PRINT October 1985


Security check for image hostages. Read this or else.

THOSE WHO TAKE HOSTAGES make a hostage of television too. It’s their medium of choice.

Having barricaded himself in a room and aimed a weapon at captives, a man submits to the authorities a list of more or less demented requests. Hardly anyone remembers the deals that are inevitably made. Another hostage crisis is over in a couple of hours, when “trained specialists” talk the man out from behind his barricade. Some hostage crises go on longer—17 days, 444 days. Each inflicts its own torments. We who haven’t felt those torments can’t know much about them. All we know is how the crisis plays on television, because that is where we follow it. We might read about it in the papers or the news magazines, but hostage crises go flat in printed reports. They have their impact as made-for-TV movies, horror shows designed to disrupt the medium’s flow of reassurances.

Captives are tortured, sometimes they die, yet a hostage crisis always has a fictional edge when played and edited for TV. These episodes inspire displays of transparently artificial emotion—hostages plead for sympathy toward their captors (and we knowingly talk of the Stockholm syndrome); the captors demonstrate Rambo-ferocity on the tarmac at Beirut. Television intervenes at every point, making little clear save its own indispensability: in its absence the crisis probably wouldn’t have occurred.

Hostage-takers belong to a thinly populated category: those who get television coverage on demand. Other members of the group: Princess Di, or rock stars who assemble to raise money for starving Africans.

The power of certain images to command media attention makes them the equivalent of international terrorists. Images of rock stars, of Princesses Di and Stephanie, of the pope and Clint Eastwood appear often because they are particularly addictive. The latest on Princess Stephanie’s modeling career keeps alive a certain fantasy about Hollywood,aristocratic Europe, and their deep-down compatibility. Coverage of Britain’s royal family assures the Western world that posh lives are still possible—above all in reliable, civilized England. The television images of English barbarity at soccer matches don’t undermine the reassurances offered by the spectacle of Di. Far from it. Nor do images of American helplessness in the face of terrorist actions call into question America’s preeminence, its “leadership of the free world.” We just combat that image with another addictive image: Ronald Reagan, superhuman emblem of American calm and strength.

Television brings us crisis, then bears the crisis away. Images of Live Aid and Band Aid and the first “We Are the World” chorale win out over unbearable images of starvation in Ethiopia and the Sudan. Television shows more nimbleness, more virtuosity, when it reports the charitable gestures of the entertainment world than when it tries to deal with the recipients of that charity. AIDS victims were like famine victims, drastically underreported, until the disease struck Rock Hudson—one of those who get television coverage on demand. Crisis punctuates the usual flow of images, gives it shape, structure, and ensures that when “normality” returns it will feel all the more self-evidently normal: an image of everything, every image in its place. Now a place waits for images of disaster, and we expect that place to be filled. We need the punctuation, the sense of order, that TV disaster provides. For the image-addict, threatening images are the most reassuring of all. Artists are more heavily addicted to images than anyone else; in 1984 their addiction took an Orwellian turn and they ground out images of apocalypse. The effect was not to alert but to soothe us.

The world of high culture is just as vulnerable to terrorist tactics as the world covered by the nightly news. Complying with the mass media’s hunger for the larger-than-life individual, artists let themselves be taken hostage by the star-making process. Or, turning the tables, they take the media hostage. Some of the most obvious contemporary examples of artists who use media coverage by the foot are Judy Chicago, Christo, and recently Richard Serra. Having mortgaged the idea of public art to an embattled position, Richard Serra receives extensive coverage in the art world and far beyond. Terrorized by the romantic artist’s uncompromising, wild-man image, terrorized by the image of Serra’s Tilted Arc as a magic object threatened with destruction, we feel a familiar comfort.

Carter Ratcliff’s most recent book is Robert Longo (Rizzoli). His column on the topic of modern life appears monthly in Artforum.