Pretty Violence

US Special Forces in Khost, Afghanistan; photograph published in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, and included in David Shields’s War is Beautiful, 2015
Wally Santana/AP Images
US Special Forces in Khost, Afghanistan; photograph published in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, and included in David Shields’s War is Beautiful, 2015

A handsome book just arrived on my desk. War Is Beautiful the title declares. Surely not! Then I see the subtitle: “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict.” Ah, irony. An asterisk takes me to some tiny print at the bottom left of the cover: “(in which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times).” And who is the author? David Shields, the man who gave us Reality Hunger and many other thoughtful provocations. In fact, I now recall that a couple of years ago Shields, with whom I occasionally exchange an email opinion or two, and who was then on the lookout for a publisher, ran this project past me and although at the time I saw neither the book’s title or its actual photographic contents, I endorsed his introductory essay with the quote: “Absolutely right, to the point and guaranteed to stir things up.”

Basically, as Shields had promised, the book offers sixty-four very glossy war photos taken from the front page of The New York Times and arranged thematically: Nature, Playground, Father, God, Pietà, Painting, Movie, Beauty, Love, Death. The earliest picture is dated January 2002, from Afghanistan, the latest October 2013, from Pakistan. The accusation is that the newspaper does everything to make war glamorous and even, in some way, reassuring: “a chaotic world is ultimately under control,” Shields observes. In an afterword, art critic David Hickey shows how consciously the photos reproduce well-known pictorial and painterly tropes:

There is a Magdalene in white clothing nodding onto the edge of the frame as she would in a Guido Reni. There is a Rodin of two kneeling marines in a flat field. There are warriors protecting children that echo Imperial Rome, where war was an everyday fact, as the Times would seem to wish it now.

It’s hard to deny, as you leaf through these photos, that they do indeed very deliberately aestheticize their subjects, and hence anaesthetize the viewer; these are glamour pictures to be admired, rather than documentary images that give immediacy to violence and horror. “Connecticut-living-room trash,” is how Hickey sums it up. In short, we are a long, long way from the more sober black-and-white images that chronicled the Vietnam War in the same paper.

All the same, an objection comes to mind: that this transformation of violence into beauty is hardly the reserve of The New York Times. In this regard, consider Luc Sante’s fascinating article on the New York police photos of crime scenes taken in the early years of the twentieth century. These are stark images whose purpose was to provide legal evidence; nevertheless, there is a strong aesthetic element. “Not every one is a masterpiece,” Sante observes, “but all display patient craftsmanship in their framing and lighting, making them seem lapidary, even definitive. Every picture is a tableau, complete unto itself.” Except in very rare cases, it seems photographers and artists instinctively compose images in order to make the experience of looking at them dramatic, impressive, and above all, bearable.

Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Slaying Holofernes, circa 1620
Artemisia Gentileschi: Judith Slaying Holofernes, circa 1620

And this has been going on for hundreds of years. Take the ugly subject of beheading. We have all expressed our shock over the Islamic State’s habit of posting YouTube videos of their warriors decapitating hostages. Sometimes it has seemed that we are more shocked by the existence and availability of the videos—the mere fact that they tempt us to become witnesses to such violence—than by the act itself. Yet of course our “civilization” has a long history of depicting beheading. There is hardly a major art gallery in Europe or the United States without a Judith and Holofernes. From Caravaggio to Klimt painters have enjoyed the drama of the beautiful woman hacking off the soldier’s head. Salome and John the Baptist are another popular pair, the Baptist’s head always decorously framed by the (usually silver) plate on which it is presented to the pretty dancer. In another Biblical episode the courageous young David has no qualms about hacking off Goliath’s head, and Donatello delights in showing a cute boy naked with the dead ogre’s beard under his foot. Of course, this is “art,” not documentary, but it creates a habit of viewing violence in a certain way.

Nor is literature any less capable of turning such scenes into “beauty.” “The program of the photos,” Shields observes of the images he has collected together, “is the same as that of the Iliad: the preservation of power.” How can one not be brought up sharp by that claim? If we stop reading the Times in protest at this glamorizing of war, do we stop reading the Iliad? Beowulf? War and Peace? Primo Levi complained that a great deal of Holocaust literature was guilty of making the suffering more palatable by sanctifying the victims. Aestheticizing horror can be a subtle process.

Then how are we to distinguish between images that are rendered with the worst intention—“the preservation of power,” assuming we are agreed that that is not a legitimate aim—and those that are supposedly being used to expose this intention for the hypocrisy it is? Arguably, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon had this element of protest, but in the end it too produced some glamorous images of extreme violence. Likewise the many Vietnam War movies. Even Shields’s book, as I am sure he is aware, invites ambiguous responses. The cover includes a score of quotes besides my own. “Fantastic, engrossing, and gruesome,” says Davis Schneiderman on the back cover of the book. “I love it.” “A work of perilous ambiguity,” Andrei Codrescu observes more soberly. For of course as soon as we have metabolized the criticism leveled at The New York Times, we do indeed settle down to enjoy these extraordinary photographs, which the publisher has been careful to present in as lavish a form as possible.

A bombing victim being prepared for Muslim burial in Najaf, Iraq; photograph published in The New York Times on March 4, 2004, and included in War is Beautiful
Joao Silva/Redux
A bombing victim being prepared for Muslim burial in Najaf, Iraq; photograph published in The New York Times on March 4, 2004, and included in War is Beautiful

At which point the question arises: Can we ever get away from this transformation that makes a beauty of the beast?

