Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ongoing Discussion About Civil War Combat Art

I really enjoy writing these posts and leaving comments on the writing of others, and the discourse about Civil War art on a few different blogs has certainly fed it. While it would be a blast to have these conversations in person over a cup of coffee or a cocktail, given that those two subjects are also a large part of what I write about, we will make do.
The range of opinions is clearly quite broad, but there is certainly no shortage of sentiment about the lack of violence in ACW combat art. Given some of the opinions I've read, especially in the comments on Cenantua's blog, I wish to further my discussion.
I am not calling for the work of Troiani, Kunstler et al to be censored or purged from the market. I am asking for a more honest acknowledgment of what they are putting on the market as to whether it is accurate and realistic or not. If it is felt not to be, we should not acknowledge it as such. The choice belongs to us as consumers.
This art has a profound effect on our memory and understanding of the Civil War, and there is enough work to be done clearing up what really happened in our country after the comprehensive obfuscation of the Lost Cause mythology. We do have the opportunity to control what is regarded as realistic and correct in what we buy and sell as pertaining to the war, and must be honest in that appraisal.
While the works of these artists are undoubtedly accurate when it comes to location, uniforms, etc, they are equally inaccurate when it comes to depicting the realities of combat. Of course no one wants to buy a picture that shows bleeding and shattered men all over the place, but we cannot have it both ways. I would be most interested to know how these artists reconcile this disconnect and am curious as to whether it has even occurred to them.
This is an issue of some import, as we will see a larger and wider interest in the Civil War over the next few years as we approach the sesquicentennial. We are, therefore, in a unique position to help present the war as accurately as possible, to turn away from the techniques employed by Jubal Early and those who crafted a more palatable mythology to the detriment of historical record.
Make no mistake, Civil War combat art that excludes the brutality of war places as opaque a lens over the eye of history that anything Early or Douglas Southall Freeman could have written. To help lift that lens, we must have a higher expectation of paintings that we describe as "realistic" and "accurate". If they are to represent reality, we must insist that they are exactly that, or else not apply that adjective to them.

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