Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

When is the war ever over?

   Sypros Mercouris looking at mural "The War is Over" of Poiein kai Prattein 2006

Picasso, the giant in painting, has been followed by many little giants.“

- Spyros Mercouris

Since Guernica 1937 - war and peace

What part of 'human reality' can still prevail in a language of peace when there is so much violence, killing and endless deaths taking place everywhere? More than the "difficulty to say 'no'" (Klaus Heinrich), everyone knows that it takes courage to speak up and even greater wisdom to do so in a way which does not further violence, in order to stop those wishing to act violently. That is the real challenge of the twentieth century marked by bombs going off anywhere, anytime and killing primarily innocent by-standers, civilians, in particular children and women. In that sense, this world is very much connected through Picasso's Guernica to what he responded to when innocent civilians were bombarded for the first time from the air in Guernica 1937. That horrific message has not been lost to a world seemingly unable to stop this seeming 'vicious cycle' of violence prompted further by all kinds of technical innovations with drones nowadays continuing this anonymous like killing of others. They need only to be declared 'terrorists' as if this justifies putting aside any legal process since then power assumes to be able to execute the other in the name of security.

There are those who have been silenced and many more who let themselves be 'silenced' out of fear of violence. And then, in memory of Munch's painting, there are all the stifled cries. Many of them end going up just in thin air, together with the smoke stemming from the heavy guns! For really helpless is any human being when faced by technology of all kinds: guns, tanks, airplanes, drones but also chemical weapons and by extension as well when a nuclear bomb is dropped as was the case in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Kids' Guernica started out in Japan in 1995, and therefore links Guernica with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The horror of innocent civilians being attacked suddenly from the air and then had nowhere to flee to but into certain death, that is more than what cynics can describe as a loss of human reality. Apparently a simple 'no' suffices no more to stop the killing before too late. A look at events over time says it all: the deadly machine just keeps rolling on. It is something people experienced in Baghdad in March 2003 when Iraq was invaded. It followed an attack upon Afghanistan which was preceded in turn by 911. Since then countless other places have made the same experience: death stalking unexpectedly in.

A lot of bombings are due to an increase of a dangerous mix of longing and despair. It can be easily exploited by new forms of propaganda mixing religion with ideology to create a coercive force out of fear. The latter already exists due to all the uncertainties in the world, but also something more has been added. By setting off bombs in crowded streets, fear not to survive in a world marked by harsh and bitter competition prompts the individual into a self fulfilling prophecy that he or she will not make it. The despair becomes a tautology once caught up in the saying violence is the only way out. For example, there was used in the past the slogan "destroy what destroys you" by the movement which followed the failure of the '68 student protest. Over and again other justifications of violence have been added at various times without ever considering all the consequences not only for the individual but humanity seeking a way to live together peacefully on this one globe called earth.  

All this says merely violence begets simply more violence. The forces using this dangerous mix know how to exploit the longing by many for heroic deeds. However, there is little heroic deed when setting of a bomb. Rather it is a sign of utmost cowardice but this message has not hit home as of yet. Why?

Almost always the targets declared by the modern myth makers of violence is the Capitalist system, the West or something as obscure as concrete like the Banks on Wall Street, but since unreachable and often invisible just like the terrorists themselves, the real targets are displaced and become train stations, underground subway systems, airports, buses, shopping malls, in short places used by masses of people. They are selected for purpose of effectiveness in terms of number of people to be killed or injured at an instance. Consequently the victims are mainly innocent by-standers.

The fanatic zeal by which insurgents and counter insurgents pursue their conflicting goals means but one thing: humanity bleeds yet again. No one seems to have found as of yet a convincing counter argument to halt this kind of violence not from the air, but from within the street. 

The use of arbitrary power by those who ignite bombs and do not care whom they hurt, that has been made explicit in a poem by Brendan Kennelly called 'nails'! It is about children being hit by flying nails when a cluster bomb goes off in a van just as they turn the corner and come down that very street. Their maimed bodies say it all. What Brendan Kennelly wrote that, he had in mind what the IRA did during the North Ireland conflict. They did send such deadly messages even though it should equally not be forgotten what the Loyalists committed likewise. For both sides have glorified violence since First World War: the Loyalists as signature of their loyality to the Crown when serving as soldiers in First World War, and the Republicans using all kinds of violence to free themselves around the same time from British rule. That positive notion of violence, even though interpreted on each side differently, has still not been conveyed as being out of step with the rest of Europe which was horrified by the violence which erupted during First World War.

