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French artist and antimilitarist Matt Mahlen offers a personal reflection on life, work, and identity, and what "culture and resistance" means to him.

About artwork and activism

It has become fashionable again among a few artists and groups in some alternative publishing companies here in France - but also, I believe, in Belgium, Switzerland, the US, Canada, and Britain - to talk about culture and resistance...

For me the topic conjures up this comment: agriculture and culture are both spaces of struggle against the elements, wastelands of liberties, areas of autonomy. This is also the place where the forces, hopes and actions to change the world lie.

I produce a few illustrations for Peace News and sometimes - from an anti-militarist angle - I work with the very Ethical Consumer Magazine from Manchester (in Britain). In fact, I try to support the so-called “different” media with my artistic work (writing and drawings) while creating a small poetic world, which I try to present off the beaten track.

Through my paper window

Here I come in as an anti-militarist militant, as well as - maybe - an artist. However, this is difficult to say because I do not dissociate art, life and politics. They are not impenetrable categories. But I also want to be clear that I do not consider myself as an “anti-militarist artist”. Strictly speaking, I do not see my work as anti-militarist.

Drawing is about observing the world. This position, which needs detachment, distance and calm, also involves working with social projects, feeling reality and being in the world. However, through my paper window I can see war devastating the planet, but also, and above all, I can see the military model serving the “new” democratic pattern, national conscription taking up the face of schooling. We travel from “good and faithful service to the company” to calls for “economic patriotism”*.

Public space is diminishing and is being privatised, whereas private space, which is also shrinking, is gradually kept under greater surveillance and control. Therefore, it is the places of exchanges, debates and meetings, such as the domain of contemplative withdrawal, love, or other secret gardens, that are assaulted and invaded by war. If the latter takes upan important place in my work, this is above all because there are many wars in the world - and of many kinds...

Insubordination to economic war

A large number of my images, my other drawings and many of my pieces of work do not deal with anti-militarist issues directly and are perhaps not considered “militant”. In fact, my images are inquiring ones. I seek to make the viewer stop, wonder,doubt and think, in front of the small settings I have constructed with my pencils and brushes. I try to make the image autonomous. I try to avoid a drawing being either a contracted version of a slogan, an embellishment of an idea, or the redundant illustration of an accompanying text.

This is where my militant commitment, or my simple attention to the affairs of the world, is precious - and intervenes. Both act as a filter and influence my illustrations. My political commitment appears more in the way that I work, rather than in the results of my work. For example, I do not draw for advertising purposes. This is partly an insubordination to economic war, but also an act of disobedience towards the perverted world of communication, which goes beyond the blatant sale of products and, in fact, concerns the incredible majority of so-called journalistic works.

Making things visible

My concern for gradual change, and the use of images, is related to both a personal self-discipline in work and to respect for the reader, and is absolutely revolutionary! Yet I try not to have a schizophrenic attitude - in destroying with one hand what I make with the other, or in denying on the one hand what I claim, or what I represent, on the other. This - which seems to be for me the minimum to be credible - is far from representing the leitmotif for other members of the profession. It is not unusual to see a virulent or pertinent drawing and then an insignificant or condescending one signed by the same artist, belonging to a dominant media establishment.

There are some who believe that it is the amount of coverage an artist gets that creates the aura... In fact, this docility also goes, alas, with a consumerist political attitude where commitment lies almost entirely in the charitable offer of a drawing for a good cause. However, to come back to anti-militarism (or any other struggle), one must realise that a single drawing cannot prevent war. Nevertheless, art can make things visible and must imperatively break free from the following maxim, attributed to Napoléon: “Order, is talking to the eyes”.

Note: * Quote from the former French socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, in spring 2002.

Matt Mahlen is a cartoonist and writer for alternative media. He lives in Strasbourg, France, and works principally for Peace News, Ethical Consumer Magazine, S!lence and Politis.

Topics: Activism | Culture