[Morning rant. As in I got up at noon because I stayed up ’til 5 working on art, and now I’m having my first cup of coffee and feel like unburdening my mind of some of the bullshit that’s accumulating on it from exposure to the art world.]
I put “vomit” in the title so people will know this isn’t going to be a dry, finger-wagging, polemical article on the need for political art with finely tuned moral sentiments. No, I’m not against morality. I once saw an episode of The Twilight Zone in which the backdrop was students in an ethics class. I’d never had an ethics class and thought it was an interesting topic to investigate and debate. But one has to come to it without foregone conclusions and convenient villains. You’d actually have to ponder the questions and make cogent, rational arguments to support your position. But morality and politics in art is as rich and interesting as morality and politics in Heavy Metal, which is not really at all unless your focus is politics and not music.
When I was in community college, which was the best education I got, and was free (my expensive education at UC schools was an improvement in some senses, but much worse in others, and that’s a topic for another rant), my Contemporary Literature teacher had us read John Gardner’s, “On Moral Fiction”. Gardner’s a novelist himself, and believes novels should uphold good, decent, wholesome morals. Given what his morals were, I could have had Sunday School satisfy that role.
When I think about the function or purpose of art, it’s not going to be something that something else does better. So, if someone says the purpose of art is to make money, effect political change, or pose philosophical challenges, there are better ways to achieve those ends. Sure, you can use art for whatever purpose, but, in the case of music, for example, its individual purpose is going to have to have something to do with sound and listening, which is its unique contribution.
While some of my favorite all-time songs are rabidly political, I never put a record on the turntable in order to find my way through a moral quandary. I think it’s good to think back on our early experiences of art, before we were indoctrinated via Postmodern excesses, to find out what it is and what it means to us. Go back to when it was fresh. So, I remember when I was in the 10th grade and it was summer, and being a working class sort of kid, my idea of summer vacation was going to the (free) school playground. I could play ping pong, Chess, Backgammon, slaughter ball, Frisbee football, handball, and, well, there were a few cute girls who showed up as well. But before I went to the playground, as in before it opened, and after my parents had gone to work, I liked to play “Fragile” by Yes. By me that’s their best album, and really the only one I listen much to.
“Fragile” was one of those book-style albums that opened up and had more pics and art in the inside. There was a little booklet that came with it with pictures of the band members, and of course there was the art by Roger Dean (who is fucking amazing, despite being a white male, a painter, an illustrator, and otherwise everything in art that I was taught to despise and ridicule in art school). He’s probably straight, too. Somebody light the torches and hand out the pitch forks, there’s a monster to hunt down. Anyway, I had a lot more albums, as I bought cheap-ass, dusty, used records from a used record store that had records stacked floor to ceiling, and you could, if you were a smart ass like me, ask the owner how much a pizza-wedge piece of a broken record went for. In other words, 50 cents would get you a King Crimson or Gentle Giant album to take home and listen to in the dark with headphones. But this one Yes album stood out, and a lot of that was to do with the guitar and base, and the much less irritating than usual vocals of Jon Anderson (who can sometimes be as annoying as Geddy Lee).
The thing was, that album, the cover, the thumping base, the intricate guitar, the ringing keyboards, and the clear vocals, and the dust, conjured a different reality, another time and place. You could say it was a portal of sorts. Summer, that one year, and that record went together. Check out the groove:
It wasn’t about whether the political message was spot on or not according to obscurantist theories born in the aftermath of Postmodernism. If you know my art criticism you know that I argue that the best of rock music was about as good as art got in the last century, and people who don’t agree are ultra-snobs or don’t like good music. Some people prefer urinals, but for that you can read my last rant.
What is wrong with Postmodernism you ask? I’ve written a long-ass article on this, beautifully illustrated, with stunning examples, but I’ll give you the nutshell version here. PoMo wisely saw what the Buddhists had been driving home for centuries, or thousands of years: any map is not the terrain. The French Postmodernists had a thing with language. They didn’t write like I am, plainly, to make their point as clear as they could. Nope. The idea was to make their ideas a challenge to understand, which made them seem more profound. Surely if you can’t understand what the fuck a philosopher is saying, it must be deep. But it was really just their impenetrable prose that was so daunting, and which the French audience demanded as a sign of erudition. These philosophers were obsessed with the intricacies of language and weaving indecipherable patterns of language. The idea was to not be understood. If you could be understood, than you weren’t any better than the people reading your shit. A lot of Postmodernist philosophy was propped up on the logical fallacy that if deep philosophy can’t be understood by ordinary people, anything that can’t be understood by ordinary people is deep philosophy. Contemporary art made the same mistake, but that’s another rant.
