In 2004, seven months after CBS’s “60 Minutes” and The New Yorker reported on the torture of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the American people re-elected George W. Bush. In the five years since, as journalists such as Dana Priest, Jane Mayer, Mark Danner, and Philippe Sands have uncovered the extent to which the Bush administration enabled and encouraged torture, polls have showed that a majority of Americans are shrugging, hoping that the issue will go away, that the errors and even the possible crimes of the Bush years simply might be ignored, forgotten.
The most recent poll to examine whether Bush-era torture policy should be investigated didn’t even use the word “torture.” Instead the polling firm Ipsos asked respondents: “Should there be a bipartisan blue-chip commission to investigate how detainees were interrogated?” Fifty-four percent of respondents failed to favor such a commission. (Journalism organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press are complicit in this logophobia: They avoid using the word “torture,” instead gently referring to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.” That phrase was originally coined by the Gestapo.) The majority of the American people seem to side with conservative Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, who recently winced at the release of Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel memos that encouraged torture:
“It’s hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, ‘Oh, much good will come of that.’ Sometimes in life you want to keep walking… Some of life has to be mysterious.”
This national compulsion to look away from recent malfeasance is seemingly custom-made for Martha Rosler, an artist who has spent the last four decades pointing out how Americans’ pursuit of the good life has often blinded us from noticing how our nation has fallen short of its ideals. Rosler’s most recent body of work addressed Americans’ disengagement from the biggest American war since Vietnam: the ongoing conflict in Iraq. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has just acquired and installed a major photomontage from that series, The Gray Drape (2008, above).
The timing of the acquisition is especially fascinating: The Gray Drape entered the museum’s collection on the same week McClatchy reported that former Vice President Dick Cheney ordered Guantanamo Bay interrogators to find a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, a key link that the Bush administration needed to justify the war it wanted to wage in Iraq. The McClatchy story and ensuing reports add a chill to The Gray Drape: Rosler’s photomontage can be read as revealing how our blindness to and then our national disinterest in Bush-era torture led us into Iraq.
The Gray Drape shows a glamorous woman in what appears to be her bedroom, more interested in her linens than she is in the world outside. The drape she is waving — read: her love of upscale consumerism — appears to be preventing her from noticing the wail of the Iraq War outside. She doesn’t want to know because she doesn’t want to know. The Gray Drape might also be read as an examination of empty patriotism: The woman’s drape-waving movement recalls the way you might see someone wave an American flag at a NASCAR race or at a parade. Of course there is no red, white and blue on Rosler’s flag-proportioned drape, just white, a possible reference to both the moral hollowness of America’s engagement in Iraq and to the jingoism encouraged by many on the right. (Rosler’s 2008 video Prototype (God Bless America) makes a similar point. A still from the work is below. To see an excerpt from the video, click here. An excerpt from Prototype is about two-thirds of the way through.)
Rosler has covered some of this territory before, most obviously in Cleaning the Drapes (1967-72, above), which is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. By revisiting Cleaning the Drapes so directly in The Gray Drape, Rosler is establishing a parallel between the way America fought in Vietnam and the way it has fought in Iraq. Between 1967 and 1972 — the peak years of American involvement in Vietnam and the years
to which Rosler ascribes Cleaning the Drapes — the United States engaged in the morally questionable spraying of Agent Orange, in civilian massacres such as that at My Lai and in the bombing of Cambodia and Laos. Rosler isn’t just revisiting old work with The Gray Drape, she’s arguing that America’s past conduct is relevant — and that we’ve failed to learn from it.
While Rosler has worked in a variety of media, including video and installation, her choice of photomontage to make work that addresses America’s two most disastrous recent wars is telling. While photomontage was born in the late 19th-century, it was the the artists of the world’s first anti-war movement, Dada, who brought the medium to maturity and who merged photomontage with intense and immediate political content. Rosler seems aware that many Dadaists had personal experiences with the horrors of war — this untitled Max Ernst from 1920 is photomontage-as-autobiography — whereas she doesn’t. Ernst portrayed the battlefield directly. Rosler almost always includes a kind of filter. She hasn’t been there, but she can — and does — examine the way Americans around her experience and address ongoing war (or pointedly fail to, as the case may be). [Image below: Saddam's Palace (Febreeze), 2004.]
There’s nothing unusual about an artist, especially Rosler, examining her nation’s conduct and its attitudes toward war or instruments of national policy. Artists, like newspaper columnists or historians, have important contributions to make to the national dialogue as our nation grapples with the legacy of the Bush administration’s wars and pro-torture policy. Credit the Hirshhorn, a Smithsonian Institution museum located almost exactly halfway between the Capitol and the White House, for being willing to join in that dialogue and for acquiring work that examines the most difficult aspects of recent American history. Art museums — especially contemporary art museums — have an obligation to be willing to engage, to serve as a bridge between the public and artists. (This is the second time in less than a year that the Hirshhorn has pointedly pushed an artist or a body of work into the discourse.) More museums should follow the Hirshhorn’s example.