“Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?”
-Sun Tzu, The Art of War
This inspiring string of words found in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is one of the most quoted lines from the text because of its ability to transcend the military audience it was originally intended for. The Art of War, an estimated 2500-3000-year-old text written by Chinese warrior Sun Tzu, has remained one of the most enduring, influential writings ever composed. Whether or not you’ve read it, or have any desire to, it is interesting to consider how this war-centric text, and war in general, manifests itself in contemporary culture and art.
Many prominent athletes, coaches, business people, lawyers and world leaders have philosophies informed by Sun Tzu’s. Technology pioneer Keith Krach, DocuSign CEO, is quick to site Sun Tzu’s famous text as his favorite book, which demonstrates the way its message transcends military relevance. The Art of War is a text that many people are able to draw philosophical ideologies from and apply to their lives in myriad ways. “Can you imagine what I would do if I could do all I can?” Sun Tzu rhetorically asks. This question echoes softly from modern aphorisms such as “Reach for the stars,” or “Believe in yourself.”
The Art of War carries weight in artistic communities as well. Author and journalist Matt Steinglass once wrote “The more of Sun Tzu I read, the more clearly an image began to form within my mind of the writer I might become under his influence,” of the determination and focus Sun Tzu’s writings inspire in artists, as well as military leaders. Art is often informed by current cultural happenings, and war has the power to motivate artists to create works that are reflective of violence and social issues. Reed Johnson, a writer for The Los Angeles Times explains, “The Great War of 1914-18 tilted culture on its axis, particularly in Europe and the United States. Nearly 100 years later, that legacy is being wrestled with in film, visual art, music, television shows and plays,” of the ways in which wars and cultural issues are grappled with by the art world.
When thinking of the intersection between war and art, Imran Qureshi’s works quickly come to mind. The contemporary artist is just wrapping up his stay at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in a Rooftop Garden Commission, an exploration of Qureshi’s emotional response to global violence made tangible through art. As Reed suggests, there are countless artists who examine war and its cultural influence through an artistic lens, and have for centuries. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War may have been originally intended for a military audience, but its subtle, perhaps subliminal influence on contemporary art is also evident.