“There is nothing man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. Man always tends to avoid physical contact with anything strange. In the dark, the fear of an unexpected touch can mount to panic.”[i] It is the above statement, appearing under the heading “The fear of being touched,” with which Elias Canetti opens his landmark sociological study Crowds and Power. In tracing the creation of all our artificial boundaries back to this fear, Canetti makes it possible for certain affinities to be formed between different categories of human enterprise. Take, for example, art and terroristic violence: whereas these were once activities that had practically no overlap in the Venn diagram of public attitudes towards such categories, the past couple centuries have provided an increasingly steady flow of incidents causing the violent insurgent to be compared to the practicioner of radical aesthetics. When either of these types start from what Canetti calls “the violation of generally established and universally visible and valid distances,”[ii] both the aestheticization of terror and its inverse become possible.
Canetti identified the assembly into crowds as a way of escaping this fear, while another renowned writer, Tolstoy, identified artwork instead as a force that had the potential to melt away these fears of the unknown, joining humans “together in the same feeling.” Terrorism, in its regular assaults on crowded spaces, has generally sought to exploit the public ‘lowering of the guard’ that we experience as equal contributors to the growth of a crowd. Various strains of radical artwork, meanwhile, have done the same for the sense of security provided by the communal experience of aesthetics, aiming at their own kind of undifferentiated, unequivocal and immediate reactions. That artistic avant-gardes have also rhapsodized throughout history about the cleansing fire of violence, if only for the way in which it rudely accelerates this feeling of “togetherness,” is widely documented and hardly refutable.
The phenomenon of the terrorist, and of artists being taken seriously enough to be confused with or designated as such, are products of modernity, and so this already abbreviated story needs to begin with the creative and spiritual revolt that accompanied the other material realities of modernity. In particular, the artistic school of Romanticism (and slightly later, Symbolism) sprang up as a reaction or counterweight to entrenched Enlightenment attitudes, as well as to the creeping standardization of life borne on the wings of the Industrial Revolution. When it did so, the artist was elevated to a kind of spiritual compass for society as a whole, more or less inaugurating the age of artist as “influencer” rather than mere documentarian. This state of affairs would eventually be given serious intellectual support, most passionately by Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared that life was only really made livable once the aestheticization of life’s inherent tragedy made it so. Against the philsophical inheritance of Socratic rationality, Nietzsche pined for a revival of the Greek antiquity that shut its front door on Socratic thought and which evaluated individuals’ educational attainment not on their competence with science and mathematics, but on the basis of their proficiency in aesthetic disciplines. Among the many Nietzschean proclamations that speak to his fixation upon art as the guarantor of real / authentic life, there is this from his pugilistic Nietzsche Contra Wagner:
Every art and every philosophy may be regarded either as a cure or as a stimulant to ascending or declining life: they always presuppose suffering and sufferers. But there are two kinds of sufferers: those that suffer from overflowing vitality, who need Dionysian art and require a tragic insight into, and a tragic outlook upon, the phenomenon life, and there are those who suffer from reduced vitality, and who crave for repose, quietness, calm seas, or else the intoxication, the spasm, the bewilderment which art and philosophy provide.[iii]
More notably, the philosopher makes a statement in the same text that seems to at once justify the actions of aesthetic extremists, and the “propaganda by deed” of terrorists mobilized in actual warfare:
The richest creature, brimming over with vitality, the Dionysian God and man, may not only allow himself to gaze upon the horrible and the questionable; but he can also lend his hand to the terrible deed, and can indulge in all the luxury of destruction, disaggregation, and negation — in him evil, purposelessness and ugliness, seem just as allowable as they are in nature — because of his bursting plenitude of creative and rejuvenating powers, which are able to convert every desert into a luxurious land of plenty.[iv]
The Romanticism in which this sort of intensity flourished was nevertheless succeeded by Modernism, and with it the more openly militant (and, indeed, based in military strategy) concept of an “avant-garde” that was necessary to re-shape the whole material and mental landscape. With the introduction of this ideal, the interchangeability of terrorism with art became a proposition that, for those familiar with the original 20th century avant-gardes, should not even be that controversial anymore, and is not purely a residue of the provocative spirit of those movements. Whether or not they personally participated in the type of random violence that has typified international terrorism since the time of Bakunin, a signigicant portion of the artistic avant-garde was seized with a “burn it all down” or “collapsist” fervor that hardly discouraged these actions. This attitude was easily discernable in statements like this one from Dada poet Richard Huelsenbeck: “we were against the pacifists, because it was the war that had given us the possibility to exist in all our glory. We were for the war, and today Dada is still for the war. Things have to collide: the situation so far is nowhere nearly gruesome enough.”[v]
Some of the most famous dictates of the 20th century European avant-gardes went further than this mere welcoming of a total collapse, by essentially providing instructions for initiating it. Maybe one of the most commonly cited comes from Surrealist chief Andre Bréton, i.e. his claim in the group’s second manifesto that “The simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd” (I’m sure I will not be the first to notice the recent upsurge of “Surrealists” in American schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, and the like). While artistic subcultures in later decades may not have made good on Bréton’s invitation to exchange their familiar tools for live ammunition, they did retain the combative aspects of the now oxymoronic “historical” avant-gardes, and did apply them to a variety of critical initiatives. The use of destructive motifs in art accelerated with events like Gustav Metzger’s 1966 “Destruction in Art” symposium, and with Jean Tinguely’s earlier auto-destructive sculpture Hommage à New York; a sardonically titled piece whose mechanized suicide within the sculpture garden of MOMA hardly met with traditional crieria for homage.
