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The Beauty of War Through a Child's Eye

This past week we honored America’s veterans, but except for a few conventional news stories and ritualistic photo ops the day passed with little notice or fanfare, eclipsed in the national consciousness by trying to figure out who President-elect Obama will appoint in his new administration and political wrangling over how to address the so-called “financial crisis.”  And what has been missed (or is it repressed?) in all of this has been the 150,000 U.S. troops who continue to occupy Iraq (and who are likely to continue to occupy Iraq until at least 2011); the 278 U.S. military deaths and 1,500 + U.S. military casualties that have occurred in Iraq since January of 2008; or the astonishing admission by the Veteran Administration that on average a staggering 18 veterans commit suicide everyday.

It is against this background that I was stuck by this AP  photograph that showed up in a number of on-line newspaper slide shows this past weekend.

The image is of a young girl as she “looks at a life-size painting of  men from the Columbus-based Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division” that is part of the Lima Company Memorial at the Cincinnati Museum Center.  Lima Company suffered some of the heaviest casualties of any unit fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom, including the death of 22 brave marines in a very short period of time in 2005.  There is no question but that their service and sacrifice needs to be sanctified in public memory and yet there is something altogether unsettling about this photograph. Part of this (dis)ease is no doubt a recognition of how an innocent child—and a young girl at that—serves as the cipher for orienting the model citizen towards the nation-state as a gendered and infantilized spectator.

Children, we are told, “should be seen and not heard.”  Notice here how the young girl silently directs the national gaze upon the marines even as she holds their attention.  The colors of her hair, sweatshirt, and pants coordinate perfectly with the red, white, and blue of the flag that she holds and thus cast her as the metonymic (and fetishistic) embodiment of the nation-state.  Her shadow marks the corporeal distance of the passive spectator from the painting no less than the candles, boots, and photographs that frame it.  There can thus be no mistaking that the young girl is a passive spectator clearly separated from the scene in the painting—seeing and not speaking or acting.  And so, we must wonder, is she a child citizen or the citizen-as-child?

There is no final answer to this question, of course, but the smiling and approving gaze of the marines seems to suggest a paternal protectiveness of the child/citizen/flag that resonates with normative assumptions of the public as an innocent and passive child and all of that is troubling for those who might imagine a vibrant democratic public culture.  But what if the child was not in the photograph? How else then might we understand the painting as part of a public memorial?

This life size canvas, it turns out, is one of  eight panels portraying all 22 marines from Lima Company painted by Anita Miller, a liturgical artist motivated  “to paint images that open the viewer’s eyes to the beauty of the world.”  In each of these eight panels we have portraits of two or three of the deceased marines and in each instance we are presented with a smiling and caring countenance.  And there can be no doubt that the images offer comfort to those who knew and loved these men as friends and family members within the contours of private life. But when cast as a  war memorial the appeal to the spiritual beauty of the individuals doing the fighting diverts attention from the sheer ugliness that is combat regardless of the cause. War’s “beauty”—if that is the right word—is terrible, and that is a lesson that we forget at our peril.

And so, once again back to the photograph and the young child who gazes upon the scene with what we can only imagine is beatific awe and admiration.  And the question here must be, is this the best way to transport the civic virtues of sacrifice and service from one generation to the next?  I am not so Pollyanna as to believe that wars will never be needed—though hope springs eternal— but I never want my children to think of war as “part of the beauty of the world” or that those who do the fighting do so with a “smile” upon their face.  We owe the men of Lima Company more than that.

Photo Credit:  Ernest Coleman, AP Photo/The Enquirer



Sight Gag: Would Twer That It Were True

Credit: The Yes Men and Gawker

“Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.


A New Aesthetic of Patriotism

Guest post by Marita Sturken

Of the many seismic changes signaled by this election, one is surely a change in the aesthetics of American political culture. Not only is Obama telegenic in a way that we have not seen in decades, but the aesthetics of his campaign and of the image economy that emerged around his candidacy signal a new kind of aesthetic, one that is embedded within a contemporary image culture of pastiche, play, and savvy image-making.

