It is regrettable that the arts have for so long now been apparently populated by devout pacifists. Not that we ought to endorse war, but to fail to recognize that, like it or not, we are in the midst of one is at best naïve and at worst reckless. Everywhere we look appearances arrange themselves around us, coordinate engagements with our eyes, require us to negotiate their terrain.
This is by no means the entirety of the battle, but a first principle of the tactician’s craft. “To command,” Napoleon Bonaparte insisted, “you must first of all speak to the eyes.” It is unfortunate that our artists have disconnected this from that other quote of the emperor’s they are so apt to unwittingly abuse—that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It seems, in fact, that those who ought inherently to be the vanguard in this combat, precisely in failing to understand the immense strategic power implied in that now cliché line, have actually been demoralized to the point of collusion with the enemy.
What is the responsibility of the artist? Let us first of all be clear that aesthetics is in general a moral conceit: beauty and ugliness are every bit as codified as all the other mores that conspire to form this thing called culture. The task of the artist is in this respect indistinct from that of the ethicist. In other words, we must scrutinize and give challenge to so-called “received wisdom,” nothing being so moral as that which our world takes for granted.
Clearly, when we speak of war, of tactics, of morality and culture, we are already caught up in the language of institutional practices. We can exempt, therefore, the example of the child-artist from this program, since the process of becoming adult is essentially the process of becoming moral. Other exemptions also exist: we ought to note them well when we discover them, for there is a great deal to benefit from a deep appreciation of such outliers. It is the nature of our culture to subsume all it can and to muzzle whatever it cannot. The artist cannot simply listen to these other voices, he must learn from them.
This is, of course, but one strategy amongst a multiplicity of strategies, the best of which can be said to carry the spirit of that famous maxim of Marcus Aurelius, “The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.” It is also, then, tactically imperative to become familiar with what is most obvious in others and in ourselves. And knowing this we are drawn onto the battlefield: the inscription of morality reads, “You are either with us or you are against us.” The responsibility of the artist is to recognize that he has already chosen his side and to take up arms accordingly.