Where to Draw the Line

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My good friend Rob Shetterly and I had a major difference of opinion recently over the ethical if not the aesthetic merits of drawings by Steve Mumford.

Rob, president of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, an art activist, creator of the American Who Tell the Truth portrait series, and a plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking the restoration of the Maine labor history mural that Gov. LePage ordered taken down, has been a friend since we both works for Maine Times in the 1980s. I generally share his progressive political views and I admire him enormously as a man and as an artist. That’s why his condemnation of Steve Mumford upset me so.

Steve Mumford, an artist who splits his time between New York and Maine, has been embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan several times times since 2003, determined to see America’s wars on terror for himself. Like Winslow Homer during the Civil War, Mumford draws and paints military life behind the front lines in wars that have no front lines.

Waiting to Go Forward, Marja, Afghanistan, June 25, 2010 by Steve Mumford

What set Rob off was an exhibition entitled Steve Mumford: Embedded at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport (May 28 to July 10).

“Through his work, Mumford revives the great tradition of combat art characterized by Winslow Homer’s Civil War paintings,” stated the CMCA. “The instantaneous and documentary nature of photojournalism that defines most of our visuals of Iraq and Afghanistan is replaced by lingering lapses of time that expressively capture mood and atmosphere more than precise events. In his art, Mumford strives to maintain objectivity about the politics of the war, while providing an artist’s humanistic view of the individuals involved.”

Though we could agree that Mumford’s drawings were deft and skillful and that he possessed courage to place himself in harm’s way for the sake of his art, Ron and I saw them entirely differently. I believe I saw what was there. Rob saw what wasn’t there, what was, in his words, “left out.”

“I left this exhibit angry and feeling suffocated, like I’ve barely survived an attempt to drown me,” Rob wrote in a review of the Mumford show posed on the progressive Common Dreams website. “That’s what propaganda does. One leaves such a show morally and spiritually diminished.”

The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for Rob was CMCA’s claim of  “objectivity” for Mumford’s war art. Because Mumford’s drawings do not show American drones dropping bombs on civilians or American troops shooting innocent people at checkpoint, Rob felt Mumford was complicit in covering up these atrocities.

In an interview a few years ago, Steve Mumford addressed this criticism by saying, “I often get the sense from talking to people who are strongly against the war that they think the abuses of Abu Ghraib are typical, that perhaps many soldiers are operating in a kind of chaos or free-for-all. I think the reason for this is that so few family members of America’s intelligentsia are in the military, so they simply have no idea what it’s like and quickly fall back on the old Vietnam clichés.”

I came away from our vigorous online discussion feeling that Rob wanted to tell Mumford what to draw, CMCA what to show, and viewers what to think. I have never been a big believer in the power of art to effect political and social change, primarily because it is such an intellectualized activity, often quite divorced from everyday experience.

Whatever Is Conscious Wears Out by Dominic McGill

Coincidently, the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art in Portland currently (through August 7) is featuring a drawing show entitled Drawn to Disaster that Rob might find more compelling. Drawn to Disaster is an exhibition by about a dozen contemporary artists who “examine the ephemerality of news reports and conjure the complexities of disorder, anger, and optimism that can follow disaster.”

The ICA exhibition includes works by many artists who express moral outrage at and condemnation of what we used to call “the military-industrial complex,” the American war machine. While I share their antipathy to human folly of violence and war, I can’t help thinking that Steve Mumford’s rather conventional little drawings will ultimately have more influence on people’s perception of America’s military adventurism than anything imagined by artists who have never actually seen war.

Degenerate Art Lives by Yael Bartana

Both Steve Mumford: Embedded and Drawn to Disaster are projects of the Where to Draw the Line: The Maine Drawing Project, a statewide series of drawing exhibition organized for 2011 by the Maine Curators Group.

[Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 162 Russell Avenue, Rockport, ME, 207-236-2875. Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, 522 Congress St., Portland ME. 207- 879-5742.]

  • Michael

    Ed, everyone needs friends to stand by them. Perhaps in a private moment, with someone like yourself, Shetterly will fess up to the toxic flaw in the practice of his beliefs that you rightly called him on. Just because he has such strongly held beliefs is not a pass for accusing Mumford of being a propagandist. By way of fair disclosure, I’m a rabid Tea Party supporter. But we’ll leave that to another day.

    You may find interesting some of my work and writings since the Farnsworth show. Unfortunately, Shetterly may find them sadly lacking in the propagandistic warmongering jingoistic material he sees everywhere.

    Here’s my pieces at the New York Times

    And Canada’s National Post

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/18/arts/design/18marines.html Sunday NYTimes article

    http://www.joebonhamproject.blogspot.com A joint project between the International Society of War Artists and the Society of Illustrators.

    http://www.facebook.com/stillinthefight A documentary /music venture from the Joe Bonham Project folks.

    Let Shetterly et al know I’ll be participating in a show hosted by the Smith Farm Center for Healing and the Arts in Washington, DC’s Pepco Edison Place Gallery opening August 22, just in case they ever protest outside the State of Maine. And, the Joe Bonham Project has show at the Storefront Gallery in Brooklyn, NY from Sept 1-18 that I’m helping to curate.

