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Fear & Trembling

“A baby was found with its head under a rock. It’s head was lopsided and it’s eyes were masses of pus. Unfortunately, it was alive. We hoped that it would die.” (War photographer Eugene Smith. Aperture Monograph, Aperture Magazine, 1969)

War is hell. Not that I speak from firsthand experience, but from all I’ve heard, all I’ve seen, all of the things brave men refuse to talk about in their darkest hours, war is neither glamorous nor fun. It’s a failure on every level. War is hell. Who are these leaders who arbitrarily decide on sending their fellow countrymen and women to fight and die for whatever cause? Who are these fighters who fail by becoming pawns in dangerous games? We short-sighted Americans neither understand, fear, or respect war. We glorify it and prefer our heroes dead. The silent do not admonish. This leaves us free to move on to the out-of-sight out-of-mind mode. Enter those who speak for the dead. Someone has to do it. Artists Interrogate: Politics and War is at the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Koss Gallery through December 26. Curated by Sarah Kirk, assistant curator of prints, drawings and photograph, it’s worth keeping in your sights. On the surface the relationship between politics and war seems simple, i.e. war is profitable and that profit controls government officials. That link becomes sinister in a pair of prints hung in tandem: Iraq, the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, Terrorism, Evildoers The companion print points a bony finger at Worldcom, Arthur Anderson Accounting, Wrongdoers. John Kerry claims Iraq is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time. Is there a right time? The exhibit is not limited to artists working in our current culture. A suite of 17th century miniature etchings (“The Miseries of War”) by Jacques Callot, strikingly details an attack on a highway, a convent’s devastation, the pillaging and burning of a village, and the revenge of the peasants. Artist Tom Bamberger shows us that death needn’t be tiny. He uses low resolution Jpegs, enlarged to 24 x 53 1/2inches to produce a color inkjet print “Untitled (Dead Iraqui).” Up close it appears to be a lovely mosaic of squares. When viewed from a distance, the gestalt is painfully clear…a dead Iraqui face-up in a puddle of his own blood. Leon Golub’s “Combat I” (a 40 x 60 inch color screenprint) continues the assault by depicting a man kneeling on the ground, screaming, hands tied behind his back, waiting to receive the blows of another of his species whose fist is raised in midswing. Frances Myers, who lives in our state, offers “Breakfast with Iraq,” a six minute DVD. If you care to think about them (beyond shrugging your shoulders), the exhibit’s issues are life altering. Face it, the first casualty of war is “truth.” We do not need false bravery and empty nationalism. Bring on the raw, the uncomfortable, the detestable. War is not a movie where the actors wipe off the red at day’s end, shower up, and head home. There will be those cynics who will shout that this exhibit is a marketing ploy best packed in crates and forgotten. Not me. I say war is hell. There must be a better way.