Thursday, April 29, 2010

The war of the arts

What do war and the arts have in common? They are both capable of fostering that amorphous thing called 'national identity'. Countries around the world use the commemoration of military events as rallying calls that serve to cement a single dominant national identity. And arts and cultural policies around the globe almost all include a line about how the arts foster that same national identity. So national
Identity is supposed to consist of shared memories and myth-making about past military exploits mixed with some deep-seated pride in our arts. Sport is the other big ingredient. 

Why are arts and cultural commentators so keen to embrace such company? Do we really think that artists are motivated by a desire to 'create for the fatherland'? Is their greatest go to defend the artistic homeland against invasion? Yes, there have been artists who espoused nationalist views and there has been no shortage of politicians who have exploited the work of artists for political ends. But the art of nationalist artists is not usually any good as art. And in fact much great art has come from the spring of international exchange. Crude nationalism is the enemy of good art.

Image: John Singleton Copley, The death of major Francis Pierson 6 January 1781, 1783, Tate Gallery      

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