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Introduction: Visualizing Violence

Hewitson, M; (2017) Introduction: Visualizing Violence. Cultural History , 6 (1) pp. 1-20. 10.3366/cult.2017.0132. Green open access

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The Introduction explores the relationship between visual and literary representations of modern warfare. What impact have paintings, cartoons, films and television had on the reporting of conflicts? How has the visual imagery of military violence – as the most extensive and damaging form of violence – changed? Here, Susan Sontag's 2003 essay Regarding the Pain of Others is used as a starting point for a wider discussion of what it means to portray, and to witness portrayals of, wartime violence. Few events have been represented with such frequency, exhaustiveness, unevenness and distortion as have wars. In the modern and contemporary eras, which are the focus of this volume, such representation has become largely mediatic and increasingly visual, with the images of photographic journalism, newsreels and television supplementing and contradicting the longer-established genres of military art, monuments, cartoons, treatises, war poems, plays and novels. ‘Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience’, the cumulative offering ‘by more than a century and a half's worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists,’ writes Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003): Wars are now also living room sights and sounds. Information about what is happening elsewhere, called ‘news’, features conflict and violence – ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows – to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view.1 This impression of knowing ‘what happens every day throughout the whole world’, with the reports of journalists placing, ‘as it were, those in agony on fields of battle under the eyes of readers’ and allowing the cries of the wounded to ‘resonate in their ears’, as the first president of the Red Cross, Gustav Moynier, expressed it in 1899, has been juxtaposed with and opposed to other means of remembering, commemorating and glorifying military conflict, which usually demand separate spaces of reflection, away from the bustle and fragmentation of everyday life.2 Here, we ask how wars were visualized in different media, as artists, photographers, film directors and TV producers sought to evoke military conflicts which many had experienced and virtually everyone had ‘seen’ and ‘heard of’. The relationship between soldiers' and civilians' experiences of warfare and their conceptions of it has been complicated by the clashing imperatives and changing conditions of military conflict. On the one hand, the mediatization of war – with the rise of war correspondents and the use of war photography from the Crimean War onwards, for example – combined with mass participation in politics to make governments highly sensitive to press revelations and sensationalism, which they sought to censor, and receptive to the use and abuse of propaganda, which they attempted to instigate and foster. The idea that propaganda was the preserve of the state and involved the presentation and misrepresentation of information in ways favourable to one's own country and damaging to enemies owed most to the newly formed agencies of the First World War, such as the British Department (and later Ministry) of Information, before it was taken up by the post-war dictatorships of the 1920s and 1930s and condemned by critics of the Great War like Arthur Ponsonby, whose Falsehood in War-Time: Propaganda Lies of the First World War was published in 1928.3 On the other hand, citizens' direct exposure to warfare had increased as a consequence of conscription and mass mobilization, which had resulted in the military service of more than 80 per cent of men between the ages of twenty and forty-five in Germany and France between 1914 and 1918, and as a result of a widening theatre of operations, with motorized armies and aerial bombardment ensuring that about two-thirds of the casualties in the Second World War were civilians, compared to less than a third of the deaths caused by the First World War.4 Given the stakes, the conflicting claims of different kinds of combatants, victims, journalists, artists, propagandists and officials were bound to create confusion and controversy about the nature of wars, both as they were being waged and as they were later recollected, studied and memorialized.5 The proximity and disjunction of individuals' experiences, the re-presentation of events, private and public memories, and historical investigation make the interpretation of visual and literary portrayals of wartime violence difficult, but essential, to interpret and explain.

Type: Article
Title: Introduction: Visualizing Violence
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.3366/cult.2017.0132
Publisher version: http://dx.doi.org/10.3366/cult.2017.0132
Language: English
Additional information: This version is the author accepted manuscript. For information on re-use, please refer to the publisher’s terms and conditions.
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH > Faculty of Arts and Humanities > SELCS
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1538947
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