Histories of Violence: When Art Is Born of Resistance

THIS IS THE 26th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Martha Rosler, an American artist who works in video, photography, text, installation, and performance, and whose work focuses on the public sphere, exploring issues from everyday life and the media to architecture and the built environment, especially as they affect women. She has for many years produced works on war and the national security climate, connecting life at home with the conduct of war abroad.


BRAD EVANS: I would like to begin with a question on the issue of violence. What role do you think artists have when confronting this all-too-human problem?

MARTHA ROSLER: First, I’d like to be sure I know what we mean by violence; it’s such an elastic term. I often think, though, that the term “violence” has become reified, overly broad, and is losing its contours. We may feel that although we can’t really define it, we know it when we see it. We don’t generally associate violence with humanity alone, as I’m sure you’d agree. We have a fairly complex or differentiated ranking of acts of violence and who or what is likely to use it. So let’s say violence is the excessive use of force, in one form or another, beyond a certain accepted baseline, so we can see violence as exerted even by natural events, such as storms. Violence, then, is sudden force that is likely to break things — or rules or norms.

Our system itself glorifies a kind of violence to the what-is that is now modishly called disruption or creative disruption; in the thinking of the age, disruption is to innovation what automobiles are to buggy whips, to haul out a favored comparison. It is clear that capitalism cannot sustain itself without violence, the violence of expansion and change, which along the way chews up a lot of lives, lays waste to the natural and the built environment, and demolishes the folkways associated with settled ways of life, all at varying rates of speed.

Humans, as carnivores, have a long history of violence simply in the pursuit of living. To look at violence in the context of human societies, violence is related to both law and justice. It assumes there is a power differential among people and groups or classes and that certain uses of force are legitimate — the very word attests to the structure of laws — while others are unacceptable and thus classifiable as violent. More informally, we can class violence as an expression of conflict that in our society at least is regarded as inevitable and inbuilt, on the one hand, but on the other is possibly controllable or (perhaps, aspirationally) eradicable.

If you are asking me how do artists, and even ordinary people — citizens, residents — cope with violence against them or others, on the part of the state or state-like actors, or, conversely, on the part of lawbreakers and other criminals, the answer here is that art can present a certain degree of distilled clarity in the face of what may be felt as chaos. Art can open a space for a new framing of information, it can work to delegitimate uses of violence widely regarded as legitimate, such as attacking and killing protesters — themselves often treated as posing a threat of imminent violence against the established order — or criminal suspects, carrying out a death sentence on people convicted of common crimes, or on a grander scale, invading other countries by use of force or manipulation, or even, more broadly and less anthropomorphically, against the natural world.

I am writing this at a moment when our government uses law as the justification for forcibly removing children from parents crossing without papers at our Southern border, yet a shocking number of people are willing to pretend this is justified because it is exercised against a class of people repeatedly dehumanized by this administration and its enthusiastic press and supporters. This is an instance of psychological violence, a category that can slide into metaphor but also is a perfectly reasonable way to talk about the use of authority, law, or ideological messaging to weaken others in pursuit of a desired result — commonly the creation of a stereotypical enemy or interloper.

Conversely, the tactics of delegitimation of others is matched by a concerted campaign of legitimation of the actions of state, often by naming (we’re straying into the “alternate truths” universe here). Dead civilians are labeled collateral damage. The US was long a vocal opponent of torture — until we were caught doing it, at which point it was renamed, following the Israelis, as harsh, stressful, or (most egregious of all) enhanced interrogation techniques, and a White House attorney or two obligingly crafted an opinion proclaiming it legal. The military — the arm of legally sanctioned violence — is a fantastically rich source of calling things by other names in order to control the narrative and hence the reactions on the part of the restive. The new tactics of drone warfare have led to many new terms of art, such as “painting a target” or “blue on blue” that hardly disclose their meaning to the uninitiated.

