KYIV, Ukraine — You don’t have to go far outside of Kiev to see how the massacre of civilians and the trampling of culture still follow one after the other. In Borodianka, a hub of Russian atrocities about 45 minutes north of here – the drive is slower now that the bridges have been demolished – the windows of the Palace of Culture have been blown out; the concert hall is smeared with dust and the ticket windows are torn apart. Halfway between the capital and the Belarusian border, I had to squeeze my body through twisted studs to enter the ground-floor Historical and Local History Museum of Ivankiv, whose sculptures are now pitted and the embroidery scorched. Further east it is much worse.
Here in Kiev, like many of its citizens before, the masterpieces have gone underground. The Khanenko National Museum of Arts, in an old mansion on Tereshchenkivska Street, holds a smaller Rubens: a small oil sketch of a river god, normally on a blue wall under a Beaux-Arts skylight. I couldn’t see it when I walked up there; the whole collection is hidden.
In the early days of the war, when Kiev was under siege from all sides and half of the population of this city fled, many Americans in the arts wanted to know what to do, in addition to the things everyone should do: support charities , support refugees. Museums and orchestras showed the necessary aversion and loyalty. The Ukrainian national anthem was sung at the Metropolitan Opera; a Ukrainian folk song coldly opened “Saturday Night Live.” We have all now internalized the participatory prerogatives of social media: you have to respond, you have to engage. The algorithms do not favor Rubensian allegory.
The authorities in Ukraine, right down to the actor who became commander in chief, have not been shy about encouraging the field of international culture to support the war effort. President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the enthusiastic crowd at the Venice Biennale and Cannes Film Festival; also the Grammys. “On our land we are fighting against Russia, which brings a terrible silence with its bombs – the deathly silence,” the president told Olivia Rodrigo and Jazmine Sullivan and the rest of the assembled stars in his olive T-shirt. “Fill the silence with your music.” (He was followed by John Legend twinkling at the piano for soldiers to “put those weapons down”: perhaps an uneasy message for defenders against an Imperial invasion.)
Those of us in the rich and safe parts of the world, rich and safe as long as the nuclear weapons remain sheathed, are sure to get something from this cultural solidarity. And during a war as morally unambiguous as this, why wouldn’t your local flamenco troupe say “Slava Ukraini” after the country reconnaissance? But that’s to reduce this historic war to just another “current thing,” which, at least in the United States, has already been overshadowed by new domestic violence. Crimes against Ukrainian citizens still take place on a daily basis. The death toll on the front lines remains poignant. When we stand up for culture in wartime, it can’t just be another broadcast medium, not if much louder microphones speaking more accessible languages don’t turn our heads.
WHY LISTEN TO MUSIC, why look at art, why go to the theater when the war is raging? Twenty years ago, in these pages, with the pile at Ground Zero still smoldering and the long war in Afghanistan just beginning, the critic Margo Jefferson gave an answer that has stayed with me forever.
The reason you need art in wartime, Jefferson wrote, is because “history cannot exist without the discipline of the imagination.” Through art we establish similarities between past and future, near and far, abstract and concrete, which cast doubt on received certainties. We look and listen in such a way that thinking and feeling run parallel to each other. And in extreme times, this kind of cultural appreciation can rise from an analytical to a moral plane. If we pay close attention — a task that gets harder with every meme burst and iPhone rollout — art, literature, and music can bestow enhanced abilities on us to see our new gift as something more than a stream of words and images. They can provide “ways of seeing and ordering the world,” as Jefferson wrote at the time, “not just our world, but those worlds elsewhere about which we know so little.”
Those cultural figures we glorify who have lived through war, from Sophocles to Woolf, from Goya to Chaplin, from Kikuji Kawada to Wole Soyinka, knew better than we did that the clarity art can provide is not what you get from a lecture or a news report. . Which is not to say that a high culture will automatically take you out of the barbarity; dictators can love ballet as much as democrats. Nor is it to say that representing war is an impossible undertaking, or that documentary or testimony modes have narrower goals than abstraction or epic. Foreign and domestic artists depict the war here head on since the start of the fighting actually began eight years ago – in Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s stringy satire ‘Donbass’, in Serhiy Zhadan’s gritty novel ‘The Orphanage’ or in Polish photographer Wiktoria Wojciechowska’s in-depth, award-winning war series ‘Sparks’.
It’s just to say that the best art depicting war matters for his own good, and its full value lies in an area beyond communication or advocacy. Implicitly we already know this: There’s a reason Picasso’s 1937 “Guernica,” which placed a universe of grief in the bombardment of a Basque village, was invoked during the shelling of Fallujah, of Aleppo, and now Mariupol, while Miró’s “Aidez L’Espagne,” a more immediate cry for help made the same year has become just a historical artifact.There’s a reason we return to the romance of “Casablanca” when we think of wartime refugees, and the thriller of “The Battle of Algiers” if we consider anti-colonial struggle; why the hieroglyphic “Blowin’ in the Wind” has endured so many more explicit protest songs.
