Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Dallas Assassination Window

According to the BBC and the Dallas Morning News a certain Dallas book depository window from which Lee Harvey Oswald may have shot our beloved 35th president has been sold for $3 million on an eBay auction.

Apparently the window was removed from the building by the owner to keep treasure seekers from dismantling it. Caruth Byrd, whose family owns the building, is the seller of the window. To aid authentication, Byrd added a link on his auction to MSNBC's report, which includes video with NBC's Brian Williams.

Of course, not everyone believes it's the real thing.

The Ballardian Response

Others, including devotees of the fiction of the British writer J.G. Ballard, were all atwitter. Writes a blogger at the BLDGBLOG:
Perhaps we could even re-assemble all these into a complete, if eclectic and quite controversial, new building – add the JFK window as the coup de grâce – and you've got a 21st century version of Sir John Soane's Museum in London.

But, of course, archaeology is full of such acts of structural burglary. Whole temples and friezes and doorways and rooms have been removed and transported elsewhere. Just ask Lord Elgin – or, for that matter, ask the Getty.

In light of all this, then, are we witnessing some new Lord Elgin of the 21st century, raised on the novels of J.G. Ballard, as he or she begins a new quest to collect pieces of architectural morbidity?

The sale of JFK's window would thus be the opening salvo in this death-obsessed archaeology of tomorrow.

Simon Sellars, custodian of the superb blog Ballardian, compiled some of the Ballard-related chatter about the JFK assassination window in a post called "Structural Burglary". He included this choice quote from Ballard's infamous book The Atrocity Exhibition:
Abraham Zapruder was a tourist in Dealey Plaza whose amateur cine-film captured the President’s tragic death. The Warren Commission concluded that frame 210 recorded the first rifle shot, which wounded Kennedy in the neck, and that frame 313 recorded the fatal head wound. I forget the significance of frame 230.

The Warren Commission’s Report is a remarkable document, especially if considered as a work of fiction (which many experts deem it largely to be). The chapters covering the exact geometric relationships between the cardboard boxes on the seventh floor of the Book Depository (a tour de force in the style of Robbe-Grillet), the bullet trajectories and speed of the Presidential limo, and the bizarre chapter titles — ‘The Subsequent Bullet That Hit,’ ‘The Curtain Rod Story,’ ‘The Long and Bulky Package’ — together suggest a type of obsessional fiction that links science and pornography.”
[Also -- read the Ballardian's commentary on the crazed astronaut stalker. Blogger Simon Sellars quotes Ballard wondering about the unknown psychological affects of space travel. In related news, someone is trying to sell a NASA-issue diaper on eBay.]

The Value of Ephemera

So who bought the window? Who paid $3 million for a dubious piece of an American tragedy? And what will they do with it? When we put such amazing and stratospheric value on objects touched by fame and infamy -- a killer window, a stained t-shirt worn by a dead actor, an adult diaper stamped NASA, a cigarette pack on a string, an unsigned credit card -- we get further away, ironically, from the things themselves.

What result is in the mind of a millionaire who buys an ordinary window, one he or she is assured may be the window the man who may have shot JFK may have shot from?

At best, it connects the owner to the event. This happened here, and now I own it. The new owner can insert him or herself in history (even if historians do not). But this sensation is entirely external. It has nothing to do with the object itself. The credit card issued to Steve McQueen that he never signed, sold at auction for $8,500, is just like any other Mastercard issued by Wells Fargo at the time. Except for the name stamped on it. Value is made up of two things here: first, what we all agree upon, and second, what any given person will pay at any given time. Consensus is a much better measure than the caprices of rich folk.

I call this ephemera, a word that means "objects of short-term relevance." Its value is in its association with a person or an event, not in its unique construction or physical characteristics.

Real art has a different effect. I never thought much of Vermeer's much-praised seventeenth-century painting "The Girl With the Pearl Earring" -- until I saw the real thing. It's at the Mauritshuis Dutch Royal Picture Gallery in the Hague, and although it's small, it's a stunningly beautiful painting -- much more captivating than in any reproduction. I was converted. Isn't this the we chase when we look for the "real thing"?

This is the big joke Marcel Duchamp levelled on the art world with his Fountain, the common urinal he entered into a 1917 juried art exhibition. There is nothing arty about this particular urinal. One is as good as any other -- it's the way of looking at the urinal that makes it art. But it's just that which makes it worthless. Unless you subscribe to the idea that its value is in Duchamp's connection to it and its physical presence in the making of art history. In that sense it's just like the JFK assassination window.

John Armstrong, in his book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art, says that when we get too attached to the facts about art, we're being led away from our actual perception of the art:
This influences the character of perception not by making it more acute, but by bringing in a completely new concern which yields satisfaction -- a satisfaction which is then fed back into the perceptual experience. The satisfaction of owning a Picasso -- or seeing the highest-rated facade in Rome -- is felt as if it were a satisfaction generated by the look of the object, but in fact it derives from a completely different source.
It's that "completely different source" Armstrong talks about that actually created the assassination window as a valuable, collectable object in the first place. When we're dealing with an object like the assassination window instead of a well-designed Roman church or a Picasso drawing, we're veering even further from perception still. The irony is that the object is an actual window, removed from its building, its context -- it may as well be an empty picture frame: there is no greater understanding of, or connection to Kennedy's assassination to be had by looking here.

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