Dangerous Knowledge

Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film

Art Simon
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 284
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt14bt3mf
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  • Book Info
    Dangerous Knowledge
    Book Description:

    Fifty years ago, the assassination of John F. Kennedy shocked the world and focused attention to the 8mm footage shot by Abraham Zapruder. The event fueled conspiracy theories and repeated viewings of Zapruder's film as seemingly everyone in the world searched for motive and conclusive proof of a single gunman.In his new Preface to this edition ofDangerous Knowledge, Art Simon discusses public fascination with celebrity deaths and recent assassination-related media-from documentaries to scholarly books to the scandalous video gameJFK Reloaded-to show that the assassination continues to inspire writers, artists, and filmmakers.Dangerous Knowledgeexamines the seminal works of art associated with the assassination, including Andy Warhol's silk screens, the underground films of Bruce Conner, and provocative Hollywood films likeThe Parallax ViewandJFK.Simon's investigation places assassination art and images within a historical context-one that helps us understand what the assassination has meant to American culture.

    eISBN: 978-1-4399-1045-0
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface to the New Paperback Edition
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  5. Introduction: The Assassination Debates
    (pp. 1-28)

    In March of 1992, underground rock poster artist Frank Kozik created a dazzling and outrageous advertisement for the punk bands Helmet and L7. Silkscreened in fluorescent blue, green, and gold is a blownup, grainy image of Lee Harvey Oswald, a closeup of the alleged presidential assassin at just the moment Jack Ruby punrped the deadly slugs into his stomach. Oswald’s mouth open in anguish, his eyes closed tightly from the pain—we have seen this image countless times before. Yet in Kozik’s poster, Oswald’s face has been photomontaged with a hand holding a microphone so that now the open mouth...

  6. PART ONE
    • [1 Introduction]
      (pp. 31-34)

      Over the course of three decades, the visual representations produced around the JFK assassination have proven fundamentally unstable. Indeed, to theorize the epistemological status of such imagery is not just to insist on its instability but to register its shifting movement, its negotiation between legibility and ambiguity. Traced through the assassination case is both a faith and a crisis in representation. On the one hand was a belief in the powers of photographic evidence to legibly transcribe events, primarily the logistics of the Dealey Plaza shooting. This faith held that sufficiently close scrutiny of images could tell patient investigators how...

    • Chapter 1 The Zapruder Film
      (pp. 35-54)

      The fluctuating status of photographic imagery in the assassination debates is best illustrated by the history of the Zapruder film. It is a history punctuated by faith in the film’s revelatory power and by a crisis of interpretation, by movement between epistemological certainty and anxiety over not only readings of the film but also the narratives constructed to accompany its social exposure. So central is Zapruder’s film footage that it loops continuously over this entire project. Even where not explicitly discussed, the film retains a privileged position, just as it did throughout the three decades following the assassination: a central...

    • Chapter 2 The Body
      (pp. 55-70)

      If the assassination debates were challenged by the shifting legibility of the film evidence, they were in fact haunted by a further, perhaps more troubling crisis of representation: the problems posed by Kennedy’s autopsy. In the years immediately following the assassination, both the Zapruder film and the images produced in connection with the president’s autopsy remained sequestered texts, yet not in the same way. The government had chosen to make the infliction of wounds public, if only through the printing of black-and-white Zapruder stills in Volume 18 of the Warren Commission’s exhibits. But it chose to keep the images of...

    • Chapter 3 Images of Oswald
      (pp. 71-94)

      On June 3, 1960, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to the State Department: “Since there is the possibility that an impostor is using Oswald’s birth certificate, any current information the Department of State may have concerning subject will be appreciated.”¹ Hoover’s request may be the first hard copy suggesting possible confusion over the alleged assassin’s identity, but that confusion would multiply throughout the next twenty years, culminating in October 1981 with the exhumation of the body buried in Oswald’s grave.² Indeed, the shifting status of Lee Harvey Oswald in images and narratives again exemplifies the plight of...

  7. PART TWO
    • [2 Introduction]
      (pp. 97-100)

      In 1964 California artist Wallace Berman created the last issue of his mail art magazine,Semina. First sent to friends and acquaintances in 1955,Seminaconsisted of a large envelope containing poetry, photographs, verifax images—an assemblage of paper documents, sometimes wrapped in twine. As a collaged communiqué,Seminaembodied the aesthetic and attitude of the painters, poets, assemblagists, sculptors, and filmmakers who made up Berman’s West Coast community of beat and funk artists. It featured found objects, personal photographs, and an unslick, handcrafted production style which resulted, in the words of one of its correspondents, in “an act of...

    • Chapter 4 The Warhol Silkscreens
      (pp. 101-118)

      These remarks by Andy Warhol aptly characterize one of the dominant features of the long debate over the death of JFK. In recollecting his near-death dream, the pop artist suggests the degree to which the images of Dallas had become deeply inscribed in popular memory: November 22, 1963, as colossal rerun. Ironically, however, it was Warhol’s own work that had contributed considerably to this phenomenon, this sense of a set of moments frozen and recurring, and the sense, too, that news from the present—in this case the death of Robert Kennedy—as well as future similar events, would always...

