How appropriate that dazzle painting should be one of the motifs of the programme of publicly-funded artistic responses to the First World War announced by this week. Dazzle paint was applied to ships to confuse the observer. The idea was that it would draw attention to a ship, but, by breaking up the outlines, prevent the onlooker from seeing her real outlines. No experiments were carried out on its efficacy before it was introduced and there was no evidence that it led to a reduction in sinkings. What a good metaphor this is for the artistic programme promoted by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport: little forethought: superficially striking; more liable to confuse than enlighten; and unlikely to have any useful impact.
I’m all in favour of artists finding inspiration in the First World War and sharing their work with us, as many great artists, such as Nash, Owen and Jagger did in the past. But I’m concerned by two things.
First, that we are going to be swamped by a tsunami of clichés. The Welsh at Mametz Wood? Tick. Shot at Dawn? Tick. Setting First World War poems to music? Tick. Where is the creativity and originality we surely have a right to expect? These are lazy, lazy projects dreamt up by people who haven’t even bothered to do the research which underpins all true originality.
Secondly, that these projects will make up in schmaltz for what they lack in hard-headed engagement with the truth. Write to the Unknown Soldier? Lights out? Both these vacuous ideas tug at our hearts without ever challenging us to engage our brains. Some will see this mawkish sentimentality as disrespectful to those, members of possibly one of the most stoic generations in our history, who made sacrifices a hundred years ago. I have sympathy with this view, but I also feel that art today need not go out of its way to respect the feelings of anyone, not even the dead. If art is to be selfish, however, the quid pro quo must be that it is honest and true; and that it has a chance of enduring. The programme so far seems set to be none of those things. Another opportunity has been missed, and I for one would rather the money spent had been used instead to give away history books on the concourse at Paddington Station.