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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

How will war artists deal with this conflict? 25/10/01

The business of destroying each other has inspired some remarkable moments of creativity. Britain sent its first artists to find inspiration in the fields of northern France. Since then, the Imperial War Museum has dispatched an official war artist to every major conflict involving British forces. Their work has always been representational, but for the latest war, they find the old rules may no longer apply. Angela Weight is on the committee that's deciding who should be commissioned.

It's very difficult. The committee had long discussions about it. We didn't feel we could make a decision right now, the situation's changing all the time. It's not a question of ringing up an artist, saying, "We want you to go out to Pakistan and come back with half a dozen drawings." It's not like that any more.

Ten years ago, she was inspecting the results of another commission to paint the war in the Gulf. John Keane spent time with British ground troops and shot this footage. The paintings that followed were distinctive and made an impact. He's convinced an artist can bring another dimension to the understanding of a conflict.

I always use this analogy of the artist being to the other media... The poet is to journalism, in that the poet and the journalist are both using words but to a different agenda and a different end. The artist may be observing the same events, as I did using photography and video and so on, but to something in the end more reflective and considered, not to meet tomorrow's deadline or tonight's news.

Given that this war is largely inaccessible, what do you think you could contribute this time round?

In this instance, it would be different. It's difficult to know exactly what will happen. There's no front line. Indeed, we're all on the front line now.

This is the work of Isaac Julien, the current favourite to win this year's Turner Prize. His medium is not canvass but film. He thinks the war against terrorism, what's being called a hidden war, needs a more elliptical approach.

The usual commissions you would get, where someone imagines the landscape or is interested in figurative representations of war, perhaps won't work in the way that we need to think about the war. It's a war that's mostly invisible, which has biomedical strategies, which even reverts to Hollywood representations of disaster movies to make its political point. I think we must evoke a much more rigorous and intellectual approach when thinking about these representations and the way of thinking beyond them. I think a conceptual approach perhaps might be much more useful for thinking behind what are really quite horrid events.

For him, one of the new challenges is that the iconic images of September 11th are too shocking for artists to submit to the normal processes of manipulation.

I think we have to now think about the question of 'spectreisation', the question of the sensation of these kinds of images. These images in the past would be images which artists would deploy in their work for ironic comment. But I think the question of irony within this realm of representing war would become very questionable because of the emotional baggage that we have towards such images. September 11th changed, I think, our ways of looking.

It's a view likely to find a sympathetic hearing at the Imperial War Museum.

It does demand a different response. Artists, you know, because they're using modern media, it isn't really necessary for them to go there, perhaps. They'll be responding to, like all of us, to what they see on the television, but in quite conceptual ways. The concept of the eyewitness is no longer as important because you cannot witness this because you cannot get close to it. War is now happening at a distance and, in a sense, the art will happen at a distance as well.

If artists no longer need to go with armed forces to the front line, they no longer need any help from this lot, the Ministry of Defence. In the past, you always needed their permission to go anywhere near the battle zone. That's always raised questions about how much the involvement of Government limits how free artists feel they can be in portraying a conflict. So does this long-distance, more conceptual approach give artists an opportunity to portray truly their own vision of war without any whiff of propaganda? The artist Tony Carter has a history of working outside the establishment. Now principal of one of London's big art schools, ten years ago he produced home-made, non-commissioned conceptual work as a personal response to the Gulf War. He even managed to get it shown at the Imperial War Museum, where it ruffled some feathers. He thinks however enlightened the authorities are now about the kind of artist they commission, any kind of patronage compromises the work.

I'm sure the War Museum or whatever political lobby wants to send an artist to Afghanistan thinks they are sending them with an open brief, but it simply cannot be the case that the artist could be there under official sanction, feeling entirely free to reflect what they see and experience. I think the great works of art which are done in response to war are done out of necessity. They are not done out of official commission.

Do you think that the whole concept of an official war artist is now a redundant way of operating?

I suppose if I'm pressed, I'd say it isn't an appropriate way. What the establishment, the Imperial War Museum if you like, are challenged to do is to somehow extend their antennae so that the artists who themselves are moved to make a response, if there was a better way of identifying when and who are the exemplars, then that I think would be a more appropriate way of reflecting artists' responses.

Angela Weight is uncomfortable with the term, but still thinks it's a job worth doing.

I think we've been moving away from the concept of an "official war artist". It has unfortunate connotations of control and censorship and something rather restrictive. In fact, that's not what the committee is like or what it wants. You're commissioning artists because they have a certain quality of imagination and way of thinking, and you want them to be free to express that. There's no point in having a dog and barking yourself.

There may, of course, be no dog at all. With all these difficulties, the temptation must be to commission no-one. But that brings its own problems. In a climate of concern about the humanitarian effects of allied bombings, the idea of sending a thoughtful eyewitness may become fashionable all over again.

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