How is it that we're nearly five years into a bloody and unpopular war, but still nobody has come up with a protest song that nails George W. so well as Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1969 hit “Fortunate Son”? With its scorching lyrics about being shipped off to war and a senator's son born with a silver spoon in hand, you almost wonder if John Fogerty actually wrote the song two weeks ago, and then employed some sort of Star Trek-y, temporal wormhole to send it back to the '60s as a grim warning of things to come.
Historically speaking, nations produce their greatest art during times of war. To paraphrase Harry Lime in The Third Man: Under the Borgias, Italy endured 30 years of terror, and it produced the Renaissance, while Switzerland enjoyed centuries of brotherly love and produced the cuckoo clock. But here we are in 21st-century America, with rulers every bit as frightening as the Borgias, yet we're still churning out cuckoo clocks. Green Day's “American Idiot” is about as close as the radio has come to a “Fortunate Son” for the new millennium. At the movies, we're being subjected to well-meaning but tedious fare such as Lions for Lambs. On TV, we've seen horrific torture scenes on 24 and Battlestar Galactica, but these shows carefully place such scenes within a ticking-clock, fantasy scenario, without ever mentioning Lynndie England or getting too bogged down in debates about the efficacy of torture itself.
Some fine artists have tackled the war more directly, usually to no great effect. Decades from now, all those hysterical silkscreens of Bush with blood trickling down his chin will be gathering dust in the same museum backroom where they're now storing hysterical silkscreens of Nixon with blood trickling down his chin.
Fine artists have always walked a very fine line when addressing the horrors of war. If they're too specific about the players in an ongoing conflict, their art will be a historical curio two weeks after the exhibit closes. But if artists try to step back and say something grander and more philosophical about war, they often end up making the not-exactly revolutionary point that, uh, war is bad, mm-kay?
“Sandow Birk: The Depravities of War,” the new exhibit at Cal State Long Beach, is a stark departure from Birk's previous work. Birk is best-known for his waggish series depicting a fictitious war between Northern and Southern California, as well as his modern multimedia re-imagining of Dante's Inferno. In his new show, Birk chronicles the Gulf War in the style of past masters such as Goya and the French printmaker Jacques Callot. (Some of Callot's prints are also on display.) In a series of very deft prints and monumental paintings, Birk depicts former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld presenting his plan for the invasion of Iraq, the notorious abuses of Abu Ghraib, and many more of the current horror show's greatest hits. With The Liberation of Baghdad, Birk's brush drips with sarcasm as he paints an epic scene straight out of one of W's wet dreams: American GIs rolling a tank through a crowded street of rejoicing Iraqis. Still, one doubts that W's vision would have included the two rabid dogs, seen here furiously tearing chunks out of each other in a corner of the canvas.
The exhibit doesn't say anything new about the war, but that doesn't seem to be what Birk was really going for. By depicting 21st-century atrocities in the manner of war artists from centuries past, Birk forces us to confront just how little humanity has actually evolved since Callot's day. We're still the same bloodthirsty apes, only now we use cooler technology to murder one another. The point that Birk seems to be making about the Iraq War is that everything that needs to be said about it was already said, many years before this particular war began, many years before Birk himself was even born.
Even if Birk could borrow Fogerty's time machine and send this exhibit back decades or centuries ago, it probably wouldn't do any good. For a species that has spent much of its history furiously tearing chunks out of one another, Birk's exhibit, like just about all anti-war art, is a sadly pointless endeavor. Still, give him this: It's no damn cuckoo clock.
“Sandow Birk: The Depravities of War” at the University Art Museum, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5761. Open Tues.-Wed. N Fri.-Sun., noon-5 p.m.; Thurs., noon-8 p.m. Through Dec. 16.