ANDOVER, Mass. — The gun is everywhere in US Culture. Just think of how much it pervades our everyday language: shoot an email; put someone on blast; pick them off one by one; fired immediately; I want to hit that; bust a cap; blast; plug; perforate; fell; gun down; mow down; clap; we need to pull the trigger. It is so much at the root of particular ideas that make this nation tick — intransigent patriarchy, manifest destiny, white settler ideology (which imagines the social world as a place of relentless competition for dominance and sees violence as the primary mediator among men vying for dominance) — that one could argue that the gun helped construct these ideologies. At the very least guns helped disseminate them. Firearms are such a staple of US culture and so insidiously pervasive that you can’t talk about US popular culture without dealing with them. (And guns are disproportionately present here: it has been calculated that US citizens own 40% of the guns existing in the world while constituting about 5% of the world’s population.) When I read that the Addison Gallery of American Art (which is located on the campus of the Phillips Academy in Andover) had mounted an exhibition titled Gun Country, I decided I needed to make the time to see it.
The show, which consists of photography culled from the Addison’s collection, demonstrates that the gun exists as an ideal, a prop for power, a tool, and as a metaphor. The photographs depict gun clubs, gun shops, hunters with guns, various war reenactments that include rifles and the like, guns carried by police officers, by penitentiary guards, by Black Panthers, by small boys figuring out the nature of their powers, who they want to emulate and how to do so. There are even guns christened with the images of idealized, mythic symbols emblazoned on them as in the image “Stand by Your Guns, Men! (#76)” (1872) by Thomas H. Nast. Here, the exhibition gets at how the gun does double duty in cinema and TV shows: as the sidekick of the hard-edged, irascible but duty-bound police officer, and as the main implement for the rebel who breaks the rules and makes all the punks fear him.
On one wall where most of the images are clustered together I see photographs of young men posing with their guns, such as Larry Clark’s “Tulsa-Print #28” (1959–62). Most of these pictures are made by Clark and Bill Owens (while one picture by Diane Arbus and one by Wendy Ewald attempt to make this suite of images not seem completely masculinist). They likely once read to many as gutsy and authentic, but now they read to me as posturing: the boy pretending to be more bad-ass than he knows how to be, and the photographer posturing as the embedded, audacious chronicler of crusty, unconventional ways of being. Once we viewers might have uncritically commiserated with these images, imagining that the bubble we occupy is too fragile to permit a firearm inside. But our spate of indiscriminate mass shootings has taught us that these images are as much about artifice as they are about aspiration. These men (and oddly, I don’t recall seeing any images of women wielding guns) who are mostly white, and are likely heterosexual are reaching for a dwindling power as other weapons of social control have become more pertinent — protest, legislation, voting, activism. Of course, many men continue to buy up firearms, reaching to grasp what is slowly and surely being lost: the idea that holding a gun makes one powerful and dominant and makes the world bend to one’s will.
However while Gun Country is a timely show with perhaps the right exploratory impetus, it doesn’t do the right thing. It’s set in a study space adjacent to the library. Some of the photographs are mounted on a wall behind someone actively working at a desk when I visited, thus making it really difficult to see the entire exhibition. On another far wall, almost hidden away, are pieces that deserve to be better shown. Among these are Carroll Dunham’s “Gunslinger” (2001) a lithograph that is one of the very few images to take the rebel to cartoonish extremes and thus make the myth seem as silly as it can be. There is audio as well, a soundtrack consisting of the voices of young adults at the Phillips school talking about guns, which was recorded by the show’s curator Stephanie Sparling-Williams. However, the audio was so low that I couldn’t properly make out what anyone was saying. Over other voices speaking in the library I only caught one or two words in a row. Also, towards the end of the exhibition, a back wall displayed war photos, an uninspired and obvious move that doesn’t get at the more pervasive mythology that is embedded in our popular culture, a mythology that the rest of the show begins to examine.
I asked the head curator Allison Kemmerer why the exhibition was installed in a space that does not make for optimal viewing. She told me that the show was somewhat “spontaneous” and constituted a kind of experiment. Still, the Addison has nine lovely galleries in which to place an exhibition that might more fully draw out the themes I’ve described. They should take this potential more seriously.
Guns are a principal symbol of our sense of masculinity and power for our culture. That’s why we live in gun country. An exhibition that shows us the length, breadth, and depth of this country, its limits and what undergirds it would help us understand how it became what it is, and such understandings may help us transform it.
Editor’s note: travel and accommodation was provided to the author by the Addison gallery.