Visual ArtsEmail This Article Print This Article

A Book By Its Cover

Emma Park

danchevAlex Danchev
On Art and War and Terror
Edinburgh University Press, 2009
256 Pages
ISBN 978-0748639151

A book which costs £60 and is neither a reference work nor a textbook can hardly be intended for mass consumption. Its inside flaps, marred neither by blurb nor authorial picture, suggests a lofty disdain for self-advertisement. Rather, On Art and War and Terror belongs to that strange symbiotic economy of academics, university presses, and libraries.

As an object, Danchev’s latest exudes ivory-tower luxury. Although pleasantly slim for its kind, the book’s thick, glossy pages ensure that it will not be picked up lightly. On the front cover is a photograph of a beach in ochre and grey, where waves swirl around broken groynes: the epitome of aestheticised desolation. The title’s grandiose polysyndeton reverberates like the opening of a sermon.

The back cover presents Danchev’s equally grave “manifesto”, borrowed from a cultural authority: “the imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it.” Danchev’s book is a collection of essays which, by examining the theme of war in artworks from poetry to photography to film, aims to “piggy-back” upon their “moral benefits”. Its epigraph, taken from Montaigne, situates the author in a long tradition of great essayists and ethical thinkers.

As was admiringly observed by Professor Robert Eaglestone in his Times Higher Education review, On Art and War and Terror exemplifies the current fashion for “interdisciplinarity”, which in this case appears to mean the ceaseless search for new perspectives on much-studied material for the purpose of lengthening one’s publications list. Unsurprisingly, eight of Danchev’s ten essays derive from articles already in print. Nonetheless, his work may be a stimulating anthology of artistic treatments of war for the lay reader; and for the student, a rare exemplar of well-formed academic prose.

Whether On Art and War and Terror is anything more is another matter. It is hardly original to claim that the imaginative experience provided by art is morally valuable. More importantly, Danchev often fails to provide a theoretical foundation for his claim that where historical knowledge fails, art can explain. This is because he sees his essays not as arguments but as “demonstrations”. But the view that art increases our moral appreciation of violence is debatable; some would argue that it keeps us at a safe aesthetic distance. If Danchev intends to be a moralist and not simply a historian or critic, the reader will perhaps be on his guard. An ethical authority based on art is only as good as its last interpretation.

Emma Park is reading for a DPhil in Classics at University College, Oxford. She is an editor of ORbits.