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June 12, 2005

Pissing in the Wind

Nytserranocover

Nytserrano1-3   Nytserrano2-2

Make art, not war?

A couple weeks back, I was critical of the visuals in the NYT Magazine cover story on Rick Santorum (Prayer for the Kangaroos — link).  If the photo editors were trying to pump enough piety into those pictures to exceeded the irony threshold, my take was that they fell decidedly short. 

In response to that opinion, however, one of my readers, Kitty, went in this direction:

I think they [The Times] know what they’re doing in photos like these: giving the religious right exactly what it wants every once in a while. It’s protection against the label of "liberal media" (misguided, because no matter what they do, reporting facts will still get them the label every time). The Times thinks they can say, "But look at our beautiful pix of Santorum, you can’t say we bash him every time."

If Kitty was correct, you would think the pictorial capital the Times accrued by tossing Santorum a bone might have been cashed in by now.  Well, its been several issues already, and I’m still waiting — especially after today.

I haven’t dealt with this since I’ve been on the photojournalism beat, but here are a set of images that have far more impact for who produced them than for what they contain.  Because the photo credit belongs to Andres Serrano, the tag line for today’s NYTM cover might as well read: Piss Christ Meets Abu Ghraib.

I can’t say I’m an expert on Mr. Serrano. Still, his famous 1987 piece
– in which he submerged a crucifix in a glass of urine — did bring a
condemnation by right wing Senators from the floor of the Senate, and
caused the National Gallery of Victoria to shut down the exhibition in
which it was displayed.

For all Mr. Serrano’s bravado, however (and — from what I
understand — his almost too obvious social commentary), I’m just not
getting the message here. Are the guys we’ve tortured going to emerge
from a burning hell to seek revenge in the form of bird monsters? Is
torture analogous to S&M? Does waterboarding works better when you
use a designer water bottle?

In the thoughtful article
that accompanies these pictures, Joseph Lelyveld discusses the status
of less-than-lethal forms of torture (what he calls "torture lite") and
whether the practice is really effective at all. One one side of the
argument, he explains that a country like Israel has scaled back the
practice and confined its terms of use, and that researchers also
question its benefit. On the other side, he describes the
near-inevitability of non-lethal torture and it’s widespread tacit acceptance in times of threat and high fear — especially as currently employed by the U.S. 

It’s a careful essay that explains how higher reasoning almost always
gives way to more primitive practice. What a wonderful opportunity to
back up these words with visual poignancy. But instead, we have these
self-conscious images that are shiny and stitched and staged. Is it
possible Mr. Serrano — having been politically chastised in the past
– is using artistry this time to protect himself? Or, has he just seen
one too many Nike ads (link)?

To me, these photos don’t say anything about how hard it is to relinquish torture.  They just stylize it.

(images: Andres Serrano in The New York Times Magazine.  June 12, 2005.)

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