Screenwriter/playwright/novelist/historian Gore Vidal once referred to The New York Times as “the Typhoid Mary of American journalism.” His antipathy to the printed press was one with his perspective on American media, a love/hate he embodied as one of the most polarizing political activists/writers of the latter 20th century. As such, he formed an unlikely trio with William F. Buckley, founder of The National Review, and Norman Mailer, founder of The Village Voice.
In the wake of their “take no prisoners” public hectoring — and very much in keeping with the mad-dog foaming of today’s political discourse — comes David Shields’ image-engorged book War Is Beautiful. The title alone is stuffed with attention-getting irony. The dust jacket is laced with book-jacket-style quotes from nearly two-dozen eminent cultural pundits, including Noam Chomsky, Ira Glass, Philip Lopate and Andrei Codrescu. Along with the book’s subtitle, “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict,” the package trumpets its thesis; it also includes tympani rolls of authoritative quotes that make you want to accept their claims before you even open the book. Shields argues that the Times editorial staff deliberately uses above-the-fold color photographs to support American military adventurism, exploiting lushly beautiful images of international turmoil and conflict; he argues further that especially in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the Times has consistently used these photos to glamorize violence, a sop to aggressive American foreign policy.
Not amused by Shields’ accusations, the venerable “Gray Lady” has filed a copyright-infringement lawsuit against the book’s publisher, Powerhouse Books. In an irony that verges on the ridiculous — and which implicates the Times in a questionable “fair use” dustup with all writers and bloggers — the newspaper taking issue not with Shields’ full-page presentations of the photographs themselves (for which Powerhouse paid reproduction rights), but with the thumbnail-size reproductions of Times front pages that are featured on the book’s inside back cover.
It seems to me that this lawsuit is not a winning one for the Times, even in the unlikely event that the court finds in its favor. Why go after an author and a publisher for such a thing, especially in light of the “drag and paste” aesthetic that seems to define fair use today? This legal action demeans the newspaper itself; it conjures a 36-point, red-ink headline more typical of The Daily News: “Shame on You, N.Y. Times!”
Shields’ argument about the “aestheticization of violence,” especially as an instrument of propaganda or policy, has its own history with cultural critics, including Susan Sontag, who wrote about it in On Photography (1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2002). It is given extensive play on the back cover of Shields’ book by otherwise smart critic Dave Hickey, who seems to have run off the rails in this case, going so far as to claim (unless I misread his metaphor) that the rise of Abstract Expressionism’s techniques of “blur, swipe and flying paint” was in part due to the “snapshot aesthetic” of World War II combat photography. He then gives us a primer on image composition, damning photographers for using what he considers to be outmoded tropes, as though they’re naïfs whose only credibility lies in a point-and-shoot aesthetic.
Claims that the Times presents conflict and combat photography as a kind of fine art in the classical painterly tradition were recently contradicted by Jordan G. Teicher in The New Republic. Teicher stares down those who insist that depictions of war must only be savage, graphic and unrelenting, offering a defense of the two photographers most often attacked: Sebastião Salgado and James Nachtwey. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my admiration for these two great artists; I discussed Salgado’s work in a three-part essay that begins here, and I’ve written several pieces about Nachtwey that you can find by typing his name into the search box at the top of this page.
Teicher also notes that many of the images Shields attacks for their “glamour” were made not by photojournalism’s stars, but by workaday Reuters freelancers:
Unlike Salgado and Nachtwey’s highly specific, undeniably artful aesthetics, the front-page photos that run in the Times are, by comparison, fairly standard fare — the sort of everyday professional photojournalism that largely transmits information. In fact, many of the photos in the book were taken by photographers from Reuters, Getty and the Associated Press and have therefore likely made the covers of many other newspapers around the world. If Shields has an argument with the Times’ front-page photographs, therefore, he’s really making an argument against contemporary war photography in general.
Shields describes the photos in question as “an unrelenting parade of beautiful images whose function is to sanctify the accompanying descriptions of battle, death, destruction and displacement,” but there is, it seems to me, an obscene irony, not to mention hypocrisy, in this observation, given that Shields reproduces most of these photos as full-page, glossy, uncaptioned images, decontextualizing them completely. (The captions are relegated to the end of the book, not integrated with the photos.) Shields himself transforms the images into deracinated fine art, presenting them in 10 chapters that bear such titles as “God,” “Pieta,” “Movie” and “Playground.” And in case you somehow missed his point, each chapter heading includes a quote. “Pieta,” for instance, offers this from E.M. Cioran: “No matter what we say, the end of all sadness is a swoon into divinity.” If nothing else, Shields has compiled an intellectual’s Bartlett’s Quotes.
In his defense of photojournalism’s mandate to “bear witness,” Teicher names some of the targets of Shields’ ire:
Photographs of pain are particularly fraught territory, and they therefore deserve extra study, particularly when the lines between photojournalism and art blur. But too often, the critique amounts to the same hand wringing about beauty’s proximity to destruction. Sebastião Salgado, perhaps the world’s most famous photojournalist, is accused of ‘sentimental voyeurism’ by Le Monde’s François Chevrier for his grand, sympathetic images of the suffering and misery of migrants. In the New York Times, Sarah Boxer finds Time photographer James Nachtwey’s photographs of violence so ‘gorgeously produced’ as to be ‘almost grotesque.’ And Metropolis M’s Christophe van Eecke, writing about war photographer-turned-artist Luc Delahaye’s still and painterly war photographs, protests, ‘If it is morality that Delahaye is concerned with, there is no intrinsic need to produce either beautiful or panoramic photographs. Form and content wrench, but not in a productive way.’
Conversely, a “boots on the ground” perspective on conflict photography is presented by retired infantryman Randy Brown (a.k.a. “Charlie Sherpa”), who reviewed Shields’ book in his blog, Red Bull Rising. He writes, “Another reality is that war is a meat-grinder. Today's news consumers are buying the tasty sausage without having to visit the butcher shop.” It’s a nifty metaphor, but what is one supposed to do? Are we all meant to avoid any informed reading — visual or literary — of the traumas, losses and heartbreaks of the world’s disenfranchised victims simply because our empathy is cheap currency to him?
I’m currently reading Ben Rawlence’s book City of Thorns, a deeply felt yet objectively reportorial account of misery in the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, located in east-central Kenya near the Somalia border. The book is a painful account of the day-to-day challenges of surviving in a desert refugee camp of almost 350,000 under the auspices of the UNHCR and non-governmental organizations. Does my reading of this book make me a consumer of “poverty porn”? Or do I get a pass because I’ve actually been to another refugee hellhole in Kenya, Kakuma, a gulag of another 180,000 desperate human beings?
Shields’ book is not just an indictment of the cynicism he detects within the editorial offices of The New York Times, but also a glove-in-the-face challenge to its readers to feel guilt for merely looking at these photos. This is a slippery slope to a kind of aesthetic Talibanism. Shields’ absolute hypocrisy is made manifest by his decision to design the book cover as a kind of mockup of a newspaper front page, with its title as the headline and with readers’ blurbs as reporters’ bylines. As if that’s not evidence enough, what are we to make of the photograph? It is meant, perhaps, as a stylized rendering of an exploding IED or a suicide-bomber vest, but if you search for the credit, you’ll discover it’s a 2007 abstract painting by Gary Grayson titled, rather innocuously, Yellow with Red.
Shields brags that he has ceased reading The New York Times because he’s so offended at being manipulated. Does he suppose he’ll get less self-serving journalism from The Wall Street Journal?
I explore topics in this blog that interest me — art, music, books, photography — and they are usually things I want to spend time studying, things I want to share. This might be the only time I’ve set out on the offensive against a subject that so disturbs me I feel compelled to call it out. I can’t encourage you to buy War Is Beautiful, but if you respect and admire the men and women who dedicate their lives to “bearing witness” as avatars for the rest of us, then you should know about it. Shields’ glib judgment is an affront to anyone who creates challenging images that also have artistic merit, images that reach out to engage the world while drawing us into its traumas as informed and sympathetic human beings.