In his book “The Conquest of America,” the historian and critic Tzvetan Todorov made a distinction between “massacre” and “sacrifice” cultures. The native societies of central and southern America were “sacrifice” cultures, in which the ritual murder of innocent victims was at least culturally meaningful because it was connected to sacred and cosmological events. The Spanish colonizers, by contrast, perpetrated a massacre culture, genocidal and meaningless, advancing only the venal interests of the invaders.
We still live in an age of massacres, though now we massacre ourselves as well as others. The news coverage Wednesday night of the tragedy in Florida was full of well-intentioned people adhering to the fundamental rule of our massacre culture: These deaths must always be meaningless. To interpret them, to place them in context, is disrespectful. They must remain “senseless,” our favorite adjective to describe them.
After the school shooting in Florida, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden decided to follow suit and avoid leaving the impression of any kind of comment on this age of meaningless death. It has postponed plans to display a projection on its building’s exterior by artist Krzysztof Wodiczko because, in part, it features a large image of a gun, and a candle. “Out of respect for those affected, and in sensitivity to our public, the Hirshhorn and artist Krzysztof Wodiczko will no longer be projecting his artwork on the exterior of the building Feb. 14-15,” the museum said in a tweet late in the day Wednesday. On Thursday, it released a longer statement, including this from the artist: “To me, the silence feels most respectful. In this case, not showing the projection shows respect and sensitivity to the people who suffer from this great tragedy.”
The projection was first seen at the Hirshhorn in 1988 and was slated to be seen again as part of the new exhibition “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s.” Hirshhorn Director Melissa Chiu said, “We remain committed to exhibiting this important work, which is still relevant today — 30 years following its original showing. We look forward to restaging the work in its original format at a later date.”
No doubt the museum would have attracted controversy had it gone forward with the projection now, in part from people genuinely troubled by the images. But postponing it plays into a fundamental misunderstanding of how artworks like this operate, and it is an unnecessary concession to the new American troll culture, a vocal demographic that often enjoys taking offense because they live in a virtual world defined by rapid recrimination, bullying and thoughtlessness.
There was immediate art-world reaction to the Hirshhorn’s decision. Andrew Russeth, executive editor of ARTnews, tweeted Wednesday: “Project it every single night until sensible gun control legislation is passed and signed into law.” The museum is unlikely to do that, and the Smithsonian probably wouldn’t want to be drawn into the national debate over guns given how much of its budget depends on a Congress dominated by the National Rifle Association. “I do sympathize with Melissa Chiu in a situation like this,” Russeth said in an email. “I can’t imagine how difficult the dynamics must be in D.C. — but it feels like a missed opportunity.”
In the background of the immediate debate about whether to show the projection is a larger issue: Can we continue, as a society, to look at these mass murder events as exceptional, occasional and abnormal? Or would it make more sense to rethink our very identity and finally acknowledge that these massacres are fundamentally a part of who we are as a country? The effort to incorporate them into our self-understanding might be just the thing to finally, painfully break from the old pattern of shock, grief, acceptance and complacency.
It’s a repellent thought — to normalize these killings — but the effort to think that thought could be so shocking to the conscience that our conscience would finally rebel. So there is an argument to project the Wodiczko images, guns and all, now, while we are still reeling from the most recent tragedy. To see the gun projected on the Hirshhorn would be to say: This is our totem, this is our God, this is what we believe in. We might even rethink our identity as a massacre culture, in which these killings are meaningless and unaccountable bolts from the blue, and consider them, instead, as part of a perverted, uniquely American sacrifice culture, obligatory ritual carnage in service to the gun.
Wodiczko’s original projection, in 1988, appeared during a divisive election season dominated by cultural divides over abortion and the death penalty. The artist crafted his work from images culled from films and advertising, displaying them on a monumental scale in part to assert their monumentality within American culture. Of his now three-decade-old work, he has said: “I wrote in 1988 that, more than ever before, the meaning of our monuments depends on our active role in turning them into sites of memory and critical evaluation of history as well as places of public discourse and action. It remains vitally true.”
So seeing them now, especially the image of the gun, would underscore, among other things, the length and immutability of this debate within American culture; the sacred status of the gun within our political life; possible connections between our violence-soaked popular culture and our political tolerance of mass slaughter; and the helplessness we now feel in the shadow of this thing we have created. It would visualize a paradox that many people now feel, a paradox about our values and priorities: Why would we want to live in a society that worships guns over life? That values firearms over children? That privileges an absolutist stand on Second Amendment rights over the basic right to life?
One fundamental strategy of political art is to say: This ugly image is who we are, and then challenge the audience to deny that, in word and deed. By forcing us to confront the great fetish of American culture, its slavish worship of the gun, the Hirshhorn could dramatize a choice we face, and a decision we have avoided for generations now. There has never been a more urgent moment to project that challenge at Americans, and hope they finally are sickened by the idea.