IT IS GUNS.
Such is the common refrain of gun safety advocates in the wake of these constant horrors. I started drafting this piece following the racist massacre of ten Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo, New York. Then, nineteen children and two of their teachers were murdered in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. As I revised, at least four were killed at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, followed by more carnage the following weekend. Beyond these widely covered mass shootings, the steady drumbeat of gun-related death continues to claim hundreds of lives each day in the United States. While the causes of American gun violence are complex—intertwining with race, class, gender, mental health, and, as Roxane Dunbar-Ortiz has argued, the settler-colonial and slave-holding roots of the United States itself—what little public health research there is consistently points to the surfeit of and easy access to firearms as a significant culprit.
It Is Guns is also the title of Jenny Holzer’s 2018 public artwork in response to the murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Reviving a messaging system Holzer first explored in Sign on a Truck, 1984, a simple box truck outfitted with three LED screens drove through the downtown streets of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Tallahassee, and Dallas flashing fragmented texts in bold, white, sans serif against an ominous black ground. Compared to her more ambiguous “Truisms,” the words were disturbingly declarative. “SCREAM AGAIN,” “DUCK AND COVER,” “STUDENTS SHOT,” and similar phrases evoked chaos and panic, while phrases like “GUN LOBBY,” “TOO LATE NOW,” and “THE PRESIDENT BACKS AWAY” issued notes of exasperated despair.
The plain and urgent truth at the heart of Holzer’s piece—one echoed in decades of haunting and affecting work on the toll of gun violence by artists like Félix González-Torres, Hank Willis Thomas, and Martin Roth—is repeatedly undermined, attacked, and outright ignored by Republican politicians bought by decades of gun industry lobbying. We hear instead that it is mental health; it is video games; it is declining family structures; it is actually too few guns; and now even, it is doors. Though most US citizens support commonsense gun safety measures, the constant refusal of many in power to acknowledge guns as what Bruno Latour calls actants stultifies momentum toward even the slightest policy gains.
In addition to giving form to grief and protest, can art intervene amid such overwhelming denialism? The readymade—that gesture of the historical avant-garde that explicitly concerns itself with destabilizing definitions and functions—might offer a useful entry point into more expansive and nuanced conversations about the role guns play in our culture and the material danger they present. The trope of meaninglessness so often accompanies public discourse following mass shootings, from the “senseless violence” of the attacks themselves to the hollow “thoughts and prayers” offered by those in power who refuse to act. Unlike these clichés, the readymade’s displacement of meaning points back to, rather than mystifies, context and complexity. As David Joselit contends, the meaning of the readymade “doesn’t stand behind it, waiting to be decoded, but rather lies around it in its proliferation of discrepant frames of reference and social interactions.” A number of recent exhibitions in the US have appropriated guns’ physical form in uncomfortable (but safe) scenarios to leverage the readymade’s “unstable tension” between opposing categories and conflicting cultural claims.
“Guns in the Hands of Artists” avails the readymade in its most literal sense: removing a real gun’s use value and placing it within the domain of sculpture. Taking a cue from many “swords to ploughshares”–inspired initiatives around the world and paralleling Bradley McCallum’s Manhole Cover Project, 1996, which cast 228 utility covers in New Haven by melting down 11,194 guns confiscated by law enforcement, artist Brian Borrello conceived “Guns in the Hands of Artists” in the mid-1990s in conjunction with a gun buyback program in New Orleans. The project resulted in a multi-artist exhibition that was revived, with gallerist Jonathan Ferrara, as a traveling show and publication in the 2010s. Guns retained at least part of their recognizable form in provocative sculptures. Borrello’s Open Carry, 2014, features a 9-mm machine pistol with its clip extended into a twenty-one-foot circle, evoking a frightening capacity and disturbing cycle of violence. Mel Chin’s Arthur, 2014, embeds two Colt .38-caliber revolvers into the cast head of an infamous mobster, the barrels replacing his empty eyes.
Artists who invite viewers to handle readymades prompt conversation across the partisan divide, a crucial endeavor in our culture of polarization and deadlock, cynicism and despair. David Hess and Jen Edwards organize traveling shows of firearm replicas created with everyday materials. Hess constructs the pieces in “Gun Show” (first exhibited in 2015) out of found objects and detritus. In one mock assault rifle, a blue plastic toy golf putter forms the inoperable weapon’s stock. In another, a teal antique sewing machine curves elegantly to form the trigger mechanism. Rusted tools, clamps, and poles fill out the components of objects at once quotidian and menacing. Laid on the ground in rows to be perused and handled by viewers, Hess’s works have appeared in art galleries, an actual gun show, and outdoor public locations in attempts to reach Americans along the political spectrum.
With “A Loaded Conversation,” 2016, Edwards crafts to-scale replicas of historical and contemporary firearms through crochet, joining artists such as Natalie Baxter and Stephanie Syjuco who use materials coded as feminine in ways that invite reflection about gender politics and gun violence. Hung on gun racks alongside informational plaques, each sculpture contains an interactive element that speaks to the gun’s design, such as the screw-on silencer of a Walther PPK or the removable magazine of an AR-15. Docents trained in conflict resolution invite viewers to converse and don white gloves to handle the light, delicate objects for themselves.
The crafted firearms of Hess and Edwards also carry an unpredictable ambiguity; some viewers gleefully pose for photographs, mimicking Hollywood tropes even as they discuss firearm policy with strangers. Art alone cannot, of course, provide any cures to the uniquely American sickness of gun violence. What these projects offer are spaces of conversation, tension, and reflexivity that mobilize the readymade’s conceptual displacements as viewers simultaneously indulge a material fascination with guns and tactilely reassess the role these fetishized, foundational, and fatal objects play in American life.
Annie Dell’Aria is an associate professor of art history at Miami University specializing in modern and contemporary art. She is the author of The Moving Image as Public Art: Sidewalk Spectators and Modes of Enchantment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) and essays in Afterimage, Public Art Dialogue, MIRAJ, and other venues.