Fiona Graham-Mackay writes from London: Do I get the idea that too many people are asking me to believe too many lies about this Syria thing?
The BBC tells me there’s been a massacre. Do I believe it? I’m a traitor to democracy if I don’t. Then Damascus tells me that terrorists are to blame. Do I believe it? Pause for ten seconds, then very quietly: I’m a traitor to democracy if I don’t at least cry for help.
The world is what my old art teacher would say is a shitfest. You’re born in some place in a religious or political tradition and so the instinct is to believe everyone else is probably a liar and a creep. That of course may be very so, but it’s intellectually stubborn to continue to believe it. Over Syria I don’t know who to believe. As a painter, I know that a canvas has truth. Good artists don’t paint without truth. That’s what painting is – like dancing, music and maybe fine writing.
What am I getting at? I’m saying I need every so often to look at the inescapable truth of horror – like World War I. There’s horror enough to make what happens in Syria, Iraq, Mali, Afghanistan pretty small beer. One single painting does it.
So what did I do this week? I went to the Imperial War Museum just across the Thames from the hapless Cameronian clique and their speeches to cameras as part of their there’s shit all we can do about Syria but we pretend we are doing something. War needs an antidote.
I stood in front of the most powerful antidote from an uncompromising American, John Singer Sargent. It is called Gassed.
Two lines of blindfolded soldiers, each with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front are being led to the medical tent. This is World War I. They have been mustard gassed. They walk carefully, blinded, with dignity. Heroes.
Or was Sargent telling us something else? Something more powerful? He was asking us to wonder what society we had created. These men were told they were heroes. They did not ask to be heroes. Mostly they wanted ordinary quiet lives.
I stood there, unashamedly tear stained. I wanted to take each one of the diplomatic and political thugs who supposedly speak for us – not by the scruff of the neck, but by the hand – and show them Sargent’s powerful imagery. Maybe I could guess the indifference in their shrugs. Not bothered.
Sargent’s huge canvas — it’s seven feet by twenty feet – had in mind Bruegel’s The Parable of the Blind painted five hundred years ago. Sargent saw his parable as the blind leading the blind. That’s what happened in London, Washington, the UN and elsewhere.
But if there was hope of just a glimmer of understanding that would be enough. If one of them understood that Sargent’s message was to get us to say out loud what society we want and, more telling, what society we have now, then this blood cold canvas could offer something that Cameron and his cronies and I suppose, all of us have so far missed.
Go and look. Take someone with you. Imperial War Museum, Lambeth and look carefully at Gassed then ask yourself why it is that the greatest economies, political and military alliances in the modern world cannot fix Syria. Answer: the blind leading the blind. No one is powerful. Only the images tell the truth.