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Jillian Steinhauer: In Defense of Jane Hammond’s Fallen

January 5, 2012

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By **Jillian Steinhauer**

A good critic doesn’t tell the artist what they ought to have done.

desert.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Neil Krug.

After my piece on Jane Hammond’s Fallen ran in the Daily, my editors asked me if I thought that the memorial, or my piece about it, should mention the Iraqi civilians killed in the war. Though I find it nothing short of horrifying that probably more than 114,212 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the American invasion, my answer to that question is no.

When considering a work of art, I believe the critic has a responsibility to accept the piece on its own terms. This means experiencing, judging, and thinking about the process and the product before me—figuring out what works about it, what doesn’t, and why. A good reviewer enters an artwork and crawls around inside it; a bad one stands outside and says, “I would have done it this way.” Unless I see what I consider an glaring omission—and in the case of Fallen, I don’t think there is one—it’s not my place to tell the artist what she should or shouldn’t include.

As for why I don’t consider Hammond’s failure to include Iraqi civilians a glaring omission: Fallen is a memorial to dead soldiers. Though it eschews the traditional materials of concrete and stone, it fits into a long history of works created by Felix de Weldon, Maya Lin, and many others. The fact that the Iraq war was particularly unjust, corrupt, and brutal doesn’t change that. Actually, those circumstances make Hammond’s decision to humanize and memorialize the soldiers even more important. As with their predecessors in Vietnam, the men and women who fought in Iraq don’t get to be heroes. Our society doesn’t lionize them; it ignores, even shuns them.

For some of us, it’s easier to care about dead Iraqis than dead American soldiers. I understand this impulse. But Hammond’s piece reminds us that, despite our moral discomfort, many of our people also saw horrible things and died young. The Iraq war, like all wars, wasn’t just an abstract idea to write about and rail against from the comfort of our homes; it was a real conflict fought by real people made of flesh and blood.

Editor’s Note: We want to know your thoughts. Do we, as a political/arts mag with an international scope have the responsibility to critique Hammond’s omission of Iraqi civilians, who did not sign up for this war? Or do good critics, as Jillian suggests, refrain from giving editorial direction where they see none to be given?

Send your responses to editors [at] guernicamag [dot] com. We’ll post the best on Monday’s blog.

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Jillian Steinhauer is an editorial assistant at Guernica.

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