By CHRISTIAN HOLLAND
The curators of the MFA have titled a survey show of war-themed work spanning several centuries War and Discontent. There is a relationship between those two words, but a rather slim one. In fact, the title is rather sarcastic as it's impossible to consider the tragedy of war as mere discontent.
It is in the disparity of war and discontent that we find the show’s purpose. Sarcasm is a sign of desperation: repressed citizenry, minority comics, teenagers, etcetera, all resort to sarcasm when they’ve given in to despair. It is a coping mechanism that allows people to reconcile the bitterness they feel for their realistically unchangeable situation with humor and irony. War and Discontent is mostly devoid of humor, and finding humor in most of its works would be nothing short of blasphemy, but the powerlessness the artists, curators, and - in fact - teenagers feel towards war and the current war on terror is apparent in the show.
The gross disparity between individual rights and the apparent need for war, throughout history, to sustain civilization is one of the most appalling ironies of humanity. The title of the show references Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (1930); a book in which Freud discusses the instinctual desires of individuals and the necessity for conformity for society to function. If one is also to consider the show in this sense, a projection of Freud’s book is realizable. Many of the works in the show have a human element that examines an individual catastrophe or human perspective on war. Helping this idea along and giving it a context in the real world are the responses from teenagers from MFA’s Teen Arts Council (TAC) to most of the works in the show.
The teens were given the same amount of space for wall text as the curators took, and their words range from poems and stream-of-conscious rants to articulate critiques of the United States’ current state of international affairs. Their responses were a welcome and refreshing addition to a show with many familiar works by artists ranging from Goya and Manet to Warhol and Guston. One such respondent, Thomas Williams, aired his confusion about our wars in the Middle East in his response to a Warhol piece which depicted the Statue of Liberty screen-printed on a green-camouflage background. His 'discontent' about the blood spilled for the freedom we enjoy was reflected in his heated prose, but his confusion apparently came in a vacillation between being convinced by our current administration’s war PR campaign and the dubious goals for the conflict itself.
Reading the teens' responses to the works gives insights to the shifting public opinion and our national morale. The despair was apparent in their voices and a latent cynicism crept through many of their short pieces. Cynicism is a sign of the progressed emotional state which incites sarcasm in so many of us, and though the show itself may have been somewhat bland in its intentions, the creation of a public forum can only help us cope.
"War and Discontent" is on view Apr 10, 2007 - Aug 5, 2007 at The Museum Of Fine Arts.
Goya image found online.
All other images are courtesy of the artist the MFA.