Our current regime operates by making the invisible believable, and the visible invisible. The weapons of mass destruction could be seen from satellites in the past, but not by close-ups in the present. Soldiers died in search of those made-up weapons, but their bodies cannot be shown (instead we get the former dictator in his underwear). Even the images from Abu Ghraib were not the show-stoppers they should have been, and it seemed that journalism couldn’t save us after all. Who could blame us if we turned to art?
Grad programs train artists in political response, yet few responded to our new war. This summer’s Greater New York show contained more painting about fake wood paneling than about the situation in Iraq. Ironic retrospection was the wrong strategy for the new historical situation, but most artists continued knitting and referencing video games anyway. In this context, Steve Mumford’s Iraqi watercolors stood out. The intimacy, both of the situations he painted and of his brush on the paper, gave us something we hadn’t seen from this war. As the publication of his Baghdad Journal approaches, some have begun to question the attention he’s received. Such questions would be more interesting if he had any competition. His work alone has dared to confront the war where it happens, as it happens. If he deserves anything, it is precisely our attention.
I gave him my own attention in this review of Greater New York, but I also sensed some unresolved issues in Mumford’s work: the pictures, though admirable, felt preliminary. They observed with considerable skill, but had yet to transcend a kind of visual journalism. I did not see this as any great fault, as visual journalism was his mission over there, but I was hoping for larger paintings that synthesized everything he saw into a more complete vision. As it turns out, Mumford is working on just that, so we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, his little watercolors provide a lot to think about, so we bring you a week of responses to that work.
We begin with a few of the pictures themselves, captioned this time not by Mumford, but by Andy Fitch. Tuesday, radio documentarian Gregory Warner will report on three military bloggers who, like Mumford, are reporting straight from the war. Thursday, I’ll interview Mumford, giving him a chance to respond to some of my questions about his work. We’ll finish the week with Victoria Solan, who will interrogate the kind of heroism Mumford insists on depicting, and consider the kind of experiences he repeatedly leaves out. Enjoy.