Terrorism Becomes Bad Art

Minnesota art student Luke Helder has been charged with the recent string of Midwestern mailbox bombings. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt that he’s the perpetrator.

An art student. Yeah. That fits; the tone of the portentious twaddle in pipe-bomb-boy’s manifesto was exactly that of the artist manque, big ideas being handled stupidly by a doofus whose ambition exceeds both his talent and his intellect. He fronted a grunge band called “Apathy”, we hear.

You know what? I’d lay long odds the band sucks. And I’m not making that guess out of hostility or contempt, either, but because an artist with any confidence in his own ability would have found it a much better way to achieve his artistic goals than anonymously bombing mailboxes. (Artistic goals, in a guy that age, usually have a lot to do with meeting girls. I was a rock musician in my youth, and am therefore un-foolable on this issue.)

It was inevitable, I suppose, that sooner or later terrorism would become bad performance art. It’s easy to condemn pipe-bomb-boy for callously putting people at lethal risk with his toys, but difficult to summon up the kind of personal hatred for this perpetrator that Al-Qaeda’s flamboyant fanatic nut-jobs have so richly earned. I think our ire might be more properly directed elsewhere — at all the people who have cooperated in dumbing down the definition of `art’ so completely that Luke Helder actually thought he was doing it.

Once upon a time, art had something to do with achieving a meeting of minds between artist and audience. The artist’s job was to rework the symbols and materials of his culture into expressions that affirmed and explored the values of that culture and pleased audiences. Artists operated within interpretive traditions that they shared with the non-artists in the audience. The truly able artist earned the privilege of making his work personal and individual, but only by successfully finding an audience and communicating with it in acceptable conventional terms first.

In the late 19th century Western culture began to admit a new definition of `art’ and a new role for artists. Under the influence of modernism and various post-modern movements, artists began to see their job as the systematic subversion of the interpretive traditions they had inherited. “Back to zero!” was the cry. After zero, the new goal could no longer the meeting of minds in a culturally shared commons, but rather that the audience’s minds should be invaded by the disruptive brillance of the artist’s individual insight.

In the hands of a few early moderns — Stravinsky, Brancusi, Picasso, Joyce — the new agenda produced astonishingly fine work. In the hands of too many others, it produced vacuous, narcissistic nonsense. Luke Helder inherited its most vulgar form — the notion that all the artist is required to do is “make a statement” about the contents of his own muddled mind, and it’s the world’s job to catch up.

Luke-boy’s last art project at school was “a pencil sharpener embedded in a tree stump that was rigged to illuminate Christmas lights as it sharpened pencils”. No comedian could make up such a perfect paradigm of bad art. The pointless artifice, the banal superficial cleverness, the utter lack of respect for materials, and the complete disconnection from the millennia-long cultural conversation that includes all the great art of our civilization. It’s really not a long step from this garbage to pipe bombs as `art’. Not a long step at all.

No account of Luke Helder suggests that he’s particularly evil. I wonder…suppose he had learned formal prosody, or how to paint in oils, or compose a fugue, or do figurative sculpture. Suppose he had learned artistic forms and media that were situated in history, connected with the world, concerned with beauty. Suppose he had been taught something for art to be about other than the vacancy in his own head. Suppose he had been taught (shocking concept) standards?

Perhaps, then, he would not have required explosives to express himself.

UPDATE: And back in 1996, there were conceptual art bombs in Seattle.

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Categorized as Culture


  1. wow, yeah, there might be many people out there with crazy minds. the good thing is that art can be an emotional outlet for many, so let them do whatever they feel like it ;-)

  2. As you said, there’s a some really good art which has been made along the “back to zero” train of thought (to your list I would add Captain Beefheart and Negativland,) but it also has some really bad imitators.

    Taking Beefheart as an example, a lot of people say his music is “just noise.” But that doesn’t give it the credit it deserves– there really is a lot of rigid structure there if you listen for it. It just doesn’t use existing musical vocabulary. Beefheart has his imitators, and most of them are awful. Those people mistakenly think his music is “just noise,” and they see that as a good thing worthy of imitation. At best, they can come up with a musical Rorschach test, which is expressive by coincidence, but they cannot be called good artists.

    I think that modernist art, at its finest, does not reject a need for rigid structure (just look at the geometrical patterns in Picasso’s work.) It’s just that it gets made with a willingness to explore *different* rigid structures.

  3. I feel mixed after having read your lines. By one side, I completely agree with the idea that in some forms of modern art, the tendancy you draw is indeed real. I could not prevent myself from making a link with both what happened few days ago in Paris, more especially in Place vendome http://www.courrierinternational.com/article/2014/10/20/l-arbre-sex-toy-de-la-place-vendome-reacs-les-parisiens and the “reactionary” french commentaries about it that shares the same idea you express there : the insistence on the act of transgression, the hyper stress put on the subjectivity of the sole artist and the reduction of art to the endeavour to decipher the message of the so-called artist. Let’s admit that for the sake of the argumentation. Still, I consider you cannot for instance put Joyce (not to speak of Proust or Musil) under this category : in his art, form, style is so worked and sophisticated that it is definitely too simple to take it as a representant of the trend where all that matters is the message of the artist. The same for instance for 2001 space odyssey of Kubrick which is undoubtely modern art and by no way reducible to the message he is supposed to deliver. In fact he even insisted there was no message that had to be taken to the key of his film and spoke about the esthetic experience he wanted to stimulate as something that had to be understood in the footsteps of Beethoven’s symphonies ! And there are countless other examples ! The sharp division you make between traditional art and modern one is in large part a product of caricature.

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