What should art be like during a war? And should it exist at all, if it does not fulfill propagandistic purposes, or is not a priceless classic hidden in the museum slums? Do the artists have the right to be creative during the war because it appears to be 'out of time'?
When contemplating these questions, almost everyone recalls the most well-known works associated with the impression of war. The first thing that probably comes to mind is Pablo Picasso's Guernica, a work destined to become an artistic symbol of the idea of preventing another World War. It is also difficult not to recall Francisco Goya's The Disasters of War, partly realistic, partly metaphorical images of the chimeric combination born of war: excessive violence and everyday life. Goya added a philosophical commentary to each scene, adding a dimension to the artist's personal involvement in the terrible events. Goya witnessed the war, and this personal experience is immortalized in his etchings.
Today, scenes from The Disasters of War inevitably rhyme with photographs of the consequences of Russia's terrible invading actions on the Ukrainian territory: the bodies of the tortured and killed, hastily dug out graves, raping, looting – war's horrors are consistent. Susan Sontag in the work Regarding the Pain of Others, writes about the photographs of war reporters as "…a means of making "real" (or "more real") matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore." – Sontag, S. (2003). When discussing the ability to feel compassion as a result of photographs of the war horrors, she emphasizes the blurring of "we": it is impossible to truly feel empathy if you are not a living witness, a victim, or a war refugee.
And now the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian artists, in particular, are going through this experience. Whether they are on the territory of Ukraine or beyond its borders, they experience fear and struggle for their own and that of the Ukrainian people. And now, we, Ukrainians, have become the subjects or witnesses of that anguish, the images of which the rest of the world is observing. We are now suffering, not co-suffering.
Today, Ukrainian artists are gathering strength and doing their work, transforming and sublimating trauma into creativity, or seeking salvation, medicine, a reason, and a goal to move forward in their creative endeavors. Some of them now believe that their art is helpless next to shelling and explosions. But it cannot be otherwise, because now it is more important than ever to do what you can, to do it sincerely and openly. They experience war, become its victims, escape from it, work as volunteers or witness traumatic events. And, unlike the photographs of reporters, their work is not frightening, on the contrary.
Dmytro Yevsieiev in the series Palimpsests declares that the image is stronger than any text. An image that reflects lived experience, the experience of life-threatening fear, anxiety, flight, pain, hatred, hostility, pride, solidarity, care, and hope in the face of adversity. Tereza Barabash, Olena Naumenko, Maryna Taliutto, and Maria Proshkovska fled Ukraine with their children immediately after the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. While in shelters, separated from their husbands, loved ones, and homes, each of them eventually created artworks that were infused with the pain of the trauma they had endured. Zoia Laktionova's video "Remember the Smell of Mariupol" reflects the merging of two realities: the terrible events in her native Mariupol and the way the artist experiences them while living in a residence abroad. Photographer Zhenia Laptii has created a series in which she sees anti-tank hedgehogs as a revival of the embroidered ornament – the Ukrainian national symbol that has the power of a protective amulet. In 2022, Maria Kulikovska was forced to leave her home for the second time (in 2014 from her home city of Kerch, now from Kyiv), but this time with a baby in her arms. Roman Khimei and Yarema Malashchuk created a work in which they try on the bodily roles of the Russian occupiers killed on Ukrainian lands, testing their identity, which continues to be formed in self-determination alongside the enemy that was too close. The Thank You series by Stanislav Turina are peculiar vouchers that "return to the action, to the meeting, to two pairs of different hands, which transfer to each other something most sacral, which from time to time has a different, diverse form".
For the second time, Shcherbenko Art Centre is creating an exhibition called Give Me Tomorrow featuring the works of Ukrainian artists who react to Russia's crimes in Ukraine. The first occurred in 2014, following Russia's invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Back then, the curator of the project, Maryna Shcherbenko, wrote: "Young artists subtly feel the pulsation of social life because they are aware of their purpose to change, awaken, and create. And today we present their works, which depict our emotions, thoughts, and impulses that we sometimes have difficulties facing".
Today, this project has been revived, as Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine is being unfolded, because modern Ukrainian art is timely, and it plays an important role in these dark times. What exactly is its role? Perhaps the cathartic formula of tragedy from Aristotle becomes relevant: tragedy should lead to the purification of the audience's feelings of compassion and fear. Catharsis allowed the citizens of Athens to return to real life at the end of the action and live it stronger and firmer.
No great art, after all, has ever stopped or prevented another war. Even the most powerful pacifist works did not force humanity to abandon mass atrocities and genocides. Neither Goya's The Disasters of War nor Picasso's Guernica prevented either new wars of aggression or new bombings of civilians. Nonetheless, these works are significant and valuable – first of all, because of the great idea that they illustrate incredibly accurately. These works remain the pillars on which the common understanding of what is and should be unacceptable and intolerable is held. What is, and will always be an absolute evil. Seeing this, we purge ourselves of compassion and fear in order to remain part of civilization, civil society, and people with the dignity and value of our own lives in our minds and hearts. We obtain the right for tomorrow.