One hundred and fifty years ago, the great American artist Winslow Homer traveled with the Army of the Potomac to document a key military campaign in the Civil War. Some of his paintings were recently featured in the exhibit “Civil War and American Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (see “The Real War,” an online review by Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J.). One struck me not so much for the craftsmanship of the portrait but the quotation that accompanies it.
In “Sharpshooter,” Homer focuses on a lone Union gunman perched in a tree. He is balanced precariously, aiming carefully through the crosshairs of his rifle. His target, presumably a Confederate soldier, is not pictured. The painting, which resides permanently at the Portland Museum of Art, captures in miniature a notable military innovation of the Civil War.
Reflecting later on the picture, Homer expressed horror at the grim duty of the sharpshooter. It “struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army & I always had a horror of that branch of the service,” he wrote to a friend.
I am sure I am not the only visitor to the Met who thought of predator drones, today’s controversial weapon of choice. In fact, I would bet the curators had drones in mind when they chose that quote from Homer. Drones, too, allow soldiers to execute their targets from a safe distance. The distance, of course, is much greater, measuring in miles, not feet, but the anonymity of the sharpshooter strikes me as very much like the mystery surrounding drone pilots. Both are unknown to their victims, and both bring sudden death.
Today sharpshooters, or snipers, are a mainstay of modern warfare. And the reasons for their ubiquity are clear—aren’t they? Better to kill a dangerous enemy from afar than risk the lives of a platoon of soldiers. The battles of the Civil War saw heavy casualties precisely because men fought the enemy face to face. Modern artillery used in traditional military engagements proved to be a lethal combination. Executing the enemy while hiding in a tree may not have been honorable, but it was better than the alternative.
And yet Homer’s objection lingers. Even with the distance of time, one cannot dismiss his argument. There is something unfair, unnatural about the sharpshooter’s trade. Homer’s art helps clinch his case. In the picture, the sharpshooter sits in an evergreen tree. The contrast between the tranquility of the backdrop and the bringer of death is jarring. Homer captures his subject just before he pulls the trigger. The beauty of nature is evident, but one wonders how long it can survive in a country wrecked by war.
Leaving the Met, I wondered what kind of art drones have inspired. A quick Google search discovered the work of the Pakistani folk artist Mahwish Chisty. Over the last few years she has composed a series of paintings of drones in the Pakistani “truck art” style. (In Pakistan trucks and other vehicles are richly decorated by their owners.) They are disturbingly beautiful, an intricate patchwork of colors and patterns. In “MQ-9/Guardian,” the belly of the drone is decorated in blues and reds, with two haunting eyes at the center. It looks like a god hovering above, mulling the fate of those below.
Critics have called Chisty’s paintings an exercise in re-appropriation. Drones are widely feared in Pakistan, and she makes them more familiar. A foreign agent of death is given a uniquely Pakistani makeover. “I wanted people to think maybe what would happen if these drones were friendlier looking, instead of such hard-edged, metallic war machines,” Chisty said in an interview.
Yet as gorgeous as these paintings are, one cannot easily forget why these drones were created. Beauty and death stand side by side, just as they do in Homer’s painting of the sharpshooter.
In the years of after the Civil War, artists found inspiration in the American West. The wide-open spaces and untouched beauty of places like Yosemite gave people hope that perhaps the United States could experience a rebirth following war’s devastation. A century and a half later, we are at war again, following the first attack on American soil since the Civil War. Yet the chances of another American renewal seem faint. The question posed by Homer persists: Can beauty survive in the midst of calculated destruction?