Once you sift through the highfalutin custom vocabulary, it gets a lot easier to understand. “Narrativity” is story telling, for example. Yeah, and when I was in university and had to write essays for my art theory classes, or my feminists classes, or any of the “THEORY” classes, the first thing I’d do is boil down the dense rhetoric until I could clearly ascertain whatever the fuck the point was that the heady theoretician was expounding. Only then would I try to analyze it using normal language. This was opposite to the usual student approach, which was to adopt the vocab of the philosophers (with or without really understanding it) in order to show that you knew the jargon and were with it.
Once I boiled down PoMo it basically stated that each culture has its own stories. So do subgroups and whatnot. But there’s a “master narrative” or “big story” that is crammed down everyone’s throat by the most powerful people in order to sustain their primacy. The bad story here was that of Western, patriarchal, imperialist, colonialist, white supremacist, culture. Sound familiar? There was a lot of truth in the criticism, and the insistence that dominant culture was ultimately subjective (a map) was true. PoMo asserted that all stories were ultimately subjective, and hence in the same bag. Additionally, the stories of marginalized groups deserved more attention, and in at least some ways were more authentic and meaningful. This should also feel familiar. It’s why people wrongly think that white culture is the equivalent of Wonder Bread. But none of this is the real problem, or at least not the big one that backfired on us.
The big problem was that in fitting Western culture into being just one fiction among many, PoMo had to reduce reason, objectivity, and science to fictional narratives as well. Anyone can say, in an ivory tower, that the most clinically rigorous controlled experiment in a laboratory is ultimately subjective. And there’s truth in that if you pan back far enough. For example, we will see the experiments through human eyes and relate the results to human concerns, which is more relative than the unalloyed perspective of the truly universal. But in practice, science is enormously less subjective and purely fictional than is the classic alternate example of voodoo. The big problem is that when we tossed out reason and objectivity as ultimately the fictions of the bad, dominant, bully culture, we made room for any story anyone could cook up to be worthy of taking seriously. If someone feels a certain way, and can stitch together a few sentences to articulate that feeling, it is as legitimate an argument and reflection of reality as is, say, Darwin’s theory of evolution.
PoMo was good for emphasizing the need to allow alternative, suppressed, othered, and disenfranchised people to have a voice, and for in general tempering Modernism and chiseling away at monolithic culture. On a purely selfish note, it’s boring to just get hammered over the head with one perspective and version of reality. So, on the level of actual stories, and perspectives, it’s much better to have more windows to look out of than just one. But science doesn’t really fall into this category. Interpretations of science and extrapolations upon it can easily end up part of a “master narrative”, but reason and objectivity are not only an antidote to the errors of subjectivity, Western culture does not have a monopoly on them.
We’d also hear that women and other non-monsters (non white males) had “other ways of KNOWING” that were on par or superior to reason and objectivity. Never mind for the moment that if the monsters didn’t possess these qualities, they were genetically inferior, and we were back in the saddle of objectifying and villainizing “others”, but had just switched out who was the bad guy. Anyway, we all have instincts, hunches, feelings, etc, and there was nothing new about that, there was just a new way of working it up into a miraculously opaque lather.
The result of all this is everyone thinks their own postulations, if broadcast far and loud enough, have some bearing on reality. Worse, if we get rid of objective criteria, than whoever has the most power gets to define reality, and an ideally unbiased objectivity is cast out of the debate.
Like the Buddhists, PoMo was right about any interpretation or articulation of reality being a remote stand-in for it, and that we ultimately shouldn’t BELIEVE in any narrative. That’s as hard for humans as it is for a hermit crab to scuttle across the hot sands of the beach without a shell. Humans are believers. Ironically, instead of disbelieving all narratives, we just became true believers in PoMo and its related branch of identity politics. We don’t need to test our theories against other ideas or evidence that might challenge them, especially if we can dismiss those other perspectives or techniques as the tools of the evil, patriarchal, sexist, racist, colonialist, master race.
When it comes to morality and art, art is now subjected not to the conservative values of John Gardner, but to the more “radical” perspective of postmodern identity politics, which does not necessarily need to check its conclusions against other perspectives and evidence. But when I had to read Gardner in my early twenties (I think I was 22), I was the only student I can recall who rejected it. The teacher upheld Gardner’s viewpoint. I went to the library, pulled philosophy books off the shelves and looked up “morality” in the indexes, and found pithy quotes and short arguments that claimed seeing art through the lens of morality was stupid.
At this point in my life I was making some large paintings, which had I continued to do instead of furthering my education and doing art assignments for the next 4-5 years, I’d be an established artist right now with shows and appearances in magazines and whatnot. I was a huge fan of Francis Bacon. And in the pages of Gardner’s book, he made mention of paintings of bleeding entrails under a sunset as an example of bad, immoral art. Sounded a lot like a misrepresentation of Bacon to me. Gardner, it was pretty obvious, was an enemy of some of the art I liked best.
I was generally of the popular mind that morality was people trying to tell young people like myself what to do, what not to do, and so on. It was the book burners, