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U.S.A. = AR-15

 

Richard Speer

Earlier this month in downtown Los Angeles I took my seat in the Walt Disney Concert Hall as the L.A. Philharmonic tuned up for Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. I gazed up at the acoustical panels suspended from the ceiling and the hall’s iconic organ, 40 tons, 6,134 pipes, 128 stops. Although I’ve heard plenty of Bruckner recordings, this would be my first Bruckner symphony in a concert hall, and as a fan of late Austro-German Romanticism I was really juiced. But as my fellow audience members (probably 1,800 or so in the 2,200-seat auditorium) quieted down and awaited the conductor, an unwelcome thought shot across my synapses, so jolting it felt like a seizure: all these people, myself among them, were sitting ducks. Someone, some former usher, lighting tech, or middle manager from the front office fired last week, could slip through the backstage at any moment and rain shrapnel across the aisles. I could hear it in my head, a cacophany of rat-tat-tat we might first mistake for snare drums until the blood and smoke made clear that it wasn’t the percussion section, it was another mass shooting, and we were its victims.

Leon Golub, “Gigantomachy II,” 1966. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

© The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/VAGA, New York

Why are you thinking about this, I asked myself. It couldn’t happen here, not in this temple of high culture. I mean, I never heard of a mass shooting at a classical-music concert — the Las Vegas attack in 2017, which left 60 dead and 867 injured, was at an outdoor country music festival. Somehow that was easier to imagine. I pushed the ugly thought from my mind, but it came back in the pause between each movement and the long fermatas, when you hear random coughs and the rustling of programs. You almost expect some vile bedlam to break out. 

 

I have really begun to resent these kinds of thoughts intruding into my days and nights out on the town. I wonder if I’ve grown unduly paranoid in middle age, spooked by the grim drumbeat of daily shootings in the news. Whenever I go to the movies in a real live cineplex I always look very closely when someone wanders in as the film is playing, some straggler coming in after the previews or returning from the restroom or a theater employee scanning the aisles with a flashlight. Ever since July 20, 2012, when a Batman screening was interrupted by a firestorm that left 12 dead and 70 injured, I can never fully relax and enjoy the movie. The same thoughts push in. Sitting ducks. Bullseyes. A captive audience, picked off one by one or shredded en masse. I think about it in the shopping mall and supermarket. I imagine huddling on the floor of the produce aisle, hearing the footsteps approaching, pausing, then a slew of shots to my right and the whoosh and slush of a head exploding, then the steps coming closer and the question of whether to rise up and try to tackle him or wait for somebody else to, hopefully a SWAT team, hopefully not the Uvalde Police Department. It would be an infuriating way to die, to know in your last seconds you’re no more than a video-game avatar to some angry young incel with easy access to semi-automatic weapons and unlimited ammunition.

Greg Bokor, “Erase” an AR-15 rifle: a response to gun violence, 2013.

Erasers with names of child victims of AR-15 violence were used to erase the drawing. Courtesy of Greg Bokor

This has become our cultural calling card, our national fingerprint. U.S.A. = AR-15. I have opened my mouth halfway around the world and, outed by my accent as American, been told with a sad shrug, “No wonder you’re all the way over here ... Back home they’ll kill ya.” Whatever else we like to believe the world associates us with — our ostensible championing of democracy, our high standard of living, Hollywood blockbusters, hip-hop and country-music stars — takes second, third, and fourth place to our reputation as mass slaughterers, and the preponderance of their victims. This really is who we are, our way of life, our core values, if not individually, then indisputably in aggregate. I won’t regurgitate the latest statistics that corroborate this, because as surely as I did, writing this on a weekday evening in late May, I’d bet money they’d be out of date by the time this column is published on Saturday. Besides, these body counts have lost their meaning. We start to read them, then skim ahead because we’ve read them before and we’ll read them again. This is what the insidious cycle does to us: leaves us in a state between outrage and fatigue, paranoia and stupefaction.

 

It does it to the artists among us too, the painters and writers, dancers and musicians, creative directors and designers. For every artist spurred to meaningful protest and political action, there’s another whose creative impulse is snuffed out. Artists are sensitive souls; not everyone has indefatigability in his belly and cast iron in her spine. Mental health suffers alongside creative drive. For every spark there is a pall, for every “Ode to Joy” a dirge. We wear the face of the damned in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” dejected, sitting in hell as a serpent chomps down on our thigh; we feel gutted, like the knight in Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” set upon by a pack of jackals; we are the son of Goya’s Saturn, the silent scream of Edvard Munch, the spike-impaled head of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Artists are open sieves; we do not wear Kevlar vests around our souls.

Laurie Lipton, “America is a Gun,” 2022, graphite and charcoal

I recently wrote an essay about L.A.-based artist Laurie Lipton (laurielipton.com), who deploys Old Masters-inspired draftsmanship toward the positing of contemporary sociopolitical commentary. Not one to shy from dark, even apocalyptic, subject matter, Lipton routinely sharpens her pencil to skewer Trump, the January 6 insurrection, the sinister undercurrents of social media, and the specter of ecological catastrophe. But to my sensibility, the saddest, scariest image she’s ever drawn is “America is a Gun” (2022). In this drawing, the Stars and Stripes — that embattled “proof through the night” of Francis Scott Key, daughter of Betsy Ross, grand old flag of George M. Cohan (“Forever in peace may you wave!”), and ambiguous signifier of Jasper Johns — is quadruply reimagined as an open cube, stage set, padded cell, and shooting range. Lipton has substituted human-shaped targets for the flag’s red stripes and placed the viewer in the position of shooter, suggesting our complicity in the cycle of murder, thoughts and prayers, calls to action followed by inaction, and more murder. A figure crouches in the right-hand corner, surrounded by the litter of spent casings, waiting for the magazine to rip into his flesh.