  • Michael, I stand by what I wrote. But I also understand why Rob opposes the wars and gets upset with anything (including art) that he sees as complicit in their prosecution. I’m sorry I didn’t see you exhibition in 2005.

  • Michael

    Ed, perhaps a good way to frame my passionate take on this thread can be put this way; imagine if you are a committed painter of nudes, and a leading voice in your town’s art community calls your art pornography. That’s what Shetterly did by calling Mumford’s art (and no doubt mine) propaganda.

  • Michael

    Ed, having personally been on the receiving end of Mr. Shetterly and his Union of Maine Visual Artists protestations, I am going to have to disagree with you about him. The protest he organized against my one man exhibition was based solely on stereotypical assumptions and what little they could glean from the internet about me. On the sidewalk in front of the Farnsworth, I had to inform Shetterly et al of something they were apparently oblivious too, something even you picked up on; I informed them I had as much right as they in expressing myself. I really believe it came as a surprise to them. Reducing me and my art, without knowing me or my art, to stereotype, must have made it easier for them to not see me as an actual human being and an easy target for their own brand of propaganda. I did take some comfort in seeing the surprised looks on their faces when I showed them my dog tags and the religion stamped into them; Unitarian Universalist. At that time, the Union of Maine Visual Artists and Shetterly, were also trying to tell the Farnsworth how the show should have been presented. Thanks to a series of articles in the Bangor paper, the hypocritical irony of self proclaimed liberals actively advocating censorship was not lost on the good people of Down East Maine.Shetterly clearly questions Mumford’s moral standing, and by using the term propaganda takes the lowest of blows at Mumford’s art. This is a personal attack, and not an appeal to an open discussion, as you seem very capable of. I am not demonizing Shetterly, but merely exposing him as the charlatan he is. I have no problem calling a spade a spade. I’m sure he is a perfectly pleasant person, until challenged or exposed to intellectual and artistic material that doesn’t fit well into his Howard Zinn fueled reality. When that happens, as with me in 2005 and Mumford in 2011, Katie bar the proverbial door. As I have said in several previous postings, other than yourself, Shetterly and his supporters, don’t seem to want to address your absolutely correct assessment of his desire to ” tell Mumford what to draw, CMCA what to show, and viewers what to think.” I hope your not backing away from your conclusion, which although couched in words much kinder than mine, is spot on and shows Shetterly to be profoundly flawed.

  • As someone who regularly unloads on people with whom I disagree (meaning primarily tea party conservatives), I have found it most interesting and insightful to disagree with someone I like and generally agree with. To the degree that we can articulate our differences without demonizing one another, I believe that we should. I’m positive that both Steve Mumford and Rob Shetterly are sincere, committed, decent, peace loving citizens.

  • Michael

    Mr. Shetterly, A couple things penned by Ed are quite revelatory, should you ever awaken from your arrested development. 1. “Though we could agree that Mumford’s drawings were deft and skillful and that he possessed courage to place himself in harm’s way for the sake of his art, Ron and I saw them entirely differently. I believe I saw what was there. Rob saw what wasn’t there, what was, in his words, “left out.” and 2. (a snippet from your own critique at Common Dreams) ““I left this exhibit angry and feeling suffocated, like I’ve barely survived an attempt to drown me,” Rob wrote in a review of the Mumford show posed on the progressive Common Dreams website. “That’s what propaganda does. One leaves such a show morally and spiritually diminished.” Your friend, without being quite as direct as myself, describes with almost clinical exactness, someone unable to successfully project and have themselves mirrored back, and then having a classic narcissistic infantile rage overwhelm them. Can you even address the central thesis of what Ed tried to communicate to you with his spot on ” I came away from our vigorous online discussion feeling that Rob wanted to tell Mumford what to draw, CMCA what to show, and viewers what to think.”? Apparently not. You do realize this whole thread (and I congratulate you on this) was about you, and not about Mumford’s wonderful world class and historically significant work, don’t you?

  • Michael

    Steve, Mr. Shetterly would have us believe he “…left this exhibit angry and feeling suffocated, like I’ve barely survived an attempt to drown me,” (Rob wrote in a review of the Mumford show posed on the progressive Common Dreams website.) “That’s what propaganda does. One leaves such a show morally and spiritually diminished.” In my opinion, the anger he felt is a direct result of your art making it past his guardian stereotypes, the suffocation and drowning sensation from the lack of fresh air down in his private Plato’s Cave, and the moral and spiritual diminishment is simply what he came into the show with in the first place, and all that was left after you art stripped away his affectations. I love how folks like this always confuse their feelings with fact, and how their feelings so often suffer in the face of fact. It’s just too hard fo Shetterly to accept the artistic testimony of someone who’s actually spent 8 separate tours in combat without facing into the abyss of a mental breakdown. The threat to his psyche must be too great.

