Friday, January 24, 2014

The War is Over: The Separation of Art and Politics

I've been working as a professional aviation artist for about eight years now, and besides my wife, painting historical aircraft is the love of my life. I would not trade this job for anything in the world.

Many years ago I was doing something entirely different. Many years ago everything I did revolved around politics. Within that arena I was ferociously partisan, idealistic, and uncompromising. My beliefs were forged of steel in those days, and I brought those weapons into everything I ever did; everywhere I ever went. It was a somewhat dark time of right versus wrong, and do or die trying; the slightly vainglorious struggle of a patriot fighting for what he believed in.

I cannot live like that anymore. I was miserable, and the cost of passion was too great. Politically, I've become a bit jaded out of necessity. I know how emotional I'd get if I dwelt upon such things too much. I have a family now who depends upon me. I live a peaceful life with my loving wife and our son. I stood up for things worth fighting for in the past, but I don't feel that I need to wear that identity upon my sleeve anymore.

When it comes to something as personal to me as my artwork, it reflects who I am today. My work is deliberately apolitical. Whereas some aviation artists focus their compositions upon the dramatic - guns blazing, men and machines burning, enemies falling to earth - I prefer to focus upon the sentimental. I emphasize other things: grace, a certain mood, and courage in a more subtle way. I don't mean to suggest that my work is highbrow over brutal; it's just a matter of my personal will to celebrate something differently. In short: I do not ever want my work to overly-glorify the wrong images of war, and more importantly I do not want my work to ever take sides. The wars I portray in my work are long over now. Thank God.

I'm frankly stunned and humbled by the near-universal support and acclaim I've received for my artwork among people from many different countries - many of whom were once at war with each other. It's personally uplifting to me that I manage to create a composition that can strike a positive chord with an American, a Japanese, and a German, or anyone else, all at the same time. While I don't think that I ever specifically designed a style with that goal in mind, I can see how my refusal to be partisan in my work certainly facilitates it. One way or another it's one of the things that I'm most proud of.

But there are a few people who take issue with this. Sometimes they do make a sincere effort to be polite about it, and other times they are openly hostile. Between the lines of both forms of complaint the core message is the same: 'I am an American. The Japanese and Germans killed Americans. Anything that stops short of portraying the Japanese as violent beasts or Germans as sadistic Nazis is an affront to the Americans who fought in WWII.' I can only assume that these folks were reacting to a particular painting of a Japanese or German airplane, and not any of the innumerable American airplanes I've painted over the years. My reactions to these criticisms have ranged from being genuinely puzzled - such as when my detractors seem driven by a genuine patriotism - to outrage in the face of blatant and hateful racism coming from a few of my fellow Americans.

In keeping with my professed attitude of tolerance I would normally never take to the Internet about any of this. I would politely respond to each individual person and move on. But I suspect that for every person who complains to me, while they are but a tiny minority overall, there are probably others who simply get offended and write me off as un-American. As a guy who still possesses a great deal of pride in the patriotic values I've stood up for in the past, I have to respond to these unfair characterizations by pointing out - reverting to my once steely and uncompromising sense of justice - that what I do with my art is my attempt to follow a noble example.

As a kid I happened to have a father of like mind who not only obliged my then-unusual desire to meet every veteran of WWII that I could, but actually encouraged it. When kids my age were focused on playing Little League, I was at conventions in far away cities meeting Major Greg 'Pappy' Boyington, the US Marine Corp fighter 'Ace', or Generalleutant Adolf Galland, Hitler's general of the Luftwaffe, and I wasn't much older when I shook the hand of Saburo Sakai, the then-highest scoring Japanese WWII fighter 'Ace' still alive. While those childhood experiences are not responsible for my determination to keep politics out of my work, getting to know those men from all sides has made that a lot easier. They were all gentleman. They each fought for a cause that they believed in, and anyone with any real familiarity with why soldiers fight knows: those causes have everything to do with fighting for the guy in your foxhole - and typically have nothing to do with politics, or even patriotism. They displayed no anger, nor racism, nor any bitterness in the wake of their war experiences. They had each been to innumerable veteran's reunions all over the world and had met their former enemies with smiles, firm handshakes, and even tearful hugs of joy. When American and Japanese veterans of Pearl Harbor have gotten together (see photo above), they have done so as friends; as former soldiers who are not only capable of seeing beyond the politics and racism among governments of 70 years ago, but as men who expect it of each other in the name of honor.