 

Are we that figure, all of us, shellshocked and cowering, at the mercy of aggrieved young men enabled by gun lobbies and political paralysis? If so, shouldn’t we instead galvanize our fear into constructive action and try harder to end this madness? Shouldn’t the artists among us, like Lipton, harvest the power of art to illuminate these atrocities, sound the alarm bell, and rally our compatriots to demand real-world solutions? It is a question of our times: how to live with the constant anxiety that comes from watching or reading the daily headlines, and what, if anything, to do about it. Do we play the odds and reckon that the chances of personally falling victim to gun violence are low, like getting struck by lightning or eaten by a shark? Or do we lose all faith, sell the house, pack our bags, book a flight to somewhere safer, and leave this once-great land to the anti-intellectual, anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion, anti-free-press theocrats who have gerrymandered and obstructed their way into power?

Molly Surazhsky, “Lifting the Iron Curtain,” 2022, digital print on duchess

satin, chiffon, cotton thread, leather, wood, and nails, 152 x 105 x 58”.

Courtesy of Lowell Ryan Projects, Los Angeles

I have to tell you, I’m seriously considering the latter option. I’ve about had it with this house of horrors. The urge to cut one’s losses begins to take hold. A Kenny Rogers lyric wafts into my mind’s ear: “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run ...” Would I expatriate permanently, as 8.7-million Americans currently have, heading to greener pastures in the likes of Portugal, Luxembourg, Uruguay, Thailand, or New Zealand? Probably not. Would I surrender my U.S. citizenship and head off in a huff to Canada? No. For all my criticisms of this country, I still consider myself a patriot. I went to high school on an American Air Force base in Germany in the 1980s. Every day at 5pm, “Retreat” played over the loudspeakers, followed by the National Anthem. Whatever you were doing, you stopped in your tracks, saluted the nearest flag if you were in uniform, held your right hand over your heart if you weren’t. I have a soft spot for that kind of thing. I choke up in The Hall of the Presidents at Disney World. I tap my toe to John Philip Sousa marches. I know the words not only to “My Country ’Tis of Thee” but also to more obscure songs I learned in elementary school, like “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” In high school I won the grand prize in the “Voice of Democracy” speech competition, sponsored by none other than the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which presented me with a $16,000 scholarship, flew me to Washington, D.C., arranged an audience with then-President Ronald Reagan, then sent me to a ticker tape parade in Chicago, where I was driven down Michigan Avenue in the back of an open convertible. Heady stuff for a 17-year-old. Can’t say I’ve been in any ticker tape parades since. I appreciated the experience, enjoyed talking to the veterans, was moved by their stories.

That was 36 years ago. The country has changed, or maybe I have. Much of my idealism, which once veered toward American exceptionalism, has evaporated. I no longer believe the U.S. is the envy of the modern world; I lament that in many corners it’s the laughing stock. The Trump years in particular took the wind out of my sails and depleted my faith in the fundamental horse sense of the American electorate. I often feel like throwing my hands up and letting the next generation deal with this can of worms. 

Maybe the feeling will pass. Meantime, beginning next year, my working plan is to spend as little time in this country as possible and handle my work as a digital nomad. I can write, do curatorial planning, interface with artists via Zoom, and consult with editors from anywhere in the world, with periodic trips back home to visit family and friends, do in-person studio visits and exhibition installs, and then get back on a plane afterwards and head somewhere I don’t have to look over my shoulder at Safeway. Is that giving up or just being prudent? I don’t know, but I’m going to try it out.

Photograph shows Orthodox church in Komyshuvakha, Ukraine struck by Russian

missiles on Easter Sunday 2023 reduced to nothing but rubble and debris. Photo courtesy of Reuters

True, living overseas is no panacea. Bad things can happen anywhere, and there are countries more dangerous than the United States: Yemen, Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ukraine under siege. I wouldn’t want to live as an American in Russia right now. But I’m ready for a change of scenery, and it would be refreshing to walk the streets in a place where guns don’t outnumber people. I wonder what it might be like to sit down at my laptop in Scotland, Greece, Dubai, Vietnam, or Argentina and read what’s going on in the U.S.A. Will I bite my nails during the Biden/Trump rematch, which seems a fait accompli, or just shrug? Will my blood boil if the Republicans pass a nationwide abortion ban, or will I just sigh and say, “Well, the warning signs were there, and the populace punted. I guess they had it coming”?

 

I imagine returning to Germany, where I lived as a teenager, and hearing about the mass shootings-du-jour back home. What will that feel like an ocean away? I envision myself shaking my head, thinking “There but for the grace of God go I,” and taking my seat at the Berlin Philharmonic, and maybe, just maybe, being able to enjoy the music without wondering if I’ll make it to the encore.

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