  • Not so good with words better with a rifle and paint brush. However would like to add my view. Having served with Her majesty’s forces for 26 years I am very proud to be associated with all brothers across the globe who record in art, what others do not want to see or acknowledge. We do what we do because we love what we do it’s that simple.
    I am currently in Kabul part of the solution may I add. My drawings and paintings bring happiness to those who choose to look and see. That’s what are art is about showing to all that we human our work and the memories will live on. Well done Steve Mumford.

  • Here’s another angle on this topic I’d like to toss into the ring:

    A couple of years ago I was invited to be on a panel about war and art at the Yale graduate photo department. Also included was the renowned photojournalist James Nachtwey, who’s logged more hours under fire than most career military guys.
    Nachtwey stated that his artistic goal was to make people see the horrors of war so they’d think twice about supporting one. He then showed a selection of mesmerizing images that were both disturbing and aesthetically beautiful. To his dismay, this didn’t sit well with the students, who accused him of aestheticizing violence, and thus glamorizing it.

    Years ago, the Vietnam War photojournalist Tim Page was recovering from a head wound in a hospital in Saigon. A German publisher wrote to ask him to contribute some photographs to a monograph that would “once and for all take the glamour out of war”.
    Page replied that one could no more take the glamour out of war than take the glamour out of sex, or the Rolling Stones.

    Many soldiers and civilians, including reporters, are attracted to this glamour, whether they admit it or not. I think the attraction to war is deeply programmed in our DNA; in any case, it’s almost impossible to present combat, even at it’s most terrifying, in a way that doesn’t excite and to some extent glamorize. Even the dying are both hard to look at and hard to look away from.

    To me, this contradiction is the ultimate truth about war, that, as artists we have to wrestle with: something can be beautiful and very, very awful at the same time. Two sides of our natures are aroused, to no resolution.
    Gustav Hasford’s character Joker in The Short Timers (the basis for Full Metal Jacket) expressed this exactly with the peace sign on his helmet, next to the phrase, Born to Kill.

  • Michael

    Here’s a message on behalf of a fellow combat artist. Martin is currently employed by and deploys for the US Army.

    The role of the Combat Artist is not to choose a liberal or conservative standpoint, but rather tell the truth through art and let the viewer decide on whether the work evokes an emotional response or begs questions of the scene depicted. Don’t confuse historical artwork with the idealistic. This is one problem that we have with contemporary journalism; the truth is tossed aside for political agenda and ratings. Because you are unhappy that someone doesn’t enjoy your views is no cause for protest or disrespect for an artist’s choice of subject matter. The truth on the ground does not impact the reason why we were deployed there in the first place. Mr Shetterly, are you insinuating that we skew the truth or abandon it completely in order to paint the perfect war picture, or one that suits your agenda? More often than not, the leadership would love to influence what we paint or to have editorship over our work so they could make the perfect statement from their point of view. For instance, Soldiers smoking while on patrol, keeping dogs as pets when there is a General Order not to, not being in proper uniform; these are all great subject matter because it is the truth on the ground as the Infantry lives it. However, any Colonel would go nuts if they saw their so Soldiers doing such things. I have carte blanche to paint what I want, in the medium that I see fit, and in the style that my own. Don’t tell me what to paint or how to paint it.

    My hat’s off to all Combat Artists, past, present, and future!

    Martin J. Cervantez
    Artist in Residence
    Center of Military History, US Army

  • Michael

    I know Steve Mumford, his art, his experience and the person, very well. His art is “witness art”; personal and authentic. Steve risked every once of his own blood and treasure to create his monumental body of artwork. Steve is the modern day manifestation of Maine’s Winslow Homer. What and who he has captured in his art, he’s had the most intimate experience with. That his artwork would instantly trigger no more than moralistic hand ringing and comments mired in words like “propaganda” reveals everything about the likes of Shetterly and Mayers, and virtually nothing about Mumford’s art itself. Their commentaries are pure narcissistic whining, revealing a life time reading too much Zinn and Chomsky clinging to the parapets of ivory towers, and too little time spent in the real world of flesh and struggle. These are figuratively, and perhaps even literally, the same individuals who greeted returning Vietnam veterans with jeers and spit. The same individuals who worked hard in creating a culture that relegated a generation of returning warriors to gulags of societal isolation. Some one accused me of being “abusive” in my comments…..nice way to characterize having some uncomfortable truths spoken to you. Shetterly’s views are neither original, nor are they courageous. They are predictable. Ad hominem attacks are usually veiled. My criticism of Shetterly, et al are anything but veiled. Shetterly et al attacked my art back in 2005 when I had a one man show at the Farnsworth Museum. They stood in front of the Farnsworth and handed out pink sheets of paper claiming that my art “inherently supported and glorified war”, and accused me of being on some clandestine recruiting mission. They did not know me or my art, but this didn’t stop them from spewing their own special brand of propaganda based on the most predictable of stereotyping. Fortunately, the larger community in Maine, as the result of two articles in the Bangor newspaper, saw through their ridiculous claims and comments. It’s sad to see, over 6 years later, these sheltered artists, have stayed true to their narrow leftist views.

