Eight black and white paintings of young women with smooth and airbrushed skin, drawn from the pages of their school yearbook. Pretty young women, smiling, with the bouffant hairdos so common in the late sixties.
I was confronted by the paintings as I turned a corner in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After quizzically looking at the title of the piece, I didn’t need to read any further to know who they were.
The Gerhard Richter piece was named “Student Nurses.”
The eight women in the paintings were the eight student nurses murdered in Chicago in 1968. Their yearbook pictures had been printed in the newspaper, which was the source for Richter’s paintings.
I knew who they were because I have, at various points in my life, been an aficionado of true crime books, especially involving serial killers. While I have never read a book about this butcher particularly, I am well aware of his place in the annals of real-life horror in this country. In addition, my sister had been a beginning student nurse at the time his murderous rampage had occurred, so this particular gruesome incident had left an impression.
As I stood before the paintings, I drew a deep breath and confronted the welter of emotions that slammed into me. First was horror, as I realized what I was looking at. Then distaste. Then an odd feeling somewhat akin to shame, at what messages those paintings were giving. Then, finally, sadness.
Andy Warhol, with his silkscreens of Marilyn and Elvis, forces us to think about the commodification of celebrity. We have the image of stars on our big or little screens; we think we know them. We think we own them. Elvis and Marilyn and Liz Taylor cease to be people and are goods, objects to be placed on a shelf somewhere. If he were alive today, Warhol would no doubt be making the same point with silkscreens of Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
With “Student Nurses,” Richter does something more profound and disturbing: he confronts us with the commodification of tragedy.
Eight young women are murdered, and their pictures are published in the paper. We read about them over our coffee and eggs, and then many of us shrug and go on with our lives. “How horrible,” we say. Their life — no, their horrific death — has simply become grist for the mill of the public imagination. The act of putting their pictures in the paper, though, creates an illusion that somehow we know these women, that if we showed up at their killer’s trial we would be able to talk about how sweet these girls were, how we needed to get justice for eight young women who we would never even have known existed if they hadn’t been strangled and stabbed to death in their Chicago apartment.
You see it all the time. At the Scott Petersen trial, I saw interviews with perfect strangers who talked about Laci Petersen as if she were a long-lost cousin. After Casey Anthony was acquitted of her daughter’s murder, “Justice for Caylee!” memes spread like wildfire throughout Facebook. Jon-Benet Ramsey’s murder has spawned a cottage industry of books and televisions specials.*
People use first names of victims as though they know them, as though by the act of watching the news or reading Facebook they can claim kinship with them. That they can own them.
Murder becomes entertainment.
Victims of serial killers, instead of canonization, face erasure. In all honesty, the only victims’ names I can remember from all my blood-soaked true crime reading is Gianni Versace, and that for his clothes, and Sharon Tate, who was an actress, and Rosemary and Leo La Bianca, because they were killed by the Manson family the night after Sharon Tate. I remember that one of the Zodiac’s victims was named Darlene, and another Paul, but that’s it. The murderers’ names, though, come through clear: H.H. Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, the Green River Killer, Richard Ramirez (a.k.a. the Nightstalker), the Manson family, the Zodiac, the BTK killer, and on and bloodily on.
Richter’s paintings make us look more closely at ourselves, the way we objectify the victims of tragedy. Of how we distance ourselves from what goes on in the world, or how we pretend a connection that doesn’t exist. Either way, we turn horror into fan-fiction with real people instead of Harry Potter characters.
Doing neither — being neither too distant nor too close — requires walking a fine emotional line. It means accepting and being moved by the circumstances of others, while not obscenely co-opting them like a sensation-fueled vampire. It requires emotional discipline.
It also requires us to accept victims as humans. As, in this case, as young women. As…
Mary Ann Jordan
May their souls rest in peace.
*Of course, these are white female victims, killed by civilians. Naming African-American victims is not objectifying but humanizing them. #LaciPetersen might be ghoulish; #PhilandoCastile brings attention to injustice carried out by people who should be protecting all of us.