By the performance art heyday of the 1970s, the social function of art had changed dramatically, owing to a universalizing “life for art’s sake” approach (epitomized by earlier events such as Yves Klein’s “signing” the sky, and later the universe). This provided avenues for the artist to re-cast himself or herself in virtually any other societal role, including that of terrorist. In addition to increasing the inventory of acceptable raw materials to virtually anything, the effects of taking art the beyond specialized venues for exhibition and performance ran strikingly parallel to the terrorist disregard for the acceptable boundaries of the battlefield, and their own expansion of activities into public space (interestingly, one of the points of Metzger’s manifesto for destructive art was that it be exhibited or enacted in a public arena, not privately consumed).
During the sectarian violence of The Troubles, the Northern Irish ‘akshun’ artist and self-designated trickster André Stitt specialized in “guerrilla” street performances that, like much art that has utilized violence or threat to spark deeper contemplation, “[inhabited] prevailing forms of social neurosis rather than commonly recognisable signifiers of artwork”: to this end, Stitt’s akshuns [his spelling] routinely featured elements such as “bomb scares, telephone boxes…Belfast newspaper headlines and photographs, camouflage clothing.”[vi] Actions of this type would have been, at the particular time and place, comprehensible as artistic expression only to insiders, and many other artists’ performance pieces from this era were, in fact, only ever revealed to be such via ex post facto documentation: something not too far removed from the terrorist ritual of “taking credit” for a literally explosive act.
The relatively peaceful interregnum between two major epochs of modern terrorist activity (i.e. the Left-radical political violence of the 1970s, and the surge of faith-based violence at the new millennium’s dawn) featured many significant cultural references to terrorist aesthetics, or adaptations of terrorist nomenclature to indicate an unyielding creative stance. Well into the 1990s, it was still possible to cheekily dub virtuosi of noisy, “extended” electric guitar technique as “guitarrorists” (possibly inspired by this trend, the outgoing tenant of the Chicago apartment I moved into about this time proudly advertised himself not as a musician / sound artist, but as a “sonic terrorist”). Given, much of this activity was simply a holdover from prior decades in which artists like Stitt did directly engage with political violence as a theme, yet all the same it betrayed the hold that terrorism still had on the public imagination during the all too brief “down time” between the Cold War and the Global War on Terror. As we know, that period was not an era absolutely free from explosive forms of “propaganda by deed,” as evinced by the 1995 destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and at least some dared to memorialize these isolated apocalyptic spasms in their artwork. The martial composer David Woodard, for one, composed a “prequiem” for OKC bomber Timothy McVeigh — apparently with McVeigh’s blessing and collaboration — with the intent of “caus[ing] the soul of Timothy McVeigh to go to heaven” following his execution. Though it was met with some expected approbation at the time of its performance in summer of 2001, publicly staging such a piece in the U.S. would have been almost inconceivable a few months later.
