ArtLess: The imagery of conflict and public engagement: Jane Quinn (PhD History of Art)

The imagery of conflict and public engagement: the ArtLess bursary

The art of conflict which has been produced since the First Gulf War in 1991, 25 years ago, has changed exponentially in its approach, the techiques used, and the varied texture of the experience which the artists are dealing with. The nature of the conflict is different, with asymmetrical warfare replacing the major world wars; the techniques used are different – traditional oils and sketches jostle with CGI, photographs, video, installations; and forensic layering brings together multiple media and delivery mechanisms as a way of representing and monitoring conflict.

However many from the older adult audience, when asked about war art, are likely to think of the output of established artists such as John Singer Sargent or, more recently Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London, or possibly PhotoOp by kennardphillipps. And the younger audience, with 16-24 year olds now spending an average of 27 hours a week online 1 will be forming their view of war through games and videos on the internet, as well as instant news, building a very different view of the nature of conflict.

It is in this space that my recent public engagement exercise, funded by an ArtLess bursary, positioned itself. My background lies in running national, pan-platform campaigns across television, online and events for the BBC on topics such as adult literacy and creative arts for young people, with the aim of encouraging large numbers of the viewing audience to take action. From the start, these campaigns worked to a small number of sharp aims which drove and determined all the public engagement which took place. Essentials in running these campaigns were identifying the target audience, researching their demography, deciding which media suited their needs and ability, and being clear on what we wanted them to do e.g to read more with their children, or to take part in a fashion or film workshop.

The outreach process I used for the ArtLess bursary work drew on this body of knowledge. I wanted to use some of these public engagement techniques to test out how young people react when faced with images of war developed by artists and photographers who have produced them deliberately to make us contemplate a war, or warfare. Once invited to participate, it was important for them to feel informed enough, and confident enough to give their views on the images in front of them. Would they understand the visual references? Would they need much more information to be able to do so? If so, what kind of information, and how should it be delivered? How do these images resonate with young people used to dealing with virtual violence on both the big screen and their PDAs?

In June 2016, I ran a series of interviews with a group of sixth form students from Corelli College in South London. This is a large Cooperative Academy with a specialism in the Arts and a diverse student body. The students were drawn from English and Photography courses, so they were famiiar with visual conventions and creative constructs, but hadn’t specialised in any way in images of war. The interviews were filmed, and subsequently edited, and have been posted on the imagesofconflict site which is part of my research project.

The students’ initial responses to the images they were shown – Simon Norfolk Bleed, John Keane Kneel, Kennard Phillips STOP: Know Your Enemy (image below): Langlands and Bell The House of Osama bin Laden (on a mobile), Don McCullin Shell Shocked Soldier and John Keane’s Scenes on the Road to Hell 1 were filmed using a single camera. Then each student was given more detailed facts about the intentions of the artist, and their secondary responses were also captured.


Kennard Phillips STOP: Know Your Enemy


Kneel c. John Keane

This has provided a rich seam of information about the effects of images of war on this age group. Although a small sample of five students, they demonstrated responses ranging from sensitive and thoughtful analyses of what the image showed, to approaches which were ‘safer’ and which fitted the image into their existing world view. Images which might have been assumed to be heavy with meaning, such as the jumpsuit in John Keane’s Kneel, were not immediately obvious to the participating student until explained. And then their full impact was felt. In all but one case, the additional, narrated information extended the reach of the artwork and added to its effect on the viewers.

This kind of small group research has proved to be helpful in starting to uncover audience responses to images of conflict. To be doubly powerful in understanding the social context of war art these interviews could be run alongside the responses of the over 50s for example, a geographically diverse group or a group of ex-service men and women.

This exercise will feed back into my research and enrich my analysis of the life cycle of images of conflict. The films of the interview also involve a second type of public engagement – with an invited audience, mainly academics, on the website. I am hoping this will become a space where interested users will give their comments and views on the growing body of video and text content available there.

1 OFCOM’s Media Use and Attitudes Report 2015

Jane Quinn

PhD student in the History of Art department, Birkbeck, University of London.


Biographical information

Jane Quinn is in Year 3 of a part-time, practice-based PhD in the History of Art department at Birkbeck. The components of her work are a written dissertation and an accompanying website,

Prior to beginning her PhD, Jane had variously been a book editor with Macmillan and an executive producer with the BBC, overseeing many factual and educational programmes and latterly planning and running national, pan-platform public engagement campaigns. In 2008-09 she lived and worked in Guyana, South America as an advisor to the government on the establishment of a multi-media centre to develop digital learning materials for the country’s schools. She is the author of a book on equal opportunities, and a contributor to the Huffington Post.