Art and Treason: War Crimes and Responsibility

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command. His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him, the ease with which any Party intellectual would overthrow him in debate, the subtle arguments which he would not be able to understand, much less answer. And yet he was in the right! They were wrong and he was right. The obvious, the silly, and the true had got to be defended. Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth’s centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O’Brien, and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, he wrote:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

April 4th was the date on which Winston Smith began his secretive journal in 1984. On April 4th 2017 the White House issued a condemnation of the most appalling war crimes of the Bashar-al_Asad regime in Syria.

While this was a gesture in the right direction, its impact was immediately blotted out by the compulsive need of this administration to blame someone else, preferably Obama or Clinton.

The Trump administration has an aversion to responsibility and a pathological need to take every opportunity to malign others and besmirch their reputation. The statement swiftly moved on to assigning blame on  President Obama. It is yet another outrageous and fraudulent White House claim unhinged from reality and reason.

White House Statement on Syrian War Crime

Since then of course that story has moved on to its next chapter. “I now have responsibility” Trump declared in a news conference on April 5th.

Check with your trusted sources that base their reporting on the best available facts..One place to start with how to think about it would be Creeping Toward Crisis by Charles Blow in the NYTimes.

Fake News and Atrocities

When the German army invaded Belgium in 1914, the stories of atrocities horrified readers around the world. Many of the worst of the stories were eventually discredited as British propaganda. But the invasion – like all invasions – was brutal and violent without the exaggerations.

By the late 1920’s the full extent of the official, lies, and propaganda had been exposed. It led the British politician Arthur Ponsonby to publish an attack on propaganda the first part of which remains as true today:

When war is declared, Truth is the first casualty.

There must have been more deliberate lying in the world in 1914-1918 than in any other period of the world’s history.

The fake news and alternative facts about those atrocities were without benefit of modern communications, but the pattern and intent to deceive and manipulate were the same.

Picasso took another point of view. Art by its very nature lies, he said, and this enables us to remove the blindfolds and see the truth.

Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.

In WW1 artists were both deceived by propaganda and also lied to tell the truth.

In 1915, the American landscape artist J. Carroll Beckwith – appalled by the atrocities as reported and by the real humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe – promoted a theory about the reason why the German invaders were quite so violent and brutal: Modern Art.

It was France who was at fault for systematically exporting large quantities of modern art to her neighbor … and it was Germany’s consumption of such stimulants that had driven the good industrious nation to madness and war.

My source for that is American Artists, Authors, and Collectors: The Walter Pach Letters 1906-1958 edited by Bennard B. Perlman. Pach – artist, teacher, art critic, defender and promoter of modern art – wrote a controversial book, Ananias and the False Artist (1928), in which he castigated  Beckwith for “his ingenious explanation of Germany’s bloodlust”, using a source from the NYTimes.

A search in the NYTimes archive did not unearth those exact words, but it did turn-up an October 4th 1915 article by Beckwith – The Worship of Ugliness – in which he expresses those ideas.

This charge was eloquently refuted by Agnes Ernst Meyer of Mount Kisco who pointed out its illogic:

No Treason in Art: The Modern Movement Defended Against Charge of Inspiring War.


I have read the accusation of Mr. Carroll Beckwith that modern art was in some way responsible for the war. His idea that modern art caused the war, that modern art is in some mysterious way German, has unquestionably become a very general belief not only in Paris, but also, by importation, over here  ….

As stories of the German atrocities in Belgium streamed across the Atlantic, the previously anti-war artist George Bellows turned in favor of American intervention. He unleashed a one-man propaganda campaign of his own. He wanted to tear Americans out of their moral lethargy and face the reality of what was happening in Europe. The result was an over-the-top artistic output illustrating atrocities and designed to incite outrage and the demand for a response to save civilization.

The Germans Arrive. George Bellows 1918

In Return of the Useless, Bellows pictures injured and dying civilians manhandled and abused. With this and the image of the box car, Bellows foreshadows the actual atrocities of the Second World War, which were too often falsely discounted. People remembered the excesses of the propaganda of WW1. They found it hard to believe the truth of the concentration camps and the holocaust.

Such, such are the dangers of fake news and alternatives facts. It may be hard work – it is hard work – but the more we try to understand that two plus two equals four the better off we are.

The Return of the Useless, George Bellows 1918

Both Bellows paintings are on display at the exhibit World War I and American Art now showing at the the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts The featured image is also from that exhibition:  On the Hudson at Newburgh by Gifford Beale, 1918. .

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