With the official declaration of the Global War on Terror, terrorism was reshaped by ever more insidious means of mass destruction and by the most pervasive media climate that had ever existed. It therefore seemed inevitable that public discourse merely acknowledging the aesthetic dimension of terrorism would achieve new registers of outrage. For example, shortly after the September 11 attacks came a statement from the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen that would sadly eclipse much of his actual musical accomplishment: his claim that the defining act of 21st century terrorism was “the biggest work of art that has ever been” (later stated as “Lucifer’s greatest work of art”) was misinterpreted by some observers as an actual endorsement of the attacks. The media scourging and public disavowal of one of the avant-garde’s most notable composers would only be a deterrent for so long, though, as more awkward expressions of sympathy for legitimately recognized terrorists — if only for their existence as dramatic “tragic figures” — would surface in later years, in events such as Amanda Palmer’s ill-advised poem dedicated to Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Maybe, at this late stage of the story, and with the decks somewhat cleared of recent history, it is important to define terrorism as I personally understand it. In the past I have found the term “asymmetrical warfare,” in fairly wide use among students of the subject, to be a convenient enough stand-in that can blunt some of the emotionally charged, discourse-denying quality of terrorism proper. However, while semantically shifting to this term can be useful in distinguishing terrorist methodology from the actions of governmentally sponsored standing armies who inspire their own form of terror, it is still incomplete in terms of describing motivations. As Charles Townsend succinctly notes, the terrorist program differs logically from State violence in that “war is ultimately coercive, terrorism is impressive,”[vii] a realization that inadvertently outlines how radical art and terrorism both function. This statement can be elaborated upon by what is maybe one of the most enduring, reliable synopses of the terrorist ethos: Johannes Most’s 1880s anarchist tract The Philosophy of the Bomb, in which “outrageous violence” not only becomes a phenomenon that will “seize the public imagination,” but which will also “threaten the state and impel it to delegitimizing reactions,” and consequentially cause the people to “reject the government and turn to the ‘terrorists’”. Though close study of the most spectacular terrorist acts of the past few decades will reveal a whole host of violent actors who are spurred on by missions that are guided by motives more, say, spiritual than political (e.g. the apocalyptic / millenarian mythos that inspired the Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 sarin gassing of the Tokyo subway system), many such groups nevertheless require the rejection or dissolution of governmental authority as an intermediate goal, and so this definition remains workable. One major caveat is the actual State support given to terrorist groups when convenient, from Spain’s usage of the GAL death squad against the militant Basque separatists ETA, to U.S. support for the Iranian Mojahedin-e Khalq; an organization that would typically meet all the legally stated benchmarks for a terrorist organization, but which the State Department nevertheless de-certified as a terrorist organization in 2012 for perhaps obvious reasons.
A whole litany of examples can be provided that validate the inspiration of Most’s program on 150 years’ worth of insurgents, though maybe one will suffice here (particularly as it touches upon the theory of a well-known radical constellation, the Situationist International, which regularly straddled aesthetic theory and politics). Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, two West German radicals whose activities would ignite Germany’s most effective homegrown terrorist organization, the Rote Armee Fraktion [RAF], carried out petrol bombings of the Kaufhaus Schneider and Kaufhof department stores in Frankfurt in April of 1968, apparently nudged toward this action by a pamphlet published by Berlin’s Situationist-inspired Kommune Eins [K1]. The tract itself had praised a previous arson attack (albeit a non-politically motivated one) in Brussels, heralding this as the beginning of a more orchestrated attempt to show presumedly complacent Europeans “…that crackling Vietnam feeling.” Presented in this screed was a clear affirmation of the Most-ian concept that violent, random public acts could act as simulacra of yet more violent acts carried out on a larger scale by established State institutions. Its overall tone also supported a basic principle that has continued to surface whenever art and asymmetrical warfare are seen as interchangeable: namely, both are striking acts of mimesis aiming to force an immediate, unmediated analysis of an imposed or coerced reality.
While plenty of artists may either explicitly or implicitly aspire to the moment of profound rupture that terrorism provides, there seems to be less compelling historical evidence for terrorist actors wishing to be viewed as artists. Tellingly, the aforementioned provoking text attributed to Rainer Langhans and Fritz Teufel was eventually dismissed as a “surrealist text” in Baader and Ensslin’s trial, and the K1 organization would continue to deal with societal struggles on an aesthetic level while the “urban guerrillas” of the RAF would go in an obviously different direction, suggested by Ensllin’s statement that “we don’t want to be just a page in the history of culture”.[viii] Other modern ideologies that have lent themselves to terrorist provocation, such as the anti-technologist strain forwarded by Ted Kaczyinski a.k.a. the ‘Unabomber,’ would be averse to art, seeing it as as a needless activity providing inferior copies of naturally existing phenomena. Individuals espousing a “primitivist” platform, from Kaczyinski to John Zerzan, have forwarded the opinion that all art is essentially destructive via its steady accretion of abstractions from the fullness of nature, and therefore transgressions like Gustav Metzger’s are simply a verification of the totality of art history rather than a deviation from it.
