Wednesday, May 22

[A closer look] Violent art can act as social commentary

A recent controversial performance art piece performed by a
student at UCLA has raised the issue of how art, violence and
history interact with one another.

Recently, two UCLA professors resigned, in part because they saw
a delayed response by the university regarding a performance art
piece depicting Russian roulette. While it is not certain what the
message of the student’s performance was, one of the
professors said he felt the student should have demonstrated more
sensitivity in light of current events.

“Columbine has happened; 9/11 has happened,” said
Chris Burden, one of the art professors who quit, in a Jan. 25
Chronicle of Higher Education article. “There are

War and violence are not strange topics to the art community.
Art scholars have noticed trends in the representation of war and
violence throughout history, from World War I to the current war on
terrorism. The graduate art student involved in the controversial
performance art piece, Joseph Deutch, performed on the night of
Nov. 29 at the graduate art studio in Culver City. Burden, a new
genres professor and Nancy Rubins, his wife and sculpture
professor, submitted their retirement work on Dec. 20, partly
because the university refused to suspend the student. They also
cited other departmental issues as reasons for their

One of Burden’s most famous projects in the early 1970s
was a performance art piece titled “Shoot,” in which
Burden was shot in the arm by an assistant with a .22-caliber rifle
from 13 feet away. To art history professor Al Boime, violence and
art are closely related.

“You can say that in one sense, the history of art records
the history of violence,” said Boime, who noted that the art
movements surrealism and dadaism were responses to World War I.
“You could say the Buddhist priests in Vietnam were
performance artists when they doused themselves with gasoline and
ignited themselves,” he said.

While artists may have a motivation to produce violent art in a
time of war, there is a risk of alienating viewers, said art
history Professor David Kunzle. There is a fine line between
turning people away from one’s art and provoking a reaction
against war, he said.

“You may be hitting someone in the gut, but they might
say, “˜I can’t deal with this,’” he

There is also a risk of attracting backlash, as in the case of
the graduate student, who is currently under investigation by the
university to determine if he violated the student code of

Many have noticed that the amount of art generated in response
to the war on terrorism is not as much as the amount created during
the Vietnam war, which Kunzle believes will change.

Kunzle said it took years before substantial amounts of art were
produced in reaction to Vietnam and said there will be more art
created in reaction to the war on terrorism in the future.

“Some calculated there were as many as a hundred-thousand
posters made about the (Vietnam) war,” Kunzle said.

Others feel there should be more of a response to current
events. Thomas Lawson, the dean of the art school at the California
Institute of Arts in Valencia, said he is surprised at the lack of
response to the war from the art world.

“There’s probably a fear of drawing attention to
anything not entertaining,” Lawson said. “In the late
’60s, people were willing to put themselves on the line
against the war.”

While Lawson and Kunzle said the volume of war-themed art
produced now is not as large as in the past, Boime said he believes
the nature of some art has become more extreme than before,
especially in performance art, where some have resorted to
self-mutilation and other graphic forms of artistic expression. Art
that depicts violence has become increasingly gruesome because
people have become less sensitive to violence, Boime said.

“Ordinary violence is insufficient, so violence has to be
exaggerated,” he said.

Last year, an art display regarding the war in Iraq elicited a
violent reaction. San Francisco art gallery owner Lori Haigh was
punched in the face, leaving her with a black eye, apparently in
response to a painting she installed depicting the Abu Ghraib
prisoner abuse scandal.

Art created in light of or in response to war and violence is
not always meant to critique, but rather can be used to see how
violence unites or separates, Boime said.

“Art can be used to heal in the aftermath of war or it can
also be used to deconstruct war. Art can be used to promote
war,” he said, speaking of propaganda.

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