A handsome book just arrived on my desk. War Is Beautiful the title declares. Surely not! Then I see the subtitle: “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict.” Ah, irony. An asterisk takes me to some tiny print at the bottom left of the cover: “(in which the author explains why he no longer reads The New York Times).” And who is the author? David Shields, the man who gave us Reality Hunger and many other thoughtful provocations. In fact, I now recall that a couple of years ago Shields, with whom I occasionally exchange an email opinion or two, and who was then on the lookout for a publisher, ran this project past me and although at the time I saw neither the book’s title or its actual photographic contents, I endorsed his introductory essay with the quote: “Absolutely right, to the point and guaranteed to stir things up.”
Basically, as Shields had promised, the book offers sixty-four very glossy war photos taken from the front page of The New York Times and arranged thematically: Nature, Playground, Father, God, Pietà, Painting, Movie, Beauty, Love, Death. The earliest picture is dated January 2002, from Afghanistan, the latest October 2013, from Pakistan. The accusation is that the newspaper does everything to make war glamorous and even, in some way, reassuring: “a chaotic world is ultimately under control,” Shields observes. In an afterword, art critic David Hickey shows how consciously the photos reproduce well-known pictorial and painterly tropes:
There is a Magdalene in white clothing nodding onto the edge of the frame as she would in a Guido Reni. There is a Rodin of two kneeling marines in a flat field. There are warriors protecting children that echo Imperial Rome, where war was an everyday fact, as the Times would seem to wish it now. It’s hard to deny, as you leaf through these photos, that they do indeed very deliberately aestheticize their subjects, and hence anaesthetize the viewer; these are glamour pictures to be admired, rather than documentary images that give immediacy to violence and horror. “Connecticut-living-room trash,” is how Hickey sums it up. In short, we are a long, long way from the more sober black-and-white images that chronicled the Vietnam War in the same paper.