Those examples you just cited clearly indicate how the aesthetic field is intimately bound to the power and violence of discourse. Politics in this regard, we might argue, is always aesthetic insomuch as it is bound to the creation of images of thought. As an artist, what is it about the discursive field that commands your attention?

Control of language in the face of war extended some time ago to the popular press. Early in World War I, for example, the war minister, Lord Kitchener, threatened to kill any journalist found on the front lines. But exercising war censorship proved far less valuable than recruiting publishers and journalists into collusion with the government by suppressing bad news and disseminating government propaganda — (fake news). President Wilson maintained tight control through his new Committee on Public Information and the support of the new Sedition Act of 1918, which specifically criminalized antiwar expression. But today’s public has been less trusting of war reportage, and the aphorism “In war, the first casualty is truth” (of uncertain attribution), has been in wide circulation since the Iraq/Afghanistan War, although it long precedes that.

And then there is the practice of disinformation — really fake news — (as opposed to more guileless misinformation), the stream of confusing and often irrational targeted messages deployed by state actors and designed to produce confusion in unguarded populations, often foreign ones, for the purposes of electoral or other means of “regime change.” Although diplomacy is itself a highly coded system of negotiation over what labels and narratives to hang on events in the interest of international relations, it is conducted among a cadre of the highly trained; disinformation is a weapon wielded against whole peoples without their consent. Both Russia and the United States deployed this tactic even well before the Cold War.

In the preface to my videotape Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained of 1977, heard over a black screen, I try to draw a distinction between the crime of mass murder and the “ordinary” crime of having people — women in particular, but also non-European foreigners — tagged with “not measuring up.” This voice-over was intended to suggest that violence resides on a spectrum only part of which is regarded as outright violence.

I am mindful here in the importance for stressing (as you have continually done in your own work) the resistive potential of art in response to the oppressive triangulation between discourse, aesthetics, and their affective human registries. What can we take from alternative histories in terms of rethinking the very possibilities for viable resistance?

Opposing civil protests, actions, and uprisings of various sorts simply on the grounds of violence leaves us in a quandary of doubt and certainly goes against “history” — as it tends to assume, shortsightedly, that all human conflict can be captured under the rubric of violence erupting in an otherwise orderly civil society. I leave aside religious violence, against oneself or sacrificial others, meant to actualize the divine. I am also ignoring the use of torture against captives or sacrifices as a ritualized embodiment of group solidarity or even, as in Roman jurisprudence and later, the use of torture on witnesses or the accused to prove — that is, to test — the verity of testimony and confessions extracted from slaves and plebs. Uprisings, revolts, riots, and revolutions, as well as invasions and wars, punctuate human history, and artists — if not employed or commissioned by royals and rulers — often have partisan involvements beyond mere opinions. Historicizing forms of representation, such as “classical style,” and the tradition of history painting use both formal styles and narrative content to glorify certain incidences of violence and decry others. A signal example is the painter Jacques-Louis David, well known for his paintings in support of the French Revolution (and later of Napoleon); I recently saw his rapidly executed sketch of deposed queen Marie Antoinette in the tumbrel on the way to the guillotine.

A question closer to us is whether artists during the (slightly earlier) American Revolution should have deplored the rebels’ use of violence? These questions seem paltry, if not juvenile, against the backdrop of world events. Poets and painters have made political choices in support of war — Lord Byron lost his life in Greece’s fight for independence from the Ottomans, and the Italian Futurists, who glorified violence or simply the shock of modern life, joined the Italian army in World War I, many losing their lives on the battlefield. Famously, Marinetti became an enthusiastic fascist, and many other fascists glorified the aesthetic effects of war. Conversely, as we can see from governmental action against war resisters (refusers, dissenters, opponents) in many countries, just speaking out against war can be seen as actionable and often includes charges of inciting others similarly to resist.

