Thursday, June 08, 2006

George Gittoes’ painting Super-power Oil - Oil on Canvas


Inhabitants of wealthy Western nations, like Australia, that are members of the USA’s ‘coalition of the willing’, are accustomed to sanitised images of the War in Iraq. The war is depicted as the conflict that happens, by coincidence, to occur in Iraq, rather than a war that was meticulously planned and relentlessly pursued in spite of massive evidence that it was unnecessary, fraught with great risk to non-combatant civilians and illegal in international law. The public in Australia are not allowed to see images of just how grotesque this war of aggression actually is; nor are we meant to regard Iraqis as fellow human beings capable of feeling grief, whose country, culture and rich history are being ground into dust.

For this reason the quotation from Hermann Goering (above) is particularly apt. What we are exposed to is a propaganda model of media practice. Our media is compliant in a propaganda exercise in which our government and others like it are engaged. The images we see are powerful adjuncts to the highly polished public relations messages. “Perception is everything”, as Terry Allen explains in New Scientist. (Allen: 2003) This argument is supported by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber in their book, Weapons of Mass Deception the uses of propaganda in Bush’s war on Iraq (Rampton & Stauber: 2003) Having made a polemic and partisan statement in a political science essay my task will be to demonstrate that these statements do describe a viable version of factuality.

I argue that the images the public actually see through the media’s ‘agenda-setting process’ are designed to persuade and manipulate public opinion. (Ward: 1995) So, art does add to our understanding of politics, but it is actually used by holders of political power to disinform us of political realities. For those in power it is the visual world’s ‘escapees’ that present the greatest danger to their carefully contrived message, as I will explain. I have chosen images of the war against Iraq that commenced officially in 2003, because these are prime examples of potent images that could have the potential to destabilise ‘disengagement’ and persuade public opinion to withdraw the tenuous support for this war that exists in some areas of the Australian community.

The images that most strongly demonstrate the extent of the grotesqueness of modern warfare are actually imprinted on the brains of both the suffering civilians and the participants in the combat. The psychiatric damage to combat troops is explained by Retired Lt Colonel David Grossman, US Army, who trained men to kill and later reflected on what this meant (Grossman: 1995) Only the political decision-makers and their constituents are ‘spared’ this traumatic experience and the responsibilities, possibly culpability that it infers. There is a dichotomy, therefore, between those who did the fighting and those at home that lent their support, which invisibly divides and undermines grieving societies for many years following wars as Russell Crowe explains. (Crowe: 1999) Modern photography, especially high definition digital images could change this divergence of experience in ways about which it is only possible to speculate.

Filmmaker, George Gittoes’ found the war against Iraq so grotesque that he focused his film making on the lives of the soldiers and the music they used to enable them to carry out their ‘jobs’. This study led to his film Soundtrack to War. The lyrics of the song Full Nelson by US rap band, Limp Bizkit, favoured by American soldiers going into combat engagements in Iraq. Gittoes met an African American rap group and followed them home, only to find that the disadvantaged neighbourhood in America, in which they lived, was as dangerous as the streets of Baghdad. Gittoes made the film Rampage in response to this discovery and leaves his audience with a question about how recruitment is carried out; selecting those that society regarded as most ‘expendable’. Both of these films focus public attention on the psychological damage that modern combat inflicts on combatants.

Gittoes chose to express his feelings of revulsion regarding the grotesque aspects of the war in his oil painting Super-power Oil (above), which demonstrates that the grotesque can be mediated and re-interpreted in art in symbolic ways, whilst photography gives us an image qualified by the frame, the light conditions, depth of field, focus and technology that is applied. Photographs, though a form of artistic mediation, are generally ‘believed’ as a ‘true record’. The photo image is therefore a powerful persuader, notwithstanding the possibilities of framing and computer manipulation.
The US military and the Bush administration decided before the war against Iraq that they would tightly control media access, giving birth to the fully “embedded” journalist who wore a uniform and rode in the same armoured vehicle, sharing the same jokes, chewing gum and scary experiences as the fighting troops. Very few journalists managed to go ‘independent’ in Iraq, and both the US military and Iraqi resistance forces have lethally targeted many journalists. Skilful and manipulative public relations communicators have kept the American public and the Australian public “on message”.


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