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Going Nuclear

DeWitt Cheng

Recent not-so-veiled threats from Vladimir Putin to escalate his “police action” in Ukraine with chemical/biological weapons and even tactical nuclear weapons have raised the ugly specter of Armageddon all over again. Will we cave in to Putin's blustering, which undoubtedly compensates for his strategic failings (for which he has fired subordinates, ignoring his own hubris); or do we take his unstable "genius" with dead seriousness?


People of a certain age will remember USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev pounding a podium at the United Nations with his shoe, promising that communism would bury the decadent West. (This was, I have read, to be taken metaphorically, based on a Russian proverb about outliving our adversaries; but the theatrics had a chilling effect.) Others may remember President Richard Nixon’s “madman theory,” premised on the notion that irrationality in a U.S. president could intimidate our rival (at the time, the non-nuclear North Vietnamese). Such nuclear pissing contests are not unique, however, to Reds and red-staters. In “Failed States,” Noam Chomsky recounts that during the Bill Clinton administration the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) recommended that America act irrational and vindictive, threatening first strikes even against non-nuclear states. The Bush Doctrine went further, claiming first-strike capability anywhere on earth. Freedom to attack, as well as freedom from attack, with 30 minutes' notice, and the Monroe Doctrine’s hegemony over the western hemisphere was effectively extended to the whole planet, with an increasingly militarized view of outer space. Thankfully, during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the current Ukrainian contretemps we have had sensible leadership in the White House, capable of walking the diplomatic tightrope between capitulation and escalation. It could have been much worse with a more excitable Commander-in-Chief. 

Nikita Khrushchev’s infamous shoe pounding

at the UN General Assembly, October 12, 1960

But the nuclear genie is out of the bottle again. The vaunted deterrent success of Mutually Assured Destruction during the Cold War has metastasized with Putin's probably empty bluff into an apocalyptic game of chicken. Would a man who has looted some $200B from his country's coffers really press the button out of pique, destroying his estates, his yachts, and his Swiss bank accounts? CIA analysts are even now rereading their psych profiles, you can be sure. News accounts suggest that the oligarchs and others in Putin's inner circle, who have supported him for decades, are now honing their daggers.


Yõsuke Yamahata, photograph from “Nagasaki Journey,” 1945, silver gelatin print

Artists, to no one’s surprise, have always been vocal opponents of nuclear weapons. Wikipedia in its article on Nuclear Art, identifies as the first anti-nuke activist the photographer Yõsuke Yamahata, who began recording the devastation of Nagasaki the day after the bombing, taking around a hundred shots in twelve hours, not doubt absorbing the radiation that killed him twenty years later. The less harrowing images — today we blur out the atrocities in online videos — were published seven years later in Japan and the United States. Aesthetic purists might not classify such documentary photography as art, but they should remember that the traditional rules of art have considerably loosened in the wake of the aesthetic revolutions of the past century.

Bruce Conner’s 1976 film, “Crossroads,” comprising 36 minutes of declassified footage of an atomic test at Bikini Atoll in slow motion, inartistically filmed by a military technician, is awfully compelling and compellingly awful: “A terrible beauty is born,” as Yeats wrote (of a 19th century explosion of violence). Conner used imagery from his film for the photocollage, “Bombhead” (1986), perhaps a belated reply to Robert Arneson’s earlier “Warhead” ceramics. Remember the controversial statement by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen that 9/11 was “the greatest work imaginable for the whole cosmos”? This echoed the earlier judgment of Akira Mizuta Lippit that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the most significant photographic and cinematic event of the twentieth century.


The severing of moral judgments from art has been going on (with notable exceptions such as Guernica) for almost two centuries. It will be interesting to see, now that the upper reaches of the art world have been exposed as a vast casino of hype, price-fixing, and money-laundering, if artists, art professionals, and collectors can and will force a return to humanist values. Technology is values-free, of course; Big Data has a number of original sins to answer for — including the elevation of Trump and Qanon nuts to full or partial respectability. 


Bruce Conner, “Bombhead,” 2002, collage

As another example, one online art printing service, which I happen to use, offers almost a thousand pieces of atom-bomb art in varying sizes and substrates. Choose among prints of mushroom clouds, in black and white and color; historical personages (President Harry S. Truman, Manhattan Project Director Robert Oppenheimer, and Paul W. Tibbetts, pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the Hiroshima bomb); shots of Twilight-Zone American homes; mannequins before and after bombs were detonated nearby in Operation Cue and Operation Doorstop; and even, for the ghoulishly inclined, the scars and wounds of Japanese who managed to survive the blasts only to be later shunned as radiation-poisoned hibakusha. I am not advocating sanctimonious silence regarding nuke imagery: while creating memes for the Ukraine war, my inner fanboy became fascinated with the tanks and rocket launchers; the MIG and Su aircraft; the Iskander, Kinzhal and Javelin missiles, etc.


Robert Arneson, “Warhead Stockpile,” 1985, ceramic


Paul Conrad, “Chain Reaction,” 1991, copper and stainless steel

chain-link and fiberglass mounted on concrete base, 13 x 26’

One example of atomic imagery that passes both aesthetic and moral litmus tests is Paul Conrad’s 26-foot-tall “Chain Reaction” (1991) nuclear-mushroom sculpture in Santa Monica’s Civic Center, ironically adjacent to the RAND Corporation. Designed by the L.A. Times late lead editorial cartoonist and constructed by artist-fabricator Peter M. Carlson, the piece depicts a globe set atop a spiral shaft, both composed of chain links that symbolize both the falling-domino power of fission, once initiated, and the community of mankind. The tangled links suggest generations of struggling hordes. Conrad’s inscription reads, “This is a statement of peace. May it never become an epitaph.” When the 11,000-lb. sculpture showed signs of decay and collapse a decade ago, a community-celebrity campaign raised money for repairs, and the city stepped up to eliminate the funding gap. The sculpture may be America’s sole public response to the Peace Memorial of Hiroshima. Perhaps one day, the planet of chain links can be de-Nazified and demilitarized — and saner about thinking the unthinkable.

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