On a day filled with tragic images of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, it seems absurd to blog about anything else. As advertised, this is a blog about how “looking at art leads to thinking about life,” but today I’m interested in how looking at certain images (and the words that accompany them) leads to thinking about death, specifically death delivered from the barrel of a gun. For all those who proclaim a constitutional right to bear arms, I’ll counter with a 9-year-old girl’s constitutional right to know what it’s like to be 10, something one of today’s victims will never experience. Yes, guns don’t kill people—crazy people with too easy access to guns kill people, sometimes under the influence of visual and verbal propaganda that makes light of taking aim on a human being while knowing full well that someone may take it serious, deadly serious.
America has always been in love with the gun, or at least that’s what we’re told. From the minutemen grabbing a musket at a moment’s notice to frontiersmen crossing the plains with a firearm on their lap to the gunslingers of the Wild West, any bullet point list of American history seems riddled with bullet holes. If you believe the thesis of Michael A. Bellesiles’ Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, that version of American history seems a revisionist one fueled by gun manufacturers and pro-gun organizations in the twentieth century. If you refuse to believe the thesis of Bellesiles’ work and buy the allegations that he falsified his scholarship, many of which were fueled, again, by gun manufacturers and pro-gun organizations, you'll accept the idea that America and the gun are one. Regardless of the Bellesiles’ controversy, the fact remains that the gun has received great PR in the twentieth century in American culture.
The court painter of American gun culture remains Frederic Remington. No relation to Remington Arms Company, the largest producer of shotguns and rifles in America and one of the biggest firearms makers in the world, Remington the painter glamorized the cowboys of the Wild West in paintings and sculptures. Paintings such as 1908’s Shotgun Hospitality (shown above) imply that a cowboy’s best friend was his “shooting iron,” the only hospitality that “Injuns” could or should expect from a white man. I’ve always found Remington’s paintings beautiful frauds—a vision of history that simplifies what really happened in a way that remains destructive even today. Perhaps the most absurd image by Remington is his 1892 watercolor Buffalo Hunter Spitting a Bullet into a Gun, which delivers exactly what the title says, with the added improbability of reloading a rifle by spitting a bullet down the barrel while riding a galloping horse. Yet, somehow, we’re expected to swallow such images as history—a history centered on the mystique of the gun. Unfortunately, we as a culture have swallowed such visual rhetoric whole.
Today, the gun continues to hold a powerful hold over our visual imagination. Presidential candidates of all stripes feel compelled to generate that requisite photo-op of a hunting trip to prop up their firearm “cred.” Movies and television celebrate lethal weapons despite statistics showing the growing gap in gun violence between the United States and every other developed nation. It took the murder by gun of his friend Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 to compel Abe Pollin to change the name of his basketball team from the Washington Bullets to the Washington Wizards after years of turning a deaf ear to the pleas of the local community to discontinue the cruel joke of that name. Video games with more and more realistic gun play seem targeted at creating a new generation of people more comfortable and more callow about the reality of bullets tearing through flesh.
What does all this talk of images of guns have to do with today’s shooting? Did the assailant or assailants fall under the sway of this imagery? It’s too early to know for sure, but what is certain is the role that gun imagery played in the recent election Congresswoman Giffords won by an eyelash over her Tea Party challenger. Sarah Palin placed Giffords’ name on a “targeted list” of 20 incumbent Democrats she asked her supporters to help get out of office. Over a map of the United States, the district of each of the 20 was highlighted with a crosshairs symbol as a way of emphasizing how to take aim and take them out. Giffords’ Tea Party opponent Jesse Kelly ran a promotion called “Target for Victory” in which supporters could fire a fully automatic M16 with Kelly. I know that many people use words such as “target,” “shoot,” and “aim” in many contexts and usually don’t have firearms in mind. When you place a crosshairs on a person’s home or use the word “target” with a machine gun in your hands, however, the message is clear, especially to those already disturbed enough to “solve” life’s problems with ammunition.
On days of tragedy like this, I find myself going back to Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk. Newman created his first version in 1963, the year an assassin’s bullet claimed JFK. Newman dedicated a later copy in 1968 to the memory of the recently slain MLK. The image of an ancient Egyptian symbol broken off and turned upside down defies all logic, making it the perfect symbol of America’s absurd love affair with the gun—an ancient instinct for self-destruction aided by ever-improving modern technology for killing. It’s possible that today’s events are an aberration. It’s also possible that they’re a harbinger of what’s to come in the next two years as the intensity of gun-related visual and verbal rhetoric ratchets up as the 2012 election approaches. Are we ready for such “Shotgun Hospitality,” or are we going to look at the bloody culture we’ve embraced and change the channel?
UPDATE: Here’s a valuable “Insurrectionism Timeline” of all the politically motivated gun violence in America since June 26, 2008, when the U.S. Supreme Court embraced the National Rifle Association's contention that the Second Amendment provides individuals with the right to take violent action against our government should it become "tyrannical."