Talking To Children About Art During War

Until recently, the geographically closest war in my lifetime was the war in Yugoslavia. I only remember it as a single terrifying school fieldtrip, when I was perhaps eight, to a cinema where they screened a graphic documentary about it to a theater full of Czech children. I mainly remember men with noses blown off by mines staring blankly into the camera. Later, in my mid-twenties, I studied with a voice teacher in Zagreb, Croatia, and I met people my age whose earliest memories were of those conflicts: a soprano who had witnessed, though didn’t remember, part of her family getting machine-gunned and fed to pigs when she was three or a tenor who once punched the wall when he couldn’t reach a high note, then launched into a long explanation in Croatian (the pianist leaned over to me and, by way of translating, said, as if apologizing for him, “His family was deeply traumatized by the war.”) And yet, in Zagreb, you wouldn’t guess there was war in recent memory. It came up in hair-trigger responses, here and there, yet had been washed from the surface. I heard an American commentator on the news say that the war in Ukraine feels like something that “should be happening in black and white.” He meant tanks rolling in to a sovereign nation but I think this perspective might also have been influenced by the fact that the United States has so often waged war without it’s civilians ever having to experience it. 

The morning of the 24th of February, a Thursday, I had a consultation about some repertoire with a professor at the local theater academy, so I didn’t know Ukraine had been invaded until that afternoon. A friend of the family’s had already fled Kiev to Prague, at the behest of the company she worked for, a few weeks previously, but over brunch she told us she would go back soon, when things “blew over.” The following Monday, I performed some pieces by Aperghis at a seminar on théâtre musical at the local theater school and then that evening went to see an experimental theater show by the professor who had led that seminar, in which three men walk around a piano without playing it. Afterwards, the professor invited the audience to the bar for an impromptu talk with one of the actors, his student, a Czech-Ukrainian, who had just gotten back from Ukraine after helping some of his family escape to Prague in a van borrowed from the alternative theater company called Studio Hrdinů (Studio of Heroes). He described slipping through the deserted entry point of the borders, before the humanitarian organizations had gotten there, having to bribe the border patrol to let him in, his aunt driving over a bridge that exploded behind her, lines and lines of people waiting to get on the trains or cars heading out. Despite knowing Ukrainians living in Prague, as most Czechs do, it wasn’t until this story over beers with a Ukrainian-Czech actor that what was happening seemed real at all.

A week and a day after the war began, I passed refugee tents at the train station on my way to the small town of Roudnice nad Labem, where my aunt’s husband had invited me to speak about arts careers at the local elementary school, where he works. He wanted me to give the children a “realistic view.” The children had drawn pictures of Putin’s head on the whiteboard in the community room where I was to give my presentation. I could tell it was Putin’s head because I remembered a boy who bullied me for being half-American making the same picture over and over again when I was a child, 20 years ago in a different city. It’s a picture of a head with a grid over it, which is to be drawn while chanting a rhyme: Praha, Brno, Paříž, Hitler patří za mříž. The children had substituted Putin for Hitler. Prague, Brno, Paris. Putin belongs behind bars. The children chirped this rhyme here and there as they filed in. 

In the three classes I saw, only a few children were considering arts careers. The first time I posed the question about whether anyone was considering becoming any kind of artist, one of the children offered that he wanted to be a baker, but that his father said this wasn’t practical. There was one who was thinking of becoming an actor and also a few (I was told beforehand, though they didn’t confess to me themselves) who wanted to be online influencers. There were a few who were learning to play instruments but weren’t thinking of becoming professional musicians. The children had a hard time with the word for “art” in Czech – umění. The root of the word is um which only evokes some kind of skill. When I asked what activities might fall under umění, one of the girls said she thinks the bus driver who drove her to school had it, because he was able to drive in the snow without crashing into a tree. I couldn’t really argue with that, because the Czech word really does evoke something more akin to ability than an aesthetic discipline. So we talked about výtvarné umění (visual arts), výkonné umění (performing arts), and literární umění (literary arts) at which point it became difficult to explain why sports don’t fall under performing arts, since the word výkon evokes any kind of, often physical, accomplishment. One of the little girls seemed particularly disturbed by this terminological inconsistency and continued to name different types of sports, incredulous that none of them were a performing art. Again, I couldn’t really argue with her. In a slightly altered universe, sports might well be considered part of the performing arts. After all, at music competitions, the výkony of the young instrumentalists and singers often feel more like physical feats than creative ones. 

But my point wasn’t to talk to the children about the nature of art, but about how to make a living from it. This seemed important, now that we were facing another economic crisis. An artist is nothing without means. I talked about how things artists have worked on, from cereal packaging to the music we hear in the supermarket, are all around us, yet it is difficult to make a living as an artists. I talked about “practical” artistic careers (with unearned authority.) I talked about how most artists must have multiple streams of income (with embarrassment at my own multiple trickles.) I said that one should only become an artists if one cannot imagine being anything else. I prepared slides, complete with income graphs. I could not bring myself to talk about the “importance” of art, or how it “uplifts,” how it can “give people hope."  

After my talk at the school, I went to visit a nearby organic farm in Terezín, where I had volunteered as a farm hand the previous summer and where a dramaturg and I are planning a concert of new music. My aunt drove me, along with her two toddler sons, from the school to the farm and helped me photograph the grounds for the dramaturg. None of us exchanged a single word about the war. It didn’t hit me again until I saw the refugee tents in the train station back in Prague. I was rushing back to hear the president of Ukraine speak on Zoom to Wenceslas square. The city square was packed when I got there. When he finally came on, mercifully cutting short a tasteless poem by a Czech slam poet, I held my phone up so my American father could watch his speech. 

On a pandemic Zoom call I organized for my father’s creative writing workshop in the summer of 2020, American writer Patricia Hampl, one of the few Americans to travel to communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, said: If you wonder what most people did when history was happening, it’s what we’re doing, now. They went about their lives. Or, as Jiří Mucha, the ne’er-do-well who married Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová before her untimely death, wrote in his memoir set against the backdrop of the Phony War (I would translate the title as Phony Loves if the book were worth translating): “We experienced the beginning of the war in happiness and calm. The rhythm of an individual’s life is not the same as the rhythm of history. I was to realize this many more times in the coming years.” Mucha was to live much of his share if history after the war, in a communist work camp. He was released after agreeing to be an informant, and subsequently became known for hosting orgies for Prague’s intellectuals in his fancy house near the Prague castle. His parties ignited the fantasies of American writers, most famously Philip Roth’s novella Prague Orgy and Arthur Miller’s play The Archbishop’s Ceiling. But only from me will you hear about the pet squirrel that supposedly hopped around these gatherings of the heartbroken intelligencia; my voice teacher at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague bragged to me about turning Mucha down when he half-heartedly tried to seduce her sometime in the 70s. I believe it was she who also told me about the squirrel. One is never far from history, here. I say all this because as a child of the 90s, I was raised with the notion that we live in a time after the end of history. That brief optimism might be the pipe-dream that defines an era, something like prosperity in the 20s or free love in the 60s.