Tag Archives: Great War

Severed Limbs & Mangled Faces: Culpability & Compassion

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 1913-14 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959What does Epstein’s Rock Drill – a sculpture from the First World War – tell us about today’s problems?

Could compassion be the answer?

It may sound airy fairy – preachy – perhaps even simplistic to suggest that global issues could be solved by more understanding and kindness.

But it’s an honest question. And one that I don’t think comes with an easy answer.

The 21st century’s problems are wide-ranging. Yet, whilst varied – from uncaring NHS staff, to environmental injustices (see EJOLT for list), to gay intolerance to the global poverty that kills 18 million people every year – they seem characterised by  a  lack of compassion.

On visiting “The Great War in Portraits” exhibition at the National Portrait gallery at the weekend- visitors were exposed to visual representation of the depths of barbarism humanity can plunge to in order to kill one another. Such depths were described as a signal in a change of human nature; a loss of compassion.

Perhaps the two most striking exhibits for me were:

1) The Rock Drill, a bronze  sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein, originally created in 1913, to echo man’s increasing interest in machines and power. But in 1916, it was remodelled. Limbs were severed and the sculpture altered, thought to reflect Epstein‘s altered perception about the future of humanity – mutilated by loss and destruction. 

2) The second, of which I can’t find a picture, was the before-and-after drawings of patients undergoing re-constructive facial surgery, following extensive war injuries.

So did the “Great War” and wars since kill more than just bodies? Do we need to go looking for compassion once again?

To emphasise – I certainly don’t want to be moralistic about all this.

After all, I know that I’m more culpable in this loss of compassion compared to the vast majority of the world’s population.

To quote from Thomas Pogge (ref below):

Many more people – some 360 million – have died from hunger and remediable diseases in peacetime in the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, than perished from wars, civil wars and government repression over the entire twentieth century. And poverty continues unabated, as the official statistics confirm…[and so on]”

I know this. And as one of the richest people on earth if I gave away more of my income, I could help this. Yet I only give so much. An embarrassingly small fraction considering my culpability in not solving the problem.

So from this I take, that compassion may well be the solution.

But compassion doesn’t seem too easy.

1. Thomas Pogge – “Politics as Usual – What lies behind the pro-poor rhetoric

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