Last year, the National Rifle Association released its now infamous “The Clenched Fist of Truth” video in which a brief clip of Anish Kapoor’s sculpture “Cloud Gate” appeared as a stand-in for Chicago and the city’s most famous recent resident, Barack Obama. As NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch chanted in a hypnotically angry voice, “they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance,” Kapoor’s shiny steel doughnut form, which sits like a bulbous arch in Millennium Park, flashed on the screen for barely a second. But that was more than enough to anger Kapoor, who has fought and failed to force the powerful gun advocacy group to remove it. Monday, in a statement, Kapoor condemned “the NRA’s nightmarish, intolerant, divisive vision” that “perverts everything that Cloud Gate — and America — stands for.”
Kapoor, one of the most significant and celebrated artists working today, holds copyright over the commercial use of images of “Cloud Gate,” according to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Although tourists can freely photograph the sculpture, advertisers who want to film it are directed to Kapoor’s office for permission, which he never gave to the NRA. But after looking at his legal options, and considering the financial and emotional cost of battling the “extremely aggressive, legalistic” advocacy group, Kapoor has given up hope for successful negotiation or litigation. “I decided it wasn’t worth the effort, much to my shame, because one does want to defend the ethical integrity of the work.”
Instead, he has released a blistering statement in collaboration with the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
“It plays to the basest and most primal impulses of paranoia, conflict and violence, and uses them in an effort to create a schism to justify its most regressive attitudes,” wrote Kapoor, a British sculptor born in Mumbai. “Hidden here is a need to believe in a threatening ‘Other’ different from ourselves.”
The video’s tone, rhetoric and imagery suggest a troubling evolution of NRA strategy. “Cloud Gate” appears along with other iconic images of urban America, including architect Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and a brief glimpse of Spanish-born American artist José de Creeft’s beloved “Alice in Wonderland” sculpture in Central Park.
Some images appear to be shot with an infrared filter, giving them a spooky, surreal quality, with dramatic sky effects and tree leaves appearing bright white. The video producers also use time-lapse to speed up the motion of people and cars in the foreground, a device reminiscent of the opening sequence to the Netflix drama “House of Cards,” with its intimation of stylish evil and corruption in the nation’s capital.
But despite the haunted quality of the visuals, the NRA’s urban imagery isn’t particularly scary. Indeed all of the scenes used in this call to arms against urban America show successful urban spaces. These are picture postcard sites sought out by tourists from both red and blue states, and they are teeming with life. Unlike the anti-urban rhetoric of a generation ago, which stressed scenes of urban decay — ramshackle buildings and trash-strewn empty streets — the NRA focuses not on blight but vibrancy. In the language of urban designers, they represent the city with scenes of “activated” urban design.
Kapoor sees that as part of an “invidious” effort to recast urban space as threatening. Speaking from his studio in London, he said the NRA videos seem designed to rebrand “emblems of liberal America” as “foreign objects,” and thus threatening. Lauren Markowitz, a spokeswoman for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, agrees, saying, “Rather than using a picture of our great city to sell their awful propaganda, the NRA should use this moment to reflect on their disgraceful efforts to block meaningful gun reforms that would save lives in Chicago and across the nation.”
The NRA’s visual logic suggests a new twist in the culture wars. Cities, today, are thriving, and the old rhetoric of the city as a kind of cancer spreading into the heartland no longer works. So the NRA has adopted a new narrative: The city, no matter how successful, is a pernicious collective endeavor that will ultimately decay into violence and oppression. The video in which “Cloud Gate” appears is succinct in this prediction: From its opening images of public sculpture and architecture it moves directly into images of protest and violence and finally an urgent exhortation from the narrator, “The only way we save our country and our freedom is to fight this violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth,” with marked stress on the repeated use of the word “our.”
Public sculpture is integral to the larger claim that urban success leads inexorably to individual repression. Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” took years to design and build and was mounted in an enormously ambitious $475 million public park built over railroad tracks near the shore of Lake Michigan. By some accounts, this could be seen as civic folly and a waste of public and private funds. But “Cloud Gate” was also part of a symbolic 21st-century act of urban “healing” performed on the broken, industrial landscape of the early 20th century.
The use of time-lapse and black-and-white images may be designed to undermine faith in this kind of collective action toward better urban design and well-structured, activated public places. It makes crowds of people seem spectral and vanishing, while urban objects like “Cloud Gate” take on ominous, fetishistic power. The suggestion is that efforts at improving public space aren’t just vain and “utopian,” they are doomed to fail, dragging the rugged libertarian ethos of American individualism down with them.
But there may be a message even darker than that one: These beloved urban icons aren’t just symbols of a hated cosmopolitanism, but trophies to be captured. Unlike other NRA videos, which stress patriotism, American values and the sacrifice of veterans, Loesch speaks explicitly of defeating an enemy. “They will perish in the political flames of their own fires,” she says in another video, which juxtaposes the Golden Gate Bridge (declared a “wonder of the modern world”) with a chaotic political protest.
The implication is subtle: We won’t just defeat urban elites, we will appropriate what they have built. Given the stark and widening inequalities between many red and blue states when it comes to longevity, educational opportunity and quality of life, it’s a disturbing but not surprising development.
Given the success of “Cloud Gate” — the city of Chicago claims it is the most popular tourist site in the Midwest — it can’t easily be recast as an oppressive urban vanity project. But in the new culture wars, in which one side must win and the other must lose, it can be held up as an object up for grabs. Just as the NRA hopes to pass legislation that will allow states’ concealed carry permits to be valid even in other states that don’t allow concealed carry, there is the suggestion that one day, perhaps, these great urban icons will belong not to the cities that built them, but to the larger gun culture. To its members, the organization offers through-the-looking-glass promise. When the battle is won, you will look into the brilliant, reflective surface of this sculpture and see not the hated elites, but you, triumphant.