The Art of the Submarine

Image by Jeremy Finke.

Walk through any art museum and you’re likely to see a mix of the classical and contemporary, impressionist and surrealist, refined and raw, beautiful, eerie, and provocative. Looking at art allows me at least a few moments of relief from the “that’s just the way it is” attitude of our hyper-consumerist, hyper-militarized, hyper-nihilist nation. I can step outside my day-to-day life and accept an invitation, however briefly, to boundlessness! I can experience invention, creation, and re-creation just moments apart. I can see everyday objects with new eyes as they’re repurposed and reframed in extraordinary ways. I can celebrate the relentless power of human vision and imagination. In a museum, I often find that I can actually breathe.

The Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, Connecticut, where I live, has one floor for its permanent collection, with works from the 1600s to perhaps a decade ago, a mixture of famous names and those that are (at least to me) obscure indeed. That collection on the first floor remains the same, year in and year out, while new exhibits circulate through the upstairs galleries every few months. I try to take in each new exhibit and often find myself surprised, inspired, and even educated by what I see.

Recently, I visited an exhibit I’ve been unable to get out of my mind: Beatrice Cuming: Connecticut Precisionist. Ever heard of her? No? Well, neither had I. Cuming was born in 1903 in Brooklyn and studied painting at the Pratt Institute. She continued her studies in France, traveling extensively to Brittany, Italy, Tunisia, and elsewhere before ending up in New London of all places. Cuming had returned to New York from her travels in 1933 and then decided to move to Boston. On a train with all her belongings, she looked out the window — so the story goes — as it pulled into New London and impulsively got off, drawn by what she later described as the “obviously beautiful, powerful, dramatic, [and] exciting” subject matter in our town.

And she stayed, painting city scenes and diving into the local arts community. To support herself, she got a job as a security guard at the General Dynamics Electric Boat company. I try to imagine her, maybe wearing a green jumpsuit, a flashlight, and a ring of keys at her waist, patrolling Electric Boat’s massive yard and docks in nearby Groton. During World War II, that company must have been a 24/7 operation as it churned out 74 submarines and 398 PT boats from those very docks. Those subs were responsible for fearsome (and stealthy) destruction of Japanese targets. That war ended, of course, with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, in the 1950s, with the Cold War with the Soviet Union ramping up, Electric Boat would start manufacturing nuclear submarines.

Submarines As Still Life

Eventually, realizing the prodigious talent of its security guard, the company commissioned Cuming to begin documenting its contributions to the war effort. As Electric Boat’s artist-in-residence (so to speak), she produced a number of breathtaking works. All too literally. I sat across from her painting Welders at Electric Boat Company unable to breathe.

It’s a dark painting with enormous pieces of metal being transformed by heat and fire, the background crowded with partially built submarine components. Its dominant colors are brown and yellow. At the center, a white-hooded welder bends over his work as plumes of white smoke billow upward. There are four other workers in the painting, all indistinguishable, hooded and jump-suited in layers of protective gear. That’s the detail that stays with me, that stuck in my throat — those workers enshrouded in their safety suits.

However those suits may have protected them, count on one thing: what they and their successors built will not protect us. The power they wielded (and welded) to shape and connect part to part in the last days of World War II has held the world hostage ever since.  We, all 8.1 billion of us, are today anything but protected from the nuclear submarines their successors would make. In our flimsy pedestrian garb, we remain so desperately vulnerable. In the background of Cuming’s painting, there are ladders up to a platform and almost out of the painting. Where do the ladders lead? Does Cuming mean to offer an escape from that man-made hell? That might be reading too much into the painting. But what else are you supposed to do in an art museum?

It’s a mesmerizing wartime portrait that draws you in — even though there’s nothing beautiful about it. Another of Cuming’s works from that period, Chubb, is at least set outside, with glimpses of sea and sky through the unfinished hulk of another sub, the USS Chubb, as it towers on that dry dock.

Breathless at Billions and Kilotons

What took my breath away? I kept thinking about all the labor and money invested in constructing submarines — from the relatively crude and uncomfortable boats of the 1940s and 1950s to the brand new Columbia Class nuclear submarine that General Dynamics Electric Boat is building right now. The Navy’s budget for just 12 of those ballistic missile submarines is $126.4 billion. Imagine! If the Navy’s budget for that one weapons system was a country, it would have the third-largest military budget on earth.

The Columbia will be the biggest and most expensive submarine ever built. How perfectly American, right? Even down to the fact that it’s named in honor of the District of Columbia, the disenfranchiseddesperately unequal, and remarkably segregated capital of the United States of America. I’d love to see an artwork that encapsulates that grim irony.

Those new Columbia subs will dwarf what Beatrice Cuming’s welders were working on when she captured them in 1944. Each will be 560 feet long, or a few feet more than the height of the Washington Monument. And its bulk will displace 20,810 tons of water.

But the size and expensiveness aren’t anywhere near as important as the payload of nuclear weapons it will carry with a power those welders of Cuming’s time could hardly have imagined and that Cuming would have been hard-pressed to render with brushes and paint. Each of those 12 new submarines will be equipped with 16 nuclear missile tubes for Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). And those tubes will each be able to house up to 12 independently targetable nuclear warheads, known as W88s, costing about $150 million each and packing a mind-boggling 455-kiloton wallop.

Okay, now do the math with me. What does 12 times 16 times 12 equal? That’s right: 2,304. Now, multiply that by the thermonuclear force of 455 kilotons, and you get more than one million kilotons. An unthinkable power.

