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Guer-nica and portrayals of suffering
I just saw 3 short movies, and had 3 small thoughts which seem to me could develop to nice discussion.

The first is about Picasso's Guernica.
Guernica is a basque city which was heavily bombarded from the air during the spanish civil war in 1937, the result of which was portrayed in this painting:

While looking at the Guernica I was reminded of, for example, Poussin's l'enlevement des sabines (Rape of the Sabine women):


(detail of middle left in this post )

Or, his Plague of Ashdod

My question is this: in what way are sufferings portrayed today?

If at the time of Poussin art looked backwards, towards history to portray current events, as obviously you couldn't say anything against the rulers  (Not that I'm saying this is what he did in these paintings. but hm. I wonder if this is what is meant by this post ), still during Picasso's time there was a place for a painting of the suffering. I can't see that happening at the moment in any major way, that is in any way which would take a social significance. (I'm actually thinking of a very pretty sculpture, a kind of wall of screaming bodies, which is obviously rarely seen) I guess there are the memorials, but their place is very different with regards society. They are for remembrance, not for action. (ok, this is complicated but I'll let it go). Today's way would seem to me simply the news. Or, something which will essentially be reality.
In what way then does art play a role in political action, or even in simple portrayal of suffering?

Ok, I know that there are pieces like that made today, especially in the cinema, and that art in general might have less of a social place, but I think there is a deeper reason why these have such a small political role of showing suffering - there are no victims today. If Israel is bombing Palestinians or Palestinians blowing themselves up in a crowd, if Al Qaeda sends planes into buildings, or Americans sending a missile into a building where Osama supposedly visits - who is the victim and who is the villain really depends on where you are coming from.

Anyway,  a small thought which became a bit mingled here: simply look at the Poussin and the Picasso. I guess comparing them is my real question.
I wonder if it doesn't also have to do with the fact that the urgency of the artist's place is felt now in a different way, that it has ceased to be the urgency of the witness.

To explain what I mean: there's a story the Russian poet Akhmatova tells:


Instead of a Foreward

During the terrible years of Yezhovshchina I spent seventeen
months in the prison queues in Leningrad. One day someone
recognized me. Then a woman with lips blue with cold who was
standing behind me, and of course had never heard of my name,
came out of the numbness which affected us all and whispered in my
ear - (we all spoke in whispers there):

"Can you describe this?"

I said, "I can!"

Then something resembling a smile slipped over what had once
been her face.


To me the paintings you quote above bear witness. They allow people to enter into a suffering they could not conjure up for themselves ("showing all the emotions"), and Guernica especially gives the very powerful feeling of recording horror so that it would not be ignored -- could not be forgotten.

But I agree that something has dramatically changed in art. It seems that in our time, as of very recently, the artist no longer feels addressed, called upon to bear witness. Of course, art is still about the expression of  individual consciousness, but this is importantly different. Somehow the proliferation of technology to capture images, to store them, to record, to substitute for memory has -- prematurely of course -- made art's function as a witness seem obsolete. "Can you describe this?" No one would ask this question in our time.  They would record it digitally from every possible angle.

It is not unlike what one can imagine must have happened around the time when writing was invented, and a whole culture of memory, a whole capacity to remember simply disappeared.

I wonder what we are losing.
First of all, thanks for the interesting thoughts. Mia, it's a very nice point you make.

Arthur, you say that there are no clear victims/villians anymore, I think this is both true and not. On one hand, yes, there is a kind of relativism, but at the same time nationalist feelings are at a new height in many places in the world. For instance, the feeling in British and in French society these days is quite complicated and paradoxical, including on one hand a multiculturalism which would have been difficult for the previous generation to imagine, and at the same time quite serious fights and factionalism between various groups, some nationalist, some which see themselves as preservers of culture, some who want to extend the rights of the society to all, some who are opportunistically trying to enforce a kind of free market. 

Speaking as an outsider, it seems to me that the current destruction of the French university system is an example of the kind of chaos which results when these opposing forces clash: whether or not the terms of the fight are clear, the destruction certainly is.
Quick clarification: is there a reason for the dash in the title "Guer-nica"? If so, could you let me in on the joke?
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