Somewhere in the gap between form and meaning, between image and storyline, between thinking and feeling, art gives us a picture of human suffering and human ability that testimonies, or even our own eyes, are not always capable of. These war works are not important because they are “current” – or, to use the meaningless slogan of our time, “necessary”. They are important because they reaffirm the place of form and imagination in times that would deny their possibilities. They tell history at scales and depths that push notifications just can’t deliver, and propaganda doesn’t matter. They enable us to discern some meaning in the daily flow of images and madness.
Let’s leave the contemporary onslaught behind and return to Florence: now a tourist mecca, a military stronghold in Rubens’ time. The war he painted has only just begun, but Mars carries a sword already tipped with blood. As he storms forward, he looks back at his lover, Venus, who desperately tries to restrain him.
But love is nothing now. Mars is in the grip of another woman, the enraged Alecto, whose hair is on end and whose eyes are bulging with madness.
Look past the faces, look at the bodies. The great gods writhe and writhe as they tumble from side to side. The lesser, innocent figures slip and shatter.
When Rubens started painting ‘The consequences of war’ around 1638, the Thirty Years’ War was only 20 years old. Never before had Europe experienced an orgy of death such as Rubens experienced; it would not reappear until the 20th century. Compare this painting to Rubens’ earlier scenes of mythical brutality, such as the anatomically clear “Massacre of the Innocents” (c. 1610), and you’ll see how the later image bleeds and flows, runs and wrinkles.
Instead of depicting the battles and the plague head-on, here it is as if paint yourself went to war. Rubens understood, in the midst of unprecedented violence, that time had turned the excesses of the Baroque into a form of realism.
In other words, he understood that the extreme of the Thirty Years’ War required an extreme of form, and that an allegory could show something that other representations could not. It was a point he underlined with the last major figure in “The Consequences of War,” who is on the far left. She is a young woman in a tattered and ragged black dress. Her arms are pointed to the sky, her ruddy cheeks stained with thick tears. This wailing woman, as Rubens wrote to a fellow painter in Florence, is… l’infelice Europe: “the unfortunate Europe that for so many years has been dealing with looting, indignation and misery, so damaging to everyone that they need no further specification.”
So harmful that they need no further specification. Even in the mid-17th century, scenes of brutality were already so powerful and persistent that the entire Thirty Years War could be worn in Europe’s disheveled dress, her unkempt hair, her bright pink face. If images of war were ambient in the 1630s then I don’t even know how to start quantifying the supersaturation today. But the imagery of our own time of pillage and misery has less moral impact every year – as we learned terribly during the Syrian Civil War, very probably the most documented in human history (until this one).
The ubiquitous photos and continuing testimonies of Syrian atrocities for 10 entire years had an almost zero impact. And I could feel it on the ground this month, amid the handheld cameras of this terrible war and the influencer propagandists, the live streams of Kh-22 missile strikes, the minute-by-minute Telegram updates of eastern horrors, the Instagram posts by a 4-year-old with Down syndrome shot dead by a Russian missile in a city park: these misdeeds in Ukraine have already become something else to scroll through, just as we scrolled past Damascus and Aleppo.
WAR HAS BECOME THE ULTIMATE reflection of the digital addition that Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk has identified as the main challenge facing artists and audiences today. On the phone screen, everywhere is just “somewhere,” Tokarczuk lamented in her 2019 Nobel Lecture: “’Somewhere’ some people drown trying to cross the sea. ‘Somewhere’, ‘some’ time, ‘some kind of’ war is In the deluge of information, individual messages lose their contours, fade into our memory, become unreal and disappear.” How can a war photo compel us, how can a war artwork maintain its importance as it swims upstream in an indestructible river of content?Soldiers also have phones next to their AK-74s, and every day since February 24th something new has passed by.
Our only chance of getting from “somewhere” to somewhere, according to Tokarczuk, lies in a model of artistic creation that breaks the first-person singular of the status update, and seeks “a story that would go beyond the uncommunicative prison of one’s own self.” American culture has grown afraid of such stories – more universal, more comprehensive – but writing them has been the job of wartime artists since Aeschylus staged ‘The Persians.’ A cultural bond we can make as yesterday’s world fades into mist. , is to rediscover the full human price of our eternal struggle, even if their reflections in art are undoubtedly fragmentary.From those fragments we might still be able to form a picture of the consequences of war, and of the dangers to come we shall not have the luxury of scrolling further.
Peter Paul Rubens, “The Consequences of War”, via Uffizi Galleries.