Saturday, January 12, 2008

John Singer Sargent at War

John Singer Sargent was born on 12 January 1856. He was an official war artist in 1918, commissioned to paint a work symbolizing cooperation between Britain and America during World War 1. A leading portraitist of high society, he was not known for his interest in politics, and yet his paintings of war allow the viewer to glimpse the Janus-faced brotherhood of warriors in class society and its political implications.

Take his "Gassed" and "Tommies Bathing."

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1918
Gassed, 1918

John Singer Sargent, Tommies Bathing, 1918
Tommies Bathing, 1918

It is solidarity with comrades, much more than loyalty to an abstract idea of nation or obedience to their superiors, that keeps men at war.
"He didn't have to go to Iraq. He chose to go. He wanted to be with his brothers." These are the words of the clearly distraught and heartbroken mother of Thomas, a marine recently killed in Iraq, describing her son's fatal decision to extend his enlistment in order to deploy with his unit. Of course, his family tried to convince him otherwise, but Thomas was adamant that "abandoning" his comrades as they headed into harm's way was not an option. . . . We fight, then, neither to achieve victory nor to kill an "enemy." We fight and, like Thomas, we die, because we love and could not live with the guilt and the shame of abandoning our brothers. (Camillo Mac Bica, "The Brotherhood of Warriors: The Love That Binds Us" MRZine, 19 March 2007)
In other words, the ruling class grasp what is best and noblest in men, their love for one another; mutilate it by excluding the Other -- enemy soldiers and civilians and homosexuals in their own ranks, for instance -- from men's love; and exploit it for their profit. "Gassed" reveals the physical and spiritual consequences of mutilated and exploited love; "Tommies Bathing" shows what love can be in a world without war.

1 comment:

sofrehmahi said...

did u see david graeber's article in harper's a few months ago on u.s. soldiers as an army of altruists? very good read: