Election Time and Art / by Jeannine Cook

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Listening to the vitriol of the American Presidential campaign from overseas, it sounded pretty extraordinary. Now that I am back in the United States, I am saddened to hear the tones of stress and angst in many peoples' voices as they talk during these last days of the campaign. My reaction is to wonder how and if people can take refuge in the beauties of nature, of art, of music, dance and other forms of art. Some form of balance is always necessary, even when the stakes are so high for the future of this country and, indeed, the world.

Immersing yourself in a wonderful piece of music, gazing at a painting, working in your garden or even watching wood storks glide and sail on the gentle afternoon breezes over the salt marshes - they all pull one back to a world that is less conflictual, less antagonistic. I am reminded of a fascinating book ("Deux Remords de Claude Monet" by Bernard,Michel) I just read about Monet doggedly painting his water lily paintings as the First World War raged, with fighting even approaching very close to Giverny. He had shaped that water garden, as he had done the rest of the garden, carefully laying out the garden contours, then selecting the plants and trees. The water lilies paintings were the apotheosis of that endeavour, and in some ways, with the encouragement of his friend and French Prime Minister, George Clemenceau, he was defying the destruction and utter social upheaval of French society by his paintings.

 Water Lilies,1916, Claude Monet. (Image courtesy of National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo)

Water Lilies,1916, Claude Monet. (Image courtesy of National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo)

No matter what the outcome of this terribly divisive election, each of us still needs to continue in our daily lives, trying to achieve some peace and beauty to compensate and come to terms with the results. Just as times of great conflict have in the past produced great art, so too, perhaps can this period. Think of the great poets of World War I, from Guillaume Apollinaire to Wilfred Owen. Remember Francisco Goya's extraordinary series "Los desastres de la guerra" (The Disasters of War), the 82 prints he created from 1810-20 in reaction to the terrible violence Spain experienced in the 1808 Dos de Mayo uprising and the subsequent Peninsula War of 1808-1814.

 Plate-3. Lo mismo - The same. A man about to cut off the head of a soldier with an axe. Francisco Goya, Los Desastres de la Guerra. (Image courtesy of the Prado Museum)

Plate-3. Lo mismo - The same. A man about to cut off the head of a soldier with an axe. Francisco Goya, Los Desastres de la Guerra. (Image courtesy of the Prado Museum)

 Plate 10. Tampoco - Nor do these. Spanish women were commonly victims of assault and rape. Francisco Goya, Los Desastres de la Guerra. (Image courtesy of the Prado Museum)

Plate 10. Tampoco - Nor do these. Spanish women were commonly victims of assault and rape. Francisco Goya, Los Desastres de la Guerra. (Image courtesy of the Prado Museum)

Otto Dix was another who dealt with World War I's horrors in his later series of fifty etchings, "Der Krieg", which he published in 1924. Later, Picasso most famously painted "Guernica" in reaction to the 1937 bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Nazi and Fascist Italian air forces.

In music, popular or classical, wonderful compositions, universal and a promise of better harmony and peace, have been born of times of conflict. Remember Shostakovich's searing Symphony No. 7, whose genesis was the appalling siege of Leningrad in 1941.

 A Soviet soldier buys a ticket to the 1942 performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony in Leningrad. (Photograph Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images.)

A Soviet soldier buys a ticket to the 1942 performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony in Leningrad. (Photograph Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images.)

World War II was a time of wonderful music being written in America: we owe "Appalachian Spring" (1943), "Fanfare for the Common Man" (1942) and "A Lincoln Portrait" (1942) to Aaron Copeland's genius and assertion of brighter days for the country. Even under the most awful conditions, music can assert a freedom of expression: Olivier Messiaen wrote his utterly beautiful "Quartet for the End of Time" (1941) while he was a prisoner of war, held under the harshest of circumstances.

I don't often quote extensively from other people's writings, but Howard Zinn, writing in 2007 in Perdue University's on-line publication about Artists in Times of War, talked of artists' roles in times of conflict in a thought-provoking way that bears reading:  "When I think of the relationship between artists and society - and for me the question is always what it could be, rather than what it is - I think of the word "transcendent." It is a word I never use in public, but it's the only word I can come up with to describe what I think about the role of artists. By transcendent, I mean that the artist transcends the immediate. Transcends the here and now. Transcends the madness of the world. Transcends terrorism and war. The artist thinks, acts, performs music, and writes outside the framework that society has created. The artist may do no more than give us beauty, laughter, passion, surprise, and drama. I don't mean to minimize these activities by saying the artist can do no more than this. The artist needn't apologize, because by doing this, the artist is telling us what the world should be like, even if it isn't that way now. The artist is taking us away from the moments of horror that we experience everyday - some days more than others - by showing us what is possible. But the artist can and should do more. In addition to creating works of art, the artist is also a citizen and a human being."

I think that this time of deep societal divisions in America requires us all to concentrate on the universal, the basics of beauty, truth and peace, the creative and uplifting. We would be a richer society for such creative acts, better able to go forward as a successful democracy.