At various times in the US, those who refused army service were arrested and imprisoned; a notable example is the socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, imprisoned for advocating draft resistance during World War I. In World War II, however, pacifism was not widely supported by the populace, in part because of the global threat posed by Hitler and the Axis powers. But now, especially after the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II, there is deemed to be an absolute imperative for even members of the armed forces to refuse an illegal order.

Looking back to your powerful series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, which provided a more personal and intimate critique of the war imaginary, how do you think these works resonate in a world seemingly governed by media spectacles that are no less mediated in their suffering?

I take your use of the term “personal” here to mean centered on individuals, not masses of people. The photomontages you are referring to can perhaps be characterized as familial or on the level of daily life, but to ask how they resonate in a world seemingly governed by media spectacles — I have to remind you that that is an apt description of the world in the period from which those works emerged. By the 1960s, advanced industrial economies like ours had already entered a human-made environment that can be characterized as mass spectacle, as numerous observers, many of them Europeans — Siegfried Kracauer in the 1930s, Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1940s, Herbert Marcuse and Guy Debord in the 1960s are notable examples — had decried both before and after its emergence, and at many opportunities since.

I would like to call attention to your use of the word “powerful” in relation to those works; some have also labeled them, and other works I’ve done, such as the satirical video Semiotics of the Kitchen, as violent. That requires a strong degree of projection (though I would agree that in the case of the video, there is a certain gesturing toward a release of repressed violence, without any particular recipient). But there are no violent acts depicted in any of those photomontages, and you haven’t suggested there is. They conjure recognition of violence in the viewer as a means of arguing against war and repression but still refusing to reproduce it. I would say the same about the video A Simple Case for Torture, or How to Sleep at Night, which has no scenes of bodily torture but a great deal of information — too much information to take in — about state violence, both legitimized and covert.

You have drawn attention here to a very important point concerning the difference between violence (directly physical or psychological) and the power of critique, as then presented as violence because it offends a certain dogmatic sensibility, and often in such cases speaks truth to those who impose power relations through violent means. I am especially taken by the notion that the purpose of art is precisely to confront what seems intolerable, yet to do so in a way that refuses to reproduce the logics of violence. Do you think this is what art should aspire toward?

I wouldn’t begin to propose what art should aspire toward, but I think you have described my intentions in using my work to address injustice, to expose its inherent violence, if you will, without resorting to its tactics, but also to outline the matter at hand as a problem possibly with solutions within human reach. In other words to frame as comprehensible those matters that have been globalized, demonized, naturalized, rendered intractable, without sensationalizing them — but not necessarily following a formula. I want to establish always a space for reflection, even if only after a person’s direct confrontation with the work. This does not apply to my political activities, where I am much less circumspect if the occasion warrants. Sloganeering and appeals to sentiment have their place. However, it is worth noting that it was precisely as immediate antiwar propaganda that I conceived of the works we’ve just discussed, House Beautiful, where my approach had nothing to do with replicating scenes of violence.

Another distinct aspect of your work is to address social and structural inequalities. From the perspective of the arts, how might we recognize such inequalities as a form of violence? And why have you also felt compelled to subvert stereotypical representations concerning those on the margins of existence?

Even if people recognize the inherent violence that poverty and powerlessness impose on others, that realization may not be at the forefront of their assessments of economic and social inequality. A steady flow of ideological messages obfuscates the nature, sources, and scope of inequality. Among those messages is a consistent stream of reductive, counterfactual, and demoralizing images of people — many of them on the margins, not of existence, perhaps, but of everyday middle-class life, but also including the majority group: women! These stereotypical representations have been “naturalized,” sunk into the fabric of everyday life as simple, common sense observation. Rationalized, unacknowledged, discriminatory representations signify what has lately been called implicit bias, which cannot be divorced from structural violence. It’s necessary to highlight and deconstruct these representations.