Let’s take, for instance, this flyer, which was handed out by volunteers in Pennsylvania in the last get-out-the-vote push (it was created by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, not the Obama campaign). The flyer has a very specific informational intent (its reverse side gives information about voter rights and explicitly counters the misinformation campaigns intended to confuse voters), yet it is a strikingly visual document. It is derived from a poster that was made in support of Obama by Shepard Fairey, a street artist who became know for his Andre the Giant graffiti in cities such as New York, who has since made his name through a clothing line and his Obey Giant logo.

Fairey is emblematic of a new kind of cultural producer, at home with commerce and cultural politics simultaneously. In the new edition of our book Practices of Looking, Lisa Cartwright and I analyze the widely circulated Fairey-Obama posters (one features “Hope” and one “Change”) as both evocative of the historical image of JFK and as deploying the visual style of graphic poster design used by the Bolshevist agitprop artists of the 1920s. The graphic newsprint-like reproduction gives the work a sense of political urgency, playing with the idea of the image (and political figure) with mass appeal. The aesthetics of the image convey the spirit of progress and hope experienced both in the early Soviet context and in the Kennedy era. Contemporary viewers might be expected to read the poster’s graphic style as evoking a very modern kind of hope and optimism recoded within a savvy postmodern culture. The elegance of the poster is worth noting, with its deployment of a blue that is lighter than the stars and stripes blue, and a yellow warm tone—evoking yet not fully using the conventions of the red, white, and blue.

Of course the Obama logo (seen on the flyer) has already received significant attention (it’s been referred to as the “hardest working presidential candidate logo”) with its clever play on the “O” of Obama with the image of a sunrise evoking change, and its color scheme subtly signifying patriotism and the flag. Simple, evocative, smart. It was designed by Sol Sender of Sender LLC in Chicago in collaboration with mo/de, and was used in highly adaptable ways in the campaign. This week’s post-election coverage signals that the “O” will be played with throughout Obama’s tenure in office in headlines, political cartoons, and images (see, for instance, the cover of this week’s New Yorker).

It was amusing to hear that when Bush showed Obama the Oval Office for the first time this week, he took him on his standard tour of the kitschy artifacts in his personal collection on display there (one can see this tour on the White House homepage). Presumably the tour included his painting A Charge to Keep, which depicts a lone cowboy riding his horse up a hill followed by a pack of riders, an image from a pulp cowboy story about a thief fleeing a posse that Bush had mythologized as the lone “determined horseman” who has a “difficult trail.”

One can only imagine the aesthetic disconnect the president-elect might have felt in that moment, and perhaps in quietly “measuring the curtains” he might have considered for a moment what kinds of images he would take with him to the White House.

Sidney Blumenthal has written on Salon.com about the “peculiar aesthetics propagated in the age of George W. Bush” with its “contradictory styles of softening nostalgia and hardening cruelty.” Blumenthal saw the Bush kitsch as a rejection of the Reagan-era kitsch of patriotic sentiment, stating that “under Bush, kitsch has been transformed from sentimentality to sadomasochism.” The kitschy (and brutal) cowboy aesthetic of the Bush Administration has finally run its course, and a new aesthetic, one that rejects kitsch for a nuanced play off the visual codes that evoke America, is emerging in its place.


We the People, One by One

The worldwide celebration of Obama’s victory has made it clear that this election was about much more than turning out the vote. Nothing less than the nation’s soul was on the line. Individual voters need not have seen it that way, but this was one of those moments when the collective significance of the outcome went far beyond any individual interest or conventional political preference. The US was at a fork in the road, and only one candidate even knew that was so. Because he won, the election brought people together again on the best of terms: committed to equality, justice, freedom, and a better future for all. Democracy in American seems to have proved itself once again.

I think that the outcome is even more remarkable yet. Here’s one reason why:

This photo is a particularly good example of the hundreds of shots that were put up on November 4 and the day after. The slide shows featured long lines of ordinary people with their coffee cups and other paraphernalia of everyday life, all waiting together as if one community. But they weren’t a community pure and simple, and this image shows why. The silhouettes capture habits that might be overlooked when seen directly: each person is standing apart as a single individual. The sharp shadows also feature details of individual preoccupation that emphasize the point: a cellphone, book, or magazine are in each case technologies for avoiding interaction with the person next to you.

