The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution states, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Since the founding fathers of the U.S. affirmed the public’s right to own guns in 1791, the nation has developed a deeply complex relationship with them—full of both obsession and abhorrence. The art world is not outside of this debate; artists throughout history have depicted the gun as both a fetishized object and a deadly weapon.
As headlines of mass shootings and gun-related deaths become all too frequent, we look to the artists who have, through their work, explored firearms, their accessibility, and gun violence to shed light on this complex matter. (It's worth noting that this article is not all inclusive and specifically focuses on artworks that address mass shootings and gun violence among civilians. There are countless artists making strides within the Black Lives Matter movement, tackling issues related to police brutality and abuse of power.) As the threat of mass shootings seems to only get worse with time (21 of the deadliest 28 mass shootings in the U.S. have occurred since 1980), here are seven artworks, made within the last 50 years, that examine the gun as a violent weapon in an effort to spark a much-needed dialogue.
Image via Open Culture
On November 19, 1971—in an intimate gallery space in Santa Ana, California—Chris Burden, the art world's Johnny Knoxville (Jackass), stunned the art world when he allowed his friend to shoot him with a .22 rifle from a distance of 15 feet in front of a live audience. The bullet, which was supposed to slightly scrape Burden’s arm, ended up going straight through his arm instead. The result was a visceral and bloody performance, which shot Burden to notoriety (pun intended), and challenged the very notion of fine art. Recorded on video, the footage of the performance is now a part of the MoMA and Whitney collections.
Amidst the height of The Vietnam War, the U.S. population was increasingly exposed to gun violence in the news and on TV, making people numb to it. In Fred Hoffman’s 2005 book about the artist’s work, Burden was quoted saying, “All of a sudden U.S. troops were shooting at protesting students… All of a sudden [the violence]… took on another dimension.” Shoot re-sensitized viewers to the reality of gun violence, as Burden forced them to experience it in person, instead of mediated through the news. Not only is this performance piece still relevant as a pioneering gesture in the field of contemporary art, but it sadly continues to remind us that increasingly common media reports of violence often leave us desensitized and detached.
"Untitled" (Death by Gun), 1990
Image via MoMA
Cuban American visual artist Felix Gonzales-Torres created politically charged art throughout his career, and “Untitled” (Death by Gun) is no exception. Like much of his work, the piece is a sculptural installation within the Minimalist formal tradition. It consists of a stack of printed-paper, each sheet presenting 460 individuals killed by gunshot in the U.S. during one week in May of 1989. Each individual’s picture is displayed, along with their name, age, and cause of death. While the cause of death is always gunshot, the circumstances vary from suicide to violent crimes. All of the details were taken from Time magazine. The work is somewhat ephemeral in nature, as viewers are encouraged to take a sheet of paper with them, diminishing the stack. (The piece is never completely depleted though, as museum staff members continually replenish the pile.) While Gonzales-Torres doesn’t explicitly take a stance on the Second Amendment in the work, he engages viewers with a one-sheet take away listing the excessive and devastating deaths due to guns. But if holding a Gonzales-Torres artwork in your hand while facing the victims of gun violence doesn't make you think about gun control laws, we're not sure what will.
Baby's First Gun, 1998
Courtesy of the Belger Collection
Contemporary artist Renee Stout’s oeuvre ranges from assembled found objects to photography and painting, and usually reflects her African American heritage. When Stout made Baby’s First Gun in the late '90s, she was highly influenced by the violent turmoil surrounding her inner-city Washington D.C. studio; primarily its effect on black youth. The piece is an aged wooden box that seems to be commemorating a milestone. When opened, the bottom half of the box holds a tin toy gun, while the top half shows a cookie-cut-out figure of a smiling African American girl. Underneath her, a fortune cookie message reads “Society prepares the crime; the criminal commits it.” Through the pastel colors and childish effigy, Stout highlights the nonchalant, playful attitude that many Americans have towards guns; and the fortune cookie quote suggests that this societal outlook on gun culture, deeply ingrained from a young age, is problematic. Baby’s First Gun was featured in the multimedia exhibition UNLOADED, which originated at Pittsburgh Cultural Trust’s SPACE gallery and examines the multiple viewpoints and intersections of identity surrounding gun use in the U.S.
