The Art of War: Our New (Un)reality, Ten Years After the Invasion of Iraq
After a stint in Santa Fe, the exhibit More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness has just opened at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The show’s theme is the way that contemporary artists play with perceptions of reality, and the pieces selected by curator Elizabeth Armstrong suggest that the pliability of truth has become a central theme of contemporary life in part because it’s an unescapable feature of the past decade’s seemingly unending war.
“Truthiness,” the word that inspired the show’s title, was coined by Stephen Colbert in 2003 as a satire of the George W. Bush Administration’s approach to fact-finding. Bush believed in doing what felt right, an attitude that had deadly consequences for thousands of people in what Bush advisor Karl Rove dismissed as “the reality-based community.” Thomas Demand’s Presidency series—giant photographs of a set built to look like the Oval Office—might remind the viewer of how extremely contingent Bush’s first election was; having lost the popular vote, no wonder he emphasized perception over reality in his leadership style.
Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Phantom Truck is a black-matte life-size sculpture in the shape of one the trucks full of explosives that Colin Powell cited as evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. It’s the closest those trucks have ever come to actually existing. For ten years now, we’ve lived with the uncomfortable knowledge that our elected leaders sold us—and the rest of the world—a lie.
This decade has also seen Americans’ mental geography of war slowly altered. For the previous generation, war meant the jungles of Vietnam, the muddy hell that paranoid American leaders sent Baby Boomers to needlessly die in. Today, younger Americans increasingly picture war as taking place in the mountains and deserts of the Middle East. John Gerrard’s eerie projection slowly circles the digital avatar of an Iranian soldier going through the motions that would protect him from an explosion. The explosion never comes, though—the soldier just practices, alone, forever out there on a flat rocky plain. Gerrard’s piece depicts the debilitating ennui that’s replaced horror in the trees as our mental image of being at war.
In real life, of course, explosions do come—and no one knows if or when they will ever stop coming. A fake newspaper created by The Yes Men cruelly depicts an impossible reality: IRAQ WAR ENDS! Troops to Return Immediately; Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy. The war has, technically, ended, and the troops have come home, but everyone understands that the war isn’t really over. Even if we’re done fighting in Iraq, we’re not done fighting the larger battle that the Iraq invasion was supposedly about: the battle to contain terroristic threats to the safety of Americans specifically and the world in general.
The Cold War was terrifying, but Americans old enough to remember it may now find themselves nostalgic for a time when we knew whose fingers were on the buttons. Nuclear, chemical, and explosive attacks, if they come to American shores, will likely come from terrorists or belligerent nations that can’t blanket us with nukes like the Russians once could—but we’re not afraid of a blanket of nukes anymore. We’re afraid of one nuke, or one chemical weapon, or an ordinary passenger airplane.
Are we safe? The answer to that question will never again be clear-cut, no matter what the color-coded threat level “is.” That’s the new reality, a reality where distorted perceptions are the norm because the truth is just too complex and contingent to ever truly know. President Obama’s reality-based approach to international relations is saner and safer than Bush’s holier-than-thou certainty, but Bush’s popularity (he was re-elected, after all) was due in part to the fact that he told us what we wanted to hear. He told us that we were locked in a battle of good versus evil, a war that we could win. Obama admits that it’s much harder to know whether we’re safe—and whether we’re good.
That’s the most challenging theme of Art in the Age of Truthiness: it’s not just that we can manipulate perceptions of reality, but that it’s becoming harder and harder to know when we are and when we aren’t.
Image: The Yes Men (Mike Bonanno aka Igor Vamos and Andy Bichlbaum aka Jaques Servin), New York Times Special Edition, 2008. Courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts.