Painful flourishing of art in the wartime
The word “war”, which may have seemed exotic, alien even, to Ukrainians as recently as 2014, is by now a common term for describing our reality and social reality. The shock of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine not only transformed our everyday lives and worldview, but also transformed traditional art forms, including painting and sculpture, into vehicles not only for reflection but also for the dissemination of ideas, the growth of knowledge, and the expression of emotions in the most vivid and furious ways. Unsurprisingly, the war has encouraged a rapid extension of the forms of our art as well as a led us to new audiences. Moreover, it has strengthened the national consciousness of Ukrainian art and artists.
View of Kyiv, Ukraine
Photo by Robert Anasch
The role of art during war is expanding. Not only is art capable of having a strong emotional impact on the audience, its visual language can also convey the same message, more effectively and more readily understood, as any number of expert journalistic texts.
It follows that war can be a fantastic source of inspiration to artists. While placing artists under constant stress and uncertainty, the war also highlights and exposes artists’ professional and mental attributes.
I have had the opportunity to interact with a large number of Ukrainian artists during the conflict. Most of these artists have felt paralysed since the war began. The inherent unpredictability, the forced emigration, their active involvement in volunteer activities, and the ongoing financial volatility of the situation, all continue to present obstacles to many people from returning to their careers. Further, faith in the power of culture, art, social support, fundamental human rights, and fundamental values like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and independence, are all being tested by the wartime experience. Despite this, Ukraine’s voice is ready and eager to be heard – including the voice of art – and so artists increasingly view the continuation of their professional careers are their life’s mission.
The illustrators who returned to work in the early days of the conflict have been the most mobile and quickest to respond to this new situation. For sculptors who depend on workshops, the availability of tools, materials, and manufacturing, the situation has proven to be more challenging. During the pandemic, virtual forms of artistic expression underwent significant development, showcasing their adaptability. Because of this, the NFT initiative Time-Lapse migration provides a vital platform for Ukrainian artists to express themselves creatively, regardless of where they are and what their preferred medium may be.
Julia Beliaeva, First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin
curated by Dr. Olena Balun
It is no secret that for many people before the 2022 escalation to full-scale invasion, Ukraine was a terra incognita, a country of the generalised post-Soviet space. However, art has assisted in quickly overcoming such conceptual limits, helping to fill the gaps in knowledge about Ukraine.
In this regard, Ukraine is perhaps to blame for having previously failed to all take full advantage of all the instruments of foreign cultural policy available to it, and for overlooking the privileges of cultural capitalism and the opportunities for systematic “spiritual export”, as Lamprecht calls it. A large, parasitic neighbour must also take some blame for this, having appropriated many of Ukraine’s cultural achievements for centuries. The long-running competition between their two rival socio-economic systems has also not helped.
Today, the artistic front has proven to be the most successful in shaping perceptions of Ukrainians as a whole and in refuting misconceptions about the character and abilities of Ukrainians. Regarding those who were forced to leave Ukraine and those who have remained, artists may consider the war’s effects on migration in every detail, but they may themselves also represent Ukraine as émigré artists through the breadth and depth of their artistic production. Crucially, a consequence of all this mayhem is that there is a renewal of interest in Ukrainian emigrant artists from the past, such as Oleksandr Arkhipenko, Kazimir Malevich, Ilya Repin, Yakiv Hnizdovsky, Sonia Delaunay, Oleksandra Ekster, and others. Perhaps a wider, non-Ukrainian audience will now learn that these artists were Ukrainians from birth and, most importantly, considered themselves as such.
Performance by Maria Kulikovska, Neue National Galerie, Berlin, May 2022
Photo by Kaspar Thalmann
During times of war, art also has the strange capacity to soften hearts and to counter the brutality and harshness of martial law by offering its audience a vehicle for exploring and enhancing their empathy and humanity.
On the other hand, in the light of recent geopolitical developments art is becoming increasingly politicised. Naturally, our experience of this depends on what we mean when we say “political”. Perhaps what is political is defined by the twin actions of “being influenced by politics” and “endorsing a political opinion”. The former is almost always engaged. Whatever the circumstances, events in the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated that there is probably no space in which art can be truly independent of politics. The First and Second World Wars, the revolutions, the many unresolved territorial disputes between nations, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and any number of other tragic events have all necessarily influenced attitudes, beliefs, interpretations and art itself. This is merely a symptom of the times, and does not indicate that the situation today is necessarily any worse than at any other time. Art during wartime may often be for or against a particular political position, and even artists who promote their work as apolitical or l’art pour l’art may nonetheless be unable to avoid the influence of war, either having lived during a period of war or between wars. War, as a social phenomenom, necessarily leaves its imprint on society and values both during and after conflict.
Ivan Pidhainyi, «Heroes’ overall» sculpture series
Made with the support of the Ukrainian Culture Foundation, 2021
As with digesting any other kind of information, the modern viewer should maintain a critical stance in consuming cultural content. There is more going on between Russia and Ukraine right now than just a battle over territory. It is a battle of word and ideas, and a war of cultures.
Dare we imagine that the events of today will ultimately result in the collapse of the global order and of the idea of the Welfare State idea? Certainly, the goals of public funding in the arts and the function of the arts are expected to undergo significant revision. The bad times must eventually come to an end, and people will begin again to seek remedies for life. Art may yet become part of the DDRRR process (demoblization, disarmament, repatriation, resettlement, reintegration)3, in other words, art will help us recover from war.
curator, cultural manager, initiator of “Artists against War”
1 Zimmer A., Toepler S., 1996. Cultural Policies and the Welfare State: The Cases of Sweden, Germany, and the United States. The Journal of Arts management.
2 Caballería Marcos Vaquer. 2020. El derecho a la cultura y el disfrute del patrimonio cultural. Madrid: Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. revista PH Instituto Andaluz del Patrimonio Histórico n.º 101 octubre 2020 p. 49.