Tuesday, 10 May 2011

ARTISTS AT WAR, part 3


In September 1940 Hitler began his blitz campaign of dropping incendiary bombs on the major population centers of Britain, hoping to burn the civilians into submission. Night after night for months, London was set aflame. After a particularly vicious bombing run on December 29, Winston Churchill ruefully cabled Franklin Roosevelt, "They burned a large part of the city of London last night."        

Citizens risked their lives to form auxiliary fire brigades in an effort to douse the flames and save as many homes, factories and lives as possible.  A number of the firemen caught in the inferno felt compelled to record their trauma in art.

The painting above is by a fireman whose comrades were rushing with sand buckets to put out an incendiary. The painting below is by fireman / artist Leonard Rosoman who witnessed two firemen buried under a collapsing wall of red hot brick.  One of the two firemen had just relieved Rosoman who had been holding that hose moments before.


These painters had little equipment or resources. Firefighter W. Matvyn Wright painted the following image on the only surface available, a ping pong table top:


These artists clung to art through their desperate ordeal.  Threatened with imminent invasion by the Nazis, watching their precious national heritage turn to ash, art helped them to cope.  For them, art was no cultural luxury.  It was serious business.

Another person who is reputed to understand the seriousness of art is private equity fund manager Stephen Schwarzman, one of Wall street's 25 Most "Serious" Art Collectors.  Schwarzman, a multi-bilionaire with five mansions worth a combined $125 million,  recently spent $3 million on his own birthday party.  He had beautiful models parading around dressed as James Bond girls, and paid singer Rod Stewart to serenade him.

A substantial percentage of Schwarzman's immense wealth came from lobbying for favorable laws and special tax treatment. For example, Schwarzman fought the Sarbanes Oxley laws against corporate misconduct and backed special tax benefits for profits from private equity funds.   Recently, when President Obama questioned whether a person worth $8 billion should continue to have a lower tax rate than the chauffer who drives him around, an outraged Schwarzman complained, "It’s a war, like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.”

So both Schwarzman and the firefighters of the London blitz share a common perspective: they both know the horrors of war with Hitler, and they both seek to find solace through art.   
 
But what else do these two experiences of art have in common?  
I like the paintings by the London firefighters-- they are powerful and sincere and I think that some of them (such as that first painting) are quite good. However, it is highly likely that Schwarzman, who majored in "Intensive Culture" at Yale, has more refined taste than the humble firefighters.  I'm guessing his pictures by Rembrandt and Picasso qualify as superior to the paintings by firemen in the war. After all, a picture should not be downgraded for the loathsomeness of the creature who owns it.

If the firefighters' paintings are more meaningful and urgent and relevant to daily life than Schwarzman's prestigious collection, those qualities are worth taking into consideration. That still doesn't make the firefighters better artists but it reminds us that there is more than one yardstick for measuring art.