Art of War

Conflict changes things. But in America, as in ancient Greece, one constant is how works define who we are as a nation.

April 14, 2003|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

These are some of the artworks that have been created in the United States in the aftermath of war:

A grand old white marble, porticoed building where Virginia law is passed. A Civil War- era photograph of a mass burial, one booted foot kicking out of a grave. An abstract painting done in jarring, sharp-edged hues of gold, brown, orange and black.

The visual language these pieces employ and the feelings they evoke couldn't be more different.

But study them long enough and a surprising thread of continuity emerges. The works created in the United States following times of war - and that to be created in the wake of the current conflict with Iraq - tell us about ourselves as a nation. Study them long enough and a certain worldview starts to form, something that almost could be called a national character.

Study enough of these paintings, sculptures and buildings, and our preoccupations begin to appear, preoccupations that have remained surprisingly consistent for more than 200 years.

"American art tends to be concerned with notions of freedom, equality and democracy," says Frances Pohl, an art history professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and author of the recently released Framing America: A Social History of American Art.

"The visual vocabulary changes, but the ideas are the same."

Although art helps us define what we stand for, seminal artworks often don't crop up immediately after a defining moment in history because change doesn't happen immediately. It could take decades for the full ramifications of the war with Iraq to work their way into our national psyche and for our most gifted artists to absorb and react to them.

But, experts say, looking at art created in the past provides us with clues as to who we might be in the future.

Consider, for instance, The Dying Gaul.

Granted, this famous statue of a slain barbarian was sculpted in ancient Greece, not the United States. But we took more from that venerable civilization than a democratic form of government. We adopted many of our attitudes from the Greeks, as well.

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, sees a link between the statue (by an unknown artist) and the notion that it is possible to have a war with minimal casualties.

Vikan points out that the naked fighter memorialized in marble has just one apparent wound - a small circle in his upper chest where he seems to have been shot with an arrow.

"The Dying Gaul is dying so gracefully and beautifully that we don't empathize with him as a victim," Vikan says.

"The idea of pain is kept at a distance so war can be seen as heroic. It is the same triumph of masculine bravura and nobility that we celebrate in films set in the American West."

Americans identified so strongly with the Greeks and Romans that as soon as the United States became a nation, it appropriated the decorative columns, pediments and temple fronts that characterized the grandest buildings of these historic cultures.

Look at Thomas Jefferson's design for Virginia's Capitol - a literal copy of a Roman temple from the first century B.C. in southern France. It was built in Richmond between 1785 and 1789, less than 10 years after the United States had won its independence from the British.

The design is Jefferson's way of subtly thumbing his nose at the prevailing building style of the time - British colonial architecture.

"Jefferson firmly believed that architecture served an important symbolic function," Pohl says. "He was replicating an architectural form that, by referring to a republican political system, conveys certain philosophical ideas of government. He knew exactly what he was doing."

Enter the camera

Pohl points out that classic- revival architecture also was popular in Europe in the late 18th century, but says that the same design elements can communicate different messages depending on the culture in which they are located.

"You also find examples of this architecture in England, but its purpose there was to evoke Roman empire-building and not their ideas of representative government," she says.

While the artwork of the Revolutionary War tended to emphasize the new nation's noblest aspirations, that would change drastically in less than 100 years.

The Civil War coincided with an invention that combined America's fascinations with technology and the unvarnished truth: the camera. While it is unclear whether photography originated first in the United States or France - it was developed in both countries more or less simultaneously - Americans immediately and enthusiastically embraced the new medium.

"Photography can be presented as scientific," Pohl says.

"It is spontaneous and direct. It holds out the promise of capturing people as they really look and events as they really are."

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