    • Chapter 5 The Pop Camp
      (pp. 119-130)

      Andy Warhol’s cover forFlash—November 22, 1963was a characteristically pop deformation of news imagery. A newspaper headline declaring “President Shot Dead” is overlaid with a pattern of flower-shaped decals. The documentary impulse is thus undermined, its visual contents literally obscured by the decorative gesture. The decals, emblems of the cheap and mass produced, lowbrow forms of embellishment, become the very medium through or around which one must view news of the president’s death. They mount a seemingly benign assault on legitimized forms of discourse by forcing the headlines to struggle for legibility. As such they underscore the newspaper...

    • Chapter 6 Bruce Conner
      (pp. 131-144)

      A long with Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, Bruce Conner’s work represents the most compelling formulation of assassination discourses to come from alternative art practices during the sixties. A sculptor, assemblage artist, and collagist who turned to film-making in 1958, Conner produced work richly inscribed in form and theme with the tropes of San Francisco funk and early pop. Informed by mass media iconography and the rearticulation of found objects, his sculpture and film fixate on images of violence—the threat of technology, natural disaster, state-sanctioned annihilation—through the radical juxtaposition of disparate materials. His works are further characterized by a sense...

    • Chapter 7 Assassination Video
      (pp. 145-158)

      The public debate over Kennedy’s assassination once again intensified when in 1975 the Ant Farm video collective collaborated with the group T.R. Uthco to produceThe Eternal Frame.¹ Invigorated by events that had challenged government policy and procedure—a decade of attacks over Vietnam, the Watergate hearings—the questions posed by Warren Commission critics were regenerated. Attaching itself to the limited self-examination the government was conducting regarding FBI and CIA activities, the assassination debate migrated back into the chambers of “official” investigation, resulting in the formation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations in September 1976.² This migration was accompanied...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
  8. PART THREE
    • [3 Introduction]
      (pp. 161-164)

      InLibra, his brilliant work of assassination fiction, Don DeLillo illustrates thus often-remarked-upon incident of October 19, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald, watching television with his wife on a Saturday night, seesSuddenly, Lewis Allen’s 1954 film about an attempt to assassinate the president. The movie presents Frank Sinatra as a returned and troubled veteran, a would-be assassin who impersonates a Secret Service agent. Commandeering the house of a widowed mother whose husband has died in combat, the killers set up their shooter’s nest in the family living room. Perched on a grassy knoll, the house overlooks the railroad station at...

    • Chapter 8 Executive Action
      (pp. 165-182)

      Before the issues of the assassination debate were featured as central narrative elements for a Hollywood film, they were deployed parodically in Brian De Palma’sGreetingsin 1968. There is an extraordinary scene partway through this film: Lloyd, one of the lead characters, is obsessed with the Kennedy assassination. In an attempt to verify or disprove the findings of the Warren Commission, he maps the bullet trajectories and the location of Kennedy’s wounds on a live model, the naked body of a girlfriend. As she lies on her back apparently asleep, Lloyd reads aloud the wound measurements and affixes the...

    • Chapter 9 The Parallax View/Winter Kills/Blow Out
      (pp. 183-204)

      The final image ofExecutive Actioncomprises a postscript: the eighteen photographs that appear on the screen are the faces of material witnesses to JFK’s murder who died, many under mysterious circumstances, between 1963 and 1967. Written text informs the viewer that the odds of these people’s dying during this time, as calculated by Lloyds of London, were one hundred thousand trillion to one.

      After its opening scene of political assassination, this is precisely where the narrative ofThe Parallax Viewpicks up: with the fear of an eyewitness, horribly confident that such odds exclude her, that of the one...

    • Chapter 10 JFK
      (pp. 205-220)

      Few contemporary American films have attracted the attention and animosity directed at Oliver Stone’s fictional reconstruction of the late sixties’ New Orleans conspiracy trial. ThoughJFKwas not released until December 1991, skeptical articles began to appear in May and June of that year, their criticism based on an early draft of the script allegedly obtained by a disapproving assassination critic.¹ Upon the film’s release, the criticism continued along two fronts: Stone’s decision to base his narrative on the much-discredited Jim Garrison, former New Orleans district attorney, and the film’s visual strategy of intercutting archival footage with reenactments of alleged...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 221-222)

    This project really began when I saw Bruce Conner’sReportfor the first time. For years I had been reading about the assassination of JFK, casually studying its imagery and keeping pace with emerging developments. With this book coming to a close, what is so striking to me now is the way a particular text made it possible for me to see and construct a tropology for a body of literature with which I had worked for years but had never recognized. With a sudden, startling comprehension, I saw in Conner’s use of repetition and his strategy of appropriation a...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 223-258)
  11. Index
    (pp. 259-265)