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Sunday, 16 June 2013

A US tradition of retributive violence

Back in 2002 my uncle presented me with an art catalogue and one of the pictures, in colour, that it contained turned out to be reminiscent of the images that we'd recently seen, courtesy of al Qaeda, streamed live - and then replayed again and again and again, like some sort of wildly-successful contemporary performance piece - on our TVs. The picture in the catalogue that so struck me is Robert Rauschenberg's 1963 "combine", Windward.


In a New Yorker article from 2005 about the artist the author talks about that time in Rauschenberg's like when he was living in a New York studio which he shared with the Merce Cunningham dance troupe:
Rauschenberg wanted to be unfamiliar with what he was doing, to keep things open until the last moment and not to work “schemingly.” He liked to think that he was collaborating with his materials, rather than trying to make them work for him, and he wanted as much as possible to keep his own feelings and tastes out of it. “I don’t want a painting to be just an expression of my personality,” he said. “I feel it ought to be much better than that.”
The silk-screen works he was working on at that time were his first to use colour, the author continues:
“I know how to describe this kind of color—delicious,” he said at one point. “It’s so glamorous. Every color is trying to be a star. At least, it doesn’t look like the work of any other painter.” The images he’d chosen were a lot like the images he would be using forty years later—Manhattan street signs, buildings, water towers, birds in flight, helicopters, clocks and dials, the Sistine ceiling, Rubens’s “Toilet of Venus,” a glass of water, a crate of Sunkist oranges. Sometimes they overlapped or crowded each other out, and sometimes he blurred them with solvent or heightened the effect with passages of acrylic paint, which he applied with rags or brushes or his fingers. “It’s as much like Christmas to me as using objects I pick up on the street,” he observed. “There’s that same quality of surprise and freshness. . . . Some images absolutely insist on being themselves no matter what you do with them. Look at this baby.” He held up to the light a screen showing the head of a bald eagle in closeup. “How’s that for authority?”
I've got an old binder of my grandfather's that contains clippings he made over the years, mainly poetry (mostly bad poetry), but in the front evidently my grandmother, who survived him by many years, thought it fit to add a clipping of her own: the front page of the Melbourne Herald, dated 25 November 1963. The headline: ASSASSIN SHOT DEAD ON HIS WAY TO GAOL. Underneath the headline are photos showing Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, after which the accused killer of John F. Kennedy died. "I did it for Jacqueline Kennedy," Ruby is quoted saying after the event.

Rauschenberg's image and the newspaper front page in my grandfather's clipping album bring my mind back to currrent events: the PRISM scandal and Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, and Julian Assange in London in his refuge. I also think about the secret military unit, JSOC, that the neocons - Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney - in the Bush administration put together, and distanced from congressional oversight, in the months and years after 11 September 2001; the story is detailed in Jeremy Scahill's 2013 book Dirty Wars. Along with the PRISM story, Scahill's book chronicles the appearance of a US government intent on a kind of "total war" that has deemed the internet its province supporting its clandestine "find, fix, finish" combat capability; these are the same guys who topped bin Laden in 2011 under Barack Obama's guidance. That operation, as Mark Bowden's book tells us, was possible due to the use of torture on rendered suspects, and Scahill's book chronicles even more comprehensively the kinds of unencumbered methods the US military, the CIA and JSOC have used in various places, including in Iraq.

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