Never Over the Top: War, Art and Modernism
The No Glory campaign seeks to highlight the art of the Great War to remind us of its madness.
Jan Woolf — August 5, 2014
Jan Woolf is the cultural coordinator of the No Glory In War campaign, a group that seeks to counter the celebratory narrative of the British government’s commemorations of World War One. She recently answered some questions for Red Wedge about the campaign’s use of art and media — both past and present — to communicate its message.
Red Wedge: Why was No Glory started?
Jan Woolf: The anti-war and peace movement would have commemorated the outbreak of World War One anyway in our various styles (I say our, as this is a diverse movement with ideological nuances) but our government’s style of national commemorations brought us together to form the No Glory campaign and our position that World War One was a “species crime” waged by rulers with imperial interests, and not the interests of those who did the suffering and fighting. No Glory is an alliance of Stop the War, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Quaker groups, Members of Parliament, writers, historians and artists. We are having extraordinary success in our population’s relationship with World War One as we are striking a chord of knowledge and sensibility that is there anyway, as recent attempts to justify it as a just war by Government and revisionist historians just “smell wrong.” We are also pointing up the link between then and now, and the similarities in war making propaganda.
RW: How does the British government’s narrative of the First World War differ so much from the actual reality of the conflict?
JW: I’m going to refer you to the open letter on the NoGlory.org site. Many prominent people signed it, and its gathered thousands more signatures, as they are disgusted with the way this particular government have appropriated the World War One commemorations, to celebrate the “British spirit” (whatever that may mean) and comparing it with the queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations. Of course, our government mourn the dead and recognize it as a horror — and I believe they feel and mean this — but the turn around from our mass national consciousness after World War Two (when, significantly we had a welfare state) that World War One should not have happened and would have spared us World War Two — to the current jingoistic celebrations of a “victory” is deliberate revisionism.
An example of the government’s work is the laying of over 400 paving stones (or hero stones) in the home towns and villages where Victoria Cross recipients were born. This may sound OK, but at the time, VCs did not want to stand out from their fallen comrades and we see this current “ripping yarns” version of history to be sacrilegious. We have to be careful here though, as many relatives of the VC are rightly proud and we do not want to upset anyone. Our careful response to this is outlined in my next answer — as care and emotional intelligence is an important principle in the No Glory campaign.
RW: Was there a conscious decision from the outset that there would be a strong cultural component to what No Glory should do? And if so, why?
JW: Yes. Cultural expression was and is very important and links us with those who brought back the stories of horror through their art. The British war poets were and are very important to us and to world literature as they made us understand what had happened physically and emotionally to millions of young men. Their artistic achievement was in showing us just enough without making us turn away. There is only so much the human psyche can tolerate without switching off — so their language was never gratuitous or (excuse the following pun, but we do have a sense of humor) “over the top.” There has been a recent attack on the war poets, with a revisionist historian referring to “Sassoon and his kind” wallowing in self pity and spreading doom and gloom. No Glory had a recent poetry event (also on the site) where we honored “Sassoon and his kind,” with readings of the war poets by contemporary poets, who also read their own poetry. It was magnificent and moving but also encouraged us to struggle against warmongering now, and to recognize it as on the same political trajectory as World War One and the disastrous Versailles settlement that carved up the world.
This is what good art does, it tells you like it is and was but is life affirming. I’ve concentrated on poetry as this is No Glory’s most recent event but there were and are paintings, novels and films. I might refer you to my recent review of the Great War in Portraits at the National Portrait gallery. Look under articles, and then reviews. Check out my thoughts on the “top down” aspects of that exhibition and the portraits of disfigured soldiers by Henry Tonks. Current art activity by No Glory includes a poster-leaflet download put together by our artists’ group. This will be used by local groups to put details in the communities of names and numbers of men who died, and is in response to the government’s Hero Stones.
RW: Art history generally sees World War One and the art that came out of it as a major leap for modernism. Could you describe the confluence of political and artistic developments that artists during World War One were operating with?
