Friday, January 24, 2014
The War is Over: The Separation of Art and Politics
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