The year was 1983. On the tele, there was a news report about the tenth anniversary of Pablo Picasso’s death. As a child, I knew nothing about fine arts and artistic movements. But, his name was instantly recognisable. The word ‘Picasso’, appeared often in family and school colloquialisms. To say someone was a ‘Picasso’, was, on occasion to mock. Mostly though, it was used to praise artistic talent. On the old living room carpet in 1983, it was likely the first time that I had seen Picasso’s face. Also, I think it might have been the first time I’d seen his paintings and had the experience of people chatting about what he’s done. Picasso’s face, often photographed with a steely gaze, lends itself well to news reports. A gaze that somewhat helped me be drawn into the stories of his influences on art and society.

Amongst all the words and images in that news report, Guernica stood out for me. Its monochrome style, and its immense scale, was striking. Particularly in comparison to some of his other paintings. Since then, I have grown fond of many of them. But back then, it seemed like an awkward way to draw a man carrying a guitar. I cannot recall the programme showing many of his other paintings as clearly or in as much detail. This may be partly because ‘nudity’ may have been carefully censored out by the then State broadcaster, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Mostly though, I think it was that I formed a greater and more enduring personal connection that made that particular image stand out in memory. Guernica was more than just a painting. The suffering of the people and animals were plain to see. In a way, I did not notice the “art”. I experienced an artist rendering an image of suffering that even the untrained ‘gaze’ of a child could appreciate.

Since 1983, Guernica has crept into conversations and readings, and, its story is multifaceted. There are three themes of the associated political history that is worth demarcating: “The bombing”, “the reporting” and “the reminder”. These are somewhat idealised themes, but not entirely. The themes offer direction as to how one might respond to, or cope with, the routine terror that arises in our social relations. It reminds us that our capacity to bear proper witness, to these moments of terror, are as crucial as attempting to do something about it.

The phrase proper witness is not to be reduced into something equivalent to a photograph or carbon copy. No one can see the world in such a perfect and unhindered way. We all bring something along with us that shades our observations. A fearful person sees the world differently from an empathetic person and so forth. I use the phrase proper witness to signal a mindset that allows us to recognise the ways in which “we” have contributed to the problem. Where “we” might be complicit, reckless, and powerless. Without linking ‘terror’ and ‘us’ in these ways, I think it would be difficult to consider the manner in which ‘we’ should change. Often, there is avoidance to speak about complicity when we have not been the original cause. We like our histories and societies neat.

Guernica provides a psychic provocation for me, helping me to maintain the mindfulness that war is failure of social cooperation*, and in many ways it is thus correct to also describe war as a moral failure. All too often, there is a turn towards thinking that war is inescapable, and that, somehow better military strategy is the best solution. That enemies should have stopped first. And that the allies should have acted faster to stop them. It is often claimed that there is a logic to deciding when war may be deemed a necessity. It is very easy to attempt to phrase that logic of necessity as somehow apolitical, and thus a logic that is immune from ethical criticism.

For me, the story of Guernica helps to frame war as the failure of political communities. That there are, many other ways to “act first” and “cooperate better”. This demands greater reflexivity in the manner in which we understand the task of those who attain political power and the manner in which populations allow them to speak on their behalf. “Political power”, in terms of the nature and prominence of mandate accorded/possessed within the social realm. It may be that military generals attain such political power. Equally, it may be state diplomats and so forth.

There is an underlying and rather abstract point to blogging these personal reflections. The point, and it is important to emphasize its abstractness, may be articulated through a question. What might the intellectual vantage point for universal justice be, if the experiences of human beings are not shared? It seems to me that the variation of human experience itself makes the creation of, or the assumption of, universal justice an impossibility. This point is rather abstract. But, it has huge significance with regards to what might be happening at an intellectual level, when we choose to argue that law and legal institutions should be premised on the notion of justice. In no way do I argue that we should not do so.

