Missing the Modern Gun: Object Ethics in Collections of Design
Why can firearms be displayed in art, history, and military museums, but not in design museums? What does moral good have to do with the Museum of Modern Art?
Firearms are absent from all American collections of contemporary design, in spite of their importance to design history and their enduring significance in the culture at large. Even when they are discussed in a design-historical context, it is all too easy to ignore the moral implications that color our perception of guns. Why can firearms be displayed in art, history, and military museums, but not in design museums? What does moral good have to do with the Museum of Modern Art? Many design collections effectively serve as object-based ethical codes revealing how to live a “good” life. Nonetheless, exhibition of a firearm within a design museum has the potential to open a new branch of discussion about guns, design, and morality.
“That wouldn’t have happened if someone else on that island had had a gun,” said Jim Horvath as he checked the empty magazine of a Ruger .22. It was two weeks after a man dressed as a police officer opened fire on a youth camp north of Oslo, Norway, killing 60 people and wounding another 70 before he was apprehended. Oslo is a long way from the dusty plains and concealed carry of northwestern Wyoming, where I’d enlisted Horvath to teach me how to shoot. He pushed the magazine back into the Ruger’s handle with a satisfying metallic “click” and explained the three cardinal rules of gun use: “Always keep the gun pointed in a safe direction. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. And always keep the gun unloaded until you are ready to use it.”
Horvath is a gruff middle-aged gentleman with heavy, thick hands, and thinning sandy-colored hair. I’d been warned about his conservative politics and was prepared for the hour-long speech about my Second Amendment rights, but not the abundance of bonsai trees on his back deck. Cultivating the trees is one of Horvath’s non-gun-related hobbies and his speech is an improbable mixture of right wing ideology and eastern philosophy. He provided me with a handout to accompany our lesson; following statements on the necessity of the 2nd Amendment as a “doomsday provision” is a section labeled “The ZEN of Pistol Shooting.”
By the time we headed for the shooting range, I was starting to think that he made some good points. “If your car breaks down between Cody and Gillette, you might as well be on the moon,” Horvath said. “Don’t let yourself be a victim.” This is a common theme of the National Rifle Association that I heard over and over again: Don’t be a victim. Be prepared. If everyone has a gun, all are protected. Guns can mean the difference between being murdered, raped, or walking away unharmed. It feels like a rather pessimistic and grim picture of humanity.
Holding the loaded .22, I better understood. I felt the seduction of a weapon. I felt strong, competent, and powerful. I felt like I was demonstrating my own responsibility to be safe and good, performing my morality. It seems strange to admit now, but firing at a paper plate stapled to a support on the range felt great.
Because a gun is also a symbol, it affects people in more ways than one. The context in which the gun appears—how it is held and how it is used—plays off of the violent potential it contains without necessarily actualizing that violence. Just seeing a gun changes power dynamics: it can induce fear in one’s opponent. Paul Virilio wrote that for all the technological innovation and science afforded by military forces, “War can never break free from the magical spectacle because its very purpose is to produce that spectacle: to fell the enemy is not so much to capture as to ‘captivate’ him, to instill the fear of death before he actually dies.”1
The gun can be more about inducing feelings of threat, the perception that one has the capacity to kill rather than the act of killing itself. Because of what a gun does—propel a projectile at high speed in a desired direction, often with the intent to pierce or inflict harm—and the associations that attend it, it is necessarily an object of power. The way that a handgun fits into the palm of one’s hand like an extension of the body and the directionality implied by the point of the barrel combine to imply intentionality and dominance. The gun’s force is directed, controlled, seemingly integrated into the body itself. When someone holds a firearm, there is immediately a spatial change in power: those behind the gun are more powerful than those in front of it (unless, of course, the person standing in front of the gun is holding a bigger, more powerful gun). The Colt revolver may have been called a great equalizer,2 but there is really nothing equalizing about it. The gun produces a psychological effect in both the user and the people around them. Hold a gun in your hand and, like a magic talisman, it grants you superiority rather than equality.