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The Problem With “Peace”: The Art Of William Kentridge

“It’s just a damn holiday greeting card—next, you’ll be dissecting why people say, good morning,” she said to me, with that tone of exasperation I instantly recognized as the one specially reserved for those occasions when she felt I was going off the deep end—again. I admit the tendency; few things in life have the meaty feel of a good rant. But my frustration remains, even after my prescribed deep breathing. Every other card has some variation of “Peace” or “Shalom” on it. Worse still, for some people, it isn’t enough to save it for the holidays, they insist on closing letters and even mundane e-mail notes with it. It is as if repeating “peace” enough will create a harmonic convergence effect and make it so.

The term “peace”, as often as not, ironically seems to be used as a weapon. Political leaders, can be especially grating with their gratuitous and disingenuous use of the word; they invariably claim peace as their sole motivation even as they threaten war. It is as if to say, “If we’re going to have peace in the world, we got to kill a few people.” Similarly, we invoke peace in the most inappropriate contexts. Picture the note that says, “John is a real idiot….I don’t know how people can stand to work with him. Anyway, good connecting with you…PEACE, …(signed) Ken.” The specter of peace raises all kinds of hard questions: At what cost does peace come? Will we sacrifice “justice” to obtain peace? At whose expense is peace enjoyed? Is the pursuit of peace merely a form of “coerced social harmony”, as Laura Nader suggests? Finally, what kind of peace is realistic to expect in the course of our lives? Some would say only death offers real peace, and depending on your religious persuasion, perhaps not even then, especially if you believe in an afterlife where mortal sins are punished.

The term peace is thrown around lightly and allowed to slip by as an innocuous social convention. But there is a hidden and real risk of some consequence. Not only does the expression disguise a deep and abiding hypocrisy, perhaps more perniciously, it distracts us from the immediate hard work that needs to be done to survive daily conflicts. Managing disputes and aiding in the settlement of controversies has little to do with bringing about peace on earth. Pretending otherwise, can be unhelpful, if not downright harmful. The elusive and fleeting “feel good” abstraction of Peace is not even a useful “noble lie”—-one sufficiently plausible and deserving enough to enlist our belief and commitment, nor is it worthy of aspiring toward. The notion of ”Peace on Earth and Good Will toward Man (sic humankind)” is an archaic remnant of the religious and social utopian visions of a past time. “Peace” is over-used, and over-rated.

In the conflict management field, the terms peace and resolution are often used synonymously and there is a fair amount of confusion about whether a mediator is a peacemaker or merely a conflict manager. Managing conflict is difficult under the best of circumstances, which makes it all the more important to be clear for ourselves about what we are doing and why, or it can be harder still.

The paradox is that the overly zealous pursuit of peace may incite more conflict. A mediator can unwittingly cultivate unrealistically high expectations in the mediation process out of a desire to bring about a peaceful settlement. The concentrated focus on seeking a ‘win/win’ agreement that satisfies all, can be the precursor to contempt for anything less. A more subdued and realistic agreement that does not wholly satisfy either party but works nonetheless, might be snubbed as a result. The reality is, especially in the hardest cases, people seldom come to elegant or right outcomes; mostly they just get exhausted and back in to an agreement they can live with. Maybe that kind of result has it’s own subdued elegance. The highest calling of a conflict management professional is not to do more to pursue peace, but in doing just enough to manage the conflict at hand. Often, trying too hard brings a lesser result.

As a facilitator, notwithstanding my intellectual awareness of the problems inherent in the pursuit of peace, like many in the field, the desire to want people to be satisfied and feel good about what they have done, remains a constant strain. One of the ways I have become more able to resist the false allure of peace has come from art. Art in general, and the visual arts in particular, have been an age-old antidote to the human tendency to be myopic or utopian in our vision and thinking. Artistic expression has often been directly focused on and relevant to conflict. Susan Sontag notes: “…the iconography of suffering has a long pedigree in the history of art.” (Sontag,S., “Looking At War: Photography’s View Of Devastation and Death,” The New Yorker, Dec. 2, 2002, p. 88). Art offers an important opportunity to step back and reflect on the gap between what we think we are doing and what we are actually doing.

Especially helpful in keeping me on an even keel, is the work and commentary of William Kentridge, a South African visual artist. He grew up within, and experienced first hand, the impact of the Apartheid regime. He works primarily in the mediums of drawing, theatre, film, and printmaking. Highly regarded, his work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, and the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington, D.C..

Kentridge’s work articulates the social-political traumas he has personally and professionally experienced in haunting imagery, and depicts conflict from the inside out, obligating a viewer to consider their personal response. In his work, he refuses to take refuge in a simplistic understanding of conflict; the mere pursuit of “peace and good will” in the world is not enough. He touches upon a harsh paradox: trying too hard for peace makes the reality that much more elusive. Utopian visions, he understands, excuse us from doing what we can now. While not unwilling to reach for a better world, he is cautious about over-reaching and losing it all.

The titles of many of his pieces are evocative of his approach: Faustus in Africa, (1996), Ubu Tells The Truth, (1995), or Caged Man (2001), a print from a series of etchings, titled Zeno at 4A.M. The latter illustrates a man bent by weight of a structural cage that constricts his upper torso.

Interestingly, his discussion of his work is similar to how an effective mediator or facilitator might be expected to describe their intent: “I hate the idea that my work has a clear, moral high ground from which it judges and surveyes (sic). To put it blandly, my work is about a process of drawing that tries to find a way through the space between what we know and what we see.” (William Kentridge, New York: Phaidon Press, Inc. 1999, p. 23). He does not presume or over reach. Just as with a mediator or facilitator and a dispute, the end result of the work is not bland, although the process may seem so at times. Kentridge’s blandness of drawing leads to a beautiful result, as does the work of an accomplished conflict manager.

He offers a more subdued, and rigorous strategy for distilling conflict constructively. It is a perspective that offers alternatively, inspiration and muscle, to support those whose intention and purpose it is to deal with conflict. He offers a more than adequate alternative to the puerile aspiration of “peace and good will.” Kentridge says: “Mine is an art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism kept at bay.”

(The Marian Goodman Gallery in New York City ( ), represents William Kentridge in the United States.)


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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