“For the Record” panel on art and war

“I think the role of the artist is to break the 24-hour news cycle, to make art that gets people to pause.”—photographer Nina Berman


In connection with the exhibit “For the Record: Searching for Objectivity in Global Conflict” at Montserrat College of Art through Oct. 22, the Beverly, Massachusetts, school (where we teach) presented a symposium on war and art. Here are some excerpts from a panel discussion at the Dane Street Church on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011.

Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College, Vietnam War veteran: “I can’t hear well because when you fire a machine gun in a bunker you lose your hearing.”

Suzanne Slavick, author of “Out of the Rubble,” an anthology of artists responding to the aftermath of war: “A major difference between this war and Vietnam is the blocking of images, like the coffins coming home.”

Rob Roy, painter, Montserrat teacher and co-curator of “For the Record”: “I think the media has become polarized. There’s less consensus in general, or attempts to reach consensus.”

James O’Neill, artist and Iraq War veteran: “I don’t think the media’s doing their job at all. In the run up to the war they didn’t question hard enough. … When I came home and turned on the TV, I’m like this isn’t what’s happening at all.”

Nina Berman, documentary photographer: “I see the coffins as a non-issue. … People in coffins, there’s no story to tell. You could go to the funerals.”

Berman: “What does embedded reporting actually tell you about warfare? … There are opportunities for almost any journalist in the country … to embed with a unit and live with them. … So we see a lot of reporting from one particular unit at one particular time.”

Berman, noting how reporters were excited about the prospect of war in the run up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq: “It was a genius move by [then Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld to let reporters feel like they were soldiers. …. Journalists make their careers through war as well.”

Burton: “The media stopped the Vietnam War. [President Lyndon] Johnson was saying we are winning the war. Then the images came back of the guy burning in the street.”

Burton on Iraq: “We’re sending in an army to do a civilian function, which is to build community.”

Gordon Arnold, author, Montserrat teacher, and co-curator of “For the Record,” on war documentaries: “The overall effect is to fall back too much on formula. … I don’t know how you’re going to develop decent public policy out of that.”

Burton: “After a week [in Vietnam], we realized there was nothing to fight for. … What we decided was we would try to save each other. We’d all try to come back alive. … My base camp, when we left, was overrun in about three days.”

Steven Dubin, scholar, on 2003 worldwide protests against the Iraq War before it began: “It was apparent that the world was against this and yet it had no impact.”

Burton: “People were very willing to send someone else’s children to a war that they wouldn’t send their own children to.”

Dubin on the media: “We’re just listening to the things that validate the things we already believe. … I think most people don’t think about it [the Iraq War], most people don’t care about it.”

Roy: “Artists need to approach the truth.”

Burton: “Politicians pay a lot of money to manipulate the media.”

Slavick: “How do we return our focus to critical thinking? … How do we work in a way that makes us live a better life?”

O’Neill: “If you don’t know someone that’s over there you don’t care. And it’s all about the economy.”

O’Neill: “What politicians voted for these wars and wanted to get reelected and didn’t get reelected?”

Burton: “I’m really impressed with the young people protesting Wall Street. They’re young and they’re angry and good for them. And they’re saying the right things. … I talk to my generation and ask, ‘What are we going to leave behind? Strip malls?’”

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