David Shields: I grew up reading the Times. I grew up in California and we always got the Times, which wasn't the standard thing if you were living in San Francisco in the mid-70s, but we got the paper delivered because both my parents were journalists. So I've been an inveterate reader of the New York Times for 40 years. Living in Seattle now, I'd get the hardcopy in those ubiquitous blue bags. From 1991 through the first Gulf War, until I stopped subscribing in 2013 or 2014, I'd get the paper every day at four or five in the morning, and then I'd read the paper with breakfast.
The genesis of the book was in October 1997 when the Times went color on the first page. It seems to me, looking back, that two or three times a week I'd be stunned, riveted, disgusted by these really beautiful images. I'd look forward every morning to what—for lack of a better term—I'd call my war porn: these images of ravishingly beautiful war. I recognized a problem, but I didn't know where the problem was coming from. I'd start to wonder: Is this just me? Am I over-reading these images? Is it the paper? Is it my relationship to the paper? Initially, I just filed it away under a thought experiment, but over years and years, I continued to notice the same things. Look at this picture.
Are people getting their media savvy sense primarily from Stewart and Colbert, you think? Or from wider program of the tradition of Derrida…?
I think it is structuralism and post-structuralism, post-modernism, Stewart and Colbert, Twitter…
"I kept on asking myself, Is there a book here? Do I have the nerve to publish a book like this? And then, out of boredom and out of the notion that a writer's job is to cause trouble for himself and the culture, I started the book."
Right, BuzzFeed, Reddit. Twitter. An image comes up, and we are able to sort of "crowd-source" the evaluation of it in our feed. People will point out things like a publication slightly darkening the skin of a perpetrator. We think of ourselves as being able to deconstruct every image and yet the Times remains weirdly above the fray.
It's proverbially shooting fish in a barrel to take a Sean Hannity clip and show how he'll say one thing about Bush/Cheney and turn it 180 degrees when talking about Obama/Biden. When things like this are pointed out, it is often well done and useful, but it isn't exactly revelatory. It's helpful to point out the idiocies and hypocrisy and propagandizing of Fox News, but any person of any education with any slightly progressive bent will say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I knew that." But I think the Times, without pretending to be any sort of left-wing paper, is understood to be, at worst, centrist, and at best, slightly center-left. They'll endorse a Democratic candidate always for president, but they are essentially a centrist paper. If this had been a Murdock-owned paper, there'd be less of a point to make, but the Times is thought to be the "imperial arbiter," the "impartial umpire," the "paper of record," "all the news that's fit to print," "the first draft of history," etc. So it really matters what they're running on the front page.
And those shovel handles are amazing the way they line up. It is very painterly. I think that Hickey does an awfully good job of pointing this out with the images in the book.It adds to the book's ever-building argument that these images are imitating great artworks of the past few decades and are, therefore, not trying to capture the reality unfolding in front of the camera. As I read your book, I kept wanting to maintain a distinction between "beauty" and what we might call "aestheticizing," where "aestheticizing" could potentially do critical work or help a viewer see—through the lens of thoughtful, purposeful art—the war in a more serious and real way.
I know what you mean, like Guernica or something…
How would you define "aestheticizing"? A very casual definition? Making that definition could be a whole seminar.
Yes, right. For starters, "aestheticizing" would have to do more than merely sanctify. In your introduction, you talk about beauty as sanctifying force.
"The point-blank execution of the Vietnamese man and the naked girl running from napalm? Those pictures, to me, have a raw and naked reality. The pictures now always seem to err on the side of sorrowful, dignified, noble."
Yes, and dignifying. That's an important term to me. The idea that horror, suffering, sorrow could, through these images, appear ennobling, dignifying, and therefore worthwhile. Again, the November 12 picture makes human sorrow seem dignified and it makes war seem noble. That's the cultural work that beauty is doing here. I'd just like the Times to acknowledge that. Either the Times is being terribly naïve and is just moving product or—and this is the more insidious and paranoid reading—they know exactly what they are doing and are, in a way, working hand-in-hand with the US government to promote global warfare. I mean, the truth is somewhere in between those two. I sort of lean more toward the former. The decline of print journalism, the ubiquity of the web—they're doing anything to have people pay attention. They are going to run Vogue-level model beauty on the cover. They'll be damned if they're going to turn down that picture.
People have said to me something like, "Well, what does Shields want the photographers to do? Does he want the pictures to be aggressively banal and not beautiful?" It's not like I'd urge the photographers to turn in blurry photographs of bloody thumbs torn off, but these current pictures to me, to my understanding, err so far on the side of rapture, of swooning beauty, that there's precious little of the horror of war. These are highly sanitized images of war, and so can we at least acknowledge that? This feels like a PG war. It's a Disney war. Let's talk about that.In the Times during Vietnam you've got Eddie Adams and Nick Ut publishing Pulitzer-Prize winning, culture-changing photographs. The point-blank execution of the Vietnamese man and the naked girl running from napalm? Those pictures, to me, have a raw and naked reality. They're incredibly beautiful and artful photographs, but those pictures find a useful and productive middle ground that I would argue for. I don't see those pictures in the Times anymore. The pictures now always seem to err on the side of sorrowful, dignified, noble.I think it is impossible to underestimate the value to the military and the government of embedding journalists and photojournalists within a battalion. The result to me is censoring and self-censoring. If those pictures are uploaded instantly to the whole world, including the very soldiers you're in a foxhole with, then it seems to me increasingly unlikely that the photographer is going to disseminate pictures that are anything other than dignifying the very sacrifices that the soldiers he's living with are participating in. I think there are so many factors that push The New York Times further and further away from what seems to me a more admirable tradition of combat photography—the embedding of photojournalists, the Times overcorrection of their underreporting of the Holocaust, the decline of print journalism, the rise of the web, the huge push of right-wing propaganda think tanks pushing all media toward the center and the right. The Times is trying to survive, but at what cost?Many of us would not want to lose this belief that art can do important political work.
I don't want to lose that belief.But I think that this book does challenge that belief at its core. Part of the argument the book makes is that useful cultural work is difficult and all-too rare. Beauty alone does not accomplish it. In fact, it could accomplish the exact opposite—it can take us further and further from reality through its distancing force. So, maybe we can come away from this book and say, yes, it's still possible for art to bring us closer to reality, but when it happens, it is hard-earned and it has to be much more thoughtful and intentional than just making a beautiful photograph.
I think you're right. And I know what you mean. It seems these pictures are happy to be naively beautiful. War as abstracted beauty is a problem. But I like the way you and I are now struggling toward a useful middle ground. Not that every image is going to be a bloody corpse with exposed viscera. That's not going to happen. But—and these are, of course, subjective terms—a useful, well-considered, hard-earned, intentional beauty. That seems like a ground worth fighting for.Chloé Cooper Jones is a writer and philosopher who studies and teaches in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.War Is Beautiful: The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict is available in bookstores and online from powerHouse Books.