Now, look back into history and recall the utter devastation of the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and of Nagasaki three days later by “Fat Man” and “Little Boy,” two comparatively crude and small atomic bombs by today’s standards. They leveled two cities, caused more than 200,000 deaths (mostly of Japanese civilians), and spread radioactive material responsible for cancer and birth defects for years to come while poisoning landscapes.

And Fat Man was a 21 kiloton weapon; Little Boy, just 15 kilotons.

In short, the firepower of the future Columbia class submarine fleet will be nearly 30,000 times the combined power of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What would a canvas depicting that devastation look like? I have no idea. I can’t imagine, and I wonder whether a visual artist would even be able to represent or capture that sort of — if you don’t mind the invention of a term — dis-creation.

Of course, not all of those Columbia-class submarines will be deployed at once and they could be outfitted with fewer than 12 warheads, and some of those warheads could be the “smaller” W76 variety. Those qualifications and caveats aside, the math is the math and it’s catastrophic. Each of those future billion-dollar behemoths could menace the world with the equivalent of 5,824 Hiroshimas.

In the words of the Congressional Research Service, the “basic mission” of such new nuclear-armed subs would be “to remain hidden at sea with their SLBMs, so as to deter a nuclear attack on the United States by another country by demonstrating to other countries that the United States has an assured second-strike capability, meaning a survivable system for carrying out a retaliatory nuclear attack.”

What a mission! How anything but basic! To accept such logic is to invest all those billions of taxpayer dollars in the possibility of destroying even the last gasp of life on Planet Earth.

Exploring New London and Groton, you might happen upon a brightly painted, chubby “submarine” in a park or public square. There are 20 of these mini-subs around our community, almost a decade after the region celebrated Connecticut’s Submarine Century. When they were smaller, my kids loved to climb on the one down by the train station, riding it like a carousel horse. There’s another inside my daughter’s school. The creativity and collaboration are delightful, but the reduction of submarines to kitschy local icons is downright insidious. Those shiny fiberglass mini-subs have no connection to the sleek, metallic nuclear-armed leviathans that carry about 70% of this country’s nuclear arsenal. You can’t enjoy those public art objects and think about the Biden administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review, which asserted the right of the United States to use nuclear weapons unilaterally and offensively. The cognitive dissonance is just too loud.

Imagining The New

Beatrice Cuming painted her Electric Boat canvases nearly 80 years ago. As I sat in the quiet of the Lyman Allyn museum staring at her welder painting, the Israeli Defense Forces were undoubtedly dropping American-manufactured bombs on Gaza, killing civilians, including women and children. The chief financial officer of General Dynamics, Cuming’s old employer and muse, responded to that new wave of warfare (and high stock prices) with a prediction that “the Israel situation is only going to put upward pressure on [the] demand” for the company’s artillery. Nearer to home, New London’s city council is raising taxes on residents to close gaps in the school budget, among other things. Meanwhile, General Dynamics recently petitioned to have its New London property values reassessed and won, giving the country’s fifth-largest weapons manufacturer tens of thousands of dollars in tax relief (money our community could really use).

Sitting in the Lyman Allyn gallery pondering all of this, I concluded that the military-industrial complex should more often be a subject for painters. What, I wondered, would Cuming capture today? The work has changed so much. Would she paint a test engineer stuck in her car as peace activists blockaded the main entrance to the General Dynamics complex? A configuration management analyst hunched over a computer terminal, his mind numbed by data, while he worried about his mortgage?

The story of Beatrice Cuming arriving in New London, working for Electric Boat, being hired to paint their products… it all now sounds to me like the potential set-up for a spy movie. And when you add in that Cuming had traveled the world, spoke French and Arabic, had relationships with women, and was investigated by the FBI for supposedly spying on Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, hers would certainly be an alluring tale today: a lesbian artist working undercover as a security guard, waiting for her moment, plotting to gain access to the sensitive heart of the matter?

No such luck, of course! Beatrice Cuming doesn’t appear to have been motivated in any way by anti-militarism or an anti-modernist critique. In fact, in a 1946 interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, she remarked, “There is beauty in the growth of America. We are busy going forward. We can’t go back.”

The inevitability of progress, at all costs, is deeply ingrained in American thinking. Unfortunately, it’s exactly the wrong answer. We can, in fact, go back. We have to. Of course, we can’t uninvent the atomic bomb, but we can begin to control nuclear weapons. We can begin arms-controlling the heck out of them on the way to disarmament, opening up the possibility of nuclear abolition. And in all of this, artists could indeed lead the way. The power of creativity and imagination is — if you don’t mind my inventing an apt word for this moment — kilotonic. At least in our imagination, we can recall all our weapons of mass destruction from around the world: creating the biggest weapons buyback program in history. After all, there simply is no way forward through the military-industrial complex and no possibility of peace lurking there.

Last week, I ran across the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, a mile-long span over the Thames River — no, not in London, but right in my neighborhood of New London, Connecticut — on the narrow, cramped bike lane with views up the river. When I was almost at the top of the bridge, nearly 155 feet above the water, I saw a submarine headed up the river, escorted by tugboats and moving smoothly. There, high above the water, I was struck by how a vessel so massive and fearsome could look so small and toylike down below.

I was grateful then for the implacability of that river, the height I was above it, and the huge expanse of sky above me. For a moment, I could breathe. For a moment, I wasn’t afraid.

This piece first appeared on TomDispatch.

Frida Berrigan is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. She is a TomDispatch regular, writes occasionally for WagingNonviolence.Org, and serves on the Board of Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center. She has three children and lives in New London, Connecticut, where she is a gardener and community organizer.