Diversity of Voice: Views on Guns in America

Communication and Listening Activity
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Andy Warhol, Gun, 1981-1982, ©AWF

This lesson uses the artworks of Andy Warhol as a springboard for discussing diverse points of view about gun ownership, gun use and gun imagery in contemporary culture. Students read texts ranging from personal viewpoints to the Bill of Rights in order to debate cultural values.

Grades:

8-12 

Subjects:

Social Studies, Civics, Art, Language Arts 

Suggested Time Frame:

1 class period 

Objectives:

  • Students will describe personal and cultural associations with an artwork
  • Students will associate meanings with popular symbols
  • Students will explain the meaning of historical and cultural documents and sources
  • Students will compare and contrast historical and cultural values
  • Students will formulate individual points of view about an artwork in writing
  • Students will assess the role of art in communicating cultural values
 

About the Art:

In the early 1980s Andy Warhol painted a variety of iconic objects, including guns, knives and crosses. Warhol rejected the idea that his work functioned as social criticism and instead described himself as an American artist who was merely depicting his environment. This description suggests that his paintings of guns can be read in the same way as his images of Campbell’s Soup, Marilyn Monroe, or Coca-Cola—as simply images of American icons.

Yet, as with many of Warhol’s statements and works, there is the surface of things and then the multiple meanings below it. Gun ownership in America is hugely popular, in part, because it gives people a sense of security. Hollywood imagery and video games add to the allure of guns. The gun is also, through its widespread use and availability in America, a tool of real and commonplace violence. This particular gun, the .32 snub-nosed pistol, was the type that Valerie Solanas used in her 1968 assassination attempt on Warhol. In his choice of such richly associative iconic objects, Warhol becomes a truly artful social observer.

Andy Warhol, Gun, 1981-1982, ©AWF
Andy Warhol, Gun, 1981-1982, ©AWF

Andy Warhol Quote: 

 

When you hurt another person, you never know how much it pains. Since I was shot, everything is such a dream to me. I don’t know what anything is about. Like, I don’t know whether I’m alive or whether I died. I wasn’t afraid before. And having been dead once, I shouldn’t feel fear. But I am afraid. I don’t understand why.

Andy Warhol after he was shot and seriously wounded in 1968. 

Points of View: 

 

What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.

Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 1787. 
 

There’s a saying in the theater that if a play opens with a gun over the mantle, the gun must go off before the final curtain. Warhol suggests that lethal potential: with no one gripping it, this gun seems to be firing itself, its double image suggesting the “kick” of recoil.

But the viewer stands just to the side of where it’s aimed. You can appreciate its lethal allure without being threatened directly by it. And you can understand how the pro-gun and anti-gun lobbies both fetishize the object of their disagreement. The former treat guns as totems to ward off danger or totalitarianisms, the latter regard them as taboo objects whose mere presence invites evil.

Chris Potter, managing editor, The Pittsburgh City Paper, “Point of View Labeling Project,” The Andy Warhol Museum, 1999. 
 

I stood up in a social studies class—the teacher wanted a discussion—and said I could never kill anyone or condone anyone who did kill anyone. But that I could on some level, understand these kids in Colorado, the killers [reference to school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado where 12 students were shot by two classmates]. Because day after day, slight after slight, exclusion after exclusion, you can learn how to hate . . . After class I was called to the principal’s office and told that I had to agree to undergo five sessions of counseling or be expelled from school, as I had expressed ‘sympathy’ with the killers in Colorado and the school had to be able to explain itself if I ‘acted out.’ In other words, for speaking freely, and to cover their ass, I was not only branded a weird geek, but a potential killer, that will sure help deal with violence in America.

Jay in the Southeast, Slashdot.org. 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What associations do you have when looking at this gun? Make a list of words that come to mind.
  2. Who do you usually associate with guns? Do these people impact your daily life?
  3. How many times in one week do you think you see guns on television, movies or in other video imagery? Do these images affect you?
  4. Do you think our culture is obsessed with violence? Why or why not?
  5. Does this artwork celebrate or critique America’s gun culture? Can it do both? Why or why not?
 
Procedure

Materials:

Paper Writing UtensilHandout 

Procedure:

  1. Read and discuss each Point of View. Attached handout includes the Points of View, supplemental information and possible discussion questions.
  2. Write your own Point of View about Andy Warhol’s Gun painting.
  3. Extension: discuss or write an essay addressing the following questions:

    - Should art communicate cultural values or morals? Why or why not?

    - What do you think the role of art is and should be in culture?

 
Assessment

Warhol Education Rubrics

Click the Warhol Rubric headers below to reveal associated rubrics to which this lesson applies.

Critical Thinking
Communication
Creative Process
Historical Context
Media and Related Items
Collection
Explore more work from Warhol in our collection
Explore more work from Warhol in our collection
Timeweb
Timeweb: 1968
Timeweb: 1968