After writing a (too) short article about war and the city, now is one about too books that, each in its way, question the relationship of Art and War.
The first one is entitled Rituals of War. The Body and Violence in Mesopotamia and is published by Zainab Bahrani for the great Zone Books (distributed by the MIT Press) in 2008.
The book starts by this powerful sentence, War is organized violence and thus begins an introduction that proposes a brilliant archeology of violence. Brilliant, in fact, as Z.Bahrani manages to mix the topic of her book, the representation of war by ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, the ME (the Assyrian word for “the arts of civilization”) and a more contemporaneous approach of war as thought by Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and Georges Bataille. Z.Bahrani quotes the latter in her introduction saying that according to Georges Bataille, war exists because the taboo on violence in daily life relegates violence to areas of existence confined in space and time and that follow their own rules. This confinement has indeed a name, war, and is almost paradoxically regulated by conventions and laws, thus legitimizing violence and introducing the ambiguous notion of Just War.
The book then lead us through the various representation of war in Mesopotamia, analyzing steles and monument describing the power of the king’s body and the degradation of the one of the enemies. It also show us the relationship with war and the divine through human sacrifices, omens, and oracles in bodies.
After a very interesting series of chapter specific to Mesopotamia, the conclusion goes back to the mix between general considerations and their application to the Mesopotamian case that the introduction started. Within it, we can find an interesting analysis of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of war machine: War is appropriated as a Repressive State Apparatus but remains outside state power proper and outside the law. To kill in war is appropriate and sanctioned. It is not a punishable act. It is a transgression that forms an exception to the normal order of things and to the law. The war machine falls between the juridical and the theological; it intersects with and connects them. But it exists only in its own metamorphoses, in industrial and technological inventions, in religious and militaristic rituals.
The second book, At War, is the book associated to the exhibition of the same name organized by the Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona in 2004. The book itself is edited by Antonio Monegal, Francesco Torres, Jose Maria Ridao and published by Actar.
This book proposes an important iconography of war that goes from art to journalism with the assumed goal of depicting the representation of war, whether the latter belongs to propaganda or to an attempt of objectivity. The latter case is obviously an illusion as the totality of those images are very much charged both by its creator and its viewer.
One would particularly notice Otto Dix‘s drawings of the First World War to which he participated as a soldier, Henry Moore‘s drawings during the Second World War and James Nachtwey‘s photographs in Palestine, the Balkans, in Africa etc. (see the documentary War Photographer about his work).
The book also counts a series of essays mostly written around the relationship of war and art, emphasizing for example in the construction of the latter for the purpose of the former, the Sovietic flag over Berlin in May 1945 and the American one on the hill of Iwo Jima two months earlier being the two most famous examples of such constructions.
Art and War are indeed maintaining a close relationship (I could have also evoked the Italian Futurists here) as one attempts to express the tremendous power released by the other. At the end of Rituals of War, Z.Bahrani insists on the traditional Akkadian vision of war as a independent powerful entity that destroy systematically what is around it when released. We can have the same feeling when reading At War, as this books blurs the identity of the two (or more) belligerents, illustrating the equal effects on both. However, it seems important here to observe that a lot of current wars are now asymmetrical and this vision of war as an independent entity becomes problematic in the negation of responsibilities involved in such conflicts. That is also a problem for art that might gain from detaching itself from the fascination for war and be involved in a more “activist” vision. Pablo Picasso is a pioneer of such a vision with his Guernica, that manifested the violence of asymmetrical war.