Active Shooter Directions #1, 2011
Photo by Miles Mattison
In Bren Ahearn’s Active Shooter Directions series, the San Francisco-based artist emphasizes how gun violence has permeated community “safe” spaces, such as work and school. The artwork appropriates a “School Shooting Resource Card” from the police department at University of California, Davis, where Ahearn teaches. It lists resources and directions to create a safe place in the event that there’s an active shooter. His use of embroidery for the piece creates an eerie tone, as the medium—typically associated with interior decoration, feminine craft, and comfort—largely clashes with the dreadful content on the cotton surface. The effect is unsettling; mass shootings are woven into the fabric of American identity and culture.
Cross for the Unforgiven: 10th Anniversary Multiple, 2012
Image courtesy of the artist
Another noteworthy piece included in the UNLOADED exhibition is Mel Chin’s Cross for the Unforgiven: 10th Anniversary Multiple, a sculpture constituting eight AK-47s cut and welded in the shape of a Maltese cross, a symbol of Western resistance. The sculpture’s composition renders the guns inactive, making them useless as weapons. The piece is a replication of an earlier 2002 work by Chin, and despite more than 50 school shootings taking place in the U.S., between the making of both pieces, Chin was able to purchase eight AK-47s in bulk just as easily in 2012 as in 2002. Thus, the work highlights the accessibility of firearms and lack of gun restrictions in the U.S. regardless of ever-increasing mass shootings.
Excalibur No More, 2014
Photo via Jonathan Ferrara Gallery
Artist, activist, and entrepreneur Jonathan Ferrara invokes the Arthurian legend of the Sword in the Stone with his piece Excalibur No More by sticking a shotgun in a boulder. In Ferrara’s case, the gun cannot be removed; the artist’s way of asking, “Aren’t we done?” The artwork is part of a larger exhibition, put on by the Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, titled “Guns in the Hands of Artists.” In the exhibition’s catalog, Ferrara describes the ease of purchasing the shotgun for the work, stating, “After I found the gun online, the seller brought it to the gallery and I gave him the money and he gave me the gun… no paperwork, no receipt, no record… totally legal… it blew my mind." The exhibition has traveled to cities devastated by gun violence, such as Miami, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. Somewhat surprisingly, Senator Tim Kaine, a gun owner and Second Amendment advocate, sponsored the exhibition in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. At the show, an essay by Kaine accompanied Excalibur No More, where the Senator wrote about his frustrations as a lawmaker, and his desire for “more sensible” regulations. Kaine was governor of Virginia in 2007 when the tragic Virginia Tech Massacre took place. Kaine, Ferrara, and the other artists involved in the exhibition hope to influence policy-makers by making their work highly visible.
Irons for the Ages, Flowers for the Day, 2015
Image via Klein Sun Gallery
Chinese artist Li Hongbo’s installation at The SCAD Museum of Art illuminates the room, as a sea of rainbow paper blossoms ripple throughout the space. Upon closer examination, viewers are shocked to learn that each vibrant paper flower, when folded up, resembles a pistol. Hongbo typically manipulates paper in his art, a medium that evokes the Chinese tradition of paper lamps and decorations.
Image via The Creators Project
When discussing his installation with The Creators Project, he explained, "Everyone has a dream. Dreams of a comfortable life, a beautiful environment, a peaceful society and so on," he says. "But some selfish people damage others’ lives and dreams because of their own excessive desires. They revert to guns, one of most deadly weapons be used to threaten and kill people who do not 'obey' their dreams of beauty." By underlying this stunning floral display with pistols, Hongbo compels us to reflect on the colorful lives ruined and threatened by guns. According to the artist, his goal is to make people see new perspectives, and re-contemplate things.