The New York Times, for many, has stood for something beyond just being a source for news. Indeed, its readers regard it as an arbiter of truth in the otherwise mire that is media coverage. It has enjoyed this respect and deference for years, following WWII. Yet, in David Shields’s newest book, War is Beautiful, the pillar on which the Times sits is thoroughly shaken.
The NYU Art Law Society hosted Shields last month for a lecture where he was invited to discuss his new work. The book, which pieces together decades of front-page war photography employed by the newspaper, takes up as its thesis how the Times has been complicit in American involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through its aestheticizing treatment of military violence. The chapters of Shields’s new work detail the varied motifs he discerned through his study: Soldier as Father, Soldier as God, Soldier as Pietà, and Destruction as Classical Portrait (among others). It was fascinating to see such similarity in “creations of the subject” (to borrow a concept from Copyright Law crafted by Judge Kaplan in Mannion v. Coors Brewing Co.).
In looking through the pages, I could not help divorcing the beauty of each photo from the depicted scene, whether it be the suffering wail of a mother, the bewildered villager seeking assistance from a US soldier, or the lone grand piano whose keys crumble to the floor after a bomb exploded in the foyer. The dazzling effects that the visual aspects (composition, lighting, framing, etc.) have on the viewer are the entire thrust that fuels Shields’s argument. In his view, this filtering of reality makes these photographs further from documentary and closer to art. They manipulate the viewer into seeing a beautiful alternate universe, where violence begets increased viewership and, cyclically, increased support for war efforts.
What would Shields prefer? Low-resolution and photographically subpar work? To this end, the author stated no, but added that one cannot ignore the glamorizing in which the Times engages in its selection of such material. He pointed to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, showing his audience just the latest anesthetization efforts through the placement of two pictures on the front page the day after the attacks: one showing thousands of beautiful rose bouquets laying at the front of the besieged restaurant, Le Petit Cambodge, and four beautiful French woman with clear expressions of grief and woe. With that, the lecture ended, leaving this author wondering just how war became a subject that was beautiful, or rather, one that could be made to be beautiful. I would encourage readers to pick up a copy of the book, if not for Shields’s conceptual argument, then at least for the beautiful compilation of these truly stunning pieces of art.