When we look back on history, it wasn’t necessarily the history books that gave us insight into past civilisations, it was their art. Art itself is hard to define, but throughout the ages, art has become the standard of a nation’s authentic history.
The delicate detailing of the eyes present in Pharaoh Ramesses II circa 1279 BC. portrays a man of deep introspection and sensitivity. Photo by the British Museum. From the statues of Ancient Egypt to the writings of Murasaki Shikibu, Leo Tolstoy and William Shakespeare to the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and the sculptures of Michelangelo, to the installations of Ai Weiwei, Bill Viola, the plays of Ivo van Hove and the murals of Banksy, artists reveal the hidden passages of our collective world, and often contradicts the politically edited version of events.
At its lowest form, art is merely decorative. It is akin to a screensaver or expensive wallpaper that is simply pleasant and innocuous; it is bland and easily forgotten, something that can be easily replaced with another similar version. At its most complex, art often reveals an uncomfortable truth about society, about ourselves, exposing the hypocrisy of our institutions, the paradoxical nature of the human condition, making us question our own assumptions and beliefs, fueling dialogue and discourse. Art enrages us, it makes us laugh, and it makes us cry; it brings into focus the contradictory nature of human existence. Art tells us what really is, when popular culture tells us what it isn’t.
Portrait of a Lady by Francesco Laurana depicting Beatrice of Aragon, Queen of Hungary (1478-1488). Laurana's delicate and realistic attention to facial features has been remarked upon by many scholars. Beatrice of Aragon was the great-niece of Isabella of Aragon, Queen of France, who was most likely the inspiration of "Beatrice" in Dante's Alighieri's Inferno. Dante's portrait of "Lucifer" appears to have many similarities with King Phillip III of France, whom Isabella married before she died at age 24. Dante's scathing criticism and satirical works depicting the corruption of the Royal Houses and the papal government lead him to be exiled until his death in 1321. Italy now celebrates the 700th anniversary of Dante's works.
Depiction of Murasaki Shikibu, who is considered the first novelist of the world, whose real name was unknown. Photo from Art archive. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, published in the early 11th century is considered the oldest novel in the history of the world and is not merely a tale of seduction describing the exploits of the central character, Prince Genji, but documents the political ruthlessness of the Heian period in Japanese history. During an era in which Japan adhered to the central tenets of Buddhism, of restraint and asceticism, Murasaki Shikibu’s novel describes a paradoxical, decadent society based on the opposite of what was publicly visible and does not spare any lascivious detail.
“History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors. And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, Guides us by vanities.” - T.S. Eliot, Gerontion
During the early twentieth century, it has been well documented that many artists became targets of government corruption. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his writing partner, the psychiatrist Felix Guttari’s two volume iconic work, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972, 1980) reveals that the United States, the United Kingdom and many nations in Europe actively engaged in a pattern of corruption to utilise military technology, censorship and propaganda in order to silence critics, mainly artists and writers, by locking them up in insane asylums and attaching psychological diagnoses to them in order to discredit them. Ezra Pound, Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, DH Lawrence and James Joyce were among many who had been discredited and often sent to mental institutions or sanitariums for their political beliefs and overt criticisms of their government. The dominance of psychiatry in popular culture would soon infiltrate every aspect of contemporary life.
Whereas in the 17th century, critics of the government were exiled and sentenced to death as Dante Alighieri, in contemporary culture, beginning with the the early 20th century, critics were sent to mental institutions and the profession of psychiatry became widespread arbiters of a “false truth” in order to police political thought.
The Statue of Peace, Mitte District, Berlin, 2020. Photo by Dong-A Ilbo.
In more recent times, if we examine the Statue of Peace installed in the Mitte district of Berlin in 2020, which had been commissioned to commemorate peace between Japan and South Korea, it is at first hard to discern why it would offend the Japanese government until we learn of its context. During WWII, “comfort women” or sex slaves were taken by the Japanese army from South Korean families, and despite Japanese reparations to the South Korean government, this passage in history is still a subject of quiet animosity between the two nations.
In this particular bronze sculpture, it reveals to us who these “comfort women” really were. Upon closer inspection of the seemingly innocuous statue, one soon realises that it wasn’t depicting a woman at all, but a young girl around 10 years old. This subtle commentary from the artist reveals that women were not the only victims, but that young girls had been taken from their families in order to become sex slaves for the Japanese army during WWII.
The extraordinary and exquisite detail of the bronze statue utilises rainfall from the natural environment to fall into the eyes, in what seemingly appears to be teardrops forming in the eyes of the statue. Photo by
Markus Schreiber, AP.
Japan is currently a peaceful and technologically innovative nation, filled with innovative artists, writers and philosophers and award-winning architects and scientists. However, not so long ago, when they had been developing their military industrial complex, and growing their army and military presence, Japan’s culture had been quite different. They were a nation that often murdered and assassinated human rights activists, writers, artists, and their army was responsible for much bloodshed. What Japan and other nations teach us is that when a nation is focused on their military ambitions, and the development of their military industrial complex, without a focus on cultural advancement, their leaders soon grow complacent and allow many injustices to become commonplace as the de facto rule of the land.
“Art does not reflect what is seen, but rather it makes the hidden visible.” -Paul Klee
Art may also remind us of what we attempt to hide. Art often tells us the truth of who we are and were. As civil societies, we must understand our past in order to rectify the present, in order to build a fairer, more just society in the future. We have never forgotten the Holocaust, nor the Russian gulags that had murdered hundreds of millions of its own citizens. We have never forgotten the American and Spanish Civil Wars, and the history of slavery. We shouldn’t forget the children who had suffered in past wars, the children who were taken from their homes against their will.
Angela Merkel may be one of the greatest politicians of our era who has taken a strong stance against global corruption. Both Germany and Japan have become leaders in technology and art only after dismantling their military industrial complex after WWII. The Statue of Peace in Berlin should not be subject to compromise from any political ideology. Art often reveals to us uncomfortable truths about our society, about our past, and about our collective history. Most of all, art does not apologise. Despite that the Japanese government would like to have the statue removed within a year’s time, the statue should stay.