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Photo by Colin Noden/Apt613

Reith Lecture Series examines war’s fatal attraction at the Canadian War Museum

By Colin Noden on July 5, 2018

Artist? You May be More Powerful than You Know

A Call to Arts sounded from Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum on June 27th. The BBC’s flagship Reith Lecture Series chose Ottawa’s Canadian War Museum to anchor a multinational tour examining “the tangled history of war and society”.

Margaret MacMillan taking questions at the Canadian War Museum. Photo by Colin Noden/Apt613

Margaret MacMillan, a Companion of the Order of Canada, distinguished academic, and Canadian, was chosen as this year’s lecturer. War’s Fatal Attraction, an examination of the relationship between art and conflict, was her subject.

Ms. MacMillan began to calmly dissect the role of artists in conflict over recorded history.

Questions were allowed to grow in our minds until we were hit with a seemingly off-the-cuff remark that stunned the audience. No gasps. Just that centimeter incline of heads which showed locked concentration and active thought.

Ms. MacMillan wondered if the art trends preceding the World Wars (cubism/futurism/supremativism/constructivism) were preparing society for what was coming. If you are involved in any sort of artistic expression, then your ears would have been tingling. You can listen to her exact words on the broadcast and podcast starting July 24th, 2018 on BBC4.

Are our artists influencing our thought, or reflecting it? Is art a social barometer? And if so, what is today’s art telling us about wars in our future?

In music, hip hop is now the top genre in Canada with an 86% increase in streaming in 2017. What’s loaded on your favorite playlist? What attitude is reflected in our politics and culture? Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth (Something’s Happening Here)” reflected the USA’s confusion through the Anti-war and Civil Rights period. What is being played in Canada as our troops enter one of the most dangerous peace keeping missions in the world right now? Our reconciliation processes? Dealing with inequality? Or in our diplomatic negotiations with other nations?

Multimedia art gives us action movies. War dressed up in sci-fi and fantasy. Star Wars, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 were in the highest grossing list for 2017. The game industry? “Call of Duty: WWII” was the best-selling game of 2017. War’s fatal attraction is still strong.

Performance art refuses to die. The Rand Corporation reports “…live performances are proliferating at the local level, typically in very small organizations with low operating budgets and a mix of paid and unpaid performers and staff.” Why them, and what are they saying? Can visual artists afford to create socially important works?

Now, Ms. MacMillan never asked those questions. She simply rolled out the facts until the questions started arising beneath them. She did answer one question as to what art form she thought could be powerful in enlightening us during future conflicts. She thought photography would be the answer.

But photojournalists are being censored and their media outlets are disappearing. So where do we see these important images? Well, lucky us! At the Canadian War Museum, starting July 20th with the World Press Photo – Exhibition 2018.

It’s these kinds of events that continue to make the Canadian War Museum a relevant part of our lives. Thought provoking and enlightening.


The BBC Radio 4 Mark of Cain Reith Lecture series podcasts can be downloaded online. The lecture featured in this article will be broadcast on July 24, 2018. The World Press Photo – Exhibition 2018 is free. The exhibit will be at the Canadian War Museum from July 20-August 12, 2018. The Canadian War Museum is located at 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa. Current hours, admission fees and exhibit information can be found on their website.