Rather, my point is that it matters how the languages of law are constructed, as well as, how the understandings shared human experiences are constructed. By raising that there is an acknowledgement of some degree of mystery, and that this should beckon populations to reflect upon the content of their conscience in more radical ways. One such way might be for a population to conceive of empathy as a moment of collective suffering and collective responsibility. This may sound easy. But scaling up individual and familial moments into the whole community is a tough thing to do, precisely because the collective is always imagined. ‘Imagined’ is an apropriate word, since for a population to perceive itself as a collective and to call itself “we” requires the population to subject itself. And, the subjection is an act of the mind. We would like to think it is a self-evident fact. The point is, the act of solidarity is a human event. The story about Guernica captures such a moment of solidarity.

Anyways, I thought to share some photos and links that I felt engaged these three themes.

The Bombing – 26 April 1937

Die Ruinen von Guernica 5603/37

Die Ruinen von Guernica

There are a number of people/ideas that I refer to when trying to make sense of the expert consensus that operated amongst those who advocated total war and the terrorising of civilians. Most of those ideas were seriously flawed. Yet, it appears that those ideas continue to survive today. I would like to think that If one could learn to mount a critique of how short-sighted and unethical the 19th/20th century authors were, then perhaps we could mount the same criticism today.

Here are some links:

A write-up the bombing of civilians in WW2:

A book discussing strategic bombing:

Compare with contemporary example of targeting and reference to civilian deaths as collateral damage:

The Reporting

Guernica Being Painted

George steer was the war correspondent who reported the events at Guernica. It is said that his reports played a role in leading Picasso to paint Guernica. Perhaps a strange observation to make, but Picasso’s “painted report” is more enduring in the public imagination than Steer’s original newspaper report.

Here are some links:

News Report by George Steer for the The Times about Guernica 1937:

Elements of the painting:

“Picasso forbade the display of his painting in Spain until the country once again had ‘public liberties and democratic institutions’. It was moved from New York to Madrid on 25 October 1981, on the centenary of Picasso’s birth.” From Ian Patterson’s 2007 book Guernica and Total War

The Reminder

Guernica Security Council

There are also various moments of controversy when the Guernica tapestry – the replica of the painting that Picasso’s friend Rockefeller had made and is on loan to the UN, placed outside the Security Council Chamber – is moved or covered to suit allegedly political or aesthetic demands.

Here are some links:

Anne Orford writing on Guernica in a 2011 book Experiencing War by Christine Sylvester:

“What’s so controversial about Picasso’s Guernica?”:

“75 years of Picasso’s Guernica: An Inconvenient Masterpiece”:

“Picasso tapestry from U.N. to London”:

Recent speech by Spanish King to the UN General Assembly referring to Guernica:

Some Further Reflections

These three threads tells us a ‘human story’. Much has been left to the reader to “convert” these links into a narrative. What I hope this blog was able to share, is a story of the hopes and failures of human conscience. It also tells us something about the continual interaction of institutional power with those stories. I tend to have a rather nuanced approach to thinking about institutional powers and ethics. Meaning to say, I tend to think that institutions do wish to do justice to matters of conscience. However, quite often, we find that doing justice to matters of conscience is a troublesome field to navigate. It contains a lot of challenges and uncertainty, that experts find difficult to deal with. There is often a claim that we already have good ideas, but not enough political will to bring those good ideas to practice. The three threads reminds us about the merits of simply acknowledging political violence and trying to be more open about it. It is something that we must be reminded as we encounter the reports of special rapporteurs and commissions of inquiry. We must see these institutional voices as acknowledging, reminding and warning us about the ethical deficit in our political histories.

It has been one of my aspirations to be able to see Guernica in person. I’ve yet to travel to the Iberian Peninsula, and when I do, I would need to squeeze in a trip to Madrid.

Here is also a Wikipedia link to ongoing conflicts:; BBC Ethics guide on war:; US drone war in numbers:;

* “war is failure of social cooperation” is a deliberately chosen phrase. I am not convinced with the intentions behind alternative phrasings. For instance, “the cause of war is not the failure of social cooperation” or “the cause of war was the deliberate act of another”. The latter two sentences is what one might hear in the children’s playground. Of course there are many causes of war outside of military conflict, such as poverty. My point is that engaging with historic blame is not as important (in ethical terms) as  engaging with the task of coexistence.