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Lions for Lambs: Art and Artists in the Public Discourse

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The following essay is part philosophical, part query into the role of art and artists in today’s social and political climate. It is disguised as a movie review of a popular film, Lions for Lambs, which spurred its writing.

I watched the film Lions for Lambs the other night. Some of you know this film already, starring Robert Redford, a very tired and grandmotherly looking Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise. I’m not really a fan per se, of any one of these actors — except for having a fantasy once, of replacing Tom Cruise as Joel in Risky Business — particularly the scene at home, frolicking on the stairs with Rebecca De Mornay in tow. I also enjoyed the goading and inspiration Joel gets from Miles, his best friend in the film, just before the soon-to-be-called escort girl De Mornay shows up. It just might be a metaphor for life as well.

“Joel, you wanna know something?” Miles says. “Every now and then say, 'What the fuck.' 'What the fuck' gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future. If you can’t say it, you can’t do it.”

Ah Miles, you are so right! But I digress — on to Lions for Lambs.

The film’s entire plot centers around two main groups, playing the role of former Lions to their ailing and misguided Lambs. In doing so, they give back, as educators and mentors, a sense of self-discovery and global awareness. They do not, however, command or take from (them) their lives by putting them in danger, figuratively or otherwise. A third group, Ernest and Arian from Special Forces on a covert mission in Afghanistan, are ordered to capture the mountainous “high ground,” hold it, defeat the enemy, and sow the seeds of Democracy. They are the reason and the source of debate, amongst the previous group’s individual, moral, and patriotic beliefs, exit strategies, and solutions for winning the war on terror, which are flayed out in front of the now passive Lions. Ernest and Arian are the thorn in their side, their conscious pricking the air out of the war’s reality and its inevitable outcome of winning, losing, and dying. They represent the immutable truth — stay or go home.

Like some varsity debate squad, the antagonists only have one hour to make their case; and while it is a luxury for them, one hour is crucial for the survival and future of Ernest and Arian. Time is not on their side. And as the government that put them there on that abandoned hilltop is unable to prevent either the outcome or their fate, university professor Dr. Stephen Malley (Robert Redford), journalist Janine Roth (Meryl Streep), and Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise) try to put the pieces of a mismanaged war back on the rails to a victory or some acceptable conclusion, or at the very least, they try to convince one another to do something they no longer can — make a difference.

There is quite a bit of discussion in this pseudo docu-drama film, not much action, if you count the fire-fight that ensues between the Special Forces and the Taliban, but nonetheless, forgetting the rather apathetic acting by Redford in his role as professor, the annoyed and rather hurried delivery of her lines by Streep, and the less than convincing role as Senator and mastermind behind the covert action by Cruise, the movie’s most complex and convincing character is Andrew Garfield, who plays Todd Hayes, a student in Redford’s class. Let’s just say that he also represents an immutable truth. Unlike Ernest and Arian ordered to stay and fight, Hayes has the freedom to choose and act, the education, and the apathy to go along with it. He represents the other side of the spectrum, morally outraged but unable or unwilling to fight.

It is interesting to note that Cruise’s strategy is to take the higher ground both militarily and morally – proving once again to the world that America is strong and right, which also underlies the film’s message of becoming an active participant in the decisions one makes to fight or stand down, in war like in life. It makes us feel rather fuzzy and warm inside, but at the same time, irritable and frustrated as we too, strive to achieve that high ground. It isn’t enough to state that you’re for or against a certain policy it seems, but that you take action to see that policy succeed. “Whatever it takes,” says Senator Irving — and out of Iraq by 2013, says Senator McCain.

So, while Senator Irving tries to convince Janine Roth, a journalistic lion in her younger years, to speak her “truth” once again, an appetite for the truth she has seemingly lost over the years – but this time about the progress in Afghanistan – Roth suddenly realizes that she has been reporting propaganda all these years, wrapped in a veil of pre-ordained sound bytes. A lot like, if you will, introducing a wolf in sheep’s clothing to your unsuspecting herd.

During this time, Professor Malley tries to convince his young protégé to take control of his life, through a weak series of arguments and Vietnam War anecdotes, that yields the following insight: “If you fail, you’ll know that you at least tried.” As the movie continues to flip-flop back and forth to each group, we begin to realize that failure is not an option for Ernest and Arian. It is a matter of life and death.

I actually like this film a lot, despite its lame and quirky acting. Yes, it got me thinking about the war (the movie’s obvious intent), but when do we ever stop thinking about it – its soldiers, its civilians, its cost? It also made me wonder about the role of art and its artists in comparison. War has its soldiers, art has its artists. My God, what a strange parallel I’ve made. There are currently 4,078 soldiers who have died in the war in Iraq, 497 in Afghanistan, and just recently, the great Robert Rauschenberg – artiste extraordinaire – passed away. These soldiers may have fought for Operation Enduring Freedom, but Bob fought for Enduring Art. Is it fair to compare and contrast these two events, or for that matter, is it fair to compare soldiers to artists? I believe both living and dying soldiers, and Rauschenberg, are heroes.

It is, however, funny to talk about heroics these days; somehow it feels diluted, misrepresented, less romantic maybe, less important – I don’t know. Why are there so many superhero movies coming out of Hollywood these days? The Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Batman et al. Are we longing for a real American hero or missing relevant role models to look up to? Is it a case of the blues or purely nostalgic? Where’s the Duke and Captain America?