The structures of feeling, to borrow a phrase, are hung around the verities of general society, which insistently do violence to the lives and understandings of others. The opioid/heroin crisis presents an unmistakable case in point, unfolding before our eyes: when the long-suffering participants in the drug crisis (heroin and crack) were primarily poor urban-dwelling people of color, and a ferocious “othering” was the considered opinion promulgated about those populations. The victims were blamed for exhibiting failure of morality, character, and integrity; possessing outright criminal tendencies, whether learned or inherited — and countenancing poor family structure. Liberals pitied them, documentary photographers captured their agony and ruin, do-gooders argued for them, and politicians denounced them. Once the crisis of drug dependency (heroin and opioid drugs primarily) began to affect largely white rural and small-town populations, denunciations ceased in favor of a great clamoring on the part of local politicians to obtain assistance without blame and treatment without the unconscionably harsh and pitiless policies of long incarceration and often the concomitant loss of voting rights, tied to the previous drug “wars.”

Addressing the objectification of women and the naturalization of everyday forms of abuse this engenders, what have been your thoughts on the #MeToo campaign, which moved quickly from Hollywood onto the arts more generally?

I’m always interested when workplace issues come to dramatically highlight inbuilt systematic abuse. Or to put it another way, when patriarchal prerogatives, which center mostly on the bodies of young women, prerogatives that are known and tacitly acknowledged by everyone while simultaneously denied and individualized (by which I mean put down to individual quirks or predatory behaviors) are thrust into the spotlight and rendered criminal, actionable, immoral, reprehensible, and so on. And then non-celebrity women, non-executive, non-professional women, but rather employees of an entirely different service class, say, “Me too.” And in fact, those women, who are women of color in far larger proportions than the middle-class or Hollywood workforce, said, “Me too,” first, under the initiative of Tarana Burke, as we learned after the celebrity #MeToo movement was launched.

Actresses gained attention by insistent complaints that suddenly captured public attention (in no small part because a confessed groper, raunchy talk-show regular, and “reality”-show host became president of the country, while similar accusations of long-standing, perverse abuse by male celebrities had failed to win court cases for complainants and sometimes even to gain indictments). But this movement helped magnify the voices of other groups of women — poor women, women of color, immigrant or undocumented women, hotel maids, farm workers, waitresses — who achieved little attention or sympathy for their stories about the sexual predations they must endure to keep their jobs.

These working-class jobs are generally in industries where people won’t get cowed into signing Non-Disclosure Agreements, since not much is at stake for bosses in regard to fire-at-will workforces. The point is clear: there are sexual and other gender-centered costs for women who venture into the paid workforce outside their own homes. The arts followed the example of Hollywood, or more properly the Anglo-American theater and film nexus, in that some high-profile men in theater, dance, radio, and television were accused of sexual aggressions and quickly let go. It is too soon to assess the validity of those dismissals. The academe, however, including art departments, have hardly followed suit.

But we’ve been around this “Me too” block quite a few times before: looking just at the United States, there was a concerted patriarchal and right-wing backlash in the 1980s against the women’s and gay liberation wars, attacking abortion rights and gender identity (inciting sex panics), which met with concerted forms of pushback. The attacks continued through the 1990s, symbolized by efforts to derail Bill Clinton the candidate as a sex offender and an advocate of the (permissive, libertine) “values of the 1960s” (including acceptance of gay rights), a narrative thread that eventually led to his impeachment as president on sex-based charges. Women continued to resist, but since the 1980s the mainstream women’s movement has largely focused on the advancement of professional and other middle-class women — think of “power dressing” and “breaking the [corporate and military] glass ceiling” — mostly downplaying the defense of poor women and working mothers.

The political right, while often led by sexual predators, transgressors, adulterers, and so on, continued to use outrage over sexual identity and behavior as weapons to marshal their base. Finally they settled on anti-abortion politics as their main mobilizer after younger voters increasingly accepted gender-centered matters, especially LGBTQI identities and gay marriage. Now, as a result of the continued attacks on women’s bodies at the point of the right-wing spear, Roe v. Wade will likely be brought down at the hands of the Supreme Court. We don’t know what will follow, except that once again poor women will suffer the most.

