Art, Terror, and Politics: Reading CNN Reading Daisy Rockwell

Posted by sanyasi on August 13, 2013 · 11 mins read

Over the course of the last year and a bit, CM's own Daisy Rockwell, a.k.a Lapata, has been featured on CNN on three occasions. The first of these, on Erin's Burnett's CNN blog, "OutFront," featured Daisy's The Little Book of Terror as the subject of a sensationally titled discussion, "Norman Rockwell's granddaughter paints terrorists," and invited CNN readers to weigh in with their thoughts on the matter. Earlier this year in May, OutFront also conducted a detailed interview with Daisy on her translation of Upendranath Ashk's book, Hats with Doctors. And most recently, CNN interviewed Daisy for her thoughts on the flap concerning the Rolling Stone cover that featured Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokar Tsarnaev.

CNN has been fair in giving Daisy the opportunity to discuss her work and to speak her piece without sacrificing complexity or nuance, more than one can say of most media organizations whose bread and butter, the soundbite, is the natural enemy of both. There are, however, some peculiar and telling aspects of the way in which these conversations and discussions have been framed by CNN. Peculiar because CNN's framing directly contradicts what I think is one of the crucially important aspects of Daisy's art and writing. Telling because CNN's framing of these discussions also reflects something fundamental about the relationship of art (or representation, more broadly) and politics in our times, namely, a conservative turn in the culture about the subjects proper of art, writing, and scholarship.

The discussion on The Little Book of Terror, starts thus:

"Daisy Rockwell's grandfather, Norman Rockwell, created some of the most iconic illustrations of American life.

Her uncle is a celebrated sculptor.

Her father built a giant pyramid — inspired by Hindu temples — lined with thousands of plastic action figures.

And she paints terrorists."

One rhetorical feature stands out here: the unanchoring from wholesome Americanness across successive generations of the Rockwells, from American life through Hindu-inspired geometric shapes to terrorists. The title of the CNN page featuring the interview on the Boston Marathon Bomber describes Daisy Rockwell as a "Terror Artist" or "Terror Suspect Artist" (See the Google Search results page here.)

As I read it, the received wisdom that Daisy challenges in The Little Book of Terror, is that the terrorist is a figure who is entirely Other to our societies (be they Indian, American, or Egyptian) or that the terrorist is a figure who, much as we would like to believe, is outside the pale of humanity itself. What is disconcerting about the terrorists in Rockwell's paintings is the fact that they do ordinary, human things like care for cats, sulk when slighted by family members, or drink cups of tea. As noted by an audience member in a discussion that I conducted with Daisy about her book in San Francisco last year, the figures are alienated or estranged but not alien.

This interpretation, it should be clear, is quite different from the "banality of evil" thesis. Neither is Daisy's work an apology for terrorism or violence as some of the more extreme responses to the CNN discussion on her work propose. There is no didactic "community-worker theory of morality," as Terry Eagleton might put it, at work here--the idea that a good chat over a cup of tea can cure people of psychopathic urges. Rockwell's art unsettles because it does not provide easy answers: asking us only to think of what questions these strange figures ask of us.

The phrase "terror artist," used to describe Rockwell, carries interesting resonances. Say it quickly enough and it sounds like "terrorist." It can be read as referring to an artist whose subject is "terror" (and this is the sense in which CNN means it). It can also, of course, refer to someone who engages in terror as if it were an artistic, aesthetic act. Think of the Brechtian insight of fascism as the subordination of politics to art. The topic of the relationship between art and terror is too vast and complex to do justice here (See here for some perspectives). But let me attempt to briefly identify some aspects of that relationship, as it applies to the present historical moment, that pertain to both senses of the term "terror artist."

It is hardly a surprise that art should be subversive or should disturb conventional wisdom. In the Western half of the world, the idea goes back at least to Plato with his desire to banish a certain kind of poetry from the ideal republic. It is surprising that CNN, or any media organization, should think that an artist, whatever his or her heritage, is obligated to conform to choice of subject or temper political sentiment. The same mainstream media, after all, constantly contrasts the wretched state of freedom of expression in Russia, India, or the so-called Muslim world, with the artistic freedoms of the West (with the obligatory Salman Rushdie or Pussy Riot example.)

In the US, the endless War on Terror seems to have produced a containment of the imagination and--dare, one say it--stymied a culture's capacity for reflection, even as discussions of terror permeate every nook and cranny of American life. As Jonathan Shainin notes, in his review of Updike's disastrous work, Terrorist, "American saturated in information about September 11 and the era it names, an accumulation of details in newspapers, magazines, books and movies. As literary subjects go, terrorism possesses an enviable gravitas, but it is ubiquitous to the point of banality." It may not be entirely coincidental that at the same time American society is witnessing an attack on the humanities and a devaluation of the arts-- those very areas of social and intellectual life that might help us overcome that banality of understanding.

It is almost as if we are threatened and terrified by what the arts might reveal us regarding our assumptions, anxieties, beliefs, and reactions about terror, terrorism, and terrorists and what questions they might lead to if we think of terror as a universal human experience and not just the exclusive preserve of one group of people. (The current attack on the arts and humanities, then, may not be a sign of their weakness but, rather, a testament to their strength.)

I think here of the irony that much-maligned Hollywood anticipated and continues to address the terror unleashed by drones in film after film--Minority Report; the Matrix; The Bourne Legacy; Oblivion, while the most venerated of news organizations question the ethics of drones with timidity.

I think of T. J. Clark's extraordinary reading of Guernica in his recent work Picasso and Truth. Of the event of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the Luftwaffe and Mussolini, Clark writes: "Guernica was inaugural. It ushered in the last century's, and our century's, War of Terror--terror largely administered by the state--in which tens of millions would die." Of Guernica the work of art, Clark states:

"Life, says the painting, is an ordinary, carnal, entirely unnegotiable value...humans [...] structure their lives, imaginatively, in relation to death. They try to live with death--to keep death present, like the ancestors whose bones they exhume and re-inter. But certain kinds of death break that human contract. And this is one of them, says Guernica. Life should not end in the way it does here. Some kinds of death, to put it another way, have nothing to do with the human as Picasso conceives it--they possess no form as they take place, they come from nowhere, time never touches them, they do not even have the look of doom. They are a special obscenity, and that obscenity, as it turns out, has been a central experience of the past seventy years."

This was the obscenity of the attacks of 9/11 on the World Trade Center. And this is also the obscenity of drone attacks that kill civilians.

These are the types of questions that are foreclosed by the way in which CNN framed the discussions with Rockwell. My point, again, is not to single out CNN for criticism but to see this as symptomatic of a political economy of self-censorship of thought and expression in mainstream US media, never mind all the self-congratulation about the First Amendment. Who has the right to use the terms "terror," "terrorist," and "terrorism" and for whom? Who has the right to speak about, paint, or represent terrorists and subject to what unstated rules? Whose suffering has the right to claim the term terror? How should we distinguish between the terror of suicide bombers and the terror of drones? And what might we be allowed to say about the perpetrators of both kinds of terror?