An Art History of Violence

Meditations on art's oldest obsession.

Zhi Lin wants everyone who views his work to become an executioner. He wants you to step up to his canvasses — his massive, towering canvasses, adorned with symbolic veils and composed of realist brush strokes — and engage the moment before slaughter. He wants you to become part of the throng surrounding a peasant man about to be lashed to horses and pulled in three directions. He wants you to sit among the crowd eating greedily in an outdoor market while men in stocks, just feet away, slowly starve. He wants you to put yourself in the bustling streets and squares of his paintings, and then he wants you to take a long look at the men about to be beheaded or flayed alive or shot from point-blank range.

Then he wants you to close your eyes and imagine the next moment. He wants you to see the ropes pull tight and the sinew of the man’s arms and legs stretch and tear. He wants you to withhold food from the starving. He wants you to imagine raising a long, straight blade above an exposed neck.

This act of visualization, he believes, is antidote to a great human sickness. We are constant witnesses to violence, but we rarely think about it. We are ever in the presence of cruelty, but we too infrequently take steps to stop it.

And so, Zhi Lin wants anyone in the presence of “Firing Squad” to imagine being a soldier, in uniform, with a gun to the back of someone’s head. He wants viewers to imagine the weight of the gun, to hear the click of the action, to feel the dull clunk of barrel against scalp.

Then, he says, “I want them to pull the trigger.”

The oldest visual art on record is violent. 30,000 years ago in what is now France, prehistoric artists scratched portraits of dangerous predators and animals of the hunt onto cave walls, shading them in charcoal. Even then, people understood that in order for life to continue, life had to be sacrificed.

The moment I step foot into the Jundt Art Museum’s show, “Violence!” and meet curator Scott Patnode, he mentions the cave paintings. “Violence is a universal, beginning-of-man concept,” he says.

On one hand, we feel that a just society ought to have as little violence as possible; on the other, we know that people — good people — are brought frequently to the edge of brutality.

The Jundt show — which runs through April 4 — illustrates in short form a history of our awkward dance with these darker impulses. The works in the exhibit, taken mostly from the museum’s collection, elaborate the tense, contentious relationship in specific cultural and historical contexts.

“Storming the Gate,” an 1897 etching by K%uFFFDthe Kollwitz, focuses on the gnarled hands of disenfranchised workers attempting to batter down a gate with stones and rams during the Weaver Rebellion, which was put down in a bloodbath by Persian soldiers. Violence, the piece seems to say, is acceptable in the face of oppression.

In 1980, Czech artist Jiri Anderle found photos of World War I-era Austro-Hungarian soldiers and their families. He produced a series of etchings based on them called Cycle: Illusion and Reality, stripping the figures of their clothes, screwing the faces of the soldiers into pained expressions and riddling their bodies with bullet holes and stab wounds. It’s a clear renunciation of war. But without the violence itself, would he ever have been drawn to these photos?

The primary reason Anderle took them as subjects is that they died, or had their lives irrevocably changed, by acts of calculated violence. Indeed, he doesn’t flesh out the victim’s bodies. The only thing that survives in Anderle’s print, beyond the blood splats and holes, are coarse outlines of bodies and the expressions of anguish. They are less people to him than the nameless, heroic dead.

It’s a delicate tightrope walk — between seeking to transcend violence and ignoring it altogether, between looking the horror of violence straight in the face and fetishizing it, between two opposing impulses that lie very close to the center of our character.

“The antithesis of violence is reason,” says Tony Osborne, a Gonzaga University art professor and author of the essay that accompanies “Violence!” And yet, reason is often not enough to quell violence. Whenever we find ourselves failed by reason, Osborne says, “we punch someone in the nose.” We have these lofty aspirations and ideals toward peaceful enlightenment, he says, but “whatever overgrowth we have over this primitive limbic system,” our propensity for bestial violence is “still there.”

Indeed, we employ it in art itself. “Art is violent,” Osborne says. “With etchings, you’re digging deep into a copper plate. It’s a controlled violence. You’re taking this vital, animal energy and you’re doing something with it.”

Even artists who aren’t interested in violence still make use of it. Spokane artist Tom O’Day has spent the last 20 years in pursuit of what he calls “the way in which artists work through process.”

“We are not really in control,” he says. “Things change, and often times out of our control.” He demonstrates this process by blowing up old art — or hacking it with a maul, or setting it alight with gin flambé — then reassembling the pieces.

Our fascination with violence is so pervasive that, for the better part of two decades, concerned moms and social critics — Tipper Gore probably loudest among them — have railed against what they consider a blithe, unreflective, neck-deep immersion in the pornography of violence. Gangster rap first sparked worry. Lately it’s crime shows like CSI. Violent videogames are being forever scapegoated. But do music and screen images cause our desensitization? Or are they outgrowths of it?

Even more to the point: If we’ve indeed become desensitized to violence, is there a way to re-sensitize ourselves to it? Should we close ourselves off from the violence in the world completely and hope our conscience once again finds the horizon? Or do we continue to wallow in it, soaking up every last gory detail until we get sick of it, vomiting out our own egoistic disregard for a world of victims?

The answer, probably, is neither.

The faces Stephen Chalmers saw staring up at him could have been his own face as a child. The kids in the photos looked happy. They smiled. So did their parents. “I’d look through their family photo albums and they’d look exactly like mine,” he says, “... the same smiling kids doing the same things I would have done.”

A Spokane-based photographer and academic who has curated shows in China, Chalmers was, at the time, a therapist to abused kids. Not simply abused kids, though. Brutalized. “Ritualistic rape. Parents having numerous people over to,” Chalmers pauses, “… have at their kids.”

No hint of that horrifying detail was present in the photos in those albums. Chalmers had been interested in photography since he was young, but this disconnect between images and reality proved transformational: “I became fascinated with how photography is really bad at conveying information — these really cherubic-looking children in these really f***ed up environments.”

Later, working as an emergency medical technician, he went to car accidents, regularly finding death and serious injury inside twisted metal. Returning to these sites, he was struck by their process of regrowth. “This space where someone lost their life would gradually heal,” he recalls. “Memorials would sprout like flowers, then they would just disappear on their own.”

Most famously, Chalmers has taken advantage of photography’s shortcomings as an information-telling tool, making it a central focus of his art. One photo in his series Dump Sites shows a tree-lined glade in a vertigo-inducing shallowness of field. One single point is in focus; everything else is gauzy. It’s a serene image, gorgeous to the point of looking unreal. The only way you would ever know this was where the bodies of two small boys were found is from the title, “William Neer (10) Cole Neer (11).” You’d never know, unless someone told you, that the bodies had been put there by a serial killer.

“We tend to fetishize serial killers,” Chalmers says, so it was important for his project to remove the killer from the equation. “My images deliberately don’t tell you anything.” It’s impossible to engage in the morbid details of the killing or to fawn over the intelligence of a killer who got away. “I’d like viewers to meditate on the loss of life,” he says.

It feels like a vital, new insight, the way Chalmers calls into question the truth of things we see through the intermediary of a camera lens. A lush glade could be a dump site. Smiling children might be rape victims.

Richard Hamilton raised that same question in 1970. In his “Kent State” — a print reproduction of a photograph taken of a television screen showing the corpse of a person killed during the Kent State massacre — the tension between image and reality again becomes clear.

Stand inches from “Kent State,” which now hangs at the Jundt, and you see not a body, but a collection of fuzzy dots. A long line on the torso might be blood, or it might be an oblique shadow. This isn’t a body, Hamilton seems to say; it’s a reproduction of a representation of something that might be a body.

But at least that was something. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, more than 4,200 American soldiers have been killed, along with untold Iraqis. And yet, on the nightly news, how many bodies have we seen? It’s hard for people to get enraged over America’s involvement in Iraq, Chalmers believes, in part because the pictures haven’t been as raw or as widely accessible. “The era of images that convey any information of war is over,” says Chalmers.

Abu Ghraib took us aback because we hadn’t seen images of that kind of atrocity in a generation. Which means that, in the moment of revelation, many of us born in the last 30 years had never seen anything like it at all.

What information we do get speeds by quickly, on a 24-hour news cycle that values shock and ignores reflection. Every artist we talked with agrees that while Americans are intimately familiar with acts of violence, we have divorced ourselves from the implications.

For years, Whitworth art professor Scott Kolbo has dwelled on certain characters. Constructs of his mind, he uses them, “to work through things I don’t understand.” These things are often violent and psychological.

One character, Inga, represents the push/pull Kolbo has with societal violence. “She’s loosely based on a number of homeless women I’ve known,” he says. “There’s no easy solution for her.”

To Kolbo, the victims of violence are a hair away from perpetrating violence. In one piece, “Jeremiah” (another character of his) “tries to convert [Inga], but she beats the crap out of him.”

His work has a comic edge tinged in a kind of deep sorrow. “I tend not to show a lot of hyper-violent images,” he says, but there’s brutality even in his process: “I would say there’s an aggressiveness to the way I make the work.” The trick for Kolbo, as with Zhi Lin and Chalmers, is to hint at the violence without making it explicit.

Make it explicit, he believes, and it becomes more like pornography than cautionary tale. It lets the viewer off the hook.

