the cartoon war, and Thomas Hirschhorn at Gladstone

Thomas Hirschhorn Superficial Engagement 2006 [detail of installation]

Thomas Hirschhorn Superficial Engagement 2006 [detail of installation]

Most of the commercial media has decided that Americans shouldn't be shown the drawings which seem to have made the world go crazy over the past week, but this absurd delicacy is only the latest, and certainly not the most outrageous, insult to come from those who do a pretty thorough job of controlling access to the outside world for all but the most curious of our compatriots.

Americans, unlike almost all other peoples on the planet, have not seen the notorious Danish cartoons, but, even more importantly, they also have not seen the messy images of burnt, ground-up, chopped-up and gutted bodies which have haunted and angered people everywhere around the world for years.

We are being treated as children and we're doing a pretty good job of justifying the censorship and restrictions to which children are subject. Of course I have to admit that as a nation we haven't actually shown much real maturity in the last five years, but heavily insulating an already embarassingly-provincial people who make up the most powerful and most war-like state on the planet just doesn't seem like a good idea.

Where are these notes going? Well, I'm trying to tie together the two experiences which have so disturbed my mind and my sanity this week. I haven't been able to do any art posts for days because I've become so depressed following developments in the cartoon war, but most of all because of finally being confronted with crude photo reproductions of the most obscene and grotesque scenes of death as inflicted both by our oh-so-innocent selves and a lot of people who see us quite otherwise.

On my first visit to Thomas Hirschhorn's extraordinary installation at Barbara Gladstone last week, I was so overcome with the power of the piece that I was unable raise the camera I was carrying aound in my right hand. Several days later I decided I had to make my way back in and try to get something I could upload here, if only for the sake of anyone unable to make the pilgrimage to West 24th Street by this coming Saturday. I felt like I was profaning a sacred grove; I was nervous as hell, and I got in and out as quickly as I could.

Is it the pictures downloaded from the internet or is it what the artist has done with them? Why is moving through the groteque clutter of this gallery space so moving an experience? I don't think I can answer the question, at the very least because as an American who hasn't been surfing on line for these images what I saw on Saturday is still too much of a shock, even though all along I've considered myself pretty well informed and had thought that nothing about cruelty could shock me, short of being placed personally in its midst.

See Jerry Saltz's "Killing Fields" for more questions and a few answers.

I will say that it is surely the most courageous show in the city right now, and that I admire both Thomas Hirschhorn and Barbara Gladstone for bringing it to us.

How can we match such a gift? We could start by growing up and putting the censor out of business.


This note arrives with the clarity of the next morning. In a much better world it could even form the basis for reconciling the irreconcilable.

I admit that as an atheist I'm hardly in a position to preach here, but with all respect it seems to me you're missing the point if, in the name of avoiding the dangers of idolatry, you make the unseen image into a fetish.

The real obscenity is the evil which produced these photographs, and the blasphemers come in every description.

Very well written, James.

Not to change the subject, but sometime back I mentioned to you, during the early days following Katrina, the issue of "the right of return" of black residents to New Orleans. ACORN organzied a march in D.C. yesterday. The protesters, most of whom are dislocated black residents from New Orleans, carried signs that read RIGHT OF RETURN. You can read the Washington Post article and view some photographs from the event at

Thank you for looking beyond the surface (as so many today seem to be inclined to do today) with provocative political art.


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Published on February 8, 2006 9:38 PM.

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