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Lesson Diversity of Voice: Views on Guns in America

A screen print depicting several overlapping guns. Against a silver background, a black hi-standard revolver points to the left side of the piece. A pale green copy of the image is slightly offset to its right, and a bright red copy is slightly to its left. Interlocked with the images of the revolver is an upside down black hi-standard pistol facing to the right of the image.

Andy Warhol, Guns, 1981-1982
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
1998.1.277

Critique the role of art in communicating cultural and sometimes controversial values.

This lesson uses Andy Warhol’s artwork 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 people’s personal viewpoints to the Bill of Rights, in order to debate cultural values.

Objectives

  • Students describe personal and cultural associations with an artwork.
  • Students associate meanings with popular symbols.
  • Students explain the meaning of historical and cultural documents and sources.
  • Students compare and contrast historical and cultural values.
  • Students formulate individual points of view about an artwork in writing.
  • Students assess the role of art in communicating cultural values.
A screen print depicting several overlapping guns. Against a silver background, a black hi-standard revolver points to the left side of the piece. A pale green copy of the image is slightly offset to its right, and a bright red copy is slightly to its left. Interlocked with the images of the revolver is an upside down black hi-standard pistol facing to the right of the image.

Andy Warhol, Guns, 1981-1982
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
© The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.
1998.1.277

About the Art

In the early 1980s, Warhol painted a variety of iconic objects, including guns, knives, and crosses. He 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 be read in the same way as his images of Campbell’s Soup, Marilyn Monroe, or Coca-Cola—images of American icons. Yet, as with many of Warhol’s statements and works, there are multiple possible meanings. Gun ownership is popular in America, 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, a .32 snub-nosed pistol, is similar to the one that Valerie Solanas used in her 1968 assassination attempt on Warhol.

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, Warhol: The Biography, 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.

Saul Padover, Jefferson On Democracy, 2013

We essentially have two realities, when it comes to guns, in this country. You’ve got the tradition of lawful gun ownership. It is very important for many Americans to be able to hunt, fish, take their kids out, teach them how to shoot. Then you’ve got the reality of 34 Chicago public school students who get shot down on the streets of Chicago. We can reconcile those two realities by making sure the Second Amendment is respected and that people are able to lawfully own guns, but that we also start cracking down on the kinds of abuses of firearms that we see on the streets.

Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States,
Democratic debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, 2008

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, 1999

 

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, in 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?

 

Materials

Procedure

  1. Students should read and discuss each point of view. The Point of View handout includes the points of view, supplemental information, and possible discussion questions.
  2. Students write their own points of view about Warhol’s Gun paintings.

Wrap-up

In small groups, students should discuss the following questions:

  1. Should art communicate cultural values and/or morals? Why or why not?
  2. What do you think the role of art is and should be in culture?

After the small group discussions, each group presents a synopsis of its discussion to the class.

Extension

Discuss or write an essay addressing the above questions.

Assessment

The following assessments can be used for this lesson using the downloadable assessment rubric.

  • Aesthetics 2
  • Communication 1
  • Creative process 3
  • Creative process 4
  • Critical thinking 2
  • Historical context 3