“Conservative pundits are quick to cite what I think of as a straw man—that there’s some kind of leftist boogeyman coming to take away the Second Amendment, and to my knowledge, there never has actually been one,” the artist Joshua Smith said in a phone interview yesterday afternoon. “So I like the idea of inhabiting that space.”
Smith, who is 33 and based in Brooklyn, is proposing what he’s termed a Gun Violence Amendment to the United States Constitution that would repeal the Second Amendment—the foundation for firearm-ownership rights in the U.S.—and prohibit the “manufacturing, transportation or importation . . . of pump-action, semi-automatic or automatic firearms.” The unending back and forth on the topic of gun violence coupled with the lack of substantive action to address it is part of what drew him to the issue. “It’s infuriating, so that’s inspiring as an artist,” he said. Given the laws and jurisprudence that support gun ownership, Smith feels that an amendment is the only way of adequately proceeding.
On Thursday night, Smith will present a lecture on his proposed amendment at Artists Space in Downtown Manhattan and display 28 photographs of flowers that he recently photographed in Central Park, one for each person who died in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. “It is a visual representation of gun violence, or just what you can do with an automatic weapon,” Smith said.
For the past two years, whenever he has heard about a mass shooting in the U.S., Smith has posted a brief animation on Instagram that shows black scribbles consuming—blacking out—the logo of the National Rifle Association. “I thought that defacing their logo was a really interesting gesture—so simple and such a craving, you know?” Smith said. “Just deleting them from the face of the earth, because they’re villain number one for America, because they are responsible for so much harm and so much pain for so many people.”
Attempting to amend the Constitution marks something of a shift for Smith, who is perhaps best known for a series of monochrome paintings—mostly clean, taut rectangles, rendered in one solid tone—that he made in recent years, though he has been active in causes like agitating for Frieze New York to work with union labor.
Asked if he sees his gun-control initiative as art, Smith said, “It is art to me, and I am thinking about it very full bodily, but it is much more expansive than what I’m used to. It is both art and activism at once.”
To craft his proposed amendment, Smith looked to the 18th, which in 1919 banned the production of alcohol, and the 21st Amendments, which repealed the 18th in 1933. “That is an interesting moment in history—when the entire country felt passionately enough about one thing to make it happen at one point in time and then 10 years later to undo it,” Smith said.
Adding an amendment to the Constitution is not an easy business. Two-thirds of both the Senate and House of Representatives have to approve the amendment and then three-fourths of the states have to as well. Alternatively, two-thirds of state legislatures can call for a constitutional convention and then three-fourths of states have to agree to the amendment.
Smith seemed unconcerned by such obstacles. He is starting small and building from there. The New York publishing firm Primary Information, which is presenting the upcoming event with Smith, has printed the proposed amendment on postcards, which people can use to lobby for its passage. A batch of 100 will be available on Thursday evening. Smith said, “The idea is to ratchet up the seriousness of it until it is actually a threat.”