As long as human beings subsist, the world of art has existed parallel with the man as a way of perceiving, cognizing and reflecting the reality. Moreover, with the flow of the time, art proved to be not only a means of representation of existing reality by way of retrospective view, but it started to act as a medium providing a deeper insight into the essence of being, as well as into the possible ways of further developments. At times, even not realizing it themselves, creators of art forms in their works manage to foresee the future — and in this, send a warning to the whole mankind admonishing of a pending danger and providing food for thought for generations onwards. Such is the ceramic sculpture Global Death and Destruction created by a prominent American sculptor and ceramist Robert Arneson in 1982-83 and exhibited within the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art at Stanford University Cantor Arts Center.
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The first impression produced by the sight of a six-foot-tall work is that one is observing the model of the universe. Just as in the ancient Hindus believed the Earth was supported by elephants standing on a tortoise, Arneson’s three-level world is based on a kind of a missile. “War Memorial” says the monument’s rectangular base, thus stimulating the viewer’s thought to the idea of war laying in the basis of all life. War is the beginning of everything, the start, the foundation, the instigation for further events, the engine of history — thus it is the focus of the sculptor’s attention as the starting point for developing a whole story therefrom.
Being in the mainstream of cultural trends of the time, Arneson reflects on the situation in the international political arena and produces a generalized image of war, its means and its consequences. On the second level of the construction one observes a kind of volcano-shaped mountain belching out a black sphere which on closer examination and discovery of continents and oceans contours turns out to be the globe — but not the way one is used to seeing it, all blue-yellow-and-green model of Mother Earth. It is of a frightening black hue, the one reminding of soot and fumes of heavily industrialized areas where mankind seems to have forgotten the true beauty and freshness of original nature; where all flesh, man and beast seem to have been dried out by the deadly breath of mass production exhausting the once fertile and flourishing grounds.
Not only is the globe ghastly black: upon further examination it becomes obvious that the cone of the mountain and the sphere of the globe together constitute a likeness of a mushroom cloud, the one that appears at a nuclear explosion. Seized by the feeling common to the generation of his time all over the world, Arneson in his sculpture personifies the fear of a nuclear war, which, once unleashed, would stretch its deadly embrace all over the world and strangle it without any hope for salvation. The usually humorous sculptor appears in Global Death and Destruction not with a satire, but with a tragic view on the process and results of war. Witnessing the trends of the time, the extremes of the cold war, the arms race, he envisages the feasible dangers of the most up-to-date and sophisticated weapons, and depicts them as inevitable, born by war and bearing destruction.
Proceeding from the frightful base of a missile, via the ghost of a nuclear explosion, the sculpture is crowned by a no less macabre top: a man’s head, torn away from the body. The anguish of war, the convulsions of pain, the excruciating conscience of guilt for what had been done by man’s evil inventions to his own once green planet — all this reflects in the distorted face topping the pyramid of Global Death and Destruction. The mutilations of the skull, like those observed on the previous level with the globe, signify a considerable deviation from the ideal standard initially designed and stipulated by nature. Disproportion and asymmetry on the top level of the sculpture create misbalance and disharmony, conveying an impression of instability and irregularity as compared to the proportional and regular base and middle level of the construction. This, in its turn, brings about ideas of how precarious the position of man himself is in this world in contrast to the stable and imminent existence of the things created by him: war, and as a means of it, nuclear weapon.
In the distorted face on top one can discern the idea of suffering mankind — and, however surprising and unexpected the revelation may be, there emerges a parallel between Arneson’s sculpture and the symbolic image of Christian Golgotha, with a skull on top and an inscription on the hill. In this respect, there can be revealed a message sent by the sculptor: God could have suffered for mankind and saved it in His almightiness, but man himself is not capable of such deeds and he will only suffer eternally coming to self-destruction. Here the idea of apocalyptical inevitability comes to the fore, conveying the overall feeling of doom impending over mankind who in its ceaseless yearn for power and omnipotence produces creations that actually turn out against man himself, and thus makes a rod for its own back.
The multiple ideas and meanings designed in Global Death and Destruction are rendered by multiple means of sculptural expression: form, color, material blend into a single entity producing an overwhelming effect. The observer’s eye is captivated by the seemingly strict and classical geometrical forms of rectangle, triangle and circle, underlying the disproportionate and decentralized shape of the skull on top which destroys all the previous balance and harmony of basic primary forms. The color accents are set insightfully, accentuating each separate element of the construction in natural, yet catchy palette, with symbolism of colors represented in the black “pollution” of the earth and the deathly paleness of the skull. The ultimate choice of clay as a constructive material proves to be the more successful as firstly it is the material of which first Man was originally made of — and therefore the basis of all living and the ideal medium of reflecting the world in sculpture; and secondly, its roughness allows creating a feeling of brokenness, distortedness and destruction, as the eye is mesmerized by the unhinged lines of the construction.
Global Death and Destruction appears among the other exhibits of the gallery as a manifest against war — a topic which was burning both for the time of creation, and for modern world. Despite multiple international efforts, the threat of nuclear war has not been withdrawn and mankind is evidencing the results of its own military cruelty in various points of hostility. With his antiwar creations, Arneson proved to be the herald of peace as a vital issue for contemporary society — and as it appears, the topic never expires even several decades after he created his sculptures. Considering this, the choice of Global Death and Destruction and its position as one of the central works in the gallery is justified, as man in his endless pride and arrogance should be continuously reminded of the grave destructive consequences that emerge as a result of human activity on Mother Earth.
Arneson, Robert. Global Death and Destruction. Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Stanford, CA.
Sanford, John. “Stanford Acquires Sculpture by Robert Arneson”. Stanford University News Release. 2002. Web.