Art speaks to our dark unconsciousArt is like our dreams. Paintings, music and theater can be an expression of our unconscious selves. "Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self," said the filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard.
One of the darker areas of art that probes the unconscious was Betsy Millard's topic when she lectured Tuesday night on the topic of German painting from the fall of Nazi Germany to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The paintings which Millard projected on the screen at the Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center were the tortured reflections of a culture that had been repressed and brutalized by a totalitarian regime only to be split down the middle in defeat by one of its occupying powers.
The most powerful painting I have seen is Gassed, by John Singer Sargent. It depicts a line of blinded World War I soldiers holding on to each other as they grope their way through a medical camp. Any notion that war is glorious vanishes with a look at this piece of art.
Seeing Gassed or the German works that Millard showed is reminiscent of what Van Gogh's biographer Antonin Artaud wrote: "No one has ever written or painted, sculpted, modeled, built, invented, except to get out of hell."
At the close of her lecture, Millard mentioned Eight Student Nurses by a German artist named Gerhard Richter. In black and white, the paintings are depictions of the Chicago nurses who were murdered by Richard Speck in 1966. This painting, said Millard, is about how American society has become numbed by violence and immune to emotion.
We are running a war in Iraq, and it's a good bet that the vast majority of Americans have no emotional connection to that war. The toll of dead stands at 496 and the number of wounded are more than 2,000. As Vietnam taught us, a large percentage of the wounded will carry physical and emotional burdens for the rest of their lives. Vietnam also taught us that those wounded will emerge from the shadows only when they write books about their trauma. Most of America has no first-hand connection with military life and really doesn't want to know soldiers' stories when they are less than heroic.
Perhaps Americans view the Iraq War with detachment because there is no draft and because our borders are not threatened. Or perhaps, as Richter suggested in his painting, because Americans are numbed from living in a popular culture that is awash in gratuitous violence.
An artist or a psychologist might suggest that Americans are ripe for running a war without emotion because our mass culture of television, movies and video games is rife with violence. Those who track such things have reported that by the time a child is 8 years old, he or she has witnessed televised acts of violence numbering in the thousands.
If two presidential candidates - Wesley Clark and John Kerry - have first-hand knowledge of war's violence, the governor of California gained celebrity and therefore his political career by practicing extreme violence on screen as an actor. Among these three, Arnold Schwarzenegger would win a name recognition contest. Schwarzenegger is the biggest celebrity, and we live in an age of plasticized celebrity.
Broadcasters last week conducted a fig- urative moment of silence to note the 40th anniversaryJohnson put poverty in front of our faces because he had first-hand knowledge. of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Listening to Johnson tell Congress that it was unacceptable for Americans to live in poverty amidst the richest nation on earth was a reminder of how far we've come in four decades.
If anything, we are a nation more divided between rich and poor. One does not have to cite Gospel to recognize that a nation thus divided is an unhealthy place. In ways large and small, we have been desensitized against the poverty that is all around us.
Johnson put poverty in front of our faces because he had first-hand experience in that department. As a young man he had taught in a Texas school. His students were impoverished Mexicans and whites. In a similar way, when Johnson demanded a civil rights act and a voting rights act, he was speaking on behalf of his black servants who had to go to the bathroom in a ditch when they drove his senatorial car back to Texas in the 1950s because they could not use public restrooms.
I can no more imagine George W. Bush speaking with feeling or conviction about the poor or the wounded than I can imagine young Arnold Schwarzenegger enlisting in the military to serve his country.