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Art, the silent witness to war, has changed its testimony

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Admittedly, it’s a perversity of sorts to call war art at The Imperial War Museum in Manchester a respite from other art news. But given all the record auction sales stories that dominate these days, war art is the pause that refreshes. At least it’s about something besides money.

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“Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War” offers 40 artists’ views of war in the last 20 years with 70 works from installations, photography and film to sculpture, paintings, prints and books.

Exhibit examples include Willie Doherty's sad photograph “Unapproved Road,” which pictures a makeshift roadblock in Northern Ireland that didn’t stand up to an incursion.

Steve McQueen’s “Queen and Country,” a stamp sheet of photos of British soldiers killed in Iraq usually reserved for images of the Queen.

“Photo Op” by kennardphillipps of Tony Blair taking a grinning “selfie” before a horrific explosion in the background.

All of which is a clear split from America’s heroic commemorations of war, like Felix Deweldon's statue of five marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

Not far from the statue stands a different homage to war more in line with the contemporary examples in Manchester: Maya Lin’s Viet Nam War memorial. A long black marble wall half-buried in the earth, it’s inscribed with the names of the dead and missing.

The difference between the two memorials is more than stylistic. It shows the change in artists’ way of viewing war. While Deweldon saw his work as a "symbol of our freedom," Lin saw her work as a symbol of a second kind: "I had an impulse to cut open the earth, an initial violence that in time would heal. The grass would grow back, but the cut would remain."

In visual art like this, you can see how we have thought about war through the decades, how triumph has given way to tragedy.

Norman Mailer's story about the 1967 peace march on Washington, The Armies of the Night, sounded the cry for change. A painting by Rockwell Kent called "Bombs Away" was the unwitting illustration: a woman sitting in a field as bombs burst in the air.

The architecture of the International War Museum by Daniel Libeskind also puts a harsh face on war. The building consists of three linked buildings shaped like shards from a broken globe, or as Libeskind put it, “to reflect the way war has devastated our world.”

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