Embedded Art as War Propaganda

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Embedded Art as War Propaganda

When to Fear Art: Artist + Embedded = Oxymoron

Steve Mumford: Embedded: Recent Drawings from Iraq & Afghanistan
At the Center For Maine Contemporary Art ( CMCA), Rockport, Maine, May 26 --- July 10, 2011.

My mother used to tell me, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But, I think she would agree that if to say something nice you have to ignore the truth, it might be better to say something.

First, though, the nice. I am impressed with Steve Mumford’s courage. Since April of 2003 he has traveled repeatedly to dangerous areas in Iraq & Afghanistan as an embedded artist with the US military. “Embedded” means that he takes on many of the same risks, the same deprivations, and same moral complications as the soldiers who protect him. His ink-wash drawings, watercolors, and line drawings made as witness to his experience demonstrate a facile hand, a strong sense of color and composition, and a deft ability to catch significant body language. At times, looking at Mumford’s deep, rich color and contrasting bright highlights, I was reminded of Delacroix’s watercolors of North Africa, or some of John Singer Sargent’s garden paintings. In other sketches, Mumford draws like a graphic novelist, verging on the cartoon, with images that are telling, gritty, and authentic. He does not shy from difficult subjects --- a body lies (dead? alive?) bandaged, the left leg in a tourniquet, the severed left foot in the foreground, literally in your face. Several studies show soldiers with amputated limbs, with & without prostheses, in rehabilitation. Heartbreaking images. Certainly his pictures portray something significant about the cost of war. But what is left out?

In the publicity for the show, the CMCA has said, “In his art, Mumford strives to maintain objectivity about the politics of war, while providing an artist’s humanistic view of the individuals involved.”  I was under the impression that to warrant the claim of objectivity one had to present many sides of an issue, and let the viewer try to make sense of the complexity and live with the uncertainty. If that is the case, the last thing this show is or strives for is objectivity. The actions of the US soldiers are only shown in a favorable light. The only humans injured are Americans, except for one drawing of an Iraqi child. In the information posted with each picture, the word “occupation” is never used. We see no Iraqi amputees --- with or without care.

In one watercolor US soldiers are shown settling a dispute among Iraqis civilians. As we know, very few US soldiers speak Arabic, so how do they do it? There is something incredibly condescending about this picture --- as though the Iraqis are children who needed armed Americans to come from half-way around the world to teach them the maturity to talk with each other. We know that until the Americans invaded, ethnic and religious strife in Iraq was minimal; the US invasion briefly created a sectarian civil war.

Another picture shows US soldiers guarding Iraqi women and children in line waiting to get medical treatment. This is nice. And since we never see an American soldier killing or injuring an Iraqi, one might suppose that the primary reason US forces are in Iraq is to protect women and children at clinics. In fact, somewhere between 225,000 and 1,300,000 Iraqis have been killed during this pre-emptive war. No one has been able to collect reliable data on Iraqi casualties. The US government has not wanted to. Mumford’s objective pictures show no Iraqi or Afghan blood.

Well, sort of. We do see the grisly, bloodied corpse of an Afghan dog lying in front of its owners. The caption says that Afghan soldiers were responsible for shooting the dog in sport, and the Americans told them to cut it out. No one was held responsible. What we do not see are missiles from US drones blowing up Afghani women and children. What we do not see are US soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians at checkpoints, or from helicopters in sport. We have to go to Wikileaks for that objective information.

A curious, homey picture shows some Iraqis and US soldiers sitting in what appears to be the Iraqis’ living room, cozily up against each other, an aquarium bubbling away in the background, having a friendly chat. No weapons are visible. The description says that this is an example of the “knock and talk” program when soldiers “knock” on the doors of Iraqi homes in the middle of the night to gather information about possible insurgents. The fact is that US soldiers frequently kick down the doors, screaming, terrorizing the families, ransacking the homes, even stealing from the Iraqis, dragging out anyone they think is suspicious. I’m not suggesting that Mr. Mumford did not see what is in this watercolor. What I’m suggesting is that to say it is objective is absurd. No, worse than absurd, disingenuous. It makes a parody of objectivity. How can one be “objective” about a crime (promoting a war of aggression with official lies is a crime under our Constitution) and not mention the crime?

We see an Iraqi man blindfolded and being questioned. No one is touching him. The caption says that he was later released for lack of evidence. The impression we are left with is that the US presence is all about justice. Does Mumford think we know nothing about Abu Ghraib and the torture of many Iraqis? Some tortured to death by Americans?

When we look at images like this, we understand what “embedded” means. It is not and cannot be about objectivity. It’s about selling a myth of these wars.

I have only mentioned a few of the pictures. Others show exhausted soldiers, soldiers getting haircuts, soldiers positioned as snipers. Not one questions the morality or reasons for the war. US soldiers are the altruistic, beneficent guardians of Iraqi and Afghan welfare. When “objectivity” becomes this one sided, we might as well call it propaganda. Rather than being objective about the politics of these wars, these pictures sugarcoat and obscure those politics. Frankly, they are a lie. A lie is very political.

What a shame to see proficient art used this way. What’s the difference between this and Soviet art of the 1950s and ‘60s that exalted the glorious proletariat? Or, Nazi art of the 1930s that made heroes of Aryan racists and anti-Semites? I’m not sure.

Downstairs from the Mumford exhibit, the CMCA gift shop is selling black tee-shirts with “Fear No Art” printed in green on the front. I’m also not sure what that means. Illegitimate, abusive governments and exploitative corporations have always feared artists who have the courage to expose them. People who use power to keep secret their injustice and to accumulate unjust profit should fear art.

However, embedded art strikes no fear. Certainly not to the power that hires and protects it. In the dark hearts of the unjustly powerful, embedded art justifies their power. That is the “art” most of us should be fearing, art that obscures the truth, replaces the full truths with self-serving half truths. The tee-shirt should say “Fear Embedded Art.”

I like to leave an art exhibit exhilarated, more alive, even when the subject matter is ambiguous and dark, because I know I’ve been in the presence of an aesthetic struggle to confront the truth. Serious art about tough issues leads us to a place of deep questioning, a place where one has to enlarge one’s soul to know and feel it entirely. These drawings by Steve Mumford lead us to a false place of deep questioning because they show us only part of the picture. They show real suffering but explain it hypocritically. They elicit compassion only for Americans. The compassion is right, but for the wrong reason. We should be feeling compassion for the US soldiers because they were ordered to kill and be killed for lies. Not because they got their legs blown off by IEDs. They were betrayed by their own government. The obscenity of all the suffering --- what’s shown and what isn’t --- was illegal by our laws and treaties. And there is no accountability. The fact of no accountability is what is embedded in our culture today.

When I was in the exhibit, a woman was studying the pictures as closely as I was. I asked her what she thought of them. She said they were troubling but she was glad to see what the major media did not show us, something real. Having been caught up in the drama of the pictures and their undeniable portrayal of reality, she had not asked herself what was left out. It is the “left out” that makes them insidious.

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly [send him email] is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth."

Please visit The Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available.

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