The Forum published a recent opinion piece reflecting the appropriateness of “a huge (as in an 8-foot-by-6-foot) handgun. A revolver. Made totally from corrugated cardboard” at Plains Art Museum. The writer’s basic point is that not only is the art inappropriate for children but it should be removed. I beg to disagree.
I was student teaching at a local high school the spring that Columbine happened. For weeks afterwards, I imagined a shooter coming in to the commons area where I had a study hall of 200+ students every day. I envisioned the bloodbath that would be if he (yes, I only imagined a he) got off enough rounds. I quaked in fear; I tried to calm my nerves, but you know what I never did? I never blamed Marilyn Manson. You know, the singer who was supposedly the influence behind that horrible day?
I had heard songs by Marilyn Manson, and while they were not my style, they also didn’t drive me to want to mow down as many people as possible. I had watched violent video games—no desire from that either.
But what about gigantic cardboard guns? Are they a motivator? Will an enormous corrugated gun invite evil into our elementary classrooms? I don’t think so, and here’s why:
By the time our elementary aged children take a tour of Plains Art Museum, they have been exposed to hundreds if not thousands of images of gun violence. I successfully kept all toy guns out of the hands of my son until he was four and received a military building block set. I quietly removed the miniscule guns from the pack but only after he had examined them; he didn’t need to ask what they were, he knew.
Our elementary students understand what guns are; what they perhaps don’t understand is the absolute power they have. I find it interesting that the opinion piece by Ms. Robinson-Johnson says, “[Children] see a large gun and say, ‘Wow!’ Some begin to point their fingers toward others and exclaim ‘Bam!’”
Of course they do; that’s because this is not the first time they have ever seen a gun. They already know how to “play” guns; they already know how to pretend point and shoot.
The larger issue here is what can a gigantic gun teach children about violence? Can it be a starting point for a discussion about why real guns can be so dangerous and need to be treated with respect? This is not a pro- or anti-gun point; this is a use-art-as-a-means-to-discuss-difficult-social-issues point.
There are few issues in this country as challenging as the right to bear arms issue. What is the larger context that a massive cardboard gun can inhabit? What does the size represent? What about the fact that the material used has no real power; it can be completely destroyed with a simple bucket of water. What is the artist trying to say by not actually saying anything? Why did the children respond with pretend finger guns and the educator respond with fear?
Public art is rarely discussed by the larger community except in instances of criticism, whether for lack of appropriateness or fiscal responsibility or sensitivity to how everyone might perceive it.
But that’s one of the main tenants of art. Art should challenge our assumptions, challenge our comfort levels, challenge our sense of right and wrong. Art should be in the shape of a gigantic gun because guns bring out passion and emotion and uncertainty. But this was not a gun; this was art doing what art has the potential to do best if we are only open to the discussion. I respectfully suggest we not only not retire it to the basement but that we invite more people to see it and have the difficult conversations that are necessary; the conversations that might only come about because of something both as non-threatening and threatening as a cardboard gun.
Photo courtesy of Kris Kerzman and ARTSpulse