At age 68, Helnwein remains active in both his politics and art. I had the honour of asking him a few questions about his past and ongoing work, his views on violence in the media today, as well as his connection with the late David Bowie.
I always wanted freedom and independence more than anything else. I want to look for myself, think my own thoughts, dream my own dreams, I want to draw my own conclusions, and to make my own decisions. I don’t need any belief-system or self-appointed authority to tell me what to think, what to do or not to do. I was never violent; I am no danger to society in any way—so I don’t need to be monitored and controlled by anybody. I can take care of myself.
Unfortunately, the last thing any human society wants are free beings. Don’t wait for somebody granting you freedom, it will never happen; if you want freedom, you have to seize it. Creating art is one way of doing it, and for me it’s the most effective way.
Nothing scares authoritarian regimes more than art and free creation. Why would Hitler burn mountains of books and paintings and ban all arts? Why would Stalin—the master over life and death of almost 300 million people, a man who commanded the biggest army and secret service that ever existed—be afraid of the poems written by Anna Akhmatova? Why would Mao be so obsessed with destroying China’s entire cultural heritage? Why would FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, while denying the existence of organized crime in the US, put so much effort into harassing and investigating every artist of any significance from Hemingway to John Lennon? On this planet, creating means to stand up, to rebel, to resist, it means striking back.
We are bombarded daily with an endless flood of horrifying graphic and pornographic images of violence and death on television, social media, internet, movies, and video games, which is just overwhelming and desensitizing, leaving people with a feeling of utter numbness and helplessness.
Since WWII the western war-machinery has never stopped killing. It keeps invading, bombing, torturing. The standard solution to any problem with regards to foreign affairs seems to be: threatening and “bombing them back into the Stone Age.” All in the name of “Democracy.” Of course, none of these campaigns ever solved anything; they only created new bigger problems and left scorched earth, blood, tears, and millions of corpses. But war is good business, and as long as we are ruled by bankers and the insatiable military-industrial complex, nothing will change.