Let’s go back to Homer, since Shields has mentioned him. In the Odyssey, when Helen and Menelaus are back in Greece, Telemachus visits them. All they want to talk about is Troy, the war; in the end Troy is the great focal point of their lives. But it’s too painful. Menelaus will have to remember Helen’s betrayal, Helen her dead lovers, Telemachus his dead friends and missing father, whom he assumes is dead. The truth is too ugly to be comfortable with.

Helen gets up, goes into another room, finds a drug she was given in Egypt and slips it into the wine. It’s a drug, Homer says, “that would allow you to recount your brother’s death with a smile on your face.” And so it is. She and her husband and Telemachus have a wonderful evening going over all the unbearable violence of Troy—the drug has made it noble, glamorous—and then fall serenely asleep. Needless to say, that drug is literary form: rhyme, rhythm, art.

The Inferno does the same with hell.

The many people and their ghastly wounds
did so intoxicate my eyes
that I was moved to linger there and weep.

Dante complains. But his guide, Virgil, insists he keep moving fast: “Let your talk be brief.…We must not linger here.” To stop and really look would be to risk being overwhelmed by suffering; the rapid movement of the terza rima with its ever-reassuring rhymes takes the sting out it all. One can see why Dante’s guide had to be a poet; only art can take you through hell, by making it beautiful. Endless descriptions of punishment and disfigured, mutilated bodies become weirdly attractive. Centuries later, Beckett, a Dante fan to the end, understood the game perfectly and his novel Watt offers a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the Dantesque method:

Personally of course I regret everything. Not a word, not a deed, not a thought, not a need, not a grief, not a joy, not a girl, not a boy, not a doubt, not a trust, not a scorn, not a lust, not a hope, not a fear, not a smile, not a tear, not a name, not a face, no time, no place, that I do not regret, exceedingly. An ordure from beginning to end.

Life’s awfulness is rigidly organized into a nursery-rhyme pattern of chiming opposites. One hardly notices the suffering at all. Such is art, Beckett suggests.

From Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, 1987
Natant/Stanley Kubrick Productions/Warner Bros.
A scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, 1987

One could list any number of writers who set out to write protests over the horrors of war and ended up glorifying it in their way. Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is emblematic: a stupid communications error in the Crimean War had led six hundred cavalrymen to charge a line of cannons. The carnage was inevitable. Everyone was appalled. But Tennyson’s poem transforms it into beauty:

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volley’d & thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

You might argue that Tennyson still lived in a time that wanted to believe in heroes, willing to acknowledge the bravery of the men despite the stupidity of the sacrifice. But what about the World War I poets? Take Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth”:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

It’s true this reads like a serious protest; all the same I do not think today’s warmongers would have much quarrel with a poem in which the soldiers’ suffering has been so monumentally cast in poetic diction of the “hasty orisons,” “wailing shells,” and “sad shires” variety.

The truth is that the more apocalyptic modern warfare becomes, the more the opportunity for glamour presents itself. Curzio Malaparte, reporting on the German campaign in northern and Eastern Europe during World War II, saw this very clearly. Beyond any desire for manipulation, he suggests in his masterpiece Kaputt, the very intensity of war, the emotions it arouses and the acts of cruelty and self-sacrifice it prompts, make it impossible for us not to find art in it; if only because so much of our past art has depicted scenes inspired by similar emotions:

I looked at the sky, at the fiery tracks of the tracer bullets streaking the black glass of the night; they looked like coral necklaces hanging on invisible feminine necks… A Jewish Chagall sky.

The raucous voice, the neighing, the occasional sharp rifle shots…seemed also to have been engraved by Dürer on the clear cold air of that autumn morning.

At one point Malaparte describes how Russian cavalry horses flee an artillery barrage by plunging into a Finnish lake on the very night it freezes over for winter. The horses are all trapped, frozen, so that the “lake looked like a vast sheet of white marble on which rested hundreds upon hundreds of horses’ heads. They appeared to have been chopped off cleanly with an ax. Only the heads stuck out of the crust of ice … The scene might have been painted by Bosch.”

A US Marine convey, north of the Euphrates, Iraq; photograph published in The New York Times on March 26, 2003, and included in War is Beautiful
Ozier Muhammad/Redux
A US Marine convey, north of the Euphrates, Iraq; photograph published in The New York Times on March 26, 2003, and included in War is Beautiful

Is there any way out of this? Is there any way at all to represent war, even to ourselves, that would be free of this aestheticizing process? I’m not sure there is. Guernica is a beautiful painting. It has its wild glamour. But the painting is now more famous than the bombing it depicts and deplores, perhaps because it allows us to feel that being sophis­ticated and pacifist is one and the same. Which is gratifying. But there is no evidence it stopped any bombs.

Perhaps, beyond our immediate anger with the Times for its crass glamorizing of conflict we need to go further and ask ourselves about the deep purpose of all representation of violence and war. Doesn’t it shift our attention from the object itself to the form in which the object has been given to us, inviting a safe savoring of dangerous emotions, with the result that the whole ugly reality can continue exactly as it always has, thanks, at least in part, to the consolatory beauty with which it is evoked?

Leafing back and forth through Shields’s book, considering how right Hickey is when he speaks of the allusions to celebrated paintings, one cannot help wondering whether art in general is not, as artists and art lovers would have it, part of the solution, but deeply complicit with the problem.

David Shield’s War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict, is published by Powerhouse Books.