It’s still hazy on where we stand on the progression of COVID-19 cases, but the country is beginning to re-open. Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series remind us that as we begin to resume our “regular” lives we risk becoming desensitized to the whirlwind of visceral emotions engendered by the pandemic. Is it strange how I no longer feel anything when listening to or reading the news?
Warhol’s iconic silkscreen prints with highly saturated colors are part of his signature style. Some question the banality of his pop-art. To them, I say, “Oh you’re in for a ride.” The Death and Disaster series from 1963 containing around 70 pieces of work that utilize repeated imagery of sensualistic scenes of disasters and deaths. These repetitive prints of highly graphic and explicit content are taken from a journalistic context.
What’s happening to us?
Warhol takes existing photographs and manipulates them to critique celebrity culture, consumerism, and repeated imagery in the media. During the 1950s and 60s, the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement unleashed a proliferation of traumatic imagery everywhere such as in LIFE and TIME magazines. Warhol explores the effects of seeing traumatic images over again in various news and media outlets.
The silkscreen print in a two by two grid titled Saturday Disaster (1964) captures a disturbingly gruesome scene of a gory car accident containing an unfocused chaotic mix of death and tragedy. This repeated imagery of a traumatic scene intentionally alerts us of the process of desensitization. The photographs become a simulacrum in which the original referent that evoked sadness, fear, and shock dissipates over time and no longer impacts us as severely as it initially did.
The sense of alertness that creates an uneasy feeling that extends beyond our present reality and into the scene photographed is the punctum, as Roland Barthes explains in the Camera Lucida, of the noncoded indexicality of the photograph.
When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect.
–Andy Warhol, Artnews, 1963
Early on, this might’ve been a similar sentiment to anyone living in the states of feeling strange by the sight of mass groups wearing masks outside. At what point did the sea of faces covered in masks and hands covered in gloves at the grocery store become normal? For me it was mid-April. I started to question why the news reporter on TV wasn’t wearing a mask. I went from being skeptical to accepting of the whole mask debacle (the comprehensive Vox video about what face masks actually do against coronavirus sealed the deal for me).
I’ve started to hear stories of people becoming less anxious about living in a world with a deadly and mysterious virus lingering on objects we touch and in the air we breathe. While scrolling on Instagram, I’m hit with five different ads for masks. Silently, I judge each one. No, that one is too bulky. This pattern is interesting. Does it have a nose wire? What does your mask say about YOU?
Slowly but surely, the news coverage relating to coronavirus went from keeping me up at night to becoming part of the white noise in the background. With numbers still on the rise in many states and unclear coordination of protocol across the country, the urgency of Stay Home orders seems to be waning.
Art allows us to be aware of the process
Art historian and critic Thomas Crow argues that by putting these gruesome images in a gallery context we are expected to consider what these pieces of works mean. This process attempts to re-emphasize the punctum in which the visceral and in-person sensation from these original images are re-established by Warhol.
The bodily and in-person-like reaction is lost as if we become numb overtime to images that are repeated over again and again. In one interpretation, the Death and Disaster series is trying to highlight ways certain issues and topics become a simulacrum. However, the Saturday Disaster (1964) repeated images not only are altered in color to make them appear out-of-ordinary, but the color alteration and silkscreen style causes the viewer to view these images more carefully.
Complacency, Trauma Theory, and a craving for more
When we experience the source of trauma rooted in the original image, such as the car crash, the natural human response is to protect oneself through suppression by not fully internalizing what happened. The reality that occurred is walled off as a protective measure to the human psyche.
It’s commonly advocated that a “healthy” way to deal with trauma is to return to the triggering line up of events and relive it over again in one’s memory to over-utilize the loss that naturally occurs in the psyche until it’s worked out. Every time trauma is experienced when a person relives it in an attempt for recovery the brain is stimulated with various hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This hormonal effect can be paralleled with how our bodies react with addiction causing us to crave and seek out trauma.
The repeated imagery’s critique of the simulacra and reestablishment of the referent and punctum through an art context invites viewers to return to the site of the trauma. The viewer then places themselves in the scene of the trauma with a repetition of imagery and the process of becoming addicted is lived out.
Not only does the banally named piece Saturday Disaster (1964) mimic the tragedies presented in newspapers and news broadcasts repeatedly causing desensitization but every time we see these sensualistic images there’s a rush of adrenaline. This series provokes these processes around the mass distribution of images and the human instinctive reaction to traumatic experiences.
The Death and Disaster series plays with human memory and ways we grapple at the moment traumatic experiences are created, its resulting impact on the human psyche, and the insinuation of long-term collective societal influences.
Sustaining momentum during the Black Lives Matter movement and a global pandemic
The Black Lives Matter movement is sparking change in a multitude of waves. Thousands of people across the world are fighting for justice because without it there will be no peace. To stay silent is to remain complicit.
I think Warhol’s Death and Disaster series reminds us to reflect and engage with our timeline of emotions. To not become complacent by the non-stop cycle of flashy headlines in our social media feeds, each one becoming less disturbing and more familiar. From the #tuesdayblackout to Instagram being halted from its “regular programming” out of respect, things are already starting to slow down in momentum. Or is it? What’s the next wave of BREAKING NEWS?
News outlets, mass media, and other non-related connections to the original scene of conflict will use these images of coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement as clickbait to hook us to capitalize on our attention. There’s a manipulative capitalistic intent that becomes tied to these traumatic images over time as they are reprinted and shared again and again.
The collective activism being lived out by a need for justice and change requires a level of resistance to the media. Actions not Instagramable or retweetable are necessary. We must continue to be cautious about how we proceed as we begin to re-open businesses and gather in groups larger than five people (gasp) because despite our familiarity of the current situation things are not normal.
Be aware of becoming complacent due to desensitization
What felt like a nationwide conversation about being anti-racist shouldn’t be a box checked off. It’s something we can’t risk to become desensitized towards. With racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic racism we must never reduce their causalities and fundamentally horrifying problems that need our sustaining attention. The present reality and future implications of a pandemic in our personal lives and various industries should propel us to innovate for more resilient systems — not to become numb and complacent with the way things are becoming. We must actively live out our present moments fueled ready to do what we can to bring about change.