    In closing, let me say it is very revelatory, at least for me, no one, other than Ed, has addressed the central reason for my comments, to quote Ed: “I came away from our vigorous online discussion feeling that Rob wanted to tell Mumford what to draw, CMCA what to show, and viewers what to think.” This is the Achilles heal of the self proclaimed American Left……all they rue and feign moral rage over, is little more than their own narcissistic projections. Shetterly would make a much better minister of propaganda than an artist.

  • Now this is funny, because now I’m going to defend Steve Mumford here! Lisa, that painting was not in the show, but if I were the curator I probably would have chosen more works like that, which I believe was serendipitously intended to incriminate those pursuing the business of war. It is of two Iraqi prostitutes. In this respect the artist is on your side! Steve’s aesthetic, as I understand it, was to go to war and see what it was like for himself, and as a realist painter he is obligated to paint what he sees. In this case he just happened to see this one particular sad reality of war and chose to paint it. Not because he was looking for things that make warmongers look bad, but rather just because he happened be there and he was not averse to making warmongers look bad. As we’ve learned after hearing him speak was, that when you go to war to see what it is like, you mostly find a lot of bored soldiers. If you read the comments section above you’ll learn that this is common for most everyone who goes to war to report, etc. If you’re lucky (I personally wouldn’t call it lucky!) you get to see action. Those of us who sit back safely at home and rant and rave against war are apparently akin to Nazi propagandists, (Steve you did drop the “N” reference in your talk as did Mr Fay above), since we have not experienced the boredom of war (reality) and are simply exaggerating its downside only according to our idea of what war must be (propaganda). And as Ed Beem writes above, it’s people like us that are probably the least effective at ultimately helping to create a more peaceful world. But I for one will continue my foolish pursuits and prefer this suggestively propagandistic and incriminating painting and over paintings of bored soldiers any day and you should too…your art lesson for today Lisa.

  • I was not able to travel to the CMC show of Steve Mumford’s paintings, but have viewed them online, and I am haunted by a particular image. It depicts a resort-like swimming pool scene, said to be within the so-called “Green Zone” in Bagdhad, where US troops, contractors, and an army of servants flown in from poor countries around the globe, live and work. The scene depicted would likely remind most of us of any corporate chain hotel swimming pool where we might have watched our children or grandchildren splash around.

    At the center of the pool are two women. They appear to be young adults, and they are holding each other in a loose embrace. Some observers have suggested that they are Iraqi prostitutes. Others that the middle of the pool may be the only place the two women can converse without being overheard.

    For an artist to depict female victims of war and occupation (reading here from a researcher on prostitution in Iraq and elsewhere enabled by US military presence http://www.counterpunch.org/mcnutt07112007.html) in a luxurious setting is, in my opinion, obscene. Not that I am against obscenity in art, or in favor of censorship. But I want to speak up here from the point of view of women suffering under the projection of force favored by the US military, and funded by my taxes.

    Incidentally, Afghanis are a denomination of money; Afghans are people.

  • I agree with you that this is good for the military (on many levels – that’s a large part of our point – it’s a recruiting coup! If I were 17 and saw this I’d be ready to join in on some adventure too, however baseless) more than it is bad for art… interesting discussion to have there, but that’s a diversion a false dichotomy.

    The point I say you’re missing is: Mumford admits that the military embeds so they won’t “cause any trouble” to the war machine which is, I’m very sorry to say: a racket. See Marine Corps General Smedley Butler’s War is a Racket for a succinct description of the problem and a surefire set of solutions: http://www.scuttlebuttsmallchow.com/racket.html

  • “war is simple and direct” = farcical statement
    and “war is not a crime” would be laughable it weren’t an ongoing crime with cheerleading such as that found above.

    The lies that were used to convince you and other well-intentioned people to invade and occupy and oppress Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, etc. have been exposed. You can pretend the web-enlightened masses aren’t aware of the false pretexts used to “justify” the crimes, but why?

    Look up the now declassified Operation Northwoods at the National Security Archives for a textbook example of how you are lured into thinking your glorious invasions and occupations are justified and somehow aiding the cause of Democracy. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20010430/

  • Well stated. I think Obama should drop Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld off at the Hague and let them sort out whether our leaders’ actions were illegal.

    The most important reason for that is accountability itself. If Obama had the courage to prosecute people from the Bush administration, then Obama’s administration would police itself with the sword of Damocles swinging over their heads.

    I don’t agree with you on this subject, but I respect your opinion and think your reasons are serious and worthy.

  • Shetterly and Meyers are great people. They are both dedicated to making our country and communities better places that respect and revere justice and democracy. I happen to agree 100% with Ed on this, but I respect Shetterly’s willingness to think and speak boldly on this worthy topic.

    Just because you disagree with someone doesn’t mean you should call them “small.” Take Ed’s lead on this from his first paragraph: It’s because he likes and respects Shetterly that he has taken up this conversation about a major opinion schism.

    As has been pointed out above, war is a big place and quiet voices about it are usually ignored.

    Afghanistan and Iraq were both botched by the Bush Administration and it’s our troops who have paid for that in blood and all the citizens in terms of treasure. Iraq was based on lies and taking care of the vets who will suffer from PTSD and brain injuries alone will cost us trillions of dollars over the next 60 years.

    We need to be respectful and diplomatic to have meaningful conversations about these wars, but what could be more important? We should be angry and sometimes that is best shown with shouts rather than cowardly murmurs.

  • I don’t see a problem. I actually think troops are less likely to commit atrocities or shoot up families like the Hassans if artists or journalists are embedded with them. I see this more as a positive effect on the military than a negative effect on the arts.

  • “I learned what real people are like and how to spot a fake and a hack a mile away.”

    Or you could stand three feet away from a mirror.

  • “The last great artistic movement directed at social justice and change, Soviet Communism, also sent millions upon millions to gulags and worse.”

    That makes absolutely no sense. We have had socially conscious art here in the US, including Pop Art, Regionalism and Social Realism as well as photography by the likes of Walker Evans, Lewis Hine and so many other of America’s greatest artists.

  • “War, I am sad to inform you, is not a crime”

    War can absolutely be criminal under either American or international law.

    To have lied about the intent of the war and to have used techniques – torture or WMD – that are illegal can absolutely be criminal. Many experts absolutely believe the second Iraq war was illegal and absolutely criminal on many fronts.

  • I think any “artistic” rendering raises questions about what we are seeing of a war and how we are seeing it. I think the irony of using what we have come to take as self-expression – art – to report on war raises the question of subjectivity better than, say, photography which we so readily accept as objective.

    One real itch seems to stem from the medium of watercolor since we tend to think of it as a leisure activity. The problem, however, is that it seems tough for an artist to be objective about the troops that he is not only depicting but on whom he relies for his safety.

    But empathy is a valid approach to art.We always have to consider point of view in any art and I think it’s easier with works like Mumford’s than most.

    The troops are not doing anything illegal – even if the war was illegally declared by Bush.

    Personally, I think the important effect of Mumford’s work is not for the public for the troops: It’s important that they see American and artists and liberals rooting for them, trying to know them, and caring about them. I see this work less as propaganda for the war machine than propaganda for the art world.

  • Mr Fay,
    Why do they represent the worst of the elitism of this country? To be able to question our nation’s moral standing is what the men and women (I might add) who join the armed services are willing to risk their lives for, is it not? I understand our society as being designed to allow dissenting opinion to flourish. You, Natasha, Robert and myself all share a mutual pride in this aspect of our society here in America. It is truly frustration to engage with you when you reduce your arguments to “ad hominens” as Chris accurately observed. (I admit that I had to look that one up!). I have not tasted war, thank God, but it does not take great imagination to understand what it means: death and destruction. For you it also means freedom, which I respect, understand and agree with. You are comfortable with this freedom and are willing to pay the price. Yes our ideas our big, much bigger than we are, maybe too big, maybe foolishly beyond reach. But we are unable to turn our gaze away from the negative aspects of solving conflict through military engagement. We foolishly believe that there has to be a better way and are committed to actively suggesting this…even if it means we have to get slapped around now and then from the Michael Fay’s of the world.

  • Michael

    Ed, you’re observations and comments with regards to this thread are spot on. To you, and to you alone, I apologize for the tone of my comments on this, your blog. It is admittedly infuriating for me to read the transparent passive-aggressive and holier than thou moralizing of Shetterly, et al. They represent the worst of the elitism currently infecting the progressive left in this country. You have done a much better and even handed job of calling them to task. I, on the other hand, having seen and known good and hard men who’ve died on their (thankless) behalf, lack the ability to suffer such fools. Yes, my soul is wounded, not by the war (war is simple and direct), but by the decadence that greets America’s warriors when we return to a nation still so ready to question our moral and mental standing. As someone who as tasted the special flavor of freedom the protected will never know, I have qualified disdain for the moralizing of the Robert Shetterlys and Natasha Mayers of the world; small people hiding behind big ideas. Perhaps individuals such as yourself, with a much lighter touch, can awaken them.

  • In his comment above: Mr. Mumford admits that the reporter embeds “wouldn’t cause any trouble” to the war machine in this quote from above:

    “Far from trying to spin them, the military just seemed to be trying to get them quickly to their embeds so they wouldn’t cause any trouble”

    Might THAT help any of you see what the problem is?

  • Dear Steve,

    I appreciate your tone. And I admire your courage and talent. And I respect your integrity.

    My problem is the one that Edgar Beam alludes to….. I believe the wars, particularly Iraq, to be crimes. Whether some large or small number of Americans believes that is irrelevant. Large numbers of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. The obvious fact of the Bush administration’s lying and deliberate propaganda & fear mongering, and the relevant testimony of many people who were in the administration who knew what was going on, are very clear. Because of that, I simply question the wisdom of attempting to remain neutral. Whether it’s Iraq, the banking fraud, stolen elections — you name it —- there is no accountability in this country. A democracy without accountability that claims to be — as it must — a nation of laws is a charade.

    Frankly, I have no interest in or appetite for attacking you. I think the problem I had was more about the framing of your show by the CMCA as objective.
    I’d much rather get together with you for a beer sometime & talk.

