Art Against Killer Children

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Art critic Dave Hickey, from his new book of essays on Art and Democracy, the Perfect Wave, speaks up against "killer children" in a self-proclaimed defense of art.


In a chapter entitled "A World Like Santa Barbara", Dave Hickey carefully and poetically articulates the outlines of our cosmopolitan age - "in which civilization must be defined by the ability of a diverse populace to tolerate and appreciate the anxiety of living together in a tumultuous, heterogenous urban world" - while offering a compelling etiological analysis of the rise of the suburban shooter.

In the wake of the most recent school attack, you can't help but feel the sheer weight of his heart-piercing words:

"I will go even further and suggest that the gradual re-farmerization of America explains the current penchant of suburban youth for killing one another in bunches - that these killings are the direct consequence of a culture that proposes the instantaneous alleviation of anxiety as its primary goal - a culture of ignorance in which weapons are sold, games are designed, and art is explained for no other purpose than a happy ending. Children in the cities kill one another too, of course, but for explicable reasons like poverty, greed, anger, and ambition, for causes who consequences can be sublimated into civilized endeavors - that are, in face, being sublimated as we speak: into music, dance, and fashion. These city kids kill because they want more life. The killer children in the suburbs have no such excuses or ambitions. They're just anxious about being teenagers and don't think they should have to feel that way, and they've never read Tom Sawyer." 

Hickey continues:

"Some people blame the media for this, but that's like blaming the violence of Elizabethan culture on the last act of Hamlet. Some of the same people blame the killers' parents, and this would be plausible, since their first option is to become parents, to usurp the authoritarian parental role and obliterate the peers and siblings who make them nervous - because they have been so well nurtured, loved, and protected that they have never been nervous before - because they have never read an exciting book, felt the anxiety of high drama, or experienced the disorientation of difficult art and consequently do no even know how to be nervous, much less how to enjoy being nervous and exploit it. Their only excitement is linear zero-sum games, and these teach you nothing about contingency, games that, if you play them right, work out in the end."

"I offer this because what one perceives most profoundly in these killer children from the suburbs is their absolute lack of imagination and affect." 

"What I am suggesting is that we are well on our way to censoring and explaining away the primary adaptive modality of urban life - that the unruly, uncivilized domain of arts and letters is being robbed of its civilizing function. I offer this because what one perceives most profoundly in these killer children from the suburbs is their absolute lack of imagination and affect. They can't imagine obliterating a million hopes, dreams, and memories by squeezing a tiny metal trigger; they can't imagine tearing open an empty place in future generations; they can't even imagine their own futures or the constituents of an ordinary human life. And those who survive are unlikely to acquire this knowledge either, even from Oliver Twist, because their brutal acts - acts designed to do nothing more than instantaneously alleviate anxiety - are deeply motivated by a subliminal desire to obliterate Santa Barbara. The local response will be more parental control, more therapy, and more authoritarian censorship. It will mean fewer works of art, less freedom, and more killings. And all this because we wanted to make a safe place. Unfortunately, art is the only safe place, and it is safe only because the world can't be made so."

Dave Hickey concludes this short essay with a provocative incitement, stating that "we have reached a point at which members of the literate populace have a right to ask just what kind of a world they are being asked to inhabit." 


Bobby George