“There’s a quote from Cocteau,” Kolbo says, “‘It’s not possible to make an anti-war film.’ No matter how much the director tries to repulse you, he’ll draw you in. You can’t actually represent the violence itself. You have to work your way around it.”

You have to force the viewer to make the leap in his mind. To consider the act and the ramifications, not the ligature and the blood spatter. Show the violence, and the message “gets too short-circuited,” Kolbo believes. “We like it too much.”

Rearranging the images in the Jundt chronologically, crude patterns form. Many artists working between the World Wars spent an inordinate amount of time on the psychological aspects of war. Faces, screwed up in pain, suggest deep inner anguish. Those working later — through Vietnam and the American racial strife of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s — often eschew psychological exploration for populist outrage and propagandistic statements against violence.

Starting with Hamilton’s “Kent State,” we see a shift from engaged activism to a sort of passive ignorance and detachment. It’s a perspective that now seems pervasive.

And so sketches by Daniel Heyman and Richard Serra depicting the once-anonymous U.S. prisons like Abu Ghraib and Disco Mosul hang disembodied on the wall of the Jundt, like figures out of time. The atrocities they depict are terrible, but they didn’t rouse us as a nation the way those iconic images of Vietnam stirred prior generations: The photo of the girl covered in napalm, or Eddie Adams’ picture of the final wince of pain from Nguyen Van Lem, microseconds after a bullet from a revolver had pierced his skull and entered his brain.

Even Heyman and Serra themselves — confronted with torture in contemporary times — seem unsure of the right tone to strike in their prints. Heyman is quoted as saying, “When I have made portraits of people in the past, I was never as concerned with the inner history of the sitter.” Here, though, he felt compelled to learn their stories. Rather than etch the stories on their faces, in their gaze or grimace, he just writes, word for word, the tales of abuse, neglect and psychological torture. He writes it out in a child-like scrawl that arcs around the print. It’s as though he’s not sure what it all means, but is certain understanding the story is vital.

Serra’s piece is even simpler, a recreation of the infamous hooded figure of Abu Ghraib. There’s little editorializing, The original photo is so shocking and alien, it seems that Serra had to remake it in his own hand, as if in a child’s scribbling. All three pieces feel as though the artists have put images to paper so that they can revisit them later, an attempt to gain a clearer sense of what it all means.

A child runs through the middle of Zhi Lin’s “Five Capital Punishments in China: Starvation,” dashing down a corridor of people that separates the lazily eating throng from the slowly withering prisoners. Society shapes itself by the values it instills in its children, Zhi Lin says. “This boy can ... become one of the people sitting at the tables or become one of the people getting executed,” he says.

“I don’t want my work to be a horror story,” he says. “I want it to be a transformation.” Juxtaposing images of ritual and community-bonding and feast with the moments before mass executions forces the viewer to think about how close the violence of the world cuts to our lives, peaceful as they may seem. “I wanted the audience to not just be the witness,” he says, “but end it in their imagination — to make them the executioners, too.”

Rather than seeing violence, then, he wants his viewers to feel the violence. He wants us to project ourselves into the minds of others, both victim and killer. His art forces us to not merely exist in the same space as violence, but to look on both victim and executioner with compassion. And to make a choice.

Violence is all around us. We are saturated with it. It comes in hour- and two-hour-long blocks of entertainment. It comes in rapid-fire bursts of news information that assail us 24 hours a day. From countless media and entertainment nodes, we now absorb more violence — assault, petty theft, spousal abuse, rape, murder, genocide — than perhaps at any time in our history. But rarely, it seems, do we see or hear something that makes us stop and take stock of even a single life lost.

It’s so rare that when something does stop us in our tracks — something like 9/11 or Abu Ghraib or genocide in Sudan — many of us don’t know how to react. We’ve gotten so focused on gathering information, we’ve forgotten how to process it.

“You almost can’t meditate anymore,” Chalmers says. “I almost can’t tell you what the events of yesterday were. It precludes the critical analysis of information.” Osborne puts it more simply, “We’re surrounded by noise everywhere we turn.”

What can fix that? The complete censorship of violence? Greater exposure to it? The answer, for these artists, is neither. Recalibrating our sense of loss and outrage and fear and sadness isn’t a blanket process. It isn’t something that can be enacted by a legislature.

It’s a series of singular acts — individual decisions made by specific people — to unplug from the torrent of information and acknowledge the particular, often atrocious realities of the world. It’s a process of communication, between victim and perpetrator, artist and audience.

The end goal is to quiet the noise and focus on one single, horrible thing — to work through all the complex emotions it brings. “The bottom line,” for Osborne, “is to feel as deeply as you can while you’re here on this planet.”