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Can Art Change the Picture of Gun Violence in America?

10,782 have been shot dead so far in 2016.

That statistic alone is unlikely to change the conversation on gun violence in America. Neither, so far, have mass shooting, op-eds, or Congressional sit-ins

Enter Guns in the Hands of Artists. The exhibit, originally on display in New Orleans in the 1990s, features guns decommissioned and re-purposed by artists—and is currently on display at New America.

Jonathan Ferrara, curator and producer of the exhibit, and Trymaine Lee, New America fellow, MSNBC national reporter, and author of the forthcoming Million Dollar Bullets, a book on the true cost of gun violence and black life in America, answered three of our questions on art, gun violence, and the potential of the former to change minds on the latter.

1) What can art add to the discussion on guns in America? 

TL: The nature of the discussion on guns in the United States is obviously a politically charged one. The pro-gun set and those on the side of greater gun control have squared off time and again. Yet, the needle has barely moved, particularly as it relates to gun policy. Instead of headway folks have become content to hunker down, even as America continues to bleed.

Yet, where broad policy debates have done little to change hearts and minds, I believe art has the potential to hit a kind of sweet spot. Unlike the often wonkish war of law and statistics, art tugs at something deeper. It is much more ethereal, up to the interpretation of the individual. The parameters are much wider, more malleable. Art has a way of cutting through the political noise and animus to tap into something much simpler. That’s what art adds to the conversation around guns. It is a reflection of our hopes and fears, our failures, pain and loss.

JF: Art can be a mirror for life and can possibly show us the way to a better place.  In this context, att is another lens through which to view this critical issue facing our country.  Through the emotional response to these works made from guns taken off the streets, viewers are challenged to think about their views on guns even further and possibly be moved to action.  The artists are posing the question, the viewers are challenged to formulate the answer and their next steps.

2) What have you taken from this exhibit?

TL: This exhibit gave me chills the first time I experienced it. For one, I can’t help but wonder about the life of these guns, the destruction they caused en route to their own destruction and reimagining. With each piece of art I’m reminded of the cruel juxtaposition between the rigidity of the guns and the fragility of human life. I’m also reminded of the sheer banality of gun violence in American life. By twisting and shaping these guns into pieces of art, and to view them as something not just other, but more than the killing tools that they are, I feel like we are forced to examine our role as spectators to everyday gun violence. That’s a powerful implication, that we are silent witnesses to the shootings and killings that our country experiences on a daily basis.

JF: As this exhibit has traveled around the country from New Orleans to the Aspen Institute to St. Louis to MInneapolis and  now Washington DC, I have come to understand that our country is being crippled by the scourge of gun violence and people are in desperate need of responsible solutions to this crisis.  Change is urgently needed and hopefully through the engaging discussions and community outreach facilitated by this exhibition and the forthcoming book, this project can be an impetus for that change.

3) What do you hope others take (or don't take) from this exhibit?

TL: I don’t know that there is one thing or another that I hope folks take away from Guns in the Hands of Artists. I’m not sure I see this exhibit as anything prescriptive. But I do hope people will allow themselves to be open, to really sit with the exhibit and let the spirit move them in whichever way feels natural (or unnatural). I hope they sit with it and realize that however pained they are by what they have seen, there is a family somewhere in America shattered by the killing or maiming of a loved one. And that with each killing a piece of all of us dies. We all pay a cost for gun violence, be it a spiritual, financial, or moral cost. We’re all in this together, and I hope this exhibit brings that home.

JF: I hope that those who are touched by this exhibition and the book are moved to action to become engaged or further engaged in the national conversation on this critical issue that is tearing apart the fabric of our society. [And I hope they take away] that art can be a catalyst for social change.


Trymaine Lee was a Class of 2016 & 2017 Emerson Fellow at New America, writing a book on the true costs of gun violence in the United States, in terms of lost dreams and wasted dollars. He is a national reporter for MSNBC.

Jonathan Ferrara is a New Orleans artist.