The exhibition tour was made up of people up of who knew nothing about Beuys and wanted to find out about him and his work. We began by looking at the way he created a public persona and compared it with that of Warhol. They seemed to have much in common in terms of creating a public face yet the societies in which they operated were quite different and led to the creation of very different types of art. We talked about at the way Beuys used materials in often simple yet direct ways and how they were laden with symbolism and meaning which he alternatively wanted interpreted and didn’t. We touched on his role in the war and how much it informed the direction his political and social views took as well as directing his actions and teaching . Towards the end of the tour we looked at how big his ambition was in terms of wanting to change society through art, and talked about whether he was idealistic ,arrogant or just very single minded –or, more likely, a combination all of these !

At Speaker’s Corner today Milan Rai, author of Chomsky’s Politics and co-editor of Peace News, focussed on the relationships between different types of society and their individual tendencies for aggression, war, the worship of war and conflict resolution.
Milan defined war as a relatively impersonal form of lethal aggression resulting in death or injury, inflicted by the members of one community on another. He then posed 3 questions about the origins of war –

The first question was ‘Is war as old as humanity?’ and Milan described how archaeological indicators (settlement design and the existence of weapons in burial grounds) point to the existence of the hominid line over 200,000 years yet traces of war-like activity don’t exist much beyond 10,000 years.

Current research shows that societies with hunter-gatherer modes of existence, that is semi nomadic with fluid relationships, lack of authority structures and largely egalitarian in character, are not inclined not to make war – they prefer to run away from any perceived danger. War is more likely to be promoted or carried out by societies which are highly stratified with strong authoritarian organisations and a defined class structure.

The second question was ‘Is war eradicable? Milan explained how the popular belief that wars arise from our aggression is clearly wrong. We have all felt angry or experienced rage but these experiences do not lead to war. The activation and implementation of the war machine is a cool, logistical and methodical process which involves the design, construction and mobilisation of ships, planes, nuclear submarines, warheads and missiles – none of this has anything to do with anger or rage. War requires dispassionate obedience and technology above all else. The current situation in Afghanistan shows clearly how the British state and British society are not in agreement over Britain’s involvement – there is a divergence of motivation. This idea was further explored by Milan who made the point that during the Crusades the two motivating factors were greed and materialism, the state, and piety and strong religious belief, the people and the crusaders. This led to a discussion about our ability to live without war, which ideally would mean a move away from rigid authoritarian structures with obedient and compliant populations, but it seems highly unlikely that we could return to a complex pre-industrial state without authority in order to stop making war. Referring to Afghanistan again, Milan explained how in the past wars were about things like territory, resources and ideas, but in Afghanistan it is their interpretation of democracy that we in the west are fighting about. A member of the audience explained how his friends in Afghanistan upheld their kind of democracy through the tribal systems, a method rejected by USA and UK.

The question ‘Why do human’s worship war’ came next and Milan outlined how changes in our thinking about ‘man the hunter’ and ‘man the warrior’ have shifted in recent years. He suggested that there is no evidence to support the idea of ‘man the warrior’ as a typical human characteristic. War fever, rallying around and the exultation felt by those about to embark on the First World War is a universal worshipping response to a threat. Yet the language of war and the respect that warriors hold for each other suggests that the underlying feelings are not ‘how great it is to kill’ but rather ‘how great it is to give your life for your community’.

Questions from the audience about the need or necessity for bloodletting led to a discussion about the comparisons between humans and Chimpanzees and Bonobo monkeys. Both types of great ape are the nearest extant relative to human yet each group has different ways of behaving – The Chimpanzees are prone to violent interchanges between groups whereas the Bonobo is recorded as non violent and uses sex as a means of greeting, conflict resolution and reconciliation. As humans therefore we have the potential perhaps to act either way but Milan suggested that is a political decision to go to war rather than an individual one. He went on to further say that the British state has evolved (since the middle ages everyone has paid taxes which in turn pay for war) to have the financial capacity to conquer or defend.

The audience asked questions about the prevention of war and Milan described some ideas about conflict resolution techniques– the serial killer who is eventually killed by his own family (taking the ‘law’ into their own hands perhaps something we wouldn’t believe possible today) in order to prevent harm to others and further creating a feud which would harm the larger group. Secondly the idea of ritualised conflict such as that found in ancient wall paintings – two lines of warriors with swords lined up on opposite walls with the aim of each taking a turn to aim an arrow at his counterpart until blood is drawn and then the conflict is ended. The Greeks used the heroes of opposing factions to fight against each other thus acting out and ritualising conflict without the need for mass slaughter. However it does seem that however reasonable these techniques might appear it is hard to see how they could be applied on an international scale.

Lastly, and perhaps on a more positive note, the audience discussed how changes in the hierarchy can be made to lessen the likelihood of war. Milan talked about the rolling back of oppression – how if we take the long view of history things look much brighter –in many parts of the world slavery has been abolished and feudal systems no longer exist. Also many oppressed groups eg women, children, members of ethnic/religious groups now have greater rights and freedoms than ever before – so if we project these accelerating changes into the future – it doesn’t look so bad.

For those interested in further reading the books Milan referred to are :- …. Beyond War by Douglas P Fry and Blood Rites by Barbara Ehrenreich.

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One response to “

  1. It would be interesting to know if people at different points in history felt a similar sense of frustration as I think many people do now, and whether that helped fuel change, even if people felt that change was impossible at the time. Beuys did obviously believe change was possible, and he articulate that through his work. I think a lot of people's frustration these days comes from a percieved lack of (viable) alternatives. Or do the alternatives just seem to difficult to achieve?

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