As to the situation of today, the face of war has changed. The use of drones is a testimony of that.

The search for truth is more crucial to today's culture than ever before. By now, there have been too many or rather countless bomb attacks! For what purpose? Yes, a human life can easily be taken, but what about the mother and father who brought up that child? They hoped it would survive in a world even if beset with many riddles and in which rules a cruelty of unknown proportion. Its intensity is linked to having either too much money or none at all. The extremes in-between have become themselves extreme. Much goes beyond any human scale.

By July 2012 and seventeen months into civil war, Syria receives a lot of attention since once again all these contradictions reappear. While people from neighborhoods under attack have to flee for safety, others especially in Damascus pretend life continues as if nothing happens. They do their usual everyday things. It includes going to the hair dressing to staging a wedding party beside a swimming pool. All these contradictions amount to a global society having succumbed to a 'schizophrenia of peace'.

'Schizophrenia of peace' is one of the key term used within Kids' Guernica to designate reality. The term came up when the first mural with the title 'Enough! We want to live' was painted in Lebanon after 2006. The term can be used to describe many other similar situations. For instance, while young people return from surfing and enter a music bar in Tripoli, Lebanon, just across the street and near the Palestinian refugee camp a bomb can go off. It can happen as well in Burka, Bulgaria where someone managed to blow himself up in a bus carrying Jewish tourists. It happened in July 2012.

All these bombs shock and hit hard those who are either wounded or have lost as a result someone close to them. It perpetuates an undescribable pain. Peace can never be attained as long as this pain remains 'hidden' and stays under the public surface of perception as an unarticulated anguish. It shall require many different efforts to resolve these inherent contradictions. Enzensberger in his thesis about the radical loser starts off his narration with accounting what neighbors state in surprise that the man living just across the street could suddenly become someone going on a killing spree. That surprise is often repeated when a young man enters a cinema at midnight and starts shooting. As if there were no early warnings! It says something about a society which prefers to have underground garages to be driven into and then to go up the elevator as if having immediate contact with the neighbors in the street is dangerous. Modern housing claims to guarantee peace when really is meant a phony type of 'security' as it is based on the exclusive wish not to have to deal with the others.

Therefore, most precautionary measures taken after another bomb has gone off, they remain at best tentative. In particular, the measures used by governments, police and special security units are highly inadequate, for there exists on the other side a tolernance of violence to get things done or else to suppress legitimate protest against loss of jobs and safety in the neighborhood. It can drive many into the arms of the Extreme Right who use migrants as scape goats especially during times of an economic crisis. All that adds still another dimension to these contradictions being ignored by a system designed therefore to but reproduce these kinds of systematic failures. Above all the system itself fails to recognize that no solution of these human challenges can come from within the system itself.

History shifts and turns. People run and seek shelter as was the case in Guernica after the second wave of airplanes equipped not with bombs, but with machine guns to mow down the people who had just been bombed out of their houses by the first wave. They fled back into those houses still standing. Then came the third wave of attack with planes now carrying inceninary bombs to burn those still alive. The attack on innocent civilians was well planned as described by the journalist Steer.

Something more horrific happened in the case of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The only amazing part of that story is since 1945 no further nuclear bombs have been dropped. Still, the nuclear scare comes up repeatedly. There was, for instance, the Cuban crisis with J.F. Kennedy at the helm in the United States. Then, there have been ongoing battles of minds with North Korea. Since 1979 and Chomeiny's return to Iran, the main worry about further nuclear proliferation has been whether this country wants to join India and Pakistan. The latter have their own bombs, along with Israel but with the difference that the latter tries to keep its possession as an open secret. And if not nuclear bombs, then other weapons of mass destruction threaten constantly life. It was the false reason to invade Iraq. Saddam Hussein was supposed to be in possession of them but no such evidence turned up even after the invasion. Lately Syria has moved into the international spotlight. It was prompted by Syria threatening to use chemical weapons if not against its own people, then against any invader.

