War can inhibit creativity. Societies engaged in conflict have fewer resources to spend on art; they also often restrict the freedom artists require.
On the other hand, war can inspire creativity. Emotions, which can be channeled into art, run high. Patriotic creators might feel an impulse—or receive an order—to create works intended to unite and galvanize the citizenry.
Given those cross-currents, it's no wonder researchers have found an "ambiguous and counterintuitive relationship between war and the arts," in the words of Karol Jan Borowiecki of the University of Southern Denmark.
In an attempt to find some clarity, Borowiecki took a specific subset of artists—classical composers—and compared their output in wartime vs. peacetime.
The findings provide evidence that artistic expression, a largely internal process, is sometimes influenced by external events.
In the journal Poetics,he reports that, "overall, wars have been detrimental to the creative process." But he finds that is particularly true for conflicts where the composer's home country is engaged in either a civil war or an armed conflict it initiated.
In contrast, his findings suggest artistic productivity actually goes up during defensive wars.
"It is possible that war impacts (an artist's) emotional state in a non-linear way," he writes, "and some wars may result in a psychological blockade of the creative process."
Borowiecki looked at the work of 115 prominent composers born between 1800 and 1910. This period, he notes, “encompasses many of the most influential composers of all time,” and “covers wars that significantly shaped most recent history.”
He compared their output with the Correlates of War data set, which differentiates between civil wars and international ones, as well as defensive and offensive conflicts, and wars that were won, lost, or ended without a decisive victor.
“Composers are typically negatively affected by war,” he reports, noting that their productivity, on average, decreases in times of conflict. “However, those in their late 20s and early 30s do not appear to suffer much in times of war, and those above their late 50s may become even more productive.”
In addition, he found that “international wars that ended in a victory or a tie, as well as defensive or continental inter-state wars, correspond with significantly higher productivity.” This unexpected finding, he writes, may reflect the emotional state of the artists living in those countries.
“The shocking incidence of war may stimulate negative emotions, which may constitute fertile ground upon which composers could draw,” he writes, pointing to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, which was composed in response to the Nazi invasion of Russia during World War II.
All in all, the findings provide evidence that artistic expression, a largely internal process, is sometimes influenced by external events. “Extreme events, such as the emergence of war ... have considerably shaped not only the lives of the creators,” Borowiecki concludes, “but also their creative work.”