    All the best,

  • Steve, Thank you for the thoughtful observations. For many years I wrote for PDN (Photo District News) and had a chance to interview quite a few combat photographs, from Maine’s own Samantha Appleton to Paolo Pellegrin and Stanley Greene. I have often been told how difficult it is to actually see the carnage of war. Here’s something Chris Hondros told me in 2006 about his photographs of the Hassan family, killed by US troops because they feared a car bomb.
    “War is a big place. Iraq is a big place,” says Hondros of the relative paucity of pictures of the death toll in Iraq. “As common as casualties are, it’s difficult to be right there when it happens. With the Hassan family, I was right there when their car was shot up. If I had been a block away, I never would have gotten those pictures.”

  • The first time I showed my drawings from Iraq was, I think, in late 2003, in NYC. By an interesting coincidence Galerie Lelong nearby was showing a group of Nancy Spero’s Vietnam War drawings, done in the late 60s.
    Spero, who had never been to Vietnam, was filled with anger over the war, in fact all wars and the system of male dominance and patriarchy that breeds war generally.
    The drawings were angry and fast, phallic helicopters spitting cum/bullets at destroyed bodies, insect-like aircraft swarming, mushroom-cloud explosions spewing poison.

    The drawings were terrific!

    At the time I wished that someone would write about our contrasting shows, in part to demonstrate that art about war isn’t a zero sum game. Activist, or anti-war art and documentary art from the field are both emotionally and morally viable approaches, although they have very different aims.

    The main misunderstanding that Rob and others seem to have fastened on is the idea that I set out to be objective. Objectivity is hard enough for reporters, and doesn’t do art any good. I wanted to walk in the shoes of the soldiers, as well as the Iraqis and Afghanis I met. (I spent many months unembedded in Iraq, living in Baghdad and hanging out with Iraqi artists as documented in my book Baghdad Journal.)
    The CMCA’s statement that I strived to maintain objectivity about the politics of the war was meant to state that I had a neutral stance on the morality of the Iraq War. I didn’t go to Iraq to protest the war or show that war is bad. I went simply to show what the war zone was like in the places and times that I happened to be there. I believe that I was as honest as possible to what I saw. One thing that many people don’t understand is that it’s actually not always easy to find combat, or where a bomb is going to go off – the reporters there are constantly trying to locate the action, and they’ve got teams of people to help. (the exceptions are the relatively rare front line engagements like Fallujah, which tend to be very well covered,)

    Censorship and manipulation are brought up a lot by my work’s detractors. I would point out that many international reporters prefer to embed with US military units over other NATO forces because they never ask to review content before publication, let alone make any changes.
    The many reporters I met in Iraq and Afghanistan were smart, skeptical and articulate. Far from trying to spin them, the military just seemed to be trying to get them quickly to their embeds so they wouldn’t cause any trouble – imagine quite a few Rob Shetterlys out there!

  • Mr. Fay,

    Your lack of civility, your abusive language, your founded assumptions, and your frequent use of ad hominens, do more harm to your side of the debate than good. That’s all the “psycho-babble” I feel necessary at this stage — except perhaps to add that you come across as very defensive, as if you are hiding from a great wound in your own soul.

  • Dear friends, I appreciate the passion and conviction you all bring to your positions. One point if I may: While a great many Americans (myself included) don’t believe we should be in Iraq and Afghanistan, I don’t believe a great many Americans regard those wars as crimes. Rob, Natasha, Kenny, I think that’s where you’d lose the war of public opinion. Steve, Michael, I assume as men of courage and character, you must consider the ethical and moral dimensions of the military operations you chronicle.

  • Mr Fay…are you done bullying yet? I don’t know of any art that has blood on its hands that is not backed up by weaponry, Nazi or Coalition. Somehow you’ve managed to imply that the war mongers are bloodless and the peace protestors are causing all of the death and destruction in the world. Good work! All of the above artists have personally protested Obama’s militarism with their art, just for your information. At this point this is not a discussion any longer, rather you are simply demonstrating your bravery by bludgeoning us with insults rather than engaging in a civilized dialogue.

  • Michael

    Mr. Crittenden, Do you actually believe the tripe you just wrote? You do know that Einstein, putting aside the lovely abstract sentiments you so selectively latched on to, in actual reality helped the US develop the atomic bomb. In fact, it was his letter to FDR, that led to the immediate creation of the Manhattan Project. So much for actually wanting to be smitten to shreds rather than participating in war and destruction. And accusing Steve Mumford, in typical veiled and spineless liberal fashion, of embracing official propaganda is pure cowardice clothed in elitist rhetoric. Are we supposed to be wowed and impressed with your referencing of something called the ” psychological factor of confirmation bias”? Big words from a small person. Steve has gone places and seen things that would make you wet your pants in less than 2 seconds. The biggest community in America today with a herd mentality subject to all the power of propaganda is the left. I look forward to your next posting and a fresh bit of psycho babble.

    Mr. Shetterly, you never did address the central thesis of my initial comments, which addressed my agreement with Ed’s assessment of your desire to censor and repress art such as Mr. Mumford’s.

