As I write these lines, Russian bombs, artillery shells, and missiles are pouring down across Ukraine, on factories and hospitals and schools, on shopping centers and train depots, on apartment buildings and houses. The assault has continued for more than three months, sparing no part of the country. Meanwhile, huddling in shelters, children have been drawing pictures.
One can sample these images online: pictures filled with black smoke and orange flames, helicopters looming overhead, tanks in the streets, people firing guns or fleeing. The children use blue and yellow crayons, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, to draw their own nation’s weapons and soldiers, cheering on their side in the war, but they also use these colors to draw symbols of peace, such as a yellow and blue dove bearing an olive twig in its beak, or a yellow and blue airplane dropping strawberries instead of bombs. One defiant picture shows a pair of girls holding hands, one dressed in the colors of Ukraine, the other in the colors of Russia, both grinning as they dance on the prostrate body of Vladimir Putin.
Allowing for differences in age and skill, these drawings are as eloquent in their own way as Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica, named for a Basque town in northern Spain that was bombed by German and Italian forces in April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Much of the town was reduced to charred rubble. People who fled into nearby fields were machine-gunned by low-flying planes. As in Ukraine today, the attack was ordered by a tyrant, Francisco Franco, and the victims were nearly all civilians, mostly women and children.
This was only one atrocity in a civil war filled, like all wars, with atrocities. We remember this particular horror chiefly because of Picasso’s painting, which expresses the grief and outrage we all feel, not only about the slaughter in Guernica, but about every murder, every rape, every willful act of destruction, whether it occurs on a battlefield, in the supposed safety of a school or synagogue or church, or in a movie theater, nightclub, bedroom, or back alley.
Humans are not the only animals that attack or kill members of their own species, but we alone make art to protest or lament such cruelty. The long agony of slavery and its bitter Jim Crow legacy gave rise to the blues, gospel hymns, and jazz. Lynching inspired the song “Strange Fruit,” best known in the 1939 recording by Billie Holiday, with lyrics by Abel Meeropol, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who would have brought with them from the old country stories about pogroms. Among Meeropol’s students at DeWitt Clinton High School was James Baldwin, who would later write novels and essays denouncing racism, and would pave the way for today’s blossoming of gay literature.
One could trace a similar pattern to show how the centuries-long oppression of women gave rise to a wealth of art, from the essays of Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to the novels of Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. One can see in Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs of sharecroppers a profound sympathy for the poor in a society arranged then, as now, to favor the rich. Art does not merely protest oppression; it demonstrates the worth and dignity of those who have been exploited, abused, or despised.
Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps wrote and staged plays, composed and performed music. Art did not save them from the gas chambers, but it reminded them of beauty and affirmed their humanity. Primo Levi, one of those millions of prisoners, wrote in his memoir Survival in Auschwitz about reciting for a fellow inmate verses from Dante’s Divine Comedy, including the following passage, here in translation:
Think of your breed; for brutish ignorance
Your mettle was not made; you were made men,
To follow after knowledge and excellence.
W.H. Auden’s elegy on the death of William Butler Yeats, written in the shadow of World War II, contains the much-debated assertion “poetry makes nothing happen.” The same might be said of any work of art—but it is only a half truth. Dante’s verses did not free Levi from Auschwitz, but they helped him avoid resorting to suicide. Songs did not break the shackles of slavery, but they helped Black people preserve their courage and creativity through generations.
Children’s drawings will not stop missiles from falling, but they can say to the world, even to the invaders, “We are not targets, not enemies. We are kids, like those who sit in your lap or play outside your window.” A child’s crayon picture of two grinning girls holding hands and dancing on a dictator can stir the heart of a stranger on the far side of the ocean—a stranger who will use these few words to make his own plea for peace in their land.
Scott Russell Sanders is the author of Small Marvels (Indiana Univ., June), a novel in stories about three generations of a family who live together in a patched-up house.