Guns, Performance Art, and the Tools to Understand

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?”

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