Where to Draw the Line
My good friend Rob Shetterly and I had a major difference of opinion recently over the ethical if not the aesthetic merits of drawings by Steve Mumford.
Rob, president of the Union of Maine Visual Artists, an art activist, creator of the American Who Tell the Truth portrait series, and a plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking the restoration of the Maine labor history mural that Gov. LePage ordered taken down, has been a friend since we both works for Maine Times in the 1980s. I generally share his progressive political views and I admire him enormously as a man and as an artist. That’s why his condemnation of Steve Mumford upset me so.
Steve Mumford, an artist who splits his time between New York and Maine, has been embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan several times times since 2003, determined to see America’s wars on terror for himself. Like Winslow Homer during the Civil War, Mumford draws and paints military life behind the front lines in wars that have no front lines.
What set Rob off was an exhibition entitled Steve Mumford: Embedded at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport (May 28 to July 10).
“Through his work, Mumford revives the great tradition of combat art characterized by Winslow Homer’s Civil War paintings,” stated the CMCA. “The instantaneous and documentary nature of photojournalism that defines most of our visuals of Iraq and Afghanistan is replaced by lingering lapses of time that expressively capture mood and atmosphere more than precise events. In his art, Mumford strives to maintain objectivity about the politics of the war, while providing an artist’s humanistic view of the individuals involved.”
Though we could agree that Mumford’s drawings were deft and skillful and that he possessed courage to place himself in harm’s way for the sake of his art, Ron and I saw them entirely differently. I believe I saw what was there. Rob saw what wasn’t there, what was, in his words, “left out.”
“I left this exhibit angry and feeling suffocated, like I’ve barely survived an attempt to drown me,” Rob wrote in a review of the Mumford show posed on the progressive Common Dreams website. “That’s what propaganda does. One leaves such a show morally and spiritually diminished.”
The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for Rob was CMCA’s claim of “objectivity” for Mumford’s war art. Because Mumford’s drawings do not show American drones dropping bombs on civilians or American troops shooting innocent people at checkpoint, Rob felt Mumford was complicit in covering up these atrocities.
In an interview a few years ago, Steve Mumford addressed this criticism by saying, “I often get the sense from talking to people who are strongly against the war that they think the abuses of Abu Ghraib are typical, that perhaps many soldiers are operating in a kind of chaos or free-for-all. I think the reason for this is that so few family members of America’s intelligentsia are in the military, so they simply have no idea what it’s like and quickly fall back on the old Vietnam clichés.”
I came away from our vigorous online discussion feeling that Rob wanted to tell Mumford what to draw, CMCA what to show, and viewers what to think. I have never been a big believer in the power of art to effect political and social change, primarily because it is such an intellectualized activity, often quite divorced from everyday experience.
Coincidently, the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art in Portland currently (through August 7) is featuring a drawing show entitled Drawn to Disaster that Rob might find more compelling. Drawn to Disaster is an exhibition by about a dozen contemporary artists who “examine the ephemerality of news reports and conjure the complexities of disorder, anger, and optimism that can follow disaster.”
The ICA exhibition includes works by many artists who express moral outrage at and condemnation of what we used to call “the military-industrial complex,” the American war machine. While I share their antipathy to human folly of violence and war, I can’t help thinking that Steve Mumford’s rather conventional little drawings will ultimately have more influence on people’s perception of America’s military adventurism than anything imagined by artists who have never actually seen war.
Both Steve Mumford: Embedded and Drawn to Disaster are projects of the Where to Draw the Line: The Maine Drawing Project, a statewide series of drawing exhibition organized for 2011 by the Maine Curators Group.
[Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 162 Russell Avenue, Rockport, ME, 207-236-2875. Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, 522 Congress St., Portland ME. 207- 879-5742.]