All along it should not be forgotten besides the hard reality so easily forgotten when in a music bar, there is going on as well a war of images. Juergen Habermas has described already the modern media as having succumbed to a 'pathology of communication'. Everything is hyped up and follows the most successful business models, so that news is naturally slanted towards the exciting, new and promising star. Even athletes no longer refrain themselves but apparently also do not realize what they are saying, when claiming in front of the press they wish to become a legend. Even more curious is that they add the reason for their strive is not to be forgotten, for they know one day they too will die. Still a legend suppresses all kinds of truth and therefore has little chance of living on in a true human sense. Very different are fairy stories since they pass from imagination to imagination all eager to explore its hidden dimensions. As with the arts, it is not just a simple but very complex story for human beings have to come to terms with being mortal and finding a purpose in life. But without imagination they are explosed to a media world that wishes to foster ever greater illusions and play therefore with the vanity of those who are afraid to be forgotten. Pablo Neruda described that fear very well in a poem about men who became frightened of a world in which they are easily forgotten; while making headlines in every newspaper after they had fought of a huge monster while at sea, the next day they found no more traces of their names. Not only the first page covered other news, but also inside the paper they were not mentioned.

The media seeks only the new with its claim to be really new news; its tragedy is what Adorno predicted as being then forced to flee back in old structures as contradictions can only become with deep memory work and in recognition as to what is a contradiction. Right now modern theories are merely used to expell or suppress them as if they do not count. That leads to a lack of differentiation between theory and practice.

The media seeks to persuade effectively an entire population what attitude to adopt and how to vote. They want to convince the Olympic Games is something good, exciting and woth while to remember since a good story to sell. The manipulative effect of the images used to tell that story is linked to what business model promises to be most successful at the moment. Enticement for high life and low esteem for ethical questions go hand in hand with what can be called a massive corruption of the mind. It means reality is hardly recognizable in how things are reported.

With regards to 'war and peace', this is certainly not the whole picture. Trade in weapons has been on the steady increase with Germany catching up with the others as leading weapons exporter. One needs only to follow the discussion about Germany's intention to export Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia to comprehend what signals are send to a world having just gone through the experience of the Arabic spring. No wonder when especially children included tanks in their small mural when they painted it in Picasso's atelier. They are the biggest threats of war in streets they would otherwise play in. The tank was already in Hegel's philosophy a metaphor for the 'unmoved mover' of things, and which in his Idealism he attributed to a force not to be halted by simple questions. It makes the tank to be the equivalent of death stalking in all over again.

By having troops in Afghanistan, it has helped to mask this trade in weapons. Security is a term which can be used to justify almost everything from financing expensive weapon systems to doubtful use of data even it it means invasion of privacy. For instance, the security shambles prior to the Olympic Games in London is but a repeat of what took place in Athens 2004. At that time, the security system which SIEMENS supposed to install never really worked. What saved everything at the end of the day was that Athens never experienced any serious attack as did the Olympic Games in Munich 1972.

Instead of security, many people experience more insecurities. This is especially due to a growing financial crisis and austerity measures imposed by governments whose budgets have run way out of control precisely due to financing corruption in a big style. States consume war ships not really needed but who will really control those lucrative defense deals? Greece had for a long time one of the largest expenditures on defense compared to all other EU member states. This absurdity hit only home once the crisis started to unfold due a huge state debt being no longer sustainable, and even then preferial treatment of the military means avoiding at all costs the necessary cuts. Behind it all prevails a coalition of interests which all prefer state contracts as it assures more stability in demand and a definite profit since it makes possible sales at insurmountable prices.

A still greater crisis in the system is being provoked by banks which need themselves rescue funds. It is said security depends now and ever more so on taking such measures, even if bordering on the illegal, in order to prevent a total collapse of the currency. The latter would impede the flow of money while confidence in the system of governance would lapse altogether. It has suffered already a huge set-back once the immoral acts of bankers and other financial speculators came to light. Literally said, war has become a financial one with entire states at risk to lose completely any kind of sovereignty still left in a system gone global.

But to come back to painting and Kids' Guernica, the relationship of murals done by children and youth has to be seen in terms of definite tasks. When students at Saint Denis Unversity started out from Picasso's depiction of the human cry, they wondered how their mural could let people step out of what silences them? One student had the idea of making videos when a person really cries, and lets out that pain. Since that is most intimate and rarely, if ever done in the presence of any other person, it was difficult to attain such videos. In the end, they managed by letting the video camera take the images as the person was alone in the room. Such an effort means to make pain into a departure point, in order to see when normal life is conceivable again. It was self-understood by the students that normality means not only to become free from this pent-up feeling that no one else understands due to being a deep and personal pain, but also living together is as difficult as painting together. They added this dimension to what Kids' Guernica seeks to do when letting children or youth paint together, namely to further 'collaborative learning' as key to share resources and feelings, paint brushes and ideas.

Picasso himself went through many phases to acquire over time a language by which he could express best human pain. As Guernica reveals, he took a lot from Cubinism. This language he used already to make air visible. It is something people usually do not see. Applied to unheard and invisible human pain, he managed to bring something to light in Guernica which is very rarely visible. Thay may also be the reason why Guernica has not lost any of its imaginative power to date.

Likewise today children and youth of Kids' Guernica seek to make visible some of those invisible threats to human life on earth. It is a quest to leave behind old symbols and signs for only a free imagination can allow the emotions to flow on till the stream of human conscioiusness is fed again. Such a common language means as well an effort to end a war with images. By letting emotional thoughts settle in with the others, all can look forward to doing things with the others. That relates very much to the Right to Community everyone has. (Ernst Bloch)

The question: what can be said in view of all these uncertainties?

Children and youth have to grow up in a world full of uncertainties. Michael Moore showed in a video 'Bowling for Columbine' in reference to the shooting which took place everyone by surprise, how a manager at Lockheed building rockets and bombs states that the youth should not be allowed to have any guns! And yet as Moore demonstrates they can be purchased practically in every department store. That no lesson was drawn out this shows the shooting at the cinema in Colorado in July 2012. It has been reported that the perpetrator purchased all his weapons and explosives over the internet.

At the level of international peace making, there is an art entailed in how to make peace by not making new enemies due to some twisted logic ready to accuse the other. The difficult part is how to enter a dialogue with those willing to use violence and this not being perceived as a false compromise. For with readiness to dialogue goes the added risk to be perceived as if a traitor, ready to take sides with the aggressor and therefore to lose good friends. In history, Chamberlain certainly experienced that when traveling to Munich, in order to meet Hitler. Most recently Koffi Annan came under severe criticism when he met again with Assad from Syria. Indeed, the question may be posed how is it possible to shake hands with someone who has ordered to attack his own citizens?

At this point of the story it becomes important to focus on another, equally crucial question: how did Kids' Guernica end up not really relating to Picasso's Guernica even though a Kids' Guernica action took place in the very atelier where Picasso had created Guernica? That action happened in Oct./Nov. 2009 on the eve of Kids' Guernica 15th anniversary year.

Instead of sharing the meaning of both that famous mural called Guernica and the chance to work in the atelier, there was developed an exclusive practice. Such a behaviour is not rare but it requires some explanation when both Picasso's Guernica and Kids' Guernica are misused for a single purpose, namely to make for oneself a name by challenging everything what Kids' Guernica stands for. How that challenge was taken up or not is a part of the story of Kids' Guernica.

Odd behavior can be explained by a world which seems to be largely indifferent to any kind of 'no' to war. That must be for an artist most frustrating, especially if this artist aspires to use the chance to do something with children in Picasso's atelier to articulate his version of a seeming 'no'. But then enters always with particular individuals some other component of reality. For here something general can be added or assumed. For example, many artists are forced to do something else for a living. It is quite common that actors end up teaching in schools to make their living. Still, they attempt to retain their status as artists by performing in the evening on stage. In this double role they end up being unhappy with both: as teacher they feel to miss out on their real vocation and as actors they cannot be there 100% of the time since they need to go back to school the next day to make a living. Hence neither task is done with full satisfaction for nothing is done properly. This can drive individuals to exclude others, in order to attain some fame just for oneself and/or if nepotism is involved, to do something for their own children as a kind of over compensation for their own personal failures.

There is a kind of 'egoism' which was identified by the philosopher Horkheimer as a threat to freedom. Freedom allows one to be truthful to others and even means freeing the others from a fear that one can become great (Nelson Mandela). A sign of greatness is recognizing the greatness in others, fore mostly by adults of what are children: simply great, naturally speaking. They do not need to become great! Picasso said they are already!

Now if that is denied, then it shall produce many kind of conflicts but not of a healthy kind. That would only be the case if nothing is indifferent to as what each individual wishes to add to the whole and that disagreements can show a way towards a diversity of expressions. In the case of this specific action in Picasso's atelier, this was definitely not the case. Other opinions about how to approach children were excluded while internally a dangerous illusion prevailed as to how the opinions of the children were treated.

It is claimed in the 'Final Report', that not one answer was searched for, but difference responses were brought out, so many responses as there were children. That alone contradicts already the other aim, namely to articulate a strong 'no' against war. It would have to be a single no so that the claim that a no can emerge out of different responses is a far fetched delusion of what took place in practice. Of the original 34, there were missing in the end quite a lot of them. Moreover not all were allowed to participate at the same time when it came to 'treat' the canvas. It meant the canvas was off bounds most of the time for all children, and those allowed onto it, then only under clear instructions. Even more revealing about caring or not about different responses was what happened the day when instructions were given before each child would paint one of its selected sketches on the canvas not anywhere but at a pre-selected spot. A floor plan existed to underline where each image was to go since the entire work was a composition made up according to principles of graphic design. It was not the free will of the children together as to what would come out in the end as a whole mural. More frightening was the fact that if one child was not present during the roll call on the final day, then that sketch was removed immediately from the canvas and that response completely forgotten or worse erased. In saying this, it means such a claim is an obvious lie.

If any art work is to be taken at all serious, there has to be some honesty in all reflections. For Kids' Guernica, it matters what conduct adults show towards each other, but especially and more so towards children. It cannot be to embrace Picasso who saw children being much more able to express themselves thanks to being still free in their imagination and adults imposing suddenly upon children their fear and version of history. The latter ends up being but a caricature of black and white.

This aspect of what memories of the past are conveyed onto future generation matters. It is implied by what the Final Report, namely a justification of imposition by adults since children should know how adults feel and not just vice versa. This needs some further reflections, but that topic was addressed by Bart Verschaffel at the opening of the conference "Kids' Guernica and European Capitals of Culture" held in Gent, Feb. 18th 2011.

It entails as well the action of the children of Gezoncourt, France who went first to Verdun, the battle field of First World War. There they talked with a historian about the reasons behind that war before returning home to start painting a mural seeking an answer to the following question: "The other: enemy of friend?"

Such an approach says Kids' Guernica is not an arbitrary action nor does it exhaust itself in being just an action. For the wisdom it entails is not give ready made answers which would exhaust themselves in symbols and signs all standing for being against war, but to reformulate the main questions: why war? why do people continue to kill other people? why all this aggression due to a need for a fake security when insecurity is the source of creativity?

However, art without receptivity of the others is inconceivable. So there has to be added the question: can people retain an appreciation of what others do and contribute towards making possible a life at local level and at the same time see themselves as being a part of a global society. The latter is in need of world governance, if peace is to prevail but how can everyone make a contribution towards that goal? It does have to do with upholding moral authority of human dignity in the name of peace, but as Juergen Habermas would explain goes far beyond the usual legal terminologies and to what extent world powers can come to any agreement in the United Nations, in particular in the Security Council.

The global world and 'schizophrenia of peace'

The global world has changed many things and has put in doubt, if there can exist at all a 'community of man'. Still, notions like trust, sharing of values, friendships, Human Rights etc. all give an idea as to what makes possible a common life on this globe. Governance is more than just following some moral principles. It requires thoughts and experiences so as to take on even greater responsibilities, namely what shall be left behind for future generations? Given the risk of not attaining any sustainable development worthy to speak about, it is important that one question accompanies all these actions by Kids' Guernica. The question is how can children and youth continue to practice what comes to them naturally? Is the answer sufficient, if they are left to be free? Or does sharing of thoughts and materials require something more? The question resonates with the other half of the equation: what happens when conflicts break out due to different values? Already the Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis warned that values are not discussed, but are set and if anyone tries to change them, then it leads to conflict, if not to war. So the art of sharing values requires beforehand a dialogue which seems impossible if there is no such common bond as empathy for the other. Kids' Guernica attempts to promotes this when letting children paint together such a giant mural. Alone its size is already a huge challenge to any artist, all the more admirable is how easy children together resolve it.

Sharing means being free from any formal obligation. Unfortunately the latter enters the minds of children when they grow up largely due to the fear of the adults. This fear is artificial but needed to justify the interventions the adults have in mind, when they think children shall disturb the order of things if left to go ahead all by themselves. The same fear applies to what adults may think about future generations. When they see them joining all kinds of political movements and hang out in music bars, they grow afraid that this new generation will not safeguard things needed in future. This fear by the adults, as understandable it may be at times, leaves out people mature when given the chance to become responsible. The most difficult of all these tasks is naturally governance. Politics is an art and requires a deep understanding under what premises democratic governance is only possible.

Always there is a conflict between generations, but as Jean Paul Sartre says, parents can only ask of their children a commitment that they will continue life. How they will do it, that is beyond the jurisdiction of the parents. If children and youth want to go down that road instead of the one adults have already mapped out for them, then this to belongs to the intrinsic value of freedom from fear.

Basically behind such a fear is the limitation adults have experienced. When challenged by the younger ones who do not see these limitations, they are afraid of failures due to a culture of success which denies learning out of mistakes. Hence the way life is lived turns out to be largely one of regret if not true risks are embraced. The latter is not only a prerequisite for innovation as made out to be so quickly, but fore mostly makes possible experiences. Without lived through experiences - Jean Paul Sartre calls it 'le vecu' - the definite loss of freedom to fear would go hand in hand with growing conformity and uniformity. It is sad to see that the mural seeking to scream out a 'no' against war as attempted by this action in Picasso's atelier ends up like that.

Adults have many mechanisms by which they can coerce children into compliance, one of them being most powerful: the threat of love withdrawal. Hence at the core of Kids' Guernica is just that: how to tilt away from the adult - children relationship and move more towards letting the children themselves form and create relationships of their own while they are playing, drawing, scratching their noses and what else can happen when doing something together. This constant integration and re-integration into society of their own making leaves them often out of breath. But over time they are never really speechless when faced by the power of the adults. They know at the very least that time is on their side. As for the rest, and especially how they deal with adults who want them to do all sorts of things, that dialogue depends on the imagination and the empathy for the other.

Kids' Guernica is a step by step learning process to find a language which speaks up against war. Such a language does exist even if reality is at times too much to bear. When Iman Nouri in Lebanon let children create their first mural, then it was done with a strong longing to show that this country meant not only war and strife, but was very rich in culture. That mural aside from showing the 'schizophrenia of peace' contributed towards forming of language of vitality. That mural was created in a country which had been torn apart again during 2006. That sudden war came as a most severe blow till everyone hoped to make good business during the summer months. Lebanon had nearly recovered from previous conflicts and wanted to embrace the full joys of an active summer. The war was a huge set back and nearly doubted the survival skills of the people in Lebanon.


                            Detail of "Enough! We want to live."   2007

This then may be an introduction into a reflection as to what took place in Picasso's atelier in late 2009. It was a missed opportunity but then Kids' Guernica stands to learn out of such a failure provided the real problems are acknowledged and adults are willing to admit the mistakes they have made. There is an important advise given by Frederique Chabaud, who said "one should never make mistakes with children; with adults it is possible, for they can learn."

HF 15.7.2012


Post Paris 2015


      Significant dates: S-Bahnstation Savignyplatz, Berlin              @hf 2015


In the wake of new terror attacks in Paris, Mali, Beirut and elsewhere with countless, equally innocent people having been killed, security experts discussing in the German radio 'Kulturradio' this new threat, say this is not really a war which shall end on some certain day. Rather the problem of fear in face of arbitrary violence is not to know when this kind of invisible war shall end.

Berlin 22.11.2015

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