There are good reasons not to have to talk to a stranger for three hours, and I’m not going to knock any of the things people do to pass the time. But we ought to note that photographs such as this one record the social habits of a liberal democracy, that is, a democracy that has developed sufficiently to make individualism second nature. These people typically will be strangers to one another, gathered together for only a few minutes every several years. Otherwise they live their own lives and, as Tocqueville noted almost two centuries ago, sever themselves from the community and willingly leave society at large to itself (Democracy in America, vol 2, Bk 2, chapter 2). According to Tocqueville, modern democracy doesn’t drive people to become a multitude, but just the opposite: to individuate to an extent that first “saps the virtues of public life” and eventually “attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in selfishness.”

Tocqueville’s claim can explain a lot of the habitual practices of American society, but not the election. The miracle of November 4 is that the majority of the voters affirmed a return to public virtues. They did so as individuals, as they is what they are, but they voted more than their individualism.

Our awareness that Americans are individuals rather than one people in shared solidarity leads to a second reason to appreciate what can be accomplished in a voting booth. Another of Tocqueville’s insights was that individual autonomy both elevates and dwarfs the individual. “When the inhabitant of a democratic society compares himself individually with all those about him, he feels with pride that he is the equal of any one of them; but when he comes to survey the totality of his fellows . . . he is instantly overwhelmed by the sense of his own insignificance and weakness” (2.1.2; and my apologies for the gender specific diction in the Reeve translation). In short, it is easy to recognize that your vote doesn’t count. A rational voter wouldn’t vote, and especially when one factors in not only the other voters but the enormous size, complexity, and power of the modern state.

I think this photo captures the paradox perfectly. Each of the voters is small, isolated, and surely incapable of matching the institutional power and inertia represented by the wall of the building behind them. That wall–complete with flag high above the rest, not to human scale–has all the features of governmental authority, impersonality, and indifference. And yet they vote as if they don’t know any better. Because they vote, democracy happens. It happens among strangers, among individuals devoted to living private lives, among people who have no power to speak of otherwise. It’s a miracle.

Photographs from huffingtonpost.com and Chang W. Lee/New York Times.



NCN was down from about Saturday noon until early Monday morning.

Need I add that John and I were clueless about what to do beyond emailing tech support? Thanks to David Huffaker at Northwestern for helping out and to the Dreamhost staff for the repair. Everything seems to be back to normal, but if you encounter problems, please let us know. We should be back to our regular posting schedule by Wednesday.


Sight Gag: A Visual History of the United States

Credit: Steve Greenberg

“Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.

 1 Comment

Obama, Aesthetics, and the Way Forward

Guest post by Aric Mayer.

Let me just come out and say it. Barack Obama’s landslide victory on Tuesday is the greatest moment in politics for my generation. This is the fifth presidential election that I have voted in, and it is the first where I feel as though the country is being moved by the collective will of its younger citizens. As an eyewitness to many of America’s great domestic tragedies over the past eight years, this election affects me deeply and I can’t write outside of the relief and hope that it brings.

With that said, all is not champagne corks and confetti.

I want to draw your attention to two images by Alan Chin taken in Chicago at the Grant Park celebration where Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech as president elect.

Here the viewer stands alone while looking out over empty railroad tracks at Grant Park with the Chicago skyline spreading across the horizon. In the distant center, the letters USA are shining off of one of its buildings. As a symbol, a city represents the best of human cooperation and achievement. There is promise ahead. And it is going to take real work to get there.

In his acceptance speech Obama looked tired and sometimes grim. He knows what is ahead. Obama has often quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, the moral philosopher who wrote about the destructive nature of power and how it is sometimes necessary to use it even as it corrupts you. Obama inherits two lengthy and costly wars, the near bankruptcy of our own domestic policies, an American economy in free fall and a world economy that appears to be teetering on the edge of the unknown. But as dark as this may seem, the alternative was even darker. John McCain’s last efforts at character assassination and fear mongering left him in the isolated position of having nothing to win but a completely fractured constituency.

The election on Tuesday was won in part through the unprecedented turnout of minority and young voters. It ultimately came down to a contest between the nuanced, hopeful and inclusive pluralism of Barack Obama and the entrenched fears of a segment of conservative white working and middle class voters that was the final platform of John McCain’s candidacy. In contrast to the fear being spread by the McCain campaign, Obama focused on statesmanship, policy and the choice of pragmatism over idealism in forming a new government in America. In a theatrical paradox, while drawing huge crowds Obama frequently played down the drama to the extent that newspaper editorials began to call him boring.

