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The Effect of WWII on the Visual Arts Essay

The global trauma of World War II, particularly the events that took place at Auschwitz and Hiroshima, caused dramatic changes in the visual arts. New ideas and criticisms of culture and society had come about, and artists were responding–consciously and unconsciously–to the war.

New ideas about the arts had emerged shortly after the war. The long-standing notion that the arts make society more civilized and raise people above their instincts of fear and violence was proven untrue. Consequently, art’s very right to exist came into question. In 1949, Theodor Adorno stated in his essay, “Cultural Criticism and Society”, that “to go on writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”. He argued that new rules and conventions for art must be found and the old ones must be abandoned.

One major attempt in creating these new rules and conventions is when art’s main concern shifted from object-making to performativity. Jackson Pollock was among the first to make this transition. With his all-over drip paintings of the late 1940’s, he had successfully liberated painting into becoming a kind of performance. His process has been described as a kind of dance with the canvas and paint. When examined closely, the viewer can trace the first marks made to the very last ones. In response to the controversy surrounding his method of painting, Pollock stated that “New needs need new techniques…the modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture.” His mention of the atom bomb proves that Pollock’s method was a kind of response to the trauma of WWII.

An artist as equally performative as Pollock was Lucio Fontana. In works such as Concetto Spaziale, Fontana attacks the surface of the canvas, thereby focusing the viewer’s attention on art-making as an action. This could also be seen as a literal attack on the medium of painting. In the Manifesto Blanco, Fontana stated that “We live in the mechanical age. Painted canvas and upright plaster no longer have a reason to exist.” This was a proclamation of his goal to create “spatial art”, art that is more engaged with technology.

Similar to Fontana’s attacks on the canvas, Shozo Shimamoto would repeatedly puncture the painting surfaces of his works. He also experimented with smashing bottles filled with paint onto the canvas. Shimamoto was a member of the Gutai Art Association, a group founded in Osaka, Japan which explored new areas of perfomativity and innovated the proto-happening.

These early performative artists were not consciously addressing the trauma of the war in their art, but this shift to performativity suggests an unconscious response to it.

In contrast, other artists were responding very consciously to what had happened during the war. The Nouveaux RĂ©alistes in France were the first to do this. Artists that belonged to this group included Arman,Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Joseph Beuys, and Jean Tinguely. These artists stayed within the Bourgeois paradigm of art, but their art was clearly a conscious response to Auschwitz and Hiroshima, since many of the titles of their artwork make direct references to these events.

Yves Klein, for example, named one of his monochrome IKBs Hiroshima, a negative anthropometric painting showing dead bodies after the nuclear attack. Arman did many pieces that dealt with Auschwitz by showing negative presentations of Nazi victims through accumulations of their belongings. In the early sixties, Arman became more performative with his combustion pieces, probably an influence from the Happening which started taking place in New York around 1959.

The happening brought about one of the most important changes when the audience was made to play a major role in the outcome of the piece. A much more significant movement than the Happening, however, was Fluxus, an international movement consisting of many different kinds of artists from many different ethnicities. It is practically impossible to combine all Fluxus artists into a single group, since their art ranges from anti-expressionist to hyper-expressionist, political to not political at all. Whereas Happenings were unconscious of their politics, some Fluxus artist created highly political art. Those in favor of anti-expressionism were following the example of John Cage, while another tendency, inspired by the Living Theater, created highly expressive art. The struggle with World War II was fully conscious with the Living Theater, which, like the Happening, would involve audience participation.

Fluxus was the alternative to Pop art, which was taking place at the same time. Though both consciously addressed the war, Pop art sometimes seemed to glorify–or bring attention to–the American way of life after the war, as in James Rosenquist’s F-111. His most famous antiwar painting, F-111 combines images of a fighter plane, a nuclear bomb, and a little girl sitting under a hair dryer. Such art can be seen as a reflection of the West’s collective response to Auschwitz and Hiroshima; they denied that it had to do with capitalism, did not agree with the idea of Instrumental Reason, and were, on the whole, optimistic, still enjoying life after the war.

In conclusion, following the tragedy of World War II, art has never been the same. Artists realized that they could no longer continue making art in the same way that they did before the war, acting as if nothing had happened. Performativity and politicized art were perhaps the most significant of these changes. Whether unconscious or conscious, performative or not, responses to the horrific events of Auschwitz and Hiroshima can be seen in many postwar art, and the trauma of these two events can be seen even in the art of today.


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