Yes, art is dangerous. Picasso
New York City. Spring. 1965. My Antioch College co-op job was running copy at Newsweek magazine. This job, long since superseded by electricity, involved transportingphysically carryingtyped pages and then galleys from writer to editor to copyeditor to typesetter to proofreader, all within the three stories of the high-rise building Newsweek occupied on Madison Avenue. I was 22 years old.
We copyboys and copygirls worked at the copy desk, a wide counter with a bank of telephones lined up along the back like squat black toads. First thing, we sorted mail and delivered it to the 50 or so Newsweek writers, each in his own office. We then read newspapers, three or more per day, front to back. We were news junkiesVietnam Warobsessed. And we were bored. Every hour or so one of the black phones would croak and we'd pick up and say copy and the command copy! would sing back through the line. After which the phone would go dead. The entertainment was to guess which writer had issued the command. We got good at this. You hurried to that writer's office, took typed sheets in hand, and ran them to the next man in line. At Newsweek the writers, editors, copyeditors, fact checkers, and proofreaders were men. Women were barred from these jobs. In 1965, sex discrimination burned me and harmed me but did notthenbum me out. It was just the way things were, I thought.
The writers ignored us. And we looked down on them. The magazine was edited to a bland sameness, with no bylines except for columnists. From cover to cover it sounded as if one personnobodyhad written it. These writers were well paid but in our low-paid opinion they had sold their souls.
Newsweek was located right next door to the Museum of Modern ArtMoMA. Where hung Picasso's masterpiece, Guernica. And MoMA, in those ancient days, was free.
I would go into MoMA on my lunch hour. I would sit in front of Guernica and gaze at it. You can watch the large painting as if it were a movie. During the spring of 1965 I watched it often. I have never seen it since.
Guernica is nearly 12 feet high, nearly 25 feet wide. It depicts the Basque town of Guernica just after the bombs hit the ground on April 26, 1937. This is what war looks like. This is what we don't want to see.
A jumble of half-dismembered, still-living figures, hands panic-splayed, eyes cockeyed, necks twisted in spasm, mouths gaping, teeth exposed, little tongues projected in a scream. A mother, her gape-mouthed mother's face registering horror, eyes nearly falling off her face, holding her child, whose calm round dead face hangs upside down, his feet sticking out of his blanket. At top left, a massive bull's head, menacing. At the center of Guernica, to me most terrifying, a dying horse, head flung askew, nostrils flared, teeth bared, tongue stuck out in a scream. A gaping wound punctures his side. Along the bottom, a warrior lies, one hand stretched to the left bottom of the painting, the other hand knuckle-gripping a sword. How quaint, you think. A sword. His mouth stretches open, his eyes fall off his face.
Guernica was a market town located in the Basque country of Spain, a town of about 7,000 people at the time. In 1937 Francisco Franco's fascist forces, seeking to overthrow the fragile Republican government of Spain, were allied with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The Basques were notoriously anti-fascist, pro-Republican. On April 26, 1937, at 4 o'clock on the afternoon of a “sleepy market day,” German and Italian bombers appeared in the sky. During the next four hours, the planes dropped some 5,000 bombs on the little town. Machine gun fire from the air strafed people running into streets and fields attempting to escape.
It is this atrocity that Picasso's Guernica remembers.
In the painting, the warrior's outstretched hand bears a stigmatum, a crucifixion wound. This I didn't notice until I heard Simon Schama point it out in his brilliant BBC film Guernica. Picasso is claiming the Christ figure, which the fascists had claimed, for the Republican side. In the upper right a square building burns. In the window a figure stands, face contorted in fright, arms thrown up, fingers splayed. This is death by fire.
This is what agony looks like. This is the moment the bombs hit. This is what the light bulb inside the sun (or eye) at the top of Guernica shows us. This is what we forget when we beat the war drum.
Back to our war, my war, the war of my youth. At Newsweek one of my duties was to take a Friday night turn to monitor the telephone in the adjoining offices of the three top editors. On Friday night, “the book had been put to bed”sent to the printer. The editors were out partying. The three floors of the magazine were largely vacant. On this duty, the telephone remained mute. You were there in case of breaking news: If news did break, Newsweek would like to break it, thank you very much. The presses would have to be stopped. Newsweek's arch-rival, Time, sent mail addressed to NewsWEAK. Time must be beaten, defeated, kept in second place. But nevermind, because the phone never did ring. You sat. You read your novel. You ordered pizza to be delivered, on the magazine. At midnight you took a taxi home, also on the magazine. A quiet, pleasant shift.
