The progress of art in the last century was punctuated by wars and armed conflicts. Not surprisingly, we can count at least two twentieth-century movements that were born from profound shock at the horrors of war. The first was Dada—the self-described “anti-art” movement that began with raunchy spirits-fueled performances at Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub set up in the back room of a Zürich pub. It was 1916, the bloodiest year of the Great War, and the Europeans were slaughtering each other in the trenches of France and Belgium. Artists who just a few years earlier were commingling in Montparnasse brasseries were now opposite each other armed with bayonets and flamethrowers. Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and Georges Braque survived the carnage, but Franz Marc, August Macke, and Umberto Boccioni were not so lucky. At the start of hostilities, several central-European artists fled to neutral Switzerland to avoid the bloodshed, unwilling to fight in what they perceived as a pointless, imperialist war. To them, the self-destruction of the civilization that had so recently enjoyed the “annus mirabilis” of 1913, dubbed thus for its blossoming of art and literature, signaled that culture was but a fragile veneer, easily peeled away to reveal the inhumanity of the purportedly civilized. Their response, as artists, was to drop the pretense of civilization and to propagate anti-art devoid of order, logic, constraints, reason, beauty, financial value, or even objects; they made art that was random and fleeting (mostly performance-based). It was protest art.
The second movement was a direct response to another brutal war, World War II, and was called Art Informel. This “formless art,” as it is translated from French, was also prompted by the shock of inhumanity, including the atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish population of Europe. This time, in addition to discontent and disgust with the behavior of others, there was guilt for the French collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. Art Informel replaced Dada’s antics with object-driven self-examination of what went wrong to cause supposedly civilized Europeans to lose their humanity once again. The movement’s best-known artist, Jean Fautrier, created haunting little paintings and sculptures depicting formless blobs that resembled human heads with bleeding wounds and cracked skulls. Following imprisonment by the Gestapo in 1943, Fautrier was confined to an insane asylum in the middle of the woods, within earshot of SS troops torturing and executing their victims. The series he created there, Hostages (1943–45), is among the most horrifying representations of cruelty, comparable to Goya’s canonical series The Disasters of War. A few years later, Art Informel was subsumed into a broader movement, Un Art Autre (Art of another kind), by the French critic Michel Tapié in his 1952 book of the same name. Un Art Autre was gestural, at odds with pre-war geometric abstraction, and based on highly informal procedures. It aimed to shed what Tapié deemed the dead baggage of European painting.
In these movements we find defiant artists who, disgusted with the pretense of a corrupt civilization, went on to disassociate from the art that represented this civilization. For moral and not formal reasons, they sought to turn the page on the art that had come before—in Dada’s case, traditional and even modernist painting; in the case of Art Informel, on geometric abstraction á la Piet Mondrian. These artists voted with their brushes. Regardless of whether we like its results, this response of withdrawal and rejection is perfectly understandable.
In contrast, today’s artists opt for the activist mode to show their disillusionment with humanity. They vote with their keyboards, venting by e-signing, and then, e-withdrawing their signatures, before e-apologizing. On October 19, Artforum published “An open letter from the art community to cultural organizations” in support of “Palestinian liberation.” The letter accused Israel of genocide—“Silence at this urgent time of crisis and escalating genocide is not a politically neutral position”—but it failed to mention the massacre of more than 1,400 Israelis carried out by Hamas on October 7, or the kidnapping of more than 200 hostages taken back to Gaza. Instead, it called for “an end to the killing and harming of all civilians, an immediate ceasefire, the passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and the end of the complicity of our governing bodies in grave human rights violations and war crimes.” The e-letter was e-signed by some 8,000 artists, curators, and academics including Peter Doig, Nan Goldin, Barbara Kruger, and Kara Walker.
Within a week, over half of the signatures were retracted following the pushback that started with another letter published in Artforum on October 20 penned by three prominent art dealers. The authors of the initial letter responded with an update, in which they claimed to have been misunderstood, because their statement about “all civilians” was shorthand intended to reference their shared “revulsion at the horrific massacres of 1,400 people in Israel conducted by Hamas on October 7.” (Note the use of the anodyne “conducted.”) But this was too little too late. Several prominent signatories, among them Doig, Joan Jonas, and Katharina Grosse, had already withdrawn their signatures from the first letter; Grosse issued a self-absolving apology in a statement to Artnet: “I made a terrible mistake. I signed the open letter in the midst of a state of emotional shock caused by the horrific violence against civilian lives on all sides. . . . I apologize for my ignorance.” The fallout continued, and a few days later Artforum’s editor-in-chief David Velasco, who was one of the signatories, was personally fired by Jay Penske, the CEO of Penske Media Corporation, which acquired the magazine less than a year ago. At present, Artforum appears to be in a freefall, with editors resigning and readers threatening a boycott to protest Velasco’s firing.
As I read about the signatories of the “Open letter,” withdrawing their signatures for lack of unanimous praise of their virtuous stance, I recalled the poignant example of one late-twentieth-century artist’s resistance to the horrors of war. This example, not a textbook case like the Zürich Dadas or the Art Informel painters, is nevertheless an excellent foil to the e-activists of today. Wally Hedrick (1928–2003) was a northern California artist who was included in MOMA’s 1959 “Sixteen Americans” exhibition alongside Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Rauschenberg. Hedrick and his wife at the time, Jay DeFeo, ignored the invitation to the show’s opening, uninterested in taking part in art-world niceties. When, in 1963, Artforum’s then-editor John Coplans wrote about Hedrick’s work, he titled the article “Offense Intended,” aptly noting his subject’s dissenting attitude. Hedrick, who had served in the Korean War, became an uncompromising pacifist, making countless anti-war paintings throughout his decades-long career. In 1967, to protest the Vietnam War, Hedrick began painting over his existing works (and at least one canvas by Clyfford Still, allegedly) in monochrome black “to deny western culture my contributions,” as he put it. He soon lost his teaching job at the SFAI for instructing his students, among them the artist Paul McCarthy, to leave their classrooms and participate in anti-war demonstrations. McCarthy later collected Hedrick’s War Room (1967/68–2002)—an installation of eight five-by-eleven-foot black paintings bolted together to create a structure viewers can enter via a door in one of the canvases. Hedrick’s method of resistance was withdrawal, a classic Dada gesture of disgust. Combined with his reluctance to participate in the rituals of the art world, this repeated denial of service cost the outspoken artist a career. Unlike the e-warriors of the Artforum letter, Wally Hedrick had the integrity to accept real-life consequences of his real-life protest.