Where is an artist’s responsibility in this war, if any? Despite all the Shepherd Fairey posters of Obama, the art websites and blogs (what I call net surfers for Peace and the end to the war), and the endless “call for artists,” exhibits, auctions, funds, festivals, donations ad nauseam, inclined to stop it. Perhaps, it will be the outrage heard in the heart of D.C. by tens of thousands of artists, chanting in unison, “Bring our troops home now!” It would hardly make a roar. I’m not blaming artists, I’m just wondering how effective their impact on American and foreign politics is. Can we really stop or even hope to change it?

I can hear the cries now, “Besos, not bombs,” but it is still not enough. You could argue, and I would agree, that any fighting should be done on the canvas or between it and the artist. The goal, obviously, is to make the most important piece of art within our times, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And artists don’t either, except that you couldn’t tell, view all the machinations that surround their exclusive existence within the art world and the supporters – galleries, collectors, museums – who feed off of them. I would like to think that critics are the only ones keeping the artists honest, other than the artist’s themselves – which is even then, debatable. How does the art world match up with the real world, you might wonder? They don’t. But they should, or at least they could blend more.  

Am I calling for artists to take up arms? Well, not exactly. Just don’t give work to an auction to Save Darfur and expect to sell it, with the only benefit being just another line on an already bloated resume. A little harsh? No, I don’t think so. Times have changed; the role and position artists had when Rauschenberg was a young artist truly meant something to them and to the public. Artists the caliber of Rauschenberg were “Hollywood stars” looked at and appreciated by a broad population, discussed at the dinner table, and debated in bars all across this fine country – not to mention featured on the covers of major magazines and exposed in major museums. They were in the mainstream of a public life, making work that meant something because it was in sync with the advancement of the society’s technological, social, and economic gains – meaning it was as inventive as the discoveries being made every day in other domains.

Today, we are literally bombarded with convenience and compartmentalized stimulus components we know as cell phones, in which our lives, and how we perceive them, have been digitalized, pixelized, and fractured into little bytes of electronic media. And artists can only hope to keep up with, let alone compete for, the public’s attention. Some artists have adapted the strategy of mass-marketing, their unique images becoming rapidly less so, as they print them on everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts and back again. The technological advances and online accessibility to printing and printed matter, has usurped the original. A majority of artists are endlessly reproducing giclées from their original works of art. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the giclée is not going to sell any faster than the original, even at a reduced price. Why is this? The answer may lie within the image, content, idea, and importance of the original and a generally disinterested public. As the original slips from our view, having now been reduced in size, flattened, and spewed out into the hundreds, did we not also throw out the five senses God gave us and the reasoning and judgment that go with them?

The point is this: we need an authentic direct response by artists to the times and conditions we’re living in. It’s about broadening the scope and vision, the definition of how art and its artists exist in the public eye. This could, in turn, build a broader appreciation and understanding of an artwork, based on its quality and intent, beyond its current and tired public perception of a “universal interconnected poetic meaning,” that no one seems to see or respond to, in quite the same way as its creator or curator. I believe for any of this to work, it is important to change the context and the environment that we find most of the artwork, still seen to this day, by a very limited and select group of individuals. There is no "human condition" that exists within the walls of a museum. It only exists outside in the real world where people are living and dying by it. The key word is human and it doesn't take being an artist to realize this.

For example, if you do end up making work that contests the war or, for that matter, any “politicized” artwork, a gallery or a museum is the very last place it should be shown. It should end up in the hands of a buyer/collector who sympathizes with the cause and then can facilitate its exposure to a larger social network. Or it should end up on the street, in front of hundreds, to be debated and discussed like thousands of different opinions everyday. 

A friend recently told me about an exhibit she organized after 9/11. She opened up her gallery to the public, left art materials and frames on the table, and let anyone, anywhere, at any time – express themselves. She quite unassumingly said, “People need a place to process.” It occurred to me that the processing of too much information and the sometime visceral emotions it can produce has put the artist and the public at the very same crossroads of stifling any substantive response or differences, and in those rare occasions when they do succeed, there exist very few places where it can be safely shared. For all the freedoms a democracy gives us, they are just as easily regulated by reactionary conservative policy. Which, by the way, most artists don’t do well surviving underneath.    

I don’t doubt the integrity of most work made by artists; what I do question is the efficiency of the content and message within the artwork that has been lobotomized by the environment in which it is contained – i.e. the galleries and museums. Should it really matter where we see good art? Take the importance off the institution and sales, and look what is left – the art. Why not let the museums archive? Let them be the keepers of the Holy Grail, the sacred and the profound; let the art fairs and biennials expand and encompass the latest artistic movement or technology; build larger and better cultural centers that encompass all the arts, dance, theatre, et al – places where people come to study, create, live, and work. Let galleries die off, let the art of education and the education of the arts reign freely in public and educational institutions, vote into office candidates sympathetic to the arts; and finally, for those who buy and collect, let them, of course, via access to a data bank of images and stock. 

In my dreams, right?

If we’re dreaming, why not make it a reality? The reality is that it may start with the artist, but it doesn’t always end with the artwork. The work and the artist have to have something, that little extra something, a little magic that comes from within their soul – it is the only thing that is going to make them unique and recognizable. Art can’t lie, it never could; if it tries, it fails, no matter how hard you try to paint it differently. If it fails, it fails us. Let’s change the system, let’s make something good, don’t be so selfish, and don’t rely on others or the marbled hallways to justify it. Make art because it’s you — your technique and style are just the tools to get the job done. The medium is the message. What do you have to lose?

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About Kevin Freitas