Arts Desk

What Is the Role of Art in the Wake of Tragedy?

The Economist gave the United States a whole weekend to mourn the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre before telling the entire nation to suck it up. "Those of us who view the events remotely ... unless we start to evince a newfound appetite for gun-control measures to prevent future mass slayings, are doing little more than displaying and enjoying our own exalted strickenness," writes one M.S. "This is an activity at which we, as a culture, excel."

Why, thanks, anonymous writer, for telling an entire nation its feelings are unproductive. I am reminded of Eddie Izzard's bit about St. Paul's letters to the Corinthians—and the Corinthians' response: "Dear Paul, fuck off. Who are you? Why do you keep sending us letters? You arrogant bastard, writing a letter to an entire city! What do you want us to do, put this on a board or something? Just fuck off!... Love and kisses, The Corinthians."

On the other end of the spectrum, there was the Washington Post's Style section, which, earlier this week, asked its arts critics to "meditate on the role of the arts in coping with grief" and "share works that have resonated with them in such times." Theodor Adorno once said that poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. The Post appears to be asking its critics to hand out artworks as antidepressants.

Peter Marks suggests Shakespeare get us through these tough times; Ron Charles, Whitman. Ann Hornaday, meanwhile, offers Finding Nemo.

But Post critic Phil Kennicott—in a message perhaps addressed to his editor as much as his readers—slaps down the whole idea. "I think seeking consolation during a tragedy that hasn’t directly affected you is histrionic, and a bad form of sentimentality, and it distracts from urgent and obvious feelings of anger and political determination. Rather than seek solace, we should work to change the society in ways that will help prevent this kind of mayhem," Kennicott writes. But he eventually gives in to the task, suggesting anyone yearning for "some form of distraction" look to Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

The question posed by the Post characterizes art as a warm blanket, something to turn to for comfort; like Kennicott says, a distraction. That is a weak posture for art. It shouldn't be treated like a pint of Rocky Road and a tearful viewing of You've Got Mail. What about art that interrogates, protests—or attempts to explain?

It doesn't take a stretch to find some credible examples. Locally, Ryan Carr Johnson and Samuel Scharf have collaborated on abstract paintings that they then riddled with bullets. Earlier this year, Colby Caldwell opened concurrent exhibits at Hemphill Fine Arts and Civilian Art Projects that both featured magnificent, painterly prints of spent shotgun casings (shown). Three weeks after the Aurora movie-theater shooting, the Corcoran Gallery of Art opened "Manifest: Armed," which showed that children are not just victims of gun violence, but sometimes participants in gun culture. For the only truly shocking work in the show, "Arsenal," artist Sarah Frost compiled a bunch of self-published YouTube videos of boys—mere children—explaining how to build paper replicas of assault rifles and related weapons, right down to the high-capacity magazine. (The replicas, which hung in the gallery with the instructional YouTube videos, are pictured above.) In 2011, City Paper's own John Anderson exhibited "Gun Show," which didn't beat around the bush whatsoever: Through text, charts, and video, Anderson honed in on the meeting point of violent crime and Second Amendment rights. Then there was the small Georgetown show that sparked controversy with a depiction of President Obama getting his head blown apart.

Several of those projects speak to me about the national horror that The Economist demands we approach with a stiff upper lip. Caldwell's photographs do not help us cope with grief, but they do examine the severe American Gothic beauty that often commingles with rural gun culture. His electric depictions of shotgun shells and bird corpses reflect a reverence for the backwater Maryland he knows, and maybe even loves; it's the sort of place a lazy liberal might describe as filled with "gun nuts." Caldwell's rural Maryland is anything but one-dimensional.

And Johnson and Scharf's paintings may not cry out in mourning, but they do explore norms of masculinity that are associated with gun culture. (It's not just the juxtaposition of prettiness with violence, painting with shooting; the whole history of abstract expressionism is defined by the larger-than-life personalities of the men who dominated the genre and the women who worked in their shadows.) These paintings read to me like that unforgettable image of André 3000 holding a smoking pink pistol on The Love Below. That image, a challenge to the tired tropes of gangster rap, represented a feminist micro-breakthrough, a harbinger of the awesome weird direction hip-hop would take, and—predictably—it was decried by the usual scolds. I don't know exactly where Johnson and Scharf are going with their works, but I'd like to think that they're pondering masculinity and femininity in a way that Outkast did. (Let's not forget that Big Boi worked on a ballet.)

None of these works are so simple as a pat call for gun control. In fact, the best works I've seen in D.C. about gun culture don't go anywhere near the subject. They go further. Jason Zimmerman worked a video piece into a Civilian Art Projects show back in 2006 that looked at hunting culture through an eerie lens. Zimmerman had another piece at Transformer that I called one of my favorites of 2005, in which footage from the arrest-porn reality-television show Cops is edited down exclusively to footage of police officers running. Not specifically a comment about guns, no; but a darkly comic meditation on American violence, incarceration rates, and so on—subjects that cannot be easily dissolved from any national conversation about guns.

These are works that get us thinking, and perhaps acting, too. There is no reason that art has to play a narrow part in the impossible project of figuring out what happened—no more narrow than anyone else's role, anyway.

Listicles like the one that ran in the Washington Post's Style section are demeaning to everyone involved: Critics shouldn't be asked to treat art like remedies for melancholy, largely because no artwork is that simple. Many artists, too, would chafe at the suggestion that their work is the visual equivalent of a slanket.

As for that Economist piece, I've got a letter to the editor in the works. It begins, Dear Sir: Fuck off.

Installation photo of Sarah Frost's "Arsenal" via the Corcoran Gallery of Art's website

Colby Caldwell work via Hemphill and Civilian Art Projects

This post has been updated.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • Natasha

    Good Article.

    Quoted: Rather than seek solace, we should work to change the society in ways that will help prevent this kind of mayhem,"

    Please visit created post Sandy Hook - a community partnership of artists, non-profit orgs and businesses to change the thinking and direction our nation's youth are headed. Please make the the New Year Youth Resolution at

  • mcmc

    I don't like the Economist either, but isn't the writer saying exactly the same thing as Phil Kennicott? Based on your quote of course—I'm not going to go read the thing.

  • Pingback: CAA News | College Art Association » Blog Archive » News from the Art and Academic Worlds | CAA