  • Official propaganda sanitizes the realities of war, reinforcing an illusion of the noble Empire going about the business of protecting freedom. This may be due to the psychological factor of confirmation bias: seeing things as we expect them to be rather than how they are. However, at some level, human beings have a choice whether to advance or challenge the lies of omission fostered by propaganda. This is an important choice. Most seem to follow the herd and, at least on the surface, embrace simplistic messages of patriotism, honor and so on.

    When one chooses to embrace the official propaganda, to support and disseminate it, one risks a horrible moral failure. Mumford may well fall into this category.

    I think the words of Albert Einstein have import here:

    “This subject brings me to the vilest offspring of the herd mind –the odious
    militia. The man who enjoys marching in line and file to the strains of
    music falls below my contempt; he received his great brain by mistake — the
    spinal cord would have been amply sufficient. Heroism at command, senseless violence, the accursed bombast of patriotism — how intensely I despise them! …I had rather be smitten to shreds than participate in such doings.”

  • Michael

    Oh, by the way, the good people of Rockland and Camden, Maine, after becoming aware of the protest you and Natasha organized of my show at the Farnsworth, reassured me that all the over educated Harvard types who began infecting Maine in the late 60s weren’t real Down Easters, but unwanted interlopers.

    Also, I found of particular interest Natasha’s inability to deal with the ambiguity of Mumford’s images…….and her desire to have the artist politicize them into anti-war statements. Good ole Carl Jung had some interesting things to say about staying in the tension of opposites….something you and Natasha seem to have a hard time with. Jung also spoke of something called the retrogressive restoration of the persona…..something old Harvard hippies probably spend a ton of energy maintaining.

    I’m done. You may go back to your well worn Howard Zinn books.

  • Michael

    Mr Shetterly, thanks again for demonstrating to a former lefty (me) the idiocy of the current American self described progressive left. Both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were voted on and approved by our Congress under our constitution. Unlike our current mis-adventure in Libya, which does not have Congressional approval. Are you actively protesting against Obama?

    Art used to advance political aims has a real good track record……the Nazis, the Soviets and Mao are concrete examples of the Howard Zinn-like crap coming out of your pie hole. The art you advocate always ends up with blood covered hands.

    Last time I checked, which was real recent, the only segment of American society that has near universal respect is the military. So yes, take a moment to step away from the altar of sophomoric idealism and genuflect.

    I have the utmost respect for each and every one of the idealists you named. They, unlike you, are the real thing. You, on the other hand are simply a Johnny come lately wannabe. Invoking their names is pathetic. Also, I checked out your website, you are a second rate painter who’s over-compensating by desperately aligning yourself with political ideas and characters with whom you have no personal connection, and for who’s ideas you have never shed one drop of sweat or blood. Do you really believe your art has touched anyone other than a narrow constituency already pre-programmed to parrot compliments back to you?

    My contempt for folks like you, and fellow traveler Natasha (who’s name is familiar to me from your Union of Maine Whatevers sponsored protest of my Farnsworth Show) is no mystery.

    In closing, you and Natasha are living examples of why revolutions eat their young. You would like nothing more than to silence voices like mine and Steve Mumfords. We do art, you do propaganda.

    Keep channeling Zinn and we’ll keep spending time in reality. Believe me, the level of national boredom with folks like you far surpasses any boredom I could trigger in you.

    What did I learn in the Marines? Good question. I learned what real people are like and how to spot a fake and a hack a mile away. I learned that the world is not perfect, and people obsessed with trying to make their version of perfect a reality, end up creating carnage.

    Michael D Fay

  • natasha

    when reporters and photographers were first “embedded” with the troops, feature after feature “humanized” the soldiers without placing their deeds in a larger context, and in so doing valorized them, presenting a sympathetic view of the occupiers. the military has had its way in controlling the hearts and minds of Americans.
    Not one picture in this exhibit questions the morality or reasons for the war.
    Is that what “embedded” means, an unquestioning, so-called OBJECTIVE, NEUTRAL, acceptance, selling a myth, in which US soldiers are the altruistic, beneficent guardians of Iraqi and Afghan welfare ?

    The only humans injured are Americans, except for one drawing of an Iraqi child.
    We should be feeling compassion for the US soldiers because they were ordered to kill and be killed for lies. Not because they got their legs blown off by IEDs. They were betrayed by their own government. Not to mention the million Iraqis who were killed……..And there is no accountability. The fact of no accountability is what is embedded in our culture today. How can YOU be “objective” about a crime (promoting a war of aggression with official lies is a crime under our Constitution) and not mention the crime? Did you feel compromised by being embedded?

    By painting so many “intimate”, mundane scenes, war is made to seem here to stay, a fact of life, bearable, something we do that provides jobs for americans, something we are good at doing, And endless, with US soldiers the altruistic, beneficent guardians of Iraqi and Afghan welfare. I think your most powerful image is of the prisoners going up the gangplank into the jaws of the monster/plane, a scene which was off-limits to photographers. How come we are not seeing, in this exhibit, more of those scenes that the military doesn’t want the public to see? Now that would be a real service to us, instead of these “intimate aspects of war” you depict.

    Did the military have to okay each image you show? If not, why are there so few images that startle us, wake us up to the crime of this war? You are informing us in a way that we can continue to ignore these wars.

