Art as 'campaign'

December 19, 2008


Robert Genn


You may not have heard of Carl von Clausewitz. Back in the early nineteenth century he wrote "On War," a brilliant treatise that is read and taught in military academies to this day. His observations were based on his experiences in the Wars of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and on considerable historical research. The book is shaped not only by purely military and political considerations but by Clausewitz's strong interests in science, education and art.

Clausewitz said that you have to have a battle plan but the plan had better include plenty of room for the absolute certainty that the plan will start going wonky from the get-go. "No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy," said the great German general Helmuth Graf von Moltke who spent an energetic lifetime applying Clausewitz's theories.

Clausewitz figured "strategy" belonged to the realm of art. "Tactics," on the other hand, belonged to the realm of science. True brilliance in the field requires the blending of the two. Clausewitz was obsessive about the roles of chance, uncertainty and what he called the "fog of war."

In our game this is the fog we get into when we can't see ahead and are confused, disappointed and even disabled, generally through the effect of our earlier, poorly planned sorties. In war and art, courageous early sorties determine the early coup.

Clausewitz also talked about what he called the "culminating point of victory." This is where the happy resolution is in sight. The business of battle is to get to this point, he thought. Early culminating points are better than late ones. This is one of the reasons we need to cut to the chase by laying in basic strategy early on.

His was a dialectical approach to problem solving--"if not this, then maybe that." Improvisation overcomes what he called "friction." Friction deranges, to a greater or lesser degree, all prior arrangements. Successful campaigns in both art and war require boldness, audacity, creativity and targets of opportunity.

Best regards,


PS: "Given an equal amount of intelligence, timidity will cause a thousand times more problems than audacity." (Carl von Clausewitz, 1780-1831)

Esoterica: To see an art project in the manner of Clausewitz, we must see our canvases as fields to be organized, both in area and order of deployment. Just as you might bring up your horses later rather than sooner, you must learn to deploy resources appropriately. For example, keeping reserves of colour and tone, and finessing in the safety of the culminating point. Oh, and always keeping in mind that if you don't pay attention, something is sure to come along and ruin your day.