Treasures from the Vault: John Doyle

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Sometimes a work of art comes along that makes you say, “What in the world am I looking at?” John Doyle’s lithograph, Sharpshooters 76: Sony War, was one such piece for me!

A television screen, including buttons on the bottom, shows men in front of a computer in a blimp dropping bombs. At the bottom of the TV screen, the bombs have exploded into red, yellow, and orange colors.
John Doyle, American, 1939-2010. Sharpshooters: Sony War. Lithograph, 1975. Gift of Dr. Gilbert Erlechman, 1980.06.3. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

While I’m normally drawn to more traditional or academic works of art (classic pieces that you’d see on a postcard) this print jumped out at me. We see what appears to be an old-fashioned television, complete with knobs that required you to get up and change the channel. However, it’s what the TV is projecting that caught my attention. We see what appears to be a zeppelin at the top of the screen, and inside there are figures dressed as pilots. The figure to the right looks out a small window, while the other three are gathered around screens. Below them, bay doors have opened and bombs are falling to the ground. Rather than resulting in deathly fire, the bombs appear to be exploding as vibrant fireworks. The bottom third of the screen is a mish-mash of reds, yellows, and blues; and there appears to be a jungle in the background, as it’s illuminated by the exploding bombs. We can tell that the explosions are bright, as their colors are reflected on the falling bombs and zeppelin above them.

There is a lot to unpack in Sony War. Why are the pilots dropping bombs on a jungle? Why is this scene projected on a television? And, why are the bombs exploding in poufs of effervescent color?

While we can’t fully answer any of these questions, we can gain insight by looking into Doyle’s life and the state of the world when this print was created. Doyle was fascinated with the human condition, and he studied ethnology and anthropology before he pursued his artistic career. As a result, Doyle’s artwork often serves as a statement about civilization. Sony War was also one of multiple prints within Doyle’s Sharpshooters 76 portfolio, which explored soldiers and pilots throughout American history. With this in mind, we can hypothesize that Sony War reflects Doyle’s view of the United States in 1975. So, what was going on in the United States in 1975?

During the creation of this print, the Cold War was well under way, both the United States and the Soviet Union were still launching ships and astronauts into space, the Vietnam War was in its final stages, and the popularity of television continued to grow. Additionally, the Vietnam War was the first war to make use of Agent Orange, a highly combustible and devastating element used in bombs that, when dropped, engulfed everything around it in flames. Well what do you know, Sony War has television, allusions to war, and fiery bombs! Now, let’s look a little deeper than what is on the surface of the print.

We know that television was increasingly popular with the advent of national news and family-centric shows, plus, TV’s themselves were becoming increasingly cheaper. It’s likely that the title for this piece, Sony War, is a nod to the manufacturer. People were able to watch the moon landing live just a few years before and the Vietnam War was the first war brought into households via the television. Children and adults alike saw the brutal images of individuals who died in war and the weapons (bombs) that made the destruction possible.

While the idea of a bomb exploding conjures up horrifying images, Doyle has chosen to represent his explosions with bright, almost cheerful imagery. We don’t have any notes from Doyle about Sony War, but, with the information we’ve previously discussed, perhaps Doyle is commenting on the desensitization, or everyday-ness, of war and destruction once it was brought into the home. While this is just my interpretation of the piece, it seems to fit. More and more people were watching TV, and depictions of war were now interspersed with coverage of space travel and children’s programming – I realize that these programs likely were not on at the exact same time, but all three were easily accessible. The fact that these subjects were mashed together and appear to be part of a television program supports this interpretation. TV was increasingly becoming the way in which individuals processed new information, and it wasn’t lost on Doyle. He has not only captured all of this in his print, but he has also commented on TV’s desensitization qualities; by making the Agent Orange appear more cheerful and colorful as opposed to the horror that it was, you’re drawn into the print. It’s only after closer inspection that you realize what Doyle has truly presented to his viewers.

The juxtaposition of war, zeppelins, and bombs exploding in cotton candy colors results in an intriguing work of art, to say the least. This piece, in addition to its fellow Sharpshooters prints, catalogs America’s history of war and fascination with soldiers, challenging viewers to question the impact of centuries of war and how we, as observers, take in the acts themselves. If Sony War is how Doyle perceived the state of American culture in 1975, it makes you wonder, what would he depict on a 2020 television screen?

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