A sign held up by a Code Pink protester at the NRA's press conference on Friday, December 21 in Washington, DC. (via

A sign held up by a Code Pink protester at the NRA’s press conference on Friday, December 21, in Washington, DC (via @jacobsoboroff)

Today’s NRA press conference was repulsive to everyone except the most die-hard gun lovers who don’t see why anyone would do anything to regulate, prohibit, or curb the distribution of guns in this country. Our favorite irreverent anti-war activist group, Code Pink, disrupted the staged event (not much of a press conference really, since there were no questions) a number of times with screams that included the phrases “The NRA is killing our children” and “The violence begins with the NRA!” along with large banners. It was a surreal event, and it was amazing that the first activist, Tighe Barry, was able to disrupt the presentation for a significant amount of time. The sign, unfurled clearly for the cameras, strangely didn’t feel out of place. The whole event, in reality, felt artificial.

A few moments later, famed activist Madea Benjamin, also of Code Pink, jumped up with her own sign and screamed, “The NRA has blood on their hands” and “Ban assault weapons now.” Her sign echoed her message.

Univision’s political editor Jordan Fabian, who was standing in the room, captured the moment perfectly in his tweet: “This press conference is like bizarre performance art.” Thankfully, Fabian used the adjective “bizarre” and didn’t dismiss the whole thing as performance art, which has become a familiar refrain by media types who don’t understand the medium. “If it’s strange and incomprehensible, it must be performance art” is the lazy reporter or commentator’s shorthand for throwing up their hands but trying to be funny at the same time.

But the collision of performance art and life didn’t stop there. Soon after the press conference, The Yes Men, who are best known for pulling a fast one on BBC World News by impersonating a Dow Chemicals spokesman and apologizing for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, tweeted out, “The Wall Street Journal falls for our latest hoax!!! #NRA,” which was accompanied by a link to WSJ’s almost Onion-like headline, “NRA Calls for Armed Officers in Schools.” The reality is that if NRA spokesperson Wayne LaPierre wasn’t so well known, many of us might have fallen for the “joke”; instead, only the most naive did.

Incredibly, while LaPierre refused to touch on the danger of guns in his speech, he did cite “violent” video games, music videos, and other cultural influences as the source of our violent culture. He even suggested a national registry for the mentally ill, despite the fact that the United States doesn’t have a national registry of gun owners.

The issue of guns, kids, and our safety is a serious matter, but the press conference highlighted a divide over the culture we produce and the perceived impact of it on our lives. The rhetoric should be familiar to anyone who followed the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, only now, instead of focusing only on movies and music, the world of video games is falling increasingly into the crosshairs of some conservatives who look at what kids are doing as always suspect.

Video games, as many people know, have already been established as an art form in our culture. And the US Supreme Court ruled last year in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association that video games were protected speech like other forms of art. More recently, with the institutional stamp of approval by MoMA and other museums, video games are being firmly established as part of the art world. Any attack on the integrity of video games is something that should concern the art world in its entirety.

Many people may be uncomfortable with the violence in some of the most severe video games, but as with any work of fantasy, our best option is to inform consumers and allow them to decide, not to censor them. Parents can decide for their underage kids if they should play those games.


This photo by Zed Nelson is accompanied by this caption: “Jack Cone, 45, with sons Andrew, 10, and Tanner, 12, at the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual convention and gun show in Dallas. ‘Tanner first fired a gun aged 3. He now owns a 243 Ruger rifle, a Remington 58 and a 20-guage automatic shotgun. Andrew has a Browning Rifle, a Remington pump-action shotgun and a Swedish military rifle. I’ve got about 50 guns. The real problem is the minorities who have guns — they cause the problems.’” (via Time‘s Lightbox)

What the art world can do is help illuminate the realities and divisions of our culture and its obsession with guns. Photographer Zed Nelson has been probing the topic for over a decade, and the massacre in a suburban Denver cineplex last July encouraged him to revisit his series anew. His photos, which were recently published on Time magazine’s Lightbox blog, are chilling. He uses his camera to illuminate a world many of us don’t see. He ends his accompanying article with an astute observation:

Some argue that there is no link between the proliferation and the easy availability of firearms and the huge annual death toll. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that heavily armed young men massacring innocent people has become a too-common feature of contemporary American life.

Contemporary life is the fodder of contemporary art. Artists of all types create narratives that seep into our culture and play out in various ways. Still, assuming a literal one-to-one connection would be absurd. One tweeter made the astute comment, “Just want to point out the NRA’s plan to stop school shootings is literally the plot of Kindergarten Cop.” Or, as Daily Kos contributing editor David Waldman cleverly tweeted after the NRA’s press event: “Remember when Pong created that rash of racquetball murders?”

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

16 replies on “Guns, Performance Art, and the Tools to Understand”

  1. It’s interesting that many people who profess the unassailable right to free speech have no problem with other Constitutional protections being trampled. What infringements to free speech do we tolerate? The NRA isn’t some mindless, evil group; it’s American citizens who believe in the full weight, and benifit of protections offered by the Contitution of the United States. If we no longer believe in those protections then let us remove them from the Constitution by constitutional means.

      1. They won’t stop there though… and you know it. The NRA knows it. Non-NRA hunters and gun owners know it.

  2. So basically the lesson from Hrag today is that it is OK to rail against longstanding rights — as long as the backlash does not target entertainment OR the art world (which is arguably entertainment as well). I was never into the whole gun, hunting thing — BUT I have rural roots. I know people who own dozens of guns… including assault rifles. They are ALL law abiding citizens — they have never been arrested for anything (unlike Tighe Barry). Most of the gun owners I know (including NRA members) do feel that there needs to be tighter restrictions on assault rifles. BUT there is a fear that if they bend on that… the far lefties like Barry will continue to press, press, press until ALL guns are illegal.

      1. Hrag,I just found it odd that you did not mention that fact. Very convenient… considering that if a Republican had spurred the law — you would have mentioned it in a heartbeat. As for guns though, I’m curious — do you feel, within reason, that US citizens should be allowed to own guns — just a basic pistol, shotgun, or rifle?

          1. In that case you should be against bad government not gun ownership. The Black Book of Communism numbers nearly 100 million people killed in the last century by governments that excelled at gun control.

          2. You’re correct in saying that Americans killed Native Indians, and that was a shame.
            However, they were continuing the killing spree started by the Spaniards, the British, and even some French; they were Europeans and let’s not forget them.

          3. I’m not saying that I like the fact that guns like that exist. BUT as mentioned earlier, I know people who own those types of guns… and people who were raised around them — and I can’t think of one instance of violence from those individuals involving them. It is clear that some individuals are capable of owning them / using them responsibly… while others are clearly not. The problem here is that if you start to take specific guns away, legally speaking, based on people who are not responsible (and in most cases that is due to mental issues)…. it could impact others things — such as video games, movies, music… you name it. It is a big can of worms.

  3. If aliens came to Earth and asked: what are your current problems and solutions, we’d say: kids are killed and we’re looking for ways of banning… objects.
    We’d be the laughing stock of the Galaxy.

  4. Hrag, looks like Vice President Biden has dragged video game makers into the whole Newton debate. Apparently President Obama has implied that the video game industry shares some of the blame as well. I thought only conservatives went after violent video games??? ;p

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