David Shields is a puckish literary critic and Litkicks favorite whose epic 2010 book Reality Hunger proposed that creative writers may as well skip the pretense of fiction and simply write the truth, since that's what readers value most in either fiction or non-fiction anyway. His latest book examines a more malevolent borderline between fiction and truth.
Why, his new War Is Beautiful asks, does the New York Times illustrate its reporting from war zones with such lush and painterly elegance that horrific violence is transformed into stunning art?
Shields confronts one major newspaper directly in this art book (which is subtitled "The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict"), explaining in the introduction that he began to distrust the Times following their failure to report accurately about the phony justification for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. He's on solid ground with this argument, and indeed a quick perusal of War is Beautiful does help to make a larger case: for reasons that may or may not include cultural aspiration, editorial incompetence or simply aesthetic instinct, the New York Times appears to have a chronic tendency to glorify and celebrate war.
War Is Beautiful is a coffee table book that reproduces actual photos in full color. The complexity of the visual experience is masterfully dissected in an essay by art critic Dave Hickey that completes this book. Strangely, this essay is printed on the book's back cover, as if to suggest that the essay is "outside" the book itself, though this is probably just another act of deconstruction by the eagerly postmodern David Shields. Hopefully no reader will miss Hickey's intelligent piece, which lays out in damning detail just how painterly and affected the visual art tropes in these collected photos are. The beautiful lines and proportions and shapes in photos like this one, Hickey explains, are familiar to any expert in classical and modern art:
Hickey's short essay packs a strong sarcastic punch, as when he points out "a Rodin of two kneeling marines in a flat field", or the way that "crisp silhouettes of helicopters and other war machines are set against Disneyland washes of pastel sky". The art critic is just getting warmed up; there's more:
There is a field of flowers cropped to look like a neo "field painting". There are three soldiers in silver light firing off shoulder-fired weapons — echoing Warhol's Elvis paintings. There is a photograph taken in a fabric market with vertical panels of designed fabric — a flat, Robert Rauschenberg rip-off. There are two shell casings photographed from above that evoke Jasper Johns beer cans.
As Hickey lays out the visual evidence, Shields catalogues the editorial tropes in his introductory essay, explaining that the photos collected in this book seem to coalesce into the following categories: "Nature", "Playground", "Father", "God", "Pieta", "Painting", "Movie", "Beauty", "Love", "Death". The image at the top of the page is from the section called "Father".
This one is from the section called "God".
This short book is quite well done and appears to be important. The specific focus on the New York Times (a newspaper that, it must be said, has sometimes been unkind to Shield's earlier work, as we regrettably have at times been too) may seem to limit what should be a global scope. Is the problem here really about a single New York newspaper, or something bigger? One wonders why Shields did not cast his net for a wider variety of examples of blatant journalistic contextualization. War Is Beautiful could have been a much thicker book.
It's hard to say whether it's the New York Times or the entire world community of journalists really has an insidious problem when it comes to war reportage. But War Is Beautiful does amount to a challenge that the Times will have to respond to, and this can only be a good thing. It was only after reading Shields's new book that I began to wonder why it was the New Yorker, rather than the New York Times, that broke the Abu Ghraib scandal. It's a question I never asked before. War is Beautiful should inspire many readers to view military journalism with a more attentive and skeptical eye.