Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 17, 2006
David M. Lubin Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. 355 pp.; 110 b/w ills. Cloth $24.95 (0520229851)

The image world of the Kennedy era is so ripe for critical reexamination that after reading David Lubin’s innovative study I kept wondering why it took this long to be tackled. Between JFK’s orchestrated rise to the limelight in the early 1950s and unexpected yet captured-on-camera murder in November 1963, could one find a better turning point in modern U.S. history than the second, neo-Camelot decade of Cold War America? In the tradition of Fitzgerald, many eulogize the period as the end of American innocence, while a disenchanted minority leans toward Malcolm X’s judgment of “the chickens coming home to roost.” Already this schism in diagnosis suggests the intrinsic complexity of the topic, combining, as Lubin details, much banality with tragedy.

Certainly this author is hardly shy about playing the full range of available notes, however dissonant the effect. “This book is less about JFK than about the television I didn’t get to watch the day of his funeral,” is one of the diverting ways that Lubin introduces his study. With a similar challenge to reigning pieties, his choice of “shooting” as lead word in the title is unnervingly ambiguous, targeting both the shocking assassination and the vulgar cult of celebrity by which the handsome junior senator (with photogenic wife in tow) gained the presidency, then charmed the world in that office before his on-camera murder, followed by a carefully choreographed transfer of power and televised state funeral.

In retracing JFK’s rise and fall as publicized in images, Lubin’s aims are threefold at least. He makes a point of confessing his TV-oriented childhood less to gain intimacy with his reader than to establish his bona fides for a revisionist interpretation of Kennedy’s appeal, since in this argument such appeal is bolstered by the way it meshed with a host of other familiar images and stories from the period. After a deft summary of the media connections and acumen that linked the Kennedy clan to the fortunes of Hollywood, LIFE magazine, and the emerging world of TV, Lubin proceeds to construct a kaleidoscope of mass media tropes that, directly or indirectly, added luster to the Kennedy mystique: Guys and Dolls, North by Northwest, Cleopatra, a whole slew of James Bond films starting with Dr. No, Marilyn Monroe, Donna Reed, Fail Safe, and The Beverly Hillbillies—to name just a few from his encyclopedic litany. If the last reference seems utterly farfetched, be advised that Lubin’s centripetal field of reference will test your own potential as a Jeopardy contestant, and also your tolerance for coincidences and six-degrees-of-separation connections. Even when one remains unconvinced, the tenuous links linger provocatively; to wit, I now can’t shake the skewed analogy between the Kennedy campaign trip to the Wild West and the leading 1963 sitcom of parvenu rednecks in Tinseltown.

Anticipating the critique of the shallowness of cultural studies that such a stew will incite, Lubin almost immediately performs a set of counter moves, inviting us to consider the familiar Kennedy imagery not only in relation to that which is lowly or middlebrow but also that which is elite or vanguard fare: Warhol’s Sleep, Rothko’s color abstractions, Bacon’s deformed head studies, Plath’s The Bell Jar, Mahler as conducted by Bernstein, even Happenings. In this heuristic model that never mentions Greenberg or his fall-guy named “kitsch,” any instance of culture worthy of the name is always already in dialogue with a multitude of forms—high and low, central and peripheral.

Despite its cultural breadth, this study defies the now predictable condemnation of the anthropological or sociological sensibility as facile substitute for traditional art-historical analysis. The nine chronologically structured chapters—with the exception of an opening devoted to the exceptional Zapruder filmic record of the fateful motorcade—all begin with an emblematic image that is, after a host of comparisons, both enlarged and unpacked. With that consistent focus, Lubin has hardly renounced art history; on the contrary, with some frequency he could be faulted for self-indulgent displays of erudition. But the author’s wealth of art-historical knowledge makes it possible to see powerful connections between photographs of Jackie cavorting with Caroline at the seashore and images of Galatea or, at the end of the JFK saga, to see in the funeral procession strong echoes of the Ara Pacis frieze.

Thus the third and arguably overarching aim is to prevent the most iconic images of that period from enjoying carte blanche acceptance as “historic,” which might obviate the need for further analysis. Instead, Lubin argues that the most familiar, reproduced, and cherished images seem “naturally historic” not just because they refer to historic figures and events but do so by invoking longstanding tropes in the history of images, specifically images referring to momentous history. In sum, the one conspiracy theory that Lubin energetically advances has to do with the way images—in this case public, political images—derive their authority from a tried-and-true canon of established visual tropes of election to power, authority, romance, tragedy, and mourning.

In support of such myriad aims, Lubin’s methodolgy is flexible in the extreme, mixing up and switching fast between social history, cultural studies, semiotics, formalism, and iconology. Indeed, for those wanting to see the frequently discredited system of iconology at work today, this is an excellent update of Panofsky’s typological method, inflected perhaps with shades of Jungian psychology. Or possibly it is a kind of epistemological performance piece, aiming to see how close one might get to integrating the contrary instincts of fox and hedgehog, as espoused by Isaiah Berlin.

