When is Terrorism Art?

Never. It is terror. It is horrible, brutal, dehumanizing and insane. Art is part of the discussion, though, because we’re human.

terrorismus 1

Look at this record of an art show five years ago, posted in the university district in Jena, Germany. It is a well-used garbage can, bearing the scars of many nazi, anarchist, communist and anti-fascist graffiti battles, and then this bit of baroque-era floral extravagance advertising a show on terrorism. Not only is the sticker a clever piece of graffiti, in a refined version of the masking tape above it, but the conflation of industrial steel, nightly battles, baroque flowers and page design is itself terrorism, just turned inside out. It is, in the end, designed to hit at the cerebral cortex, far below the level of cognition, with the hope that decision will come later or be erased. What complex animals would make this. What top predators. What top lovers. Here’s a contemporary (well, 5 years old) take on the traditional catholic position on this bind. You know the one, I’m sure: God gave man free will to make the right choice, because without free will he could not enter the presence of God, which is the right choice. A bit circular, but beautiful, nonetheless, and inarguable, because it’s not built out of argument but out of a physical experience of existence, which is called spiritual. This version was at an art gallery behind the cathedral in Fulda, Germany, one of Christianity’s most sacred shrines.


In one sense, we have here Christ in his crown of thorns, on his cross, but notice that the cross is industrial and at ground level, Christ is not a man but a hunk of a tree (very gothic, that, but, hey, it’s Fulda) carved to look like a man, and the crown of thorns is a sheep fence rolled up and jammed over his head. The suggestion is that this world of surfaces is deceptive and it is best to look at it without flinching. Catholics take a long view. For them, art itself is graffiti. The affront of it can be considered and learned from. This lesson can also be learned from terrorism: don’t flinch. Don’t lie.


But that is a kind of graffiti in depth. Most graffiti is surface. Still, it’s art, which only takes on significance within social space. The thing is, what you put in your streets matters in exactly the same way. It, too, must have an audience that speaks its language at some level. That’s why communist-era public art is being quietly removed from East German streets, year by year by year.


 Bauhaus-inspired Meeting Space, Weimar, on the way out

That’s why class-specific art gets this treatment


Graffiti matters, too. Here’s a powerful piece from Apolda, in the former East Germany. This is the Soviet war memorial, now a place for nationalist thugs to take a piss after having too many beers. A bit of a sore point in their psyches, for sure.


Patriots are Idiots

Well, that’s the way it works: a rhyme makes anything simplistic sound deep, especially when it has a long period of military and cultural occupation as a framework. In the world of surfaces, this is depth, because it extends surface. And, of course, some patriots are idiots. Many aren’t. Many non-patriots are idiots, too. Many aren’t. Freedom is often a matter of naming things correctly. Terrorists never do that. Yes, the November 13 terrorists in Paris were attacking innocent people who were making the city a place of celebration. Yes, it was devastating and horrific. But let’s be clear: the target was God; the means were human — and thus tragically, awfully flawed. Christianity and Islam have been battling these flaws for a long time. Humanism itself was designed to be a means of combatting them as well, because the method of violence, as Europe so tragically knows, did not work. What terrorists want is to remain emotionally inviolate beneath a carefully constructed social mask.


Weimar, Germany, Back of the Contemporary Art Gallery, 2010

It’s easy to say, “Oh, the graffiti did this.” Really? It could as well be the houses, with their blank facades, asserting ownership of a person’s own physical space. Everyone is in the same boat. It’s time to talk about the world of surfaces. It is time to encroach upon romantic emotional inviolability by deepening the mask. One of Goethe’s attempts at this in 1778 (a time of terrible republican vs. aristocratic wars) was to build a park in Weimar, complete with fake buildings, so people could walk within the art, and make of it what they would, instead of viewing it, as made by someone else.


Notice: no graffiti. For all of us who are artists, there is much work we can do yet, to honour both the living and the dead. Graffiti, which is a kind of laser cutting doorways into the social symbolism of matter, is part of this conversation. In a sense, it is an extension of Goethe’s pile of stones, a message that the past is not so terrible, and the living, who are its heirs, are living. No terrorist is going to be stopped by Goethe’s method, sadly. For that, the work of security forces is required, but without art, and joy and music and cafes and men and women of both secular and spiritual faith we will lose our lives. If those are denied to anyone, they are denied to everyone. The horrific concentration camp at Buchenwald, after all…


Buchenwald Memorial, Ettersberg

… was designed to kill not only men but souls, as Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, explained to the German Writer Ernst Wiechert after a short, punitive stay in the camp that nearly killed him. That’s not a term familiar to humanists, but the camp was real, tens of thousands died, and many thousands of those did lose their souls first. The monument above commemorates those men who did not. I am thinking of Paris tonight. God bless her, her people, and her soul.


6 thoughts on “When is Terrorism Art?

  1. Concentration camps and acts of terror kill the souls of the perpetrators even before they attack their victims. How terrible that we humans are so distant from the ideas of love and unity, the ideas we name god, that our yearning for it opens into these kinds of atrocities. We want so much to belong and age after age we get it so wrong. Artists try to point that out and point the way to something better. Your work often opens a way for me.

    • Thank you, Marilyn. It was with a shock that I walked into Buchenwald, and, sensitized by weeks on the road through Germany, I understood the logic of the place. It was horrible logic, but plain to see, down to the smallest detail. I think it was unfortunate that the Americans discovered the camp and wrote the narrative based on what they understood, which was real enough: it was a camp of physical slavery, with little regard for life, to say the least. It was, however, a political camp, for most of its run, at any rate, and the real goal was spiritual. People who succumbed to the soul-killing strategies were called Musselmänner, and lasted from 1 to 5 days without souls before they just died. It is unfortunate that this story was not linked to the story of the physical camp, from the moment of its discovery, as it might have helped shape an expanded understanding of the Holocaust, which would, at this point, be useful. Still, better late than never.

    • Toll! Wait till my book on the via regia is finally done. Jena has a starring role. I’m glad that I didn’t get it all wrong! I’m still searching for a title. Faust III just doesn’t have much of a ring to it, I don’t think. That’s my working title.

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