Caveat: Venter

Think about all of the things that make your brain itch. These are mine.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Art And Ugliness

It is a difficult enough task to say what is and what is not art, and Wafaa Bilal, an Iraqi-born man in Chicago has made that even more difficult. My wife can address this more properly than I can, but let me come at it from the perspective of my training in literature.

Art reflects the world in which is was created, challenging people of that time at later to consider the elements of society highlughted by that art. It may be innocuous or subversive to the casual observer, but it will always be disturbing on some level, if only because it is too terribly comforting. Back to Wafaa Bilal.

Bilal, who lost his brother in Iraq two years ago, is spending six weeks in a room constructed in the basement of a chicago art gallery. The project, originally to be named "Shoot an Iraqi," was renaamed by the gallery "Domestic Tension." People navigate to his site, pan a paintball gun left or right, and fire. Users may also participate in a live chat with one another (IP addresses recorded as identifiers of chatting and firing users).

People are calling him "nigger" and "fag." They are making reference to "09/10/01." Did I hear this on the radio? Some. But everything I am quoting here I have witnessed in the span of about ten minutes. As I have been writing this, one user wrote, "Come on....put an AK up there....." Now, there are others—I am one—who refuse to pull the trigger.

Let's get back to art. Is this art? It is all being recorded, of course, and it does hold a mirror up to the nation and world, but is it art? I argue that it is. The United States is moving away from support for military operations in Iraq (note that much greater support exists for the mission in Afghanistan and for engagement in Sudan), yet here we have people debating not only firing paintballs at a man whose worst crime seems to be the geography of his birth, but the ethics of doing so.

One user I have seen so far has commented on the "video game culture" s/he blames for the bloodlust expressed by many of these people. After all, this is a target on a computer screen, and no one is really dying, right? Never mind that enough shots were fired at the wall above his bed that the paintballs—PAINTBALLS—cut a hole through the dry wall, which had to be repaired.

This is an ugly mirror, and by its nature, it is a bit selective, like the funhouse mirror that never seems to reflect this part or that or that, by its curvature, overemphasizes the other. Here is my question: How accurate is this mirror? Are we really this bad?