Some Notes on Art and War

The last ‘1418Now’ project ~ MAKE ART NOT WAR.

The commentator Sir Simon Jenkins, on Radio 4's Moral Maze, recently mocked the effort by artists to commemorate World War One. He said: 'David Cameron funded artists when he should have given the money to historians'.

What happened next? Peace?

For the past four years we have been immersed in the imagery of war through various centennial exhibitions marking 100 years since World War 1.

An organization called '1418now' was set up to invite contemporary artists to work with audiences to reflect on well known stories using poppies but also little known important stories of the war in increasingly inventive ways. Within the '1418now' program we have learned how female suffrage came about as well as how countries in the Empire sacrificed blood only for their sacrifice to be forgotten. Images of war, then as now, are compelling in a way that peacetime images rarely are. In war 'stuff' is happening, there is pathos, there is excitement. War art is important because stories critical to our humanity are being told. War art is specific; art made during peacetime is 'everything else'. My '1418now' project: 'Make Art Not War' will be the last. That may be a relief, at least to Simon Jenkins.

'Make art not war' takes its inspiration from Franz Cizek, a little known but extraordinary Austrian wood block printer. Before war engulfed Europe Franz Cizek was running juvenile art classes but after the war had in his hands what he and many others thought was the 'antidote' to war namely 'creativity'.
Cizek's innovation was to substitute 'hard to work' woodblocks with a new product, Linoleum. He worked with children’s drawings to create beautiful images of everyday life in post war Austria. In the 'National art education archive', located at Yorkshire sculpture park, are images made and drawn by children of returning soldiers begging with limbs missing but also interiors of fabric shops, bakeries, normal, joyous, peaceful life coming back to life, Its a remarkable process and a remarkable collection of images. Cizek inspired a movement.

The post World War 1 child art movement is little known now but it became a powerful force. Cizek's beautiful print work was popularised in Britain in a series of exhibitions. It’s because of Cizek that when you were at school at some point a teacher would have forced linocutting tools and an oblong patch of brick coloured flooring into your hands.

Artists responded to World War 1 in extraordinary ways and what happened next was most famously characterised by the goings on in the Cabaret Voltaire where Duchamp, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp and Max Ernst created the absurdist art of Dada. Others, perhaps most notably the educator and philosopher Herbert Read joined the followers of Cizek. Herbert Read's motivations were slightly different. Herbert Read had fought in the trenches. Many of Read's friends had died. Read thought about the loss of those individual voices. Read thought art accentuated our particular natures. Art was about fortifying children against war by developing their sense of themselves as individuals not as a mass of humanity, ready to go over the top, able to be controlled by sergeants with whistles. Herbert Read was an anarchist who thought creativity was humanity's protection.

I have long thought Art was about peace. During the first Iraq war I painted a painting, which I later sold to the Tate with the slogan 'Make Art Not War.' They sell thousands of post cards and prints of it every year. 'Make Art Not war' sits in the Tate's shop next to the Warhol self-portrait and the gloomy Rothko print. It was in part satirical. Listening to the developing Iraq war I wondered was there any point in making my art, closeted away in a studio in Hackney? The slogan is of course a corruption of the 1960's slogan, 'Make Love Not War' an equally seemingly vacuous statement. But over the years since I made the work its message has grown in resonance. If only we could 'make art not war'. In 2014 I was interviewed for the Radio 4 PM program about a painting I had made, which was a transcription of an amazing and shocking interview between surgeon David Nott and PM presenter Eddie Mair. I was asked if art was the opposite of war? I replied that I knew that artists, architects along with people working in hospitals like surgeon David Nott can't do their work if people are dropping bombs on them.

In divided Brexit Britain it is perhaps important to recapture the idea of a 'National Conversation'. 100 years on from World War 1 it's important to understand that in Elections in every constituency in the our country there are generally more people who either did not vote or voted for other parties than for the party that won. This is why MP's are representatives of their communities rather than delegates for those who elected them. Art can seem elitist, part of one side's voice, but the art the 1418Now artists have made is about this 'National Conversation'. We all feel sadness and loss. It is impossible not to feel a shared grief when coming across a young man dressed in First World War Uniform representing a soldier who died at the Somme as in Jeremy Deller's work for 1418NOW which is included in the films we have made for the Make Art Not War, project. My thought is that making things is essentially peaceful. Art demands careful, I would say, peaceful concentration and peace too is a process that requires all our attention. Art has the power to heal and bring people together.

In our Make Art Not War project we are asking 50,000 young people via the A level syllabuses and foundation courses to make an image of what peace means to them. A hundred years ago the armistice was greeted by remembrance but also by singing, dancing and relief. Peace is peaceful but it’s also joyous. We need a new child art movement more than ever to fortify us against division. My answer to what peace means to me is Punk. My generation thankfully did not dress in Khaki we dressed in bin liners and did the pogo, we jumped up and down without fear of getting shot.