Until, one Friday night, the phone did ring. I stared at it. My hands began shaking. It rang again. I picked it up. I said “Newsweek” in what I'm sure was a weak little voice. A voice boomed back. “Tell somebody they're bombing North Vietnam with B52s.” He hung up. Holy shit. I called the number for each of the editors. None were home. I went out and began wandering among the vacant desks and shut offices of Newsweek magazine. I greeted the cleaning personnel. I could not stop shaking. I finally got up to the third floor. There, a lone sports writer was typing up the Friday night game. I said, “They're bombing North Vietnam with B52s.” The sports writer leaned back, bored and weary, as if I'd just told him that unfortunately the coffeemaker had gotten clogged. He sighed. “They'll have to stop the presses,” he said, and he reached for the telephone.
That's my memory. But memory's suspect. What did happen, according to Newsweek, was that the United States began bombing South Vietnam with B52s during the week preceding June 28, 1965: “Guided by radar to their target near the town of Ben Cat, 30 miles north of Saigon, the B52s proceeded to pound a tiny patch of dense forest with 550 pounds of high explosives. Then, while the bombs thudded below, the planes wheeled around and headed home.”
Bombing with other aircraft had been ongoing, so what was so special about B52s? B52s were very long-range bombers operated by the Strategic Air Command. They typically carried nuclear weapons (for Vietnam they were refitted with conventional bombs). The debate about their use within the Pentagon involved how much the Soviet Union would see them as a provocation and respond unkindly or in kind.
The reporting on Vietnam was distant, sanitized, summarized. A July 1965 headline reads: “US Pilots Report Killing 580 Reds in South Vietnam.” A September headline reads: “SAC B-52's Pound 2 Vietcong Bases in South Vietnam.” This New York Times article reports: “The bombers dropped scores of tons of bombs onto a suspected Vietcong troop concentration in Quangtin Province …and onto a Communist jungle stronghold in War Zone D….”
As I sat watching Guernica, scores of tons of bombs were being dropped on Vietnam. And, according to Nick Turse in his devastating 2013 book, Kill Anything That Moves, in Vietnam we inflicted massive civilian casualties. This resulted from “free-fire” zones, from pressure to escalate the reported “body count” (the measure of a bombing raid's success), from permission to see any person running away as the enemy, and from “widespread disdain” of Vietnamese civilians. Air Force Captain Brian Wilson's job was to assess bomb damage in free-fire zones in the Mekong Delta. Wilson said:
“It was the epitome of immorality....One of the times I counted bodies after an air strikewhich always ended with two napalm bombs which would just fry everything that was leftI counted sixty-two bodies. In my report I described them as so many women between fifteen and twenty-five and so many childrenusually in their mothers' arms or very close to themand so many old people.” When he later read the official tally of dead, he found that it listed them as 130 VC killed. (Turse, p. 212).
“What can art really do,” asks Simon Schama in his BBC film on Picasso's masterpiece, “in the face of atrocity? Shouldn't art just stick to what art does bestthe delivery of pleasureand forget about being a paintbrush warrior? Or is it when the bombs are dropping that we find out what art is really for?”
Guernica could stand for Vietnam. It could stand for Iraq. It could stand for Aleppo, the Syrian city bombed to rubble and bones by Russia and the Syrian government. Guernica could stand for the twentieth century. It could stand for the twenty-first century. It puts a light on the human facts of war, the actual facts on the ground, the civilian facts, the facts obscured by statistics and body counts and noble declarations and other bullshit.
In 1944 Guernica departed occupied France and arrived in New York. It had been Picasso's gift to the defeated Republican government of Spain, and the painter instructed that it not be returned to Spain until liberty was restored. For three decades it remained in exile at MoMA, where it was viewed by some 25 million people, including me. In New York City, Shama writes, “it burned with moral heat.”
What did Guernica do for me? I sat there. I connected with those who had been bombed. I saw their suffering. I felt their terror, their pain, their destroyed lives. I opposed the United States War in Vietnam. For a decade, until the war ended, I, along with thousands of others, worked against it. We marched and chanted and organized. We got arrested and we went to jail.
Guernica had something to do with that.