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What’s the difference between art and terrorism?

The destruction of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, courtesy The Courtauld Institute of Art

Julian Stallabrass, of The Courtauld Institute of Art, examines the histories and theories of war and images, and how the two, in this modern age, may be converging.

Art and terrorism might not seem natural companions. ‘Art’ evokes the rarefied airs of the fine arts, with its presumed preoccupation with “form over function”, while ‘terrorism’ connotes a violent ideology – one about as out of place in a gallery as a hand grenade in a martini.
But, occasionally, the two notions meet. The destruction of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, last year, and the execution by ISIS of its long-standing curator, Khaled al-Asaad, showed how centrally art can figure in the concerns of terrorist organizations.

The tackling of terrorism by artists of all media shows that the concern runs both ways.

It is at this intersection that Julian Stallabrass, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Courtauld Institute of Art, aimed his talk, Representing the Iraqi Resistance presented at the recent Symposium on Art and Terrorism at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

In his work, Stallabrass’ focus is largely, though not exclusively, on how still and motion photography was used to represent armed resistance to the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Stallabrass notes similarities in the broad concepts of art and terrorism, for both have stubbornly resisted definition. Indeed, the case of art is so bad that while defining it was once seen as the central question in aesthetics, some philosophers now see the very task itself as misguided or confused.

Stallabrass also remarked upon the two notions’ evaluative dimensions. ‘Terrorism’ is used almost universally to condemn (even if its Jacobin coiners intended the term more positively), while ‘art’ is often used as an honorific to convey praise. Terrorism fares little better.

As Stallabrass says: “There are many people who want to claim that they are artists; but almost no one who wants to say that they are terrorists.”

The difficulty of defining the concepts and their evaluative force are related. To the extent that one wants to rule one’s own side’s actions out of the ‘terrorist’ category, and one’s opponent’s actions in, this places another constraint upon an acceptable definition.

The issue of definition is acute when we think about the photographic depiction of terrorists and terrorist acts. As Stallabrass notes, when we think of these kinds of pictures, those depicting exemplary beheadings, punishments and cultural destruction spring to mind.

But is there much of a leap to the use of photography to project the chest-thumping power of a state military, such as the carefully staged RAF video depicting the destruction of a flatbed truck by an RAF missile, or even some of Larry Burrows’ work from the Vietnam war.

Whether these are photos of terrorism is, one might think, settled by the prior question of whether the things they depict count as terrorism. But this thought obscures a photograph’s potential to alter what its subject matter is—what counts as terrorism. Part of Stallabrass’s interest seems to be to consider the extent to which this potential is actualised in the photographs of opposition fighters in the Iraq war.

In particular, Stallabrass looked at photography produced in three different kinds of context—those produced by photographers embedded with coalition troops, by unembedded photographers, and produced or repurposed by members of the self-described resistance.

As regards the first two, the results are somewhat predictable. Embedded journalists, working for mainstream media outlets, produce images which largely, if not universally, reflect the views of the troops with whom they’re embedded; and when they do meet members of the opposition, they are either captured or dead.

Unembedded journalists, meanwhile, enjoy greater access to the opposition, producing more images that capture the ordinariness of the opposition fighters. This ordinariness, Stallabrass suggests, is at odds with their opponents’ preferred representational clichés of barbarians who, to quote John Stuart Mill, aren’t yet “capable of being improved by free and equal discussion”.

The talk ended with Stallabrass reflecting on the “deep, flickering ambiguity” that arises when terrorism and artistic photography meet. Of all his examples, Luc Delahaye’s Taliban Solider seemed to exhibit what he had in mind best.

The photograph depicts a fallen member of the Taliban lying in a ditch, whose lifeless body recalls that of Jesus in Pietá iconography. One way such a work might be ambiguous is in the tension it generates between the photograph’s positive value as an artwork and the negative value of the terrorism or terrorist it depicts.

There is something to this idea, though, if there is indeed a “flickering ambiguity” particular to such photographs, then there must be more going on than this. After all, any work of tragedy, horror, or melodrama will combine artistic virtue with the vice of what it represents.

But this isn’t normally enough to produce a “flickering ambiguity”, let alone a deep one. There is a second possibility that I find more plausible — that these photographs inherit and exploit the conceptual ambiguities with which the talk began: are we to see Delahaye’s soldier as the personification of wickedness thwarted, or as a Christ-like martyr?

Perhaps both. Or neither. And in what ways does the work’s positive value as art inform this interpretative problem; how does the beauty of Delahaye’s photograph colour the fighter it depicts?

Photography may not provide a determinate answer. But still, we are all the richer for its ability to pose the question.

Find out more about the Courtauld Institute of Art here.

2016-04-05T16:10:34+00:00

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