For most of us in the prosperous nations of the developed world, the reality of war has become somewhat remote. The last couple of generations have been immensely fortunate in being spared the blight of the global conflagrations that decimated our forebears in the 20th century. When we encounter warfare, it is usually on television news, and even if when it involves our own troops, the numbers are small and the theatre of action is somewhere far from home.
We have not ceased to be fascinated by war, however: it continues to be the subject of countless films, and most recent mass-market productions have pursued ever more violent and extreme special effects in order to appeal to an audience desensitised by excessive stimulation. Even more potentially worrying is the effect of extreme video gaming: brutal violence is standard and there is one popular game that promises its players “infinite warfare”.
Quite apart from the obscenity, even the insanity, of suggesting that “infinite warfare” could be an attractive proposition, there is something inherently worrying about the derealisation of extreme violence and its imagery in a virtual world without consequences or responsibility. If we allow minds to be trained through countless hours of rehearsing virtual savagery and brutality in a state of solipsistic introversion, we cannot be surprised if those minds are damaged in various ways.
If we can develop a familiarity with the thought patterns of foreign languages through repeated exposure to reading and conversations, if we gain mastery of a musical instrument or a craft with hundreds of hours of repetition, and if pilots practise the skills and reflexes of flying planes on flight simulators, can we really believe that what are effectively war simulators, training players to kill and maim without compunction and without reflection, have no effect on our instincts and feelings? The suggestion is even more implausible when we consider the potential effect on young and unformed minds.
Those with a commercial interest in the gaming business argue that there is no positive proof of an association between violent games and the actions of thugs, mass murderers, terrorists and others who display psychopathic behaviour. But the onus of proof is not in this case on those who suspect a link: it is on those who would counter-intuitively claim that in this one case, unlike every other we know of, repeated exposure to stimulus and response patterns and systematic habit-building have no effect on actual behaviour.
War and warlike behaviour are not things to be trifled with. War is one of the most extreme human experiences, in which people are faced with terrible choices, ultimate responsibility for themselves and others, and irremediable consequences. There is nothing more appallingly serious than exposing oneself or those under one’s command to the possibility of death, as all soldiers and officers know or soon learn.
The National Gallery’s exhibition, one of several that different museums across the country have been holding to commemorate the rolling centenary of World War I, has been put together under the direction of David Hansen, a professor in the Australian National University’s department of art history, who has been assisted by a number of his research students. Artists of the Great War National Gallery of Australia, until June.
The resulting collection of work, although compact and fitting in one large room, includes many unfamiliar images and illustrates the full range of the involvement of artists in the process of war, from encouraging participation to documenting life at the front, evoking mourning and commemoration, and even providing the precise anatomical imagery required for reconstructive surgery.
In every case it is striking that drawing and painting remain capable of achieving much more than the camera. In some cases — the anatomical illustrations, for example — we can see that drawing and watercolour can make much clearer discriminations than photography. In others it is because of the artist’s ability to capture, recall and synthesise human actions, attitudes and gestures. These gave the world away Eternal waiting Lewis gunner Australian official war artists 1916-1918 Today the German Monster threatens the world with bloodshed, slavery and death Gallipoli
Dyson; George Benson; George Coates; by Norman Lindsay; by David Barker, below right (1917) 1915
From left, (1917) by Hilda Rix Nicholas; (1917) by Will (1919-20) by (1920) by