The Point of Art When The World Is At War

In her latest column for T Australia, the author and activist Bri Lee ponders the point of creating art when the world is gripped by war.

Article by Bri Lee

I’m writing a manuscript about art and love while watching footage of Russia invading Ukraine. One browser window shows Russian missiles striking Kyiv, triggering Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. In another, I’m finishing my first novel. An overwhelming wave of the uselessness of my work crashes over me. How have I spent so many years on something so removed from the real and terrible fabric of the world?

It isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the validity of my project or, honestly, my entire creative industry. At some point in my young adult life, I absorbed the idea that art for art’s sake was inherently indulgent. I am a child of the cultural cringe that this nation has perfected — the political rhetoric that lumps artists with hippies and dreamers who drain the economy.

My previous books have been hard-hitting nonfiction about inequality and the systemic failures impacting vulnerable survivors. I run advocacy initiatives, write news articles about serious things, try to make space in the media for silenced people to speak. But after six years of argumentative and activist-style authoring, I finally gave myself permission to create art. From early on, I’d wanted to write fiction, but something told me I had to earn that right. A novel was the dessert after a healthy main course of essays and reportage. A made-up story was a siesta after a day of real work.

I don’t really believe this. And, more importantly, I don’t want artists to believe this. I don’t actually believe in the binary of fiction and nonfiction. I don’t even endorse the idea of a separation between art and life. But how can artists keep faith in the importance of their work while wars begin and old ones rage on?

For as long as there have been artists and warmongers, the two have hated each other. Militarists strategise and “make history” — they loathe the passivity and supposed pointlessness of art — while artists decry the destruction and devastation of state-sanctioned violence. Dark jokes have been made about the Holocaust being avoidable if only the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts hadn’t rejected young Adolf’s application (twice). A tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s 1937 anti-war work, “Guernica”, on display at the United Nations’ headquarters, was covered up before the United States’ secretary of state Colin Powell delivered a speech making a case for waging war on Iraq in 2003. “Guernica” is an act of witnessing. It is a work that holds the power to damn both past and future wars.

I went to the Matisse exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to lose myself in the colour and noise. But his 1914 painting “Intérieur, bocal de poissons rouges” (Interior, goldfish bowl) held me, transfixed. The interior of a small, dark Parisian apartment is depicted in cool blues and greys, offering a view of the street through a window. But within the dark interior are two shiny goldfish, vibrant orange, floating together. The Centre Pompidou writes, “Through the theme of the studio, Matisse interrogates the painter’s role in the world, particularly put into question by the outbreak of war.” At 44, Matisse was too old and unwell to fight. After his failed attempt to enlist, he ruminated on his uselessness from his studio at home, making some of the darkest paintings of his career. They speak to me now: two golden fish, lights in the dark.

W H Auden speaks to us, too. Earlier this year, the poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert published a piece in The New York Times about Auden’s 1938 poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”. Auden had visited the museum in Belgium and seen several paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder — in particular, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”. It’s an extraordinary painting, which has been captured and made more profound by Auden’s extraordinary poem. Neither work is actually about the fall of Icarus: they’re about every other little and big thing that continues to happen while Icarus is plummeting and drowning. When Auden wrote the poem, war was looming in Europe, but the farmers dutifully continued to plough their fields and (rather delightfully) “the dogs go on with their doggy life”.

Gabbert says the painting and poem are “a comment on the fraught relation between attention and disaster”. In other words: what are we to do? Do we just keep doing? She references one of Auden’s later and often-quoted poems, “September 1, 1939”, named for the date Nazi Germany invaded Poland, with the much-adored line “We must love one another or die.” Auden hated that line. He omitted the poem from his collections and refused permissions for reproductions in anthologies. He said the work was “infected with an incurable dishonesty” because we love and die, anyway. Love doesn’t stop war. If we are very lucky, love might — just might — endure it.

This is, perhaps ironically, how I have come to feel about art: the only justification it requires is a brief imagining of a life without it. Alexander Chee cites one of Auden’s other poems in his essay “On Becoming an American Writer” in “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”. Chee taught a writing class the morning after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016. One of his students asked him, “What is the point even of writing, if this can happen?” He was also preparing to teach on the day America invaded Iraq in 2003. “The task of being a writer suddenly felt inadequate,” he reflected. Earlier again, he was reading the first review of his debut novel on the Thursday following September 11, 2001, after which, according to some reports, the entire city experienced writer’s block because “they couldn’t think of writing anything that approached the scale of the attacks”. Writers since Auden have lived under the shadow of a single line he wrote — “poetry makes nothing happen” — from the elegy about his hero, W B Yeats. I heard echoes of this sentiment when arts and humanities departments were defunded for supposedly not creating “job ready” graduates. I felt reverberations of this false divide when many creative professionals were denied the financial support that businesses and tradespeople received during the pandemic.

Chee writes that Auden’s line has been misunderstood when taken from the original context. Auden was expressing some disillusionment and making an ironic complaint. “I don’t think Auden meant it as a call to stop trying,” Chee writes. He understands despair as a sin — the sin of hopelessness. “We don’t know when the world will end. If it ever does, we will be better served when it does by having done this work we can do.” I take this to heart. What is the work I can do?

When I walked home from the art gallery, I listened to Debussy. He died while World War I was still raging. I laid on my bed and looked up at the ornate crowns on the ceiling, dating back to the 1930s, a decade defined by economic crisis and the lead-up to another world war. The invasion of Australia in 1788 was followed by attempted genocide. The children of the Stolen Generations managed to defy colonisation and assert their identity and sovereignty. Family violence and abuse is a kind of domestic terrorism — one that a third of all women will experience.

Only the details of war change; its existence is almost constant. We go from bayonets and pistols to bombs on drones. Leaders go from fascist to autocrat to oligarch to despot. Refugees flee and Australia takes some, often depending on their skin colour and the language they speak.

I rely on journalism and nonfiction to stay informed about these wars, but I turn to art to understand it, and not just art about war. Art about humans helps me make sense of the selfishness and devastating greed. Poets and composers help me grapple with love that doesn’t simply disappear after death. Art is not an optional extra that some of us choose to spend money on — we carry the reverberations of art within us through generations, just as we carry the movements and histories of peace and violence. As sure as there has always been war, there has always been art. As sure as we die, we love. All art is made in the time of war. More art preceding and following more war. Art despite and during war.

The machinations of the world may continue, and the dogs trot along in their doggy lives, but I have a new postcard sitting on my desk: two tiny goldfish. I see them and I think of my husband and me. I think of the lives we have been lucky enough to make together. I think of how hard it is to capture the enormity of my love for him in words, and how I turned to fiction in my feeble attempts to render it. Artists who continue to work are not farmers ignoring the drowning Icarus. We are Bruegel, Auden and Chee. I am so grateful they kept working and did not despair. The least I can do is the same.

This is an edited extract from Issue 6. To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally, order online or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 28, named “Worlds Collide”.