The Poem that Confounds the Tyrant

Still of “Imagine Picasso’s” interpretation of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica.” Courtesy of “Imagine Picasso”

In the midst of war — the invasion of Ukraine, an inane attack against democracy, one that challenges Europe’s long stretch of peace and stability — an ArtNet article about Immersive Picasso showed up in my inbox with the unsettling title, “San Francisco’s Immersive Picasso Exhibit Transforms the Anti-War Masterpiece ‘Guernica’ Into a Banal Instagram Backdrop”. Particularly at this moment at which Europe is seeing the worst military action since the end of WW2, this shameful digital immersive reiteration of Picasso’s “Guernica” is horrendously depressing. It is not simply due to the installation’s simplistic reduction of the deeply symbolic anti-war artwork, but also the ways in which this “experience” is sold: as something immersive, accessible, affordable — the whole tone of which suggests we are not capable of appreciating cultural works of art and must, therefore, be spoon fed via the attention economy.

One cannot help but wonder what art’s role should be in the midst of violent global politics, particularly when a foolish despot escalates the discourse through the threat of deploying his country’s nuclear arsenal. But consider this: The poet Ilya Kaminsky, author of “Deaf Republic” and “Dancing in Odessa” (among others), having just crossed from Ukraine to the Polish border on foot tweeted on 2/27/22 at 1:33am (MST):

“Me, writing to an older friend in Odessa: how can I help, please let me know I really want to help. He writes back: ‘Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.’ And, that is in the middle of war. Imagine.”

Of course, we need more than poetry. The West must continue to help support Ukraine concretely, from humanitarian aid to weapons of resistance. But Kaminsky’s correspondence recalls the ways in which art communicates beyond discrete historical instances into future generations who might recall the valor and heroic spirit of Kyiv, and the thus-far remarkable fight of its volunteer militia that has managed to significantly slow down a major nuclear power’s invasion.

The rule of thumb stands: no aggressor succeeds by invading a democracy. Knowledge and perspective is disseminated through the free expression of art and the humanities, even in the worst conditions; maybe especially under such conditions. Art and its intrinsic cultivation of culture, community, and non-commercial meaning is a fundamental component of a healthy society. One might even suggest the ability for a society to support and sustain artists is a barometer of that society’s health. In a tweet thread from 2/26/22 about how Louisiana State University sought experts on the history of Russia and Ukraine in her history department, LSU Professor and interim History Department Chair Dr. Christine Kooi (@ChristineKooi) pointed out that fifteen years of budget cuts left the state’s “flagship” university without many specialists “of many troubled parts of the world.” “STEM will tell us how things like wars happen, but the humanities tell us why,” she tweeted.

Black Mountain College in North Carolina had a lasting impact on American culture. A phenomenal number of cornerstone artists, such as Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Ruth Asawa, and Joseph Albers; poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Hilda Morely, and Charles Olson; musicians like John Cage, and Alma Stone Williams; as well as dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham all passed through that program as students or instructors during a brief decade (the school closed in 1957) in which top artists seeking refuge from the devastation of World War II were added to the school’s faculty. What was striking about the Black Mountain curriculum is that it wasn’t based on producing “good” art or “successful” artists, but rather “good” citizens, citizens capable of thinking for themselves and engaging society critically enough to prevent future wars, fascistic fury, and genocides.

Freedom House Report spells out the sixteen years of democratic decline across the world, during which time America has become increasingly divided to the extent that we find ourselves arguably in the midst of a cultural and political Civil War — consider the coup-attempt, distrust of the media, pressure on academics and schoolteachers about what stands for appropriate curricula, women’s reproductive freedom, and application of the second amendment. It’s not surprising that there is little to no investment in art and the humanities.

How then can we be expected to understand the minds of Putin or Trump if we have not read, have not communed over collective cultural efforts through discussion? And in that case, how can we be expected to find our own minds, opinions, empathies? Rather than foster a space of freedom by nurturing the expression of children from a young age, we find the spectacle turning towards the adults it abandoned so many years before with patronizing tones. We may be rich in terms of cultural offerings, but we are increasingly neutering their effect, regurgitating them as though we are all babies unable to chew our own food, eager only for some Lacanian moment, to see ourselves on Instagram.