The idea of using photographs of gun owners as art isn’t exactly new. There’ve been coffee-table books and online collections that have popped up for years now, but Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography is getting into the act with a new exhibit entitled “American Epidemic: Guns in the United States.” The exhibit, which will be on display through February of 2022, features the work of ten different artists who “examine the role guns play in structural violence, poverty, systemic racism, and an increasingly militarized police force.”
Using the photographic medium, these artists provide a nuanced exploration of the way in which guns are yielded in this country, including the politicization of trauma, public mourning (and the rote political refrain of “thoughts and prayers” in response to gun violence), and a host of other issues laid bare by this uniquely American plight.
Featuring work by Carolyn Drake, Nancy Floyd, Stephen Foster, Andres Gonzalez, Félix González-Torres, Deborah Luster, Zora J Murff, Renée Stout, and Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, American Epidemic not only explores the complex array of issues that arise with the increased presence of guns in American society, but advocates for an intersectional understanding of how gender, race, capitalism, and militarism affect the larger conversation around gun control in this country.
And this exhibit has received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, which means your tax dollars are helping to support this blatantly one-sided exhibit, which has been in the works for quite some time.
MoCP curator Karen Irvine says the museum team has been actively working on this exhibit for more than three years, but had the subject on their to-do list for much longer. “We have a social justice-focused mission,” she told me, and COVID-19 has made it even more pressing: “People are compiling arsenals now; gun sales are up.”
It’s an exhibit that’s designed to make progressives recoil from the idea of gun ownership, and it apparently had a powerful impact on Chicago Reader columnist Deanna Isaacs, who walked away from “American Epidemic” with one question on her mind.
Nothing we’ve been doing for the last 20 years and more has worked, which gives rise to a question: Why not just get rid of guns? Why not make them, like other destructive explosive devices, illegal?
Okay, those are actually two very different questions. Making guns illegal doesn’t get rid of them. And rather than asking “why not” get rid of guns (because you’d be violating people’s rights, for starters), the bigger question is “how would you get rid of 400-million privately owned arms in the hands of 100-million American citizens?” Still, those weren’t the questions that Isaacs posed to two anti-gun academics; instead sticking with her own query.
I put that question to Vanderbilt University professor and psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl, who’ll lecture at the museum October 6. His 2019 book, Dying of Whiteness, explores how racism figures into the gun control debate and has driven middle America whites to vote for politicians and policies that actually work against their own interests. He wasn’t encouraging. “Guns represent freedom and liberty for a lot of people; these attitudes are hardwired,” he said. The chances we’ll get rid of guns right now? “Zero. Sad but true.”
UIC professor emeritus and criminologist John Hagedorn also told me that eliminating guns now is “a bridge too far.” Though if we could, he said, the homicide rate, in some Chicago neighborhoods among the highest in the world, would drop drastically.
I’m amused that Isaacs and her interview subjects frame the issue as “well, we can’t get rid of all the guns right now.” What exactly would have to happen, according to Metzl and Hagedorn, in order for us to be able to get rid of every gun in the United States? And would we all get our flying unicorns at the same time we saw our guns disappear?
You know what would really lead to a dramatic reduction in homicides in those Chicago neighborhoods? Focusing on the individuals pulling the trigger instead of the inanimate object in their hands. You don’t need any new gun control laws, or any pipe dreams about melting down every gun in existence. You just need to focus community and law enforcement resources on the relatively small group of people who are responsible for the violence.
I don’t think visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Photography will hear or see that message in “American Epidemic: Guns in the United States.” After all, the epidemic the artists seem to be more concerned about is gun ownership, not violent crime. Maybe it’s time for Second Amendment supporters to put together an exhibit of our own. You think the National Endowment of the Arts would be as willing to fund a pro-gun ownership installation as they were to hand out cash for anti-gun propaganda?