The Intersection of Art and Terrorism

Photo Credit: Notes to Basquiat, Gordon Bennett

By Nicole Magney, Columnist

When people think about terrorism, the topic of art rarely factors into their thought processes. However, the correlations between terrorist events and the concept of artistic expression and performance are not negligible. Terrorist acts can be thought of as a version of performance theater, whereby those who carry out the attack seek to convey a message to an outside audience through sensory stimuli and elicit a certain type of reaction—typically fear—and, sometimes, a counteraction. Therefore, this correlation has significance beyond just broadening how people view and interpret terrorism, but has implications for counterterrorism—or the audience reaction element of performance—as well.

While some artists have been quick to draw the comparison between art and terrorist acts, scholars and other non-artists have often disagreed with the notion that these violent acts could somehow be associated with artistic expression. For example, several artists described the 9/11 attacks in artistic terms and were met with ridicule and criticism as a result. A German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, referred to the attacks as the “greatest work of art ever,” and was forced to cancel numerous concerts afterwards due to public uproar.1 Similarly, on the first anniversary of the attacks, British artist Damien Hirst described them as “visually stunning” and a “kind of artwork in [their] own right,” forever changing the “visual language” of the world.2 His company pressed him to apologize and retract his comments days later due to public outrage. These artists likely could have drawn the parallel between art and terrorism more tastefully; however, their larger point—that terrorist acts can be a form of “performative violence” and “spectacular theater”—is important for our understanding of the nature of terrorism and our subsequent responses to it.3

Part of what contributes to the tension surrounding the association of terrorism with art is the prevailing notion that art is a form of positive expression and creation. In fact, “the assumption that a structural link exists between Art and ‘goodness’ is consistently put forward in Western aesthetics and philosophy” by thinkers like Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger, whereby the artist becomes a positive force, a “kind of martyr.”4 However, art can equally be used as a force of destruction, as long as it seeks “to interrupt and disrupt the viewer’s ‘normal’ sense of ‘reality’,” which terrorist acts attempt to do.5 Despite popular perception, art “occup[ies] no hallowed ground,” and should not be treated as such.6

Terrorist events provide a useful case study of the possibly destructive nature of art. Key elements of more traditional performative theater—the symbolism of the chosen stage, timing, and the importance of the audience’s reaction—are equally significant for terrorist violence. Terrorist groups depend on how their actions are perceived by the outside world. Political violence is often viewed through a triangular lens, where each point of the triangle represents the victims/targets, perpetrators/performers, and witnesses/observers/audience, respectively. 6 While the relationship and interaction between the victims and perpetrators is essential to the performative act of terrorist violence, the relationship between the perpetrators and the audience holds even more importance.7 What makes terrorist acts so powerful, therefore, is their ability to engage the ‘audience’ by attacking a symbolically significant location. By choosing to attack symbols of governmental or economic power—the multiple assaults on the World Trade Center towers or the attack on an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, for example—terrorists seek to “express for a moment” their power “to control central locations” even when “they do not control them at all.”7

In this way, terrorists attempt to elicit a specific emotional response from their audience: fear. As Marc Juergensmeyer so aptly put it, “terrorism without its horrified witnesses would be as pointless as a play without an audience.” Most definitions of terrorism suggest its acts are intended to reach an audience beyond the immediate victim(s) of the violence.8 Therefore, a terrorist act’s ‘success’ is not only dependent on whether or not violence is carried out, but rather, on whether the act sparked widespread fear among the larger audience or public. This goal is aided by the widespread media coverage that terrorist attacks receive on television and the Internet. Similarly, other mediums of performance theater or art aim to impact a wide audience and make viewers “feel differently” or “think, and think again” about the world around them, and interact with alternative viewpoints.9

This emphasis on the viewers’ experience and reaction to performative art can influence how we think about and discuss terrorist violence and counterterrorism measures. Of course, the public writ large will not stop paying attention to terrorist attacks and feeding into the fear they elicit, just because they come to understand that doing so would inhibit these attacks from some measure of success. Even if individuals understood this, it would be near impossible for them to avoid the bombardment of media coverage on the topic. However, recognizing that sensationalizing terrorist violence and spreading fear of further attacks only succeeds in furthering terrorist aims should give both the public and media pause when they discuss such things. By acknowledging the parallels between terrorist attacks and performative art, the role of the audience/viewer as a catalyst to consuming fear and (over)reaction becomes illuminated, and may, in some small way, affect how we, as the viewers, react to future terrorist attacks.

1 “Attacks Called Great Art,” The New York Times, September 19, 2001, accessed May 10, 2016,

2 Rebecca Allison, “9/11 Wicked But a Work of Art, Says Damien Hirst,” The Guardian, September 11, 2002, accessed May 9, 2016,

3 Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 126.

4 Bernadette Buckley, “The Workshop of Filthy Creation: Or Do Not Be Alarmed, This Is Only a Test,” Review of International Studies 35, no. 4 (October 2009): 843.

5 Ibid., 845.

6 Arnold Berleant, Sensibility and Sense: The Aesthetic Transformation of the Human World (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2010) 178.

7 Jeffrey S. Murer, “Understanding Collective Violence: The Communicative and Performative Qualities of Violence in Acts of Belonging” in Criminological Approaches to International Criminal Law, eds. Ilias Bantekas and Emmanuela Mylonaki (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 301-2.

8 Ibid., 302.

9 Juergensemeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 135.

10 Louise Richardson, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006), 4.

11 Alex Danchev, On Art and War and Terror (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009) 4.

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