ART IS NOT TERRORISM!Steve Kurtz, Robert Ferrell, bioterrorism and Mail FraudBy Charlie Gere, Birkbeck College, University of LondonThe title of this piece is taken from the Internet banner that is being distributedfollowing the arrest of artist Steve Kurtz, genetics professor Robert Ferrell and their indictment for mail fraud. Before discussing these arrests and their ramifications inmore detail it is instructive to look at this statement and to consider its implications.At first glance it seems so obvious a statement as to be barely worth saying; of courseart is not terrorism. And yet on closer examination the difference between the two isnot so clear. Inverting the statement makes this clear. The statement ‘terrorism is notart’ is ostensibly far harder to justify. Days after September 11
KarlheinzStockhausen famously commented that…
…[W]hat happened there is - they all have to rearrange their brains now - is the greatest work of artever. That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for 10 years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatestwork of art for the whole cosmos. I could not do that. Against that, we composers are nothing.
A year later, on the anniversary of the atrocities, the British artist Damien Hirstsuggested that…
…[Y]ou've got to hand it to them on some level because they've achieved something which nobodywould have ever have thought possible - especially to a country as big as America. So on one levelthey kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerousthing. The thing about 9/11 is that it's kind of an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it wasdevised in this way for this kind of impact.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, such comments were widely condemned and Stockhausenand Hirst were forced to apologise. In comparing the events of 9/11 to a work of artStockhausen and Hirst were both right and wrong. Right in the sense that avant-gardeart and terrorism are in some ways quite similar, and could possibly be shown to havedeveloped out of the same historical context. Many avant-garde artists, from theFuturists through Dada to the Destruction in Art Symposium and beyond, have usedart as a kind of cultural ‘terrorism’ and have pursued strategies of staging spectacular events, which are intended to shock people out of their complacency and thus, intheory at least, to change the world, much like terrorism. But the comparison is alsowrong at a deeper level. To describe an act of terrorism as a work of art is a kind of category error, which fails to take into account the ineluctable differences betweenterrorism and art.The purpose of terrorism is to directly invoke terror in its potential and actual victims,usually terror of death or injury. Whatever the sophistication of their implementationacts of terrorism are simple minded in their intentions. In invoking such terror thoseresponsible intend to disrupt the lives of those targeted by making them fearful of going about their normal activities. By contrast art works through symbolic action andmediates the sensations it invokes. In a sense it is the direct opposite to terrorism inthat it precisely allows us to face that which we fear, or which makes us anxious, froma position of safety. A good example of the difference between art and terrorism is to be found in the work of Gregory Green, who makes fully functioning nuclear bombs