The resulting multi-directional probe is dazzling, if frequently dizzying too. Lubin subjects to analysis nearly every possible connection, association, and contingency that may enrich our understanding of the personae and iconic images surrounding Kennedy. With regard to Lee Harvey Oswald, he insists that we consider the basic plot of the two B movies that were playing in the Dallas theater where he briefly sought to hide following the assassination. And in a similar dredging labor, he asks that we consider the similarities and differences between the image of the point-blank assassination of Oswald two days later and Goya’s Third of May, and even the Laocoon. If reasonably cautious readers instinctively stop short here, the author covers such moves with the recurrent comparative preamble that images A and B are both similar and dissimilar, a caveat applicable to everything under and beyond the sun. This book is like a Rorschach test to the extent that each reader will draw the line at different points between the illuminating, plausible, permissible, and outrageous; if the reader is reflective rather than merely reflexive, she or he will learn some new things about these icons and herself or himself in the process.

Of course once dispatched down this road, even the resistant may start to accept the principle of significant association if not Lubin’s particular drift. I was left cold by one extended consideration of an anonymous photo of JFK pulled from the Kennedy portrait files of the Bettmann/CORBIS collection (fig. 54) that shows a double portrait of JFK peering from behind a car and reflected somewhat anamorphically in the car hood. Lubin offers no evidence that the photo had ever been reproduced, so here he uses it retrospectively to suggest its prophetic revelation of deep character flaws or, if that fails to fly, its distant relation to the manifestly disturbing portraiture of Francis Bacon. While Bacon surely studied many forms of photographic accidents, the comparison hits a wall here since the painter never supplies the physiological norm that dominates the center of this press photo. In this case, I’d counter that Lubin unearthed a rather interesting photograph but focused attention on the wrong feature. The most interesting or at least notably creepy quality of anamorphosis in this picture is not the conventional if distorted reflection of JFK in the hood of the car but rather the sliver of a second face just to the left of JFK’s head. I wouldn’t follow Lubin’s lead and propose that this might serve as accidental prophesy of the decomposition of the president’s head fourteen months later, but rather to counter the titular argument of the next chapter that however much the presidency might be considered heroically as “the loneliest job in the world,” here’s refutation that it is also one of the most crowded jobs. For the ever-guarded president, the third eye is not in the middle of one’s forehead but right behind one’s ear.

This book develops two major extended arguments about the conservative nature of culture and its relation to politics. One is that images stand out when they resonate with the already familiar, although the familiar element may not be readily apparent. Beneath the novel gloss of Jack and Jackie was their capacity to traffic very skillfully in images, often quite traditional ones regarding conventional gender roles and the noble virtues of (chiefly male) public service. This dovetails with Lubin’s narrative program that ends deliberately with two chapters devoted to the briefest of interregnums and a funeral designed to provide closure with maximum pomp, in both instances to avoid political uncertainty at home and abroad. Embedded in this structure is the second, more overtly, political argument. While his last chapter revolves around the son’s memorable salute to the fallen leader, Lubin pointedly considers the less familial symbolism in the big finale, following that scripted filial gesture, of fifty jets flying in formation over Arlington National Cemetery. With a traditional eye toward reception evidence, Lubin also notes the next day’s front page of the Sacramento Bee, balancing coverage of the funeral with a story reassuring readers of continuity in plans for U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Thus we are reminded that the ultimate purpose of these public family dramas is to knit the body politic more tightly together to support that abstraction called national (or today, “homeland”) security.

But in making this crucial argument for the weight of tradition, Lubin may have overcompensated in reaction to the century-long emphasis on modern culture’s keynote as innovation. The Zapruder film warrants the extended consideration that Lubin devotes to it in two chapters, arguably, however, for different reasons. According to Lubin, it is a modernist text comparable to Warhol’s Sleep in that both engage the viewer in the spectacle of real time. Moreover, Lubin even rehearses a previously noted affinity between Rothko’s abstract color paintings and the blocks of color that dominate in the screenings of bootleg copies of the film that circulated in the late ’60s and ’70s. I contend on the contrary that the most modernist element is neither the color nor the real time per se, but rather what the enlargement of film stills reveals that the public had never viewed previously: the way one or more bullets can decompose a man’s head so radically that his elegant companion involuntarily starts crawling on the trunk of the convertible in an attempt to recompose the fragments. Lubin also links those stills with David’s Death of Marat, a comparison I find quite wrong-headed since David was a master of dignifying death with the calm order of finality; in the case of JFK, there could be few modes of death that involved greater indignity—absolutely no chance of an open-casket funeral for the headless leader. It is this barely thinkable condition, years before David Lynch’s Eraserhead, that makes the Zapruder film so unforgettable, thus fulfilling the rationale for Pound’s aesthetic decree to make it new. Indeed, I found myself thinking that the closest precedent for these stills published in LIFE magazine were the stroboscopically illuminated flash studies of Harold Edgerton, and then found myself wondering if the popularity of Edgerton’s pictures after the Kennedy assassination—particularly the images of a bullet blowing an apple or light bulb to smithereens—might derive metonymically from the shock of the scene recorded in Dallas?

Yet it is less important that Lubin overlooks Edgerton while noting Arthur Penn’s reenactment of the roadside assassination for the finale of Bonnie and Clyde than that he has a produced a book that stimulates its readers to pursue such thoughts, to think anew and in more nuanced fashion about the reciprocal force of convention and innovation as they interact and reinforce each other within the overlapping spheres of art and politics.

Sally Stein
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and PhD Program in Visual Studies, University of California, Irvine