The terribleness of war includes a terrible paradox. For all its horror, war exerts an undeniable attraction, one that’s as much aesthetic as visceral. “Take the glamour out of war!,” the photographer Tim Page exclaims in “Dispatches,” Michael Herr’s classic book of Vietnam War reportage. “It’s like trying to take the glamour out of sex, trying to take the glamour out of the Rolling Stones.” That’s the same Rolling Stones, the reader will recall, who recorded “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Two strikingly opposed views of armed conflict and its glamour are on display in “Arts of War: Artistry in Weapons across Cultures” and “Permanent War: The Age of Global Conflict.” The former runs at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology through Oct. 18, 2017. So there’s no hurry to see it. That’s not the case with “Permanent War.” It’s at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts only through March 7.
“Arts of War” consists of some 150 items. As its title suggests, many possess a dire beauty — and all possess an even direr utility. There are swords, maces, clubs, axes, spears, bows, daggers, as well as shields, helmets, and armor.
That these objects are splendidly decorative and often ceremonial shouldn’t obscure the fact that all of them mean business. Few things are as elegant as samurai swords, of which there are several in the show. That elegance makes them no less lethal. A northern Indian curved knife, with a brass handle in the shape of a horse’s head, has a dash and finesse any sculptor would envy — and a purposefulness any sensible person would fear.
The exhibition includes weapons from every continent but Antarctica, and they extend back to prehistory. They also reach forward to the Industrial Age. Beside making war so much deadlier, mass production made it even uglier. An Austrian-made revolver (it looks late 19th century, though no date is given) has a blunt, brutish look unlike anything else in the show. Even the war clubs, if only because of the grain and finish of the wood they were fashioned from, have a grave handsomeness.
No one would describe any of the photographs, videos, or other works in “Permanent War” as handsome. Not that the contrast was intended, but it’s telling that almost all the items in the Peabody Museum show were made by hand and meant to be held or worn. Anything but humane, they are certainly human and unmediated. There’s a consistent sense of the inhuman and dehumanizing to almost everything in “Permanent War” — and a numb, unnerving distance.
The most striking thing in the show is Trevor Paglen’s “Drone Vision.” Consisting of a stream of intercepted drone footage, it is distant on multiple levels: spatial, geographic, emotional. The video is at once hypnotic and terrifying. It recalls Chris Marker’s extraordinary “Stopover in Dubai,” a 2011 reworking of surveillance-camera footage of a Mossad assassination. Perhaps we have reached a point where, overwhelmed by the up-close-and-impersonal violence of video games and Hollywood blockbusters, lo-res death seen from afar shocks us even more.
Video games, in fact, figure in Richard Mosse’s “Killcam.” Its juxtaposition of footage of hospitalized Iraq War veterans playing games set in a very Iraqi-looking combat zone with footage of actual fighting there may not be subtle, but the point it makes is incontrovertible.
Most of the works in “Permanent War” concern themselves with scenes or imagery we associate with terrorism. Claire Beckett’s photographs of a generic Middle Eastern village that the US military has constructed in the Mojave Desert for training purposes is one example. Harun Farocki offers richly incongruous footage of a training exercise at a similar Potemkin village.
A few of the artists eschew contemporaneity — or, rather, show how the present connects with the past. Bonnie Donohue photographs locations on Vieques, the Puerto Rican island that the Navy used for more than 60 years for bombing and artillery practice. Her image of abandoned Navy bunkers in a storm shows three spans of time coinciding: military (defunct), meteorological (immediate), and botanical (preceding and ongoing).
Matthew Arnold does something similar in “Topography as Fate,” though the dominant colors aren’t verdant but dun. He’s photographed the current state of military sites from World War II’s North African campaign. The sand has shown no more respect for artillery emplacements than it has the monuments of Ozymandias. War, both shows remind us, may be permanent as a human condition. Its handiworks are not.
ARTS OF WAR: Artistry in Weapons across Cultures
At: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology,
11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, through Oct. 18, 2017,
The Age of Global Conflict
At: School of the Museum of Fine Arts, 230 The Fenway, through March 7, 617-369-3718, www.smfa.edu/exhibitionsMark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.