JW: A very interesting question and one fraught with contradictions. Part of the government’s commemoration are to celebrate modernism, i.e. it was all very terrible but at least it gave us modern art etc. (“I would rather have my son back than a Picasso on the wall,” a bereaved woman might have said). World War One also gave women the vote and led to various social change, but it shouldn’t take a major trauma to achieve this. But yes, trauma does lead to new ways of looking at the world — it has to, and artists’ sensibilities and vision was shaken up big time. The world would never be the same again.
The marvelous German school of expressionist painting grew (in part — its complicated) out of the horrific images of George Grosz. While the Germans were painting it like it was, the British retreated to a form of nostalgic sentimentality, like a soothing balm (except Paul Nash of course).
But these are generalizations. Modernism challenged the way we looked at everything, yet art couldn’t really help nerve and body shattered soldiers returning from war who had been promised a “home fit for heroes.” Many came back to appalling poverty, watching the world build up to another war. Our brilliant writer Johnathan Meades said recently on TV “Necessity is the adoptive mother of invention, but war is its birth mother.” This is a true and desperate statement, and we would all wish that the marvelous art forms that sprang from modernism could have been achieved through peace and development.
RW: Per your last response, I’d like to try and parse out exactly how the war spurred on the aesthetic leaps in modernism. World War One is often referred to as the first industrial and technological war, and due to this was certainly the most brutal up to that moment in history. You referenced earlier how a great many of these artists and poets “showed us just enough,” but do you think there was a shift in how they showed it to us that was also spurred forth by the utter senselessness of what the artists were seeing?
JW: War as trauma shakes us up in art, science, social relationships — everything — and we have to look at life in a new way — hence modernism, we had to incorporate the new images of the machinery that made death as well as life in our aesthetic. An artist with good understanding of psychology and his or her art won’t show us too much. It’s “less is more” if you like, but neither must we turn away. The impact made through art is in the resonance between artist and viewer. To shock us into questioning? The need to make a better world? Honor the recent dead?
RW: Tell me a bit more about what these writers slamming “Sassoon and his kind.” How much do you think these writers are running cover for a deliberate political agenda? Do you think this reflects something about governments’ attempt to rehabilitate empire?
JW: “Sassoon and his kind” was referred to by Max Hastings, a right-wing historian who has a huge World War One tome out just now. He and others that we call the revisionist historians are toeing the Governments line that — despite the suffering — World War One was justified in that we had to stand up to a bully. That the British empire was also a bullying entity is not mentioned as part of this curious thing “Britishness” being touted by the establishment right now. It is nonsense.
RW: When most young people of a left bent think of art and war, there’s a good chance that the first thing coming to mind is the music and aesthetics around the Vietnam War. But I’d imagine that No Glory sees there being an evolutionary through-line of sorts between the art that came from the First World War and that which came in subsequent wars?
JW: Again, war is trauma, whether you are directly caught up in or just imagining how it is for others — this imagining, or empathy is what drives us to oppose war and is a part of our enduring humanity. But, if you have vested interest in war, i.e. you can profit from it or want to defend or expand empire then that humanity is overridden and something else takes over — maybe a hardening called “greed.” This is a gross generalization and of course it is more complex than that – and does not take into account the liberation struggle — we had to fight the Nazis in World War Two, etc. The artist steps back from all this and contributes by helping people see things outside the propaganda jingo that the war makers perpetuate.
RW: Any final thoughts?
JW: I would add that I have answered your questions primarily as an individual and campaigner with knowledge and an interest in art history. If I was a doctor my answers might have taken a different perspective — or a shop worker — or a cleaner. i could have any of these backgrounds — but as a working class woman who had the benefits of the post World War Two British welfare state — a state that was set up by an enlightened population that had to fight Hitler — I have a clear sense of what is a necessary and what is a wrong war. My sensibilities and the work I do with friends and comrades has been honed collectively. We know, and thanks to the impact that NoGlory.com has had on our population, that many many others know that World War One was an international atrocity that should not have happened. This is the predominant position in our country now, and, vitally, gives us the analysis and clarity to oppose war-mongering today as we can see the relationship between then and now.
Jan Woolf is a writer and artist in the UK. She is the author of Fugues on a Funny Bone, and is currently the cultural coordinator of the No Glory campaign. She can be reached through her website.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a bellicose address last week on the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War—an address aimed at politically and ideologically conditioning the population for Canada’s participation in future imperialist wars: here.