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Mug Shots, Portraiture, and the Verdict of History

You might as well know that recently it’s been getting harder by the day to post at this blog. As far as I can tell, the press is rolling over to accommodate the neocon line that the surge has worked. According to that argument, any bad news now demonstrates that the liberal media refuse to change their script. Since violence is down, there must be a turn for the better, and so the president was right, and the press had better put up or shut up. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but now we are getting little beyond but photo-op images of officials at press conferences, leaders walking together, soccer games in Iraq, and the like. And this is before we get to the soft news fare for the holidays. . . .That’s why it is heartening to see this image from the Art & Design section:

runsfeld-mug-shot.jpg

This is one of a series of prints by Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese entitled “Line Up.” Each diptych presents a Bush administration official as if being booked for lying about Iraq; you can hear the vocal recording of the lie while you look at the print. They are on display as part of an exhibition of contemporary prints at the New York Public Library. According the the New York Times, “Line Up” has “prompted protests from some library patrons, attracted coverage by The Daily News, Fox News and USA Today, and has stirred the blogosphere.” It’s not often and probably a bad sign that the action is on the third floor of a library, but I’ll take it.

Of course, the Times doesn’t say that Bush administration lied, only that one can hear each “statement of questionable veracity.” And maybe it really doesn’t matter: the disaster is so comprehensive, the carnage so devastating, the loss of American lives and wealth ($3.5 trillion, according to the latest estimate) so permanent, it’s not worth arguing over this or that fragment of administrative speech. Better perhaps to look at the artwork and see what it has to tell us.

The joke comes from putting a high official in a mug shot. The humor actually runs rather deep: it can suggest that the offense could go beyond false statements; or that these officials are no better the the leader they deposed, Saddam Hussein, who also suffered the indignity of a mug shot; or that in a better world the Arlington police would arrest war criminals the same way they arrest common criminals.

But I think the joke is only the vehicle for a more interesting point, which is made by the fact that the photographs are of portrait quality. Sans the ID sign, the work could double as a heavily framed painting to be hung on the walls of the halls of power. When framed that way it becomes a character study. Forget the lie, but look at the habitual squint of a calculating man, and the assertive posture of a verbal warrior. The man on the left readily adopts a defensive position as he assesses, tests, counters, and feints while planning his rhetorical offensive. The man on the right is on the assault, a model of both composure and intensity as he rains words down relentlessly on those before him. Think of how easily these same portraits–these same characteristics–could be celebrated had the disaster been anything less than one of historical proportions.

Just as the neocon pundits are cowing the press, they will try to do the same with the history of the war. Willful blindness will become decisiveness, rigidity will be the courage of one’s convictions, immorality will be accepting the burden of leadership. (To understand the cause and consequences of this attitude, see Thucydides’ History 3.82-84.) They will spin the pictures the same way they spin the words. But thanks to two printmakers and the New York Public Library, it now will be a bit easier to see what was wrong.

Photograph by Jim Kempner/Fine Art.

Update: Michael Shaw of BAGnewsNotes posted today on another work from the “Line Up” series, one featuring a somewhat clownish Cheney. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was odd about that piece, but Michael nails it.

To buy postcards of some of the images, go here. From the ad at Pure Products USA, it seems evident that Michael and I each saw one of the two faces of the exhibit. It involves parodic portraiture, and some images (e.g., of Cheney) emphasize the parody and others (e.g., Rumsfeld) the portrait. You can see the very powerful video installation here. A t-shirt is available here.

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Mug Shots, Portraiture, and the Verdict of History

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