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An Exhibition That Does Little but Salute the Flag

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page C01

The governing principle behind the exhibition "Faces of the Fallen," a homage to Americans killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan featuring more than 1,300 individual portraits, is that art adds value. Take a humble snapshot, turn it into a painting, or a sculpture, or a collage, and it is somehow more than a photograph, more serious and honorable and respectful to the subject portrayed. As the producers of the project say in a printed statement, the artists' "vision and their inspiration offer us a tangible way to join together in deepest compassion and respect."

This basic principle needs serious examination. The more than 200 artists who have produced contributions -- in a variety of styles and media, but all required to be the same size and easily mounted on a metal rod for display -- worked from photographs of the dead. Most of their contributions are not more powerful than the rows of snapshots that have appeared in newspapers (including this one) during times of war, dating back (at least) to a galvanizing 1969 issue of Life magazine devoted to photographs of Vietnam War casualties. Most of the "Faces of the Fallen" portraits fall within the range of styles that one might find at a community art showcase, more or less skillful, more or less naive, more or less distinctive.

If you leave aside all the noble intentions underlying the project, and all the explanations about what the directors of the project intend it to mean, you are left with a room full of wildly uneven small-scale portraiture. Some of the faces are rendered straightforwardly, just paint substituting for pixels. These feel respectful and dull, though they may prove the most popular with the families of the deceased. Others are more adventurous, yet feel self-indulgent: garishly colored images showing only part of the face, or white-on-black etchings that have an ominous edge, or images on mirrors that look like old daguerreotypes. It's hard to say how they will be received by the families of their subjects.

The cumulative weight of individual loss, such as is communicated by the simplicity of the names carved into Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is vitiated in this exhibition (at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery) by the diversity of styles and skills on display. If art adds value, does good art add more value? And bad art less value? And if so, what does that say about the poor soldiers honored by portraits no better than the amateurish?

Perhaps it's only the intention that matters. The intention here was to pay respect to the dead. Certainly many relatives of those who died will appreciate any effort to show gratitude for their sacrifice and to extend the memory of their loved ones. And the artists may well have found the time spent communing with the photographs, and thinking about the sacrifice of those represented, a meaningful experience.

That, at least, is the neat, closed loop of interpretation that, one expects, the organizers hope will bind artists and mourners together in common purpose. And if no one had invoked the word art, or called for the attention of the media, or placed it in a public place and invited all comers to participate as interpreters in the project, this neat, closed loop would require no comment. But by calling it art, by emphasizing that basic, and rather dubious principle -- that art adds value -- the project has become open to exactly the sort of criticism it can't sustain. It isn't, by any definition, good art.

The voice of Plato, who was never particularly warm to the idea of art, can be heard asking hard questions at every turn in this exhibition. It wasn't self-evident to him that art adds anything of value at all. Art, in his view, was a removal from reality, a thinning out of the ideal understanding of something. If God gave us the form of something, say a bed, then the man who builds a bed is making an imitation of the form, and the person who paints a picture of a bed is making an imitation of an imitation. And for this reason -- because artists are second-order imitators who lead us astray and contribute nothing real to the state -- he would banish them from his ideal Republic.

We don't really take this idea very seriously today -- artists have been successful at convincing us that they do indeed contribute something tangible and real to our world -- but this exhibition threatens to breathe new life into the grumpy philosopher's argument. Art adds value only if it is good art, or forces us to rethink and re-appreciate the world around us. But this art feels trivial, even if the artists' intentions are noble. At an opening news conference yesterday, with families of the dead present, the painted faces of the soldiers made little impression. The real faces of the parents of the dead, tired men and women, smiling awkwardly at the applause, were harrowing. Perhaps Plato was right. Back to the real.

Plato's contempt for artists was articulated within a political dialogue that celebrates an essentially authoritarian state, girded for war and perpetually vigilant against internal dissension. The disturbing thing about "Faces of the Fallen" is the degree to which you sense not so much an honoring of the dead as an attempt on the artists' part to assert their status as useful, patriotic, loyal citizens -- within a republic at war, and a republic that is increasingly vigilant to dissent about that war.

Worse, they are unwitting participants in the creation of what might be called a no-fly zone for democratic expression. The war in Iraq is controversial, even unpopular. The original justifications for it have evaporated, only to be replaced by new ones. It is draining the strength of the military and the coffers of the nation. But supporters of the war have been successful in creating a set of simple propositions to which we are all required to give assent -- I support the troops -- which all too often short-circuit real discussion of the war's purpose. Opponents of the war ask, was it worth it, in the end, if the only accomplishment was to topple Saddam Hussein? And the answer comes back to them, on the Sunday talk shows, the cable television screamfests, the op-ed pages of the daily newspapers: Are you saying our soldiers died in vain? It isn't really an answer, of course, just an accusation of sacrilege, of having trod on an area that is off-limits to query.

Any time, in a democracy, that universal assent is demanded to some proposition -- I support the troops -- the freedoms inherent in that democracy are weakened. The proposition may be perfectly reasonable, at least on the surface. But it is in the requiring of agreement that it becomes pernicious, because it is easy to take a little bit of collective feeling -- collective grief, collective gratitude -- and build upon it something else, which is not collectively shared. The lines are elided, and people find themselves accepting more than they meant to accept. When artist William Newman spoke before the opening of the exhibition, he gave a perfect example of just this kind of statement. "There was no way you could stand there and not have tears in your eyes," he said, of his first glimpse of the project as it came together.

Perhaps he's right. But some people will stand before this exhibition, staring into the imitation of the imitation of young men and women who once had their entire lives before them, and feel just anger. Anger at the same old folly of war, the same failure of imagination to prevent war, the same sanguine pragmatism of politicians too old to fight.

The artists who have contributed these portraits don't necessarily support the war. (Newman said he opposed it.) But they are trying to align themselves with something universally felt -- grief? gratitude? honor? -- in a way that is troubling. Artists do the republic little real service if they only work to underscore what is easily and commonly felt.

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