What was happening though was not boring at all, but was and is a ground shift towards pluralism, nuance and complexity with aesthetic consequences. As Obama’s campaign traced its arc from the Democratic Convention until Tuesday night, he clarified his message by moving away from the inflammatory and the incredible and towards the gritty and the pragmatic. To live in a multidimensional society we must recognize that while our own positions are uniquely ours, they do not make up the entire country. The post baby boomers who had such a powerful impact on this election have been accused of self absorption and narcissism, frequently by baby boomers themselves. But there are advantages to self absorption within context, for it reveals the limits of self. It helps to know oneself in order to make room for one who is unlike you. At the heart of this is an acceptance of the “other” and a grass roots rejection of fundamentalist divisions along ethnic and racial lines. What is emerging in America is a more truly plural constituency. At the same time, the depiction of the American Dream as a place and an experience where you can have it all is being replaced by pictures of collapsing markets and a very uncertain economic future. The Great Depression and the New Deal brought us documentary realism. It remains to be seen what will emerge for us out of the current growing crises.

In the second image, Obama is surrounded by waving American flags. It is a triumphant moment, framed by reminders of danger. The bullet proof glass is already in place. In the back left the letters USA appear on an electronic ticker, the same lettering that streams up to the minute data of the market turmoil. There is a balance of hope and realism.

We need to cultivate this balance. Obama wrote it into his speech. While warning us of the difficulties ahead, he still took the time to remind us that there will be children and a new puppy in the White House. A new generation in American politics begins.

A complete slideshow of Alan Chin’s images from Grant Park on November 4 is available at BAGnewsNotes.


American Democracy Prevails

There are thousands of photos today of people throughout the US and around the world celebrating the Obama victory. These come on top of the hundreds put up yesterday of Americans standing patiently in long lines to vote. I finally stopped my search for the elusive photo that would capture it all. That photo doesn’t exist, but I kept coming back to this one:

The celebration is there, like the patriotism that was always there, but the joy of having finally overcome one great barrier should never erase the pain that lies within that story. This is a time for smiles and cheers and the renewal of hope that is so essential to democratic life–but it also is an occasion that can only be truly comprehended through tears. The sob welling up in this man’s face speaks volumes about how much he and so many others have suffered quietly, painfully, their grief and frustrations hidden away form public view lest they be made worse yet. Today, however, a great transmutation is taking place, and pain can finally be converted into joy.

This transformation in the individual heart can occur only because democracy worked as it is supposed to work. For all the flaws and demands and sheer theatrical excess of the electoral campaign, the election made official what are real changes in American society. Look at the others in the photo: not only the diversity but also the comfort level of those being crowded together. This new, good vibe has been evident in the Obama campaign all along, and the fact that it was able to prevail over proven tactics of fear-mongering, character assassination, and a vicious nativism is one of the great achievements of this election.

Forty years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the cities went up in flames, and the democratic process itself seemed to break apart as Chicago police brutally clubbed hundreds of people gathered in Grant Park to protest the Vietnam War. Forty years later, Barack Obama was elected president as Grant Park filled with over 200,000 people celebrating real change within the cities and across the nation. What may be most remarkable about this victory is that it was achieved without revolutionary disruption. Look again at the photo above and at the thousands of other photographs of this election: They record nothing but the ordinary procedures and rituals of an American election, and they do so using nothing but the regular conventions of photojournalism. And that is enough. There is no need for revolutionary iconography or artistic innovation. Ordinary people standing in line, recording their vote, gathering for a speech, celebrating in the living room or bar or street or park–just like you’ve seen before. But with a difference–and it is that combination of historical change with ordinary democracy that provides real hope.

Photograph by Damon Winter/New York Times.


