Wednesday, December 21, 2016


I've argued on this blog that "fine" art tends to become silly and less relevant as investment bankers and auction houses distort the market, and critics shy away from normative statements about new art.  In my view, fine art today is often more commercial than so-called commercial illustration.

Following the election of Donald Trump, we've begun discussing art with a social conscience by artists such as Ben Shahn or Alan Cober.  What can it accomplish?  How meaningful is it today?

In my view, one of the most striking collections of such art in the past fifty years was a project by Victor Juhasz which was posted by GQ.   Juhasz spent three weeks with an army medevac unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan to witness first hand what was happening on the front lines.

He took his expedition solo, and on his own initiative.  His journal recounts several extraordinary moments, such as this effort by a Black Hawk helicopter to rescue casualties from an armored vehicle (MRAP) had been turned into a "crushed toy" by an explosive device.  Trying to avoid Taliban snipers, the helicopter with Juhasz came swooping to the rescue at about 160 miles per hour for a "hot zone" landing:
Foul-smelling smoke and ash from the burning MRAP, some of it still quite hot, poured in through the open windows of our Black Hawk, swirling and landing everywhere in the cabin as we drew closer. Bitter-tasting cinders filled my accidentally opened mouth. Edstrom banked the Black Hawk hard and almost on its side as he slowed to make a landing. A spot had been designated in advance, and Edstrom lowered the bird, but the ubiquitous red-clay "moon dust" kicked up by the rotor blades created a brownout. Edstrom lost all visuals and, unable to see where he was landing, aborted the attempt, doing another accelerating loop around the village and fields, in effect another roller-coaster ride, to come in for another try.
But the truly extraordinary thing about Juhasz's drawings and paintings was not the high speed or the explosions which dominate the art of "armchair" war artists.  It was the humanity of the individuals he captured in extreme situations.

Juhasz wrote, "A good drawing walks an interesting tightrope of being in the moment and reflecting on that moment, from the visual impact of a subtle gesture to the energetic desperation of concentrated activity."

I find his drawings beautiful and devastating.

His impressions showed me a side of the war that I never got from photographs.

Juhasz took his responsibilities as a witness seriously.  He wrote:"I leave with far more butterflies about my skills than over concerns about safety or injury."

You can find his poignant art from Afghanistan and from Juhasz's other military excursions on his website.

So what is the potential for such witness art today?  It is certainly a fitting tribute to the soldiers whose sacrifices might otherwise go unnoticed.  But beyond that, such images could be important for a culture that seems quick to pull the trigger but reluctant to do the hard reading about the causes and effects of conflicts.  A president elect who says he doesn't like to read details, and who says his equivalent of military service in Vietnam was avoiding STDs back home, could certainly benefit from studying these pictures. 


MORAN said...


Anonymous said...

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.


Robert Cosgrove said...

Looks like Howard Brodie was an influence.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- That's a little more succinct than my reaction, but the spirit is the same.

JSL-- Thanks for the Shakespeare quote. Juhasz was truly a "witness" to these events, and being a first hand witness often adds a layer of truth and authenticity that long distance art lacks.

Robert Cosgrove-- You have a good eye. Juhasz refers to Brodie as "one of my fucking heroes" and wrote a beautiful, touching tribute to him when Brodie died. If you like Brodie's work, I urge you to read it on Juhasz's Drawger page:

More Fire, More Ice said...

You may also want to take a look at the art of Richard Johnson and Steve Mumford. Since 2001 there has been a small, but very active group of war artists.

Untitled said...

Great post. I too recommend Richard Johnsons war art. He had met Brodie before going to Afghanistan.

Happy New year to you David!


David Apatoff said...

More Fire, More Ice-- Thanks for the recommendations. I had seen the work of Mumford before, but not Johnson. I've studied the work of previous generations of war artists, from Goya through Brodie, and even written about a few of my favorites on this blog-- Townsend and Dunn from World War I and the great Australian war artist Ivor Hele-- but I've really fallen short in tracking the artists that have arisen since 2001 (which is my failing, as there has been no shortage of war since 2001). There seems to be such a wide variety of artistic responses to war-- artists who attempt to capture the enormity of the tragedy, and artists who know it is impossible and focus on the daily minutiae of war instead. The artists who draw huge numbers of soldiers with anonymous faces and those who focus on an individual soldier's face. The artists who focus on the glory and those who focus in the humanity. "War art" can quickly become an apples to oranges comparison. Except everyone seems to revere Brodie, and I can understand why.

Amitabh-- Thanks for the link, I read the interview with Johnson, and followed that link to several others. I found it hilarious that Johnson claims he became a war correspondent to get away from a boss he hated, and found it touching that when he returned from war he continued his "up close and personal" approach on the streets with the homeless. Johnson's work is a little tighter than I might want with a subject matter such as this; I think the enormity of war might call for drawing that is a little more open ended. Still, a good find, and one that I appreciate. Thanks and happy new year to you as well.

Robert Cook said...

I really like Juhasz's art, but years ago in an interview in the Comics Journal, Sorel named Juhasz specifically as someone he considered to be an out and out imitator.

"GROTH: You once said, 'The reason I use so many lines is because in certain drawings that are done direct, when you work in a line with pen and ink, there’s a sudden death situation on reliance there. There’s no erasing it, no fudging it, so there are a lot of finding lines.’ Can you explain what you meant by that? You have this technique where your drawings are almost composed of a series of circular linework. Can you explain how you arrived at that? And of course you’re being imitated now. There are other illustrators who are using similar techniques, but it’s uniquely yours.

"SOREL: Well, there’s only one guy who’s attempting to work in my style. His name is Victor Juhasz. What he’s copying are the surface mannerisms, and I wish him well. What I worry about is the drawing, what he worries about is the circles."

I don't know if that's fair or not, but it was Sorel's perception.