David Shields’s new book War Is Beautiful is a peculiar coffee-table book. It collects front-page war photos from the New York Times and deconstructs them to argue that the newspaper publishes pictures that deliberately conceal the horror of war. At the website of Bookforum, Jesse Barron reviews the book rather skeptically. An excerpt:
Shields makes his case formally. His first move is to shake the images out of chronological order and reorganize them by visual tropes. An Iraqi child huddling against an American’s waist goes in “Father,” along with Bush placing his palm on a soldier’s head. A brown man bending to kiss a white hand goes in “God.” In “Pietà,” we have images of the carrying of the dead: a man staggering away from an ambulance holding the body of a child, for example. In “Nature,” we have a camo helmet popping up above a field of poppies, a jeep on a palm-studded beach, and soldiers wrestling on their bunks. We also have two images we’ve seen many versions of during these wars: the orange glow of a flare held by a silhouette against the sky at dawn or dusk, and the silhouettes of tanks against the same. Out of context, the photos look like movie stills.
Death is shown gently, as bodies that appear asleep, or absently, in traces of blood. Iraqi soldiers lie on a red-dirt road while an American soldier walks away or a convoy passes. There are bloodstains in a hallway through which a mother and her children cautiously walk and streaks of blood on the front door of a white car. In that picture, our eye is drawn not to the car or the blood but to the huge-eyed kid, a boy of seven or eight, who stares toward us through the open (shot out?) windows. The caption informs us that two women were just killed here.
Shields files these two pictures in his “Beauty” chapter. Both the young boy and the woman in the hallway are presented, he writes, as “beauties seeking salvation.” They could be penitents in a Titian painting or refugees from a different continent. They could be anyone, Shields suggests, and this is the key to the book’s thesis. In an afterword, art critic Dave Hickey writes that “pictorial references preempt any hint of verisimilar-punch.” In other words, the boy and the woman in the hallway are archetypes, and their archetypal quality allows us to forget that they’re actually the specific casualties of a series of American foreign-policy decisions. The images are so anodyne, in fact, that they’re right at home in Shields’s inoffensive coffee-table book.
The above image ran on the front page of the New York Times on March 26, 2003. Via Mother Jones.