The Visual Codes of Racism

Racism is the American tragedy, and as the current political campaign reminds us, it comes in many shades and colors.  Sometimes it is explicit, as when a Georgia bar owner visually compared Senator Obama to a playful monkey, or more recently when a San Bernadino Republican group distributed Obama Bucks adorned with visual racist stereotypes linking African Americans with watermelon and fried chicken.  At other times it is a bit more subtly coded, as when a nationally syndicated political pundit emphasizes “blood equity” rather than “race or gender” as a sign of one’s fitness to be president, or when the current housing crisis is blamed on the efforts of ACORN, a “community organizing group,” to facilitate mortgages for “low income groups” and  “inner city” residents rather than, say, on those within the financial industry who targeted such communities for subprime loans in the first place.  All forms of racism are troubling, especially for a nation dedicated to social and political equality, but in some respects these more subtly coded versions are all the more pernicious because they operate under a thin veil of interpretive ambiguity that enables such advocates to absolve themselves of the responsibility to acknowledge (let alone to justify) the insidious implications of the views that they espouse.

Consider, for example, this photograph published in an online slide show at the Washington Post this past week:

The caption reads: “Police officers accompanied by police dogs, stand guard near supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama outside a campaign stop of U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain in Sandusky, Ohio.”  At first blush, everything seem reasonable enough.  After all, presidential candidates need security, and crowd control is a valid concern for local police departments, even when the purpose of a large event does not engender the high visibility of a hotly contested political campaign. The presence of the police at such an event is a legitimate usage of state authority to maintain public order that should not even raise our eyebrows.  But of course there is something disturbing about the scene captured by this photograph and it warrants our careful attention.

A defender of the scene might argue that the photograph clearly marks the tension between “security” and “liberty” that is symptomatic of political culture in a liberal-democratic polity. The pivot point, one might note, is the yellow police line that marks the often tenuous division between public order and chaos. Shot from an oblique angle, the image distantiates the viewer from easily aligning with either the police officer and dog (the signs of public order) or the Obama supporters (the signs of potential disorder); it thus invites and implies a degree of viewer objectivity that encourages us to treat such tensions as regular and ordinary: protest is legitimate within bounds, but so too is the exercise of state authority, and as long as the two operate in careful equipoise all is well.  But, of course, such an analysis begs the larger question:  Why the guard dogs?  What is about this particular event that warrants the presence of dogs trained to kill upon command to guard the public welfare against what appear to be peaceful and orderly Obama supporters? 

There are no doubt answers to this question that deny any racist implications to the image or the scene it records, but as with those who invoke specific racial stereotypes only to deny any racist implications to their comments, such responses willfully  ignore the history and symbols of American racism writ large.  And one prominent symbol of that racism has been the use of dogs to manage and control African American populations.  Dogs were regularly used to hunt down escaped slaves or to otherwise keep unruly slaves “in their place” in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in our own era they have been used by the police to intimidate and control nonviolent black marchers and protestors as during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  The presence of the dogs at this rally thus function, at least in part, as an altogether insensitive symbolic reference to the “unruly” slave and the “rabble” of  black protesters, particularly as the protestors/supporters are divided from the forces of order by a police line that implies that they stand on the other side of the law.  But lest I be accused of a too simple “political correctness,” there is more, for the presumed legitimacy of the very presence of guard dogs—and why else would the police use them but for the belief that they were necessary to maintain the peace—contributes to a culture of racial fear and anxiety that manifests itself in comments like those reported recently on NPR by concerned white citizens who worry that if Senator Obama loses the election there will be race riots across the nation.

Of course, the presence of a single symbol of racism at one political rally will not, by itself, animate or sustain a culture of racism and racial anxiety—or at least not for very long.  The problem is that at some point the accumulation and concatentation of such symbols, explicit and subtle alike, reinforce and eventually naturalize one another.  And when that happens it becomes increasingly difficult to resist the power and appeal of their “common sense” pretensions.  The only antidote is to develop the verbal and visual literacy necessary to understand and interpret such codes for what they are and to be guided, in the end, by what Martin Luther King referred to as the “true meaning” of our national creed that “all men are created equal.”  

Photo Credit:   Brian Snyder/Reuters


Sight Gag: The Eyes of Alaska Are Upon You (Vote!)

Photo Credit: Pat Wellenbach/AP

“Sight Gags” is our weekly nod to the ironic and carnivalesque in a vibrant democratic public culture. We typically will not comment beyond offering an identifying label, leaving the images to “speak” for themselves as much as possible. Of course, we invite you to comment … and to send us images that you think capture the carnival of contemporary democratic public culture.