I confess that I do not quite understand how a few people, none of whom experienced the war for themselves, succumb to self-righteous or racist anger, while the men they claim to admire typically have not. Sometimes it's the amateur historian who has taken the wrong message away from the books they've read, about the inevitable atrocities of war, who perhaps lament the fact that they were not alive to fight WWII, and perversely want to drag people like me into their own imaginary trench (Luftwaffe 'Ace' Franz Stigler once told me, "Many people come to me saying that they wish they'd lived my life, but I tell them, it was not glorious. They are lucky to have avoided it").  But when the soldiers themselves live to meet one another, it is love and tolerance and honor that rises to the surface to seemingly overwhelm any residual wartime negativity. As it should always be!

To the extent that I attempt to glorify anything or anyone in my aviation artwork - I will continue to do so without prejudice and without injecting politics into any of it. Over forty million people died during the brief few years of WWII. It's audacious of anyone to base part of their career on those terrible events, but that is essentially what I do through my artwork when I'm depicting the subject. I try to focus on the positive: on the men, the machines, and the greater good that I believe came out of that cauldron of universal human suffering. It's not easy to do and I'm not always perfect in my execution - but if anyone expects me to throw my abilities and my heart into re-fighting that war with the aim of magnifying one side at the expense of the other, be it in the interests of patriotism or racism - they'll have to commission another artist. That's me learning from my own past experiences as a patriot to some extent, but mostly it is me trying to follow the example of the Greatest Generation.      

- Ron Cole

Visit Ron Cole's aviation art web store: Cole's Aircraft



  1. Well said Ron. I remember visiting the Pearl Harbor memorial in 1989. I had just gotten off the memorial and was walking around when I noticed a old Japanese man dressed in his ww2 uniform looking towards the Arizona memorial. I noticed he was crying. I mean he was deeply emotional. He then stood there for a bit crying with tears running down his cheeks and saluted the Arizona memorial. What was so surreal is that it seemed I was the only one around that noticed him. Another Japanese gentleman must of noticed me and came over and told me that this man participated in the Pearl Harbor attack.

  2. Cont... I asked him if he would ask this Japanese pilot if I could take his picture. The pilot said yes, bowed toward me and gave me a big salute.I took his picture in his uniform saluting me. Mr Fiske from the Arizona Memorial Asssociation found out about this pilot and came over to see him. They both hugged each other and wept like two lost brothers who just found each other. And in a way they were. Two men on opposite sides of the war trying to kill each other. A Japanese pilot trying to sink ships and Mr Fisk on the USS West Virginia. But here they were hugging each other. I remember the Japanese pilot telling Mr Fiske how sorry he was in what little english he knew and Mr Fiske telling him that they both did what they were told as soldiers for their country. I was very lucky to have been apart in seeing this. Most everybody there walked passed or was oblivious to what went on, that was what was so surreal about it.
    As for your artwork glorifying a Japanese or German pilot in the way some have said I think not. When I see a picture of a German or Japanese pilot in his plane flying alone, on patrol, or in a dog fight. It represents him fighting for his family, friends, and his life and yes for his love of country. I don't put the politics behind the pilot and I don't see that in your artwork.

  3. Thank you very much for your comments and especially for describing your experience at Pearl. I really hesitated to write this editorial at all, as these days I generally keep my own strong feelings to myself - no matter what they are - but I'd much prefer to articulate those feelings in this way than to end up barking at someone in the future. Aviation art is my career but it's also my carefully constructed refuge from an earlier period of my life that was riddled with violence and the threat of violence, so it's usually my impulse to avoid conflict within a realm I enjoy immensely. But all of these men deserve to be defended. They deserve to be honored, and portrayed in my artwork with equal respect and dignity. I'm glad that you don't see favoritism in my work, and I thank you very much for sharing your moving story of two former enemies meeting as friends.

  4. Nice photo of Zenji ABE (ZEN-gee AH-bay) who led a squadron of nine Akagi D3A "VAL" dive bombers in the second wave above Pearl Harbor. I noted that one of the respondents mention Dick Fiske, USMC on USS West Virginia and later PHSA Chaplain. Prior to Dick meeting Zenji ABE in Dec 1991, two weeks before John DeVirgilio and I introduced him to a Japanese B5N "KATE" pilot, also from AKAGI, who bombed USS West Virginia. We gave the pair some time -without tourists- on the USS AZ Memorial. Tears were shed by all.