"When you see a gruesome picture over and over again, it really doesn’t have any effect."
— Andy Warhol
Warhol was an avid collector of newspapers, magazines and tabloids. He appropriated and manipulated the sometimes downright lurid news imagery to create his art, and this was the basis of his Death and Disasters series, which he started in 1962 (and which happens to be my favourite part of his oeuvre). Car crashes, people jumping to their deaths, race riots, as well as the sinister inside of the Sing Sing penitentiary execution chamber. Warhol extracted these images from their journalistic context and used them repeatedly to make his point about the desensitisation of the masses.
Although this work lacks any human presence or evidence of violence, I think it conveys all the cruelty and inhumanity of the death penalty. There is a haunting stillness to it, a chilling sense of unseen terror. A sign reads 'silence'. Why? So we can hear the agonising screams of the prisoners? Was this photo taken before or after the execution? Who was last? Who is next? As it's often the case, what we do not see suggests more than what we do.
Capital punishment is the great grandchild of slavery, that's where it has its ugly roots. And the Bible Belt is also the death belt, that is no coincidence - it matches the area of the former southern confederate states. As the use of the death penalty in the US is shrinking, the Trump administration decided to restart federal executions. Since July last year, 11 people have been put to their deaths, with 2 more on the list before Trump FINALLY leaves office. This means he has executed more federal inmates than the last 10 presidents combined. After a de facto moratorium of 17 years, this is a decision that smacks of desperation. In the dying days of his administration, the president has embarked on a killing spree of unprecedented proportions, pandering to the most extreme fringes of his own base, the same people we saw climb the Capitol last week.
Electric Chair, 1964
Photo credit The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts/Artists Rights Society