    Can your pictures raise war consciouness? The only way Americans are going to finally care about these wars is if they finally make the connection between  the debt, the economy, jobs and the cost of the wars and the people who profit from them.

    Your work can be taken by some as pro-war and by others as antiwar. why the ambiguity? Why no chosen intent to make images that are clearly against militarism? Because you wouldn’t have the access? Because you are confused about these illegal occupations? Because you wouldn’t have an audience for your work? I’m wondering if you feel, like I do, that we have been silenced, that to be antiwar is portrayed as NOT supporting the troops.

    It would be important for Americans to see Iraqi artists work about the occupation. Have you helped any Iraqi artists show their work here?

  • Dear Chief Warrant Officer Michael D. Fay USMC ( retired),

    I am shocked, but not surprised ( if you get my meaning), to read your inane comment to this little controversy.

    If you don’t know that preemptive wars are indeed crimes — by our Constitution, the Geneva Conventions ( remember them, those quaint documents? ), the US sponsored Nuremberg Principles, and just war theory, just what did you learn in the Marines? Semper Fi?
    I suggest you read the recent writings of Capt. Paul Chappell, West Point,
    who is an Iraq vet. His first book, Will War Ever End, deals with a lot of these issues & the illegality of aggressive wars. Or, you might try Andrew Bacevich. Or, read Eisenhower’s 1953 speech on the insanity of war. Or, for that matter, it would do you good to read Howard Zinn.

    Unfortunately, you are the one who knows nothing of art history if you don’t know how art has been used to advance social, economic, and environmental justice. I would humble ask you to look at my website, http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org, and read about the work of Lily Yeh, or Tilly Woodward, or any of the great musicians and writers of the peace & justice & civil rights movements, etc.

    I am more than a little bored with people like you referring to idealism as sophomoric and unrealistic.
    All the great social change in the country — indeed, the world — was driven by idealism. The founding of this country, Jefferson, Tom Paine, Thoreau, Mother Jones, MLK jr., Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson —- on & on —- idealists all of them.

    We are so often told that we all need to constantly genuflect to the military for protecting our rights. The truth is, if not for the sophomoric, unrealistic idealists, we would have no rights to protect.

    Robert Shetterly,
    Artist for Social Change —- (not retired)

  • Michael

    Edgar, I doubt very much whether you and I would agree on much in the political realm, however I heartily agree with your assessment of Mr. Shetterly when you wrote “I came away from our vigorous online discussion feeling that Rob wanted to tell Mumford what to draw, CMCA what to show, and viewers what to think.” I have become acutely aware over the past ten years of the inclination in individuals rabidly identifying themselves as progressive, to passionately desire a silencing of voices not in lock step with their narrow agendas. The last great artistic movement directed at social justice and change, Soviet Communism, also sent millions upon millions to gulags and worse. Nothing is so boring as a whole culture subsumed by socially conscious art.

    Sincerely, Mike Fay

  • Michael

    Mr. Shetterly, I seem to recall that you helped organize and participated in a protest of my one man show at the Farnsworth Museum back in 2005. War, I am sad to inform you, is not a crime, but rather the resolution of political questions through the contest of arms. It is as old as time, and as authentically a part of human experience as pain in childbirth. There are indeed crimes that occur during a war, but war itself is not. Were the perfect sophomoric world of your idealistic imagination to actually exist, museum walls and art history books would not be quite as interesting as they currently are. However I do recall, that your organization’s protest of my show did result in several of your fellow protesters making rather humorous and stereotypical and entirely inane comments to the press.

    I know it may pain you, but myself, Mr. Mumford and a handful of working war artists have drawn great interest from a wide swath of the art loving public and have received favorable reviews in outlets such as the New York Times, PBS, the BBC, The Wall Street Journal and American Artist Drawing Magazine.

    In closing, I find your statement “Great art is being done which actually changes dire social and economic situations” as completely asinine. Have you ever taken an art history course, or have simply been spending too much time these past decades reading way too much Howard Zinn?

    Sincerely, Chief Warrant Officer Michael D. Fay USMC (retired)

  • Dear Edgar,
    My problem with the exhibit in a sense had nothing to do with Steve Mumford. I was distraught that a serious museum could mount a show about a war without mentioning that the war was a crime. It’s as if they had curated a show about how carpenters work and there were lots of well done sketches of hammering and nailing, planing and sanding, plastering and painting, but no mention that the house being built didn’t have a permit and was in conservation land.
    I’m still not sure how you can maintain that Mr. Mumford’s artwork raises consciousness about war except for his images of US soldiers with amputated limbs. But, how can this be objective or instructive if we see no one injured by these soldiers. The exhibit shows them only as victims while doing good.
    Curiously, I agree with you about the Drawn to Disaster show. It appears that it mocks in rather traditional ways the hypocrisy of war profiteers & politicians. However well-intentioned, I think few people pay attention to such work.
    However, artwork that deals with injustice is not limited to these two poles — the embedded and the outrage. Great art is being done which actually changes dire social and economic situations. Please take a look at the work of Lily Yeh at http://www.barefootartists.org.



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