Meanwhile, how often can it really be said that present-day artists view deligitimizing the State as one of the primary objectives of their work? If we merely look to the sacrosanct value that so many artists place upon the receipt of government grants for said work, then that is already highly dubious. When arts funding in my current home (Austin, Texas) was slashed a few years back, the local reaction was as if art itself had been mortally wounded, rather than that particular State-sanctioned fraction of all creative output. The arts community in the U.S. has been generally ineffective — or merely unwilling — to critique certain of the State authorities’ claims to power (i.e. its monopoly on legal use of violent force), and it should not be seen as overly cynical to question the role that dependency on State funding plays in neutering these critiques.
There are other factors at play, however. One effect on the art world of digital communication’s omnipresence is that artists have been forced into an anxious struggle to map out the coordinates of ontological concepts like “authenticity.” While this process was already in place well before the 5G era, being ratified by events like the Turner Prize nomination of Tracey Emin’s My Bed, this thematic takeover of contemporary art by confessional works is far from breathing its last. As the glut of digital communication backed much of the art world into a corner, it has been forced to play the game of legitimizing itself and therefore specializing in self-referential artworks, with the end result that there is precious little time to mount serious campaigns for de-legitimizing other forces. In the present 1st-world “entertainment economy”, where the production and marketing of holistic experiences has long since outpaced the production of industrial commodities, that creative force which “joins humans together in the same feeling” has to compete with a proliferation of entertainment phenomena (i.e. online personae) that instead divide humans into ever more narrowly defined style tribes and cultural cliques.
Within this fetid atmosphere, there are far more attractive options than combating State authorities for artists whose primary goal it is to cultivate an audience. Such a campaign also necessitates a degree of instantaneous accessibility across social networking, and it is easy to see how this is incompatible with the lifestyle of a bona fide violent militant. As glamorous and telegenic as a figure like Andreas Baader may have been at the outset of his career, the performative violence of he and his RAF comrades gradually had to be accompanied by a stark life of privation and secrecy (constant changes of address and forged identity documents, etc.), to say nothing of an ethos of sacrifice that would often demand individual martyrdom, in the form of imprisonment or death, in order to keep the collective fighting for another day. As more and more self-identifying artists become absorbed into the new class of generically named “creators” acting out their psychodramas via YouTube and elsewhere, lifestyles demanding that level of commitment are simply incompatible with constant exposition via social and traditional media. A constant revisability of one’s public persona is required to stave off audience boredom, and as such there can be no protracted periods of radio silence of the kind that would be crucial for anyone involved with the type of actions we have come to know as terrorism.
At this point, it is worth wondering whether Canetti’s thoughts on fear are still universally applicable. The new fears and anxieties of the 21st century seem to arise from lack of the unknown outstretched hand rather than its tantalizing nearness: that is to say, the promise of the instant and potentially constant satiation of our desire for acknowledgement and approval has set up a situation in which we may plunge into a vortex of self-doubt the moment that this scenario does not play out. As previous generations of terrorists have lashed out at the State as the great denier of their ways of life, the next distinctly identifiable breed of insurgents may aim at delegitimizing the media titans which, in many capacities, are more powerful and influential than the nation-states that terrorist networks traditionally sought to topple.
Though not explicitly terrorist in nature (and barely even publicized), revenge attacks of a sort have already been directed at them: in 2018, when the vegan activist and would-be video artist Nasim “Sabz” Aghdam opened fire on employees of YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, her stated motive was the streaming video service’s de-monetization and filtering of her content to keep it from reaching the large audience that, she must have thought, would have steadily increased if her work was allowed to speak freely. The unshakeable dread of not being “together in the same feeling” may yet become the neurosis that turns the present online “creative class” into a destroyer class; beginning with desperate actions like the San Bruno attack, but very probably mutating into more focused means of deligitimizing the networks they have entrusted with their well-being.
[i] Canetti, E. (1984). Crowds and Power. Trans. Carol Stewart. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
[iii] Nietzsche, F. (1911). Nietzsche Contra Wagner. Trans. Anthony M. Ludovici. Edinburgh / London: T.N. Foulis.
[v] Quoted in Dickerman, L. (ed.) (2005). Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris. New York: Naional Gallery of Art, Washington / Distributed Art Publishers Inc.
[vi] Stitt, A. (2001). Small Time Life. London: Black Dog.
[vii] Townsend, C. (2002). Terrorism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
[viii] Quoted in Aust, S. (1987). The Baader-Meinhof Group: The Inside Story of a Phenomenon. Trans. Anthea Bell. London: Bodley Head.