict, history and national culture and related to pedagogical programs.
- Artistically conceived performative actions, interventions, rituals and events engaging war and war related monuments and sites of memory as an alternative, or supplement to official marches, parades and commemorative or celebratory gatherings.
- Design of new guides, smart phones and computer software as well as special portable or wearable media equipment for visiting art, cultural and historical museums to reinterpret in discuss war and war related art, artifacts, displays and curatorial narratives.
- Design of special portable or wearable media equipment for discursive re-reading of the textbooks, history books, national literature with suggested new critical and analytical approach to wars and conflicts while inserting missing data, including the missing groups and individuals who contributed averting the wars.
- Development of new pedagogical art projects that engage people in developing informed perception and discussion on war impact on specific civilian populations abroad as well as in one’s own country and a place where one lives.
- Design of new computer-based or wearable un-war equipment for interpretative and analytical ways of watching war and military action films, including war saturated TV “history” channel, and military recruitment advertisement.
- Design of tools for gatherings, civic actions and protests as an alternative or a supplement to official war-related commemorative or celebratory occasions and events (to be also useful for performative actions that engage war and war related monuments).
- Special deconstructive and playful artistic and design projects for the recognition and development of critical distance to one’s own hidden desire and fascination with war (which contradicts one’s own resentment to it), and for openly discussing such issues with others especially in the public domain.
- Development of new communicative cultural and art projects with war refugees and war veterans to help them to open up and share in the open their war and post war experience and challenge our imaginary relation — especially among young people — to the reality of war and its existential and mental condition and crossgenerational fallout.
There are of course many other possible methods, techniques and contexts for Un-War projects. This is a call for us, artists and designers, to join each other in the global project of recognizing and dismantling through their projects and actions the culture of war both from within and without ourselves, to educate our societies and nations about war, to build together a new vigilance about war toward a new culture based on mediation and sense of common interests that is dynamic, “agonistic” and open, cherishing healthy and creative conflicts but never violent — a Culture of Un-War.
Recipient of the 4th Hiroshima Art Prize
August 6, 2015, Vinalhaven, Maine
Photo: Public projection © Krzysztof Wodiczko at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC