John Keane’s exhibition of paintings, Gulf, depicting the Desert Storm campaign,footnote1 aroused controversy because, faced by the righteous exercise of Western military might, it failed to demonstrate the standard mixture of endorsement and high-minded awe, rather making unaccountable suggestions about the operation of financial and media interests in the conflict. The painting that aroused most ire was Mickey Mouse at the Front,footnote2 a collection of reminders of the more inconvenient aspects of the great victory. Laid out in front of a fortified city are various elements: a palm tree hunched over unnaturally like some rearing worm, its fronds brushing the ground, serving to indicate environmental catastrophe; a shopping trolley full of weaponry, a symbol of conspicuous military consumption where combat becomes a consumer good, a motif which nicely links the expenditure of ‘ordnance’ with the inviolable Western freedom to consume; worst of all (for the press), a grinning Mickey Mouse squatting upon a plinth as if defecating, an image of America, and more broadly of chewing-gum culture, complacently and even blissfully presiding over the catastrophe.

Keane is evidently a liberal, anti-war artist of noble intentions and it might seem that such work should be welcomed as a break with the bellicose British consensus. Yet in looking more closely at his painting it becomes apparent that Keane is not merely against this war but war as such, and also no doubt against pain, sin and death. While this position allows him a vague critical perspective on the Gulf War, it blinds him to its specific horrors. Indeed his work is as much symptom as representation, a precise register of liberal confusion about the conflict. As such, it merely continues the long, honourable tradition of impotent and subjective outrage with which artists (sensitive souls) have greeted war. For Alan Borg, the director-general of the Imperial War Museum, ‘Artists from Goya to Picasso have set down their emotional responses to war, which are often bleakly despairing and equally often touched with irony. Keane’s work stands within this eminent tradition and it is perhaps not surprising that some people find it upsetting; but who could not be upset by the Basra road or the burning oil wells.’footnote3 It is of course unfortunate that some in the West have been ‘upset’ by the collateral effects of Desert Storm, but art makes them look this salutary moral lesson in the face—before assigning it to the eternal narrative of man’s inhumanity to his fellow human beings (and artists’ powerful condemnations of the same). What is most lacking from this view is any conception, other than in purely utopian terms, that such acts could be avoided, and of the details of this violent episode committed in our name and with our resources against specific people and in a highly particular way.

Keane’s work in the exhibition fell into two main types: documentary, genre scenes of the military camp; and large, symbolically loaded works which attempt a modernized history painting. Keane was first assigned to the raf, and as a commissioned artist of record made paintings of their encampments which draw on old devices and are not so very different from many works made during the two world wars. These pictures are often quite pretty, for the artist could hardly but be fascinated by the unfamiliar light and space of the desert, and within it the disposition of military equipment and personnel. In Artillery, for instance, the handling of colour and space has a strongly picturesque aspect, while Draughts portrays a game played under the attractive dappled light produced by camouflage netting. This allure also operates in works which portray things that Keane could not have seen directly and is ironically grafted onto depictions of military equipment. Every Time We Say Goodbye is a thickly painted, light, even lush picture of a Tornado releasing smart bombs, framed with the familiar military photographs of the projectile’s destructive progress. It may be that the appealing cast of this picture is supposed to stop the viewer short, to provoke thought about the spectacular nature of the war, yet there is little to suggest this intrinsically. The pictures produced by these weapons are by now positioned within a uniformly positive discourse of Allied military competence which is hardly questioned by Keane’s decorative use of them here.footnote4

There is a double aspect of prettiness in Keane’s work which encompasses his painterly, almost Impressionist concern with light, colour and space, and the messiness of the surfaces themselves—the careless smearing and scumbling of paint which may stand as picturesque simulacra of battlefield chaos. The two rarely productively coincide or collide, and in the Ashes to Ashes series Keane’s concern with surface is given full reign in abstract works made from sand, oil and coal mixed into thick, swirling pictures reminiscent of informel painting. An objection to much of Keane’s work is its heavy-handed literalness, and the lack of representation in this series does little to overcome the problem, given the leaden symbolism of their elements.footnote5

The more ambitious works, which are not purely documentary, are collage assemblages that encourage detailed readings and that should evoke a deep consideration of their subjects. In an overt comment, We Are Making A New World Order is framed with dollar bills and painted over a ground of newspaper. Within this moneyed frame, Keane employs an encrusted paint surface (reminiscent of debris and sand) into which is embedded diverse matter, including a spine of metal rings, a plastic-coated sequence of family portraits warped by heat, a crushed Pepsi can labelled in Arabic. Recurrent motifs make their appearance here: a sinister American soldier in dark glasses, an Arab dressed in a burnous seen from behind, a blood-red Mercedes. These subjects are at once problematic and overfamiliar, serving less as symbols of new configurations than as instantly recognizable clichés—the Mercedes, in particular, summoning up images of Bayswater as much as of the Gulf. Keane is presented with the problem of how to represent these figures in liberal painting, especially the inconceivably rich Arab of reality and legend, a figure that on one level is an oppressor, on another oppressed, being the subject of the protracted discourse of Orientalism. For the liberal artist such a figure is almost unrepresentable, and the tactic (which solves nothing) is to make him turn his back on the viewer, being known only as a type and a presence.

With these large-scale works, Keane is trying to refashion history painting by creating apocalyptic landscapes with sizeable casts where meaning is generated by melodramatic gesture. There are fundamental problems with this spectacular mode of representation and its apparent heroization of the events involved, even when the presentation of them is entirely negative, as in Legacy with its portrayal of the ‘liberation’ of a despoiled land, again under the aegis of a grinning Mickey Mouse. The mere image of environmental disaster in the Gulf, after all, does not necessarily question the rationale of the whole enterprise, but may be used merely to drive home the lesson of Iraqi iniquity. The mix of documentary and symbolic modes produces difficulties. Keane is a painter of record (naturally so, being a commissioned war artist) and his defence against aspersions cast on his loyalty was to claim that he had only painted what he had seen, that the shopping trolley full of weapons and the Mickey Mouse figure were actually there. Likewise, authenticity supposedly inheres in the photographs and objects collaged into the works because they, like the artist, were present at the scene. Keane assumes that because genuine documentary material is filtered through artistic sensibility it will automatically serve in the expression of his attitude to the war. This is far from the case, and these complex works often require the detailed expositions provided in the catalogue.

Worse than these ambiguities, Keane fails to represent or even suggest the very peculiar nature of the war. In the context of an exhibition held at the Imperial War Museum, it was especially pressing that he should do so, for to reach Keane’s work the viewer had to cross the main court with its mechanical reminders of very different conflicts, and upstairs is exhibited a fine collection of paintings by other commissioned artists of the world wars. In utter contrast to these protracted and mutually destructive conflicts, Desert Storm was largely a strife of spectacle, a war waged for public consumption, to humiliate a tyrant in order to ensure the survival of two demagogues. Uniquely, it was a ‘conflict’ in which the enemy barely returned fire: Keane has, bizarrely, been criticized for besmirching the valour of the Allied soldiers in what has been admitted was a ‘turkey shoot’. The elite Iraqi troops and airforce, made so much of by the media, were withdrawn to a safe distance, the rest left to put up what defence they could. Of course there were financial considerations behind the war, and Keane is right to point to them, but it was fought primarily to produce images for domestic consumption in the most heavily involved countries.