At present, we have to ask once again, and slightly tiresomely, Is this time different? — will there be major change in gender relations and an end to sexual aggression and harassment? My answer is that many in the age cohort of people we call “millennials” are restive and want to see change immediately and that that’s a good thing: the women’s movement, like most movements, is largely peopled by young women, and this movement is widening as more women of color and transgender women take part. And now, inevitably, the predatory sexual and workplace issues have publicly converged, in light of the ever-growing importance of the culture industries on the one hand and the service industries on the other — though I will predict that middle-class women will continue to fare better than working-class women.

Before we rejoice, however, we ought to keep in mind another growing form of backlash that in many respects echoes the patriarchalism of evangelicals but is associated with racial and political grievances, often borrowing from right-wing and neo-Nazi movements, reactionary social thinkers, and their ilk. This movement of young white men, centered on the internet but all too often moving into the real world, has often viciously targeted young women also in the online world (see “Gamergate” for an exploration of one such early eruption of hatred). This cohort of enraged young men, demanding that women recognize their right to sexual intercourse, calls itself the “incel” movement, from self-denominated “involuntary celibates” who abet their views on the strictly neo-Nazi social media site Gab as well as Reddit and its 4chan or 8chan websites inhabiting the otherwise largely unnoticed corners of the internet.

We are now over two years into the presidential election victory of Donald Trump. What still seems to be a defining feature of his power has been a veritable blurring between the fictional and the real. What role do you think art plays today in this seemingly absurd and yet dangerous setting?

The man was, as you say, elected. He has always been a liar, a bully, and a braggart, and his celebrity persona seems for many voters to have given him a pass on truth. Authenticity in theatrical performance is judged not on the basis of truth value but rather on a form of “convincingness”: how well he fits a familiar role — domineering, authoritarian masculinity paradoxically under threat — as he himself has defined it. Someone like that, demonstrably of low moral character, a con man and dishonest businessman, proved able to perform it well enough to trump probity. This process is not about rationality: Democrats, in their latter-day technocratic, neoliberal mode, appeal to rationality; Republicans don’t. Democrats are afraid to bait the populist beast, Republicans aren’t — the Republican Party recognizes the benefits accruing to their politicians and donor class by policies supported by Tea Party passions. But I have to point out that it is our powerful mass-culture industry that helped boost the popularity and visibility of this personality type, which has in modern days included such figures as Ronald Reagan, Jesse Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger (not to mention those who ran as overt racists throughout the 20th century), all men running as authoritarian-populist patriarchs before Donald Trump.

Scapegoating the powerless, our present catastrophic leader has badgered, bullied, and belittled — as a tactic for deflecting attention from searing attacks on policy on many fronts. Those in whose interest he governs have spent decades practicing the seizure of public goods and the destruction of even the idea of community. They’ve built grassroots organizations on the basis of ruralism, resentment, racism, and rage; they’ve bought and paid for academics and think tanks to advance reactionary legislative and judicial agendas, voter-suppression tactics, racist mythologies, anti-woman and anti-LGBTQI rules, and science denialism. Like any Republican since Reagan, he ran as the opponent of the federal government itself, on the promise of crippling its reach while still somehow fulfilling extravagant promises to his followers.

As the ongoing chaos campaign continues, we have little choice but to be there too, constantly showing up, in whatever way we can. Marches, protests, and demonstrations are powerful and absolutely necessary — as is showing up at the polls. But we need an organized movement to continue agitating, not just as resistance and repudiation, but to engineer lasting political change.

So let’s keep on protesting and countering the fairy tales and lies that are so essential to the con game being unleashed on us wherever it can find an audience. Art doesn’t change society, but it can crystallize opinion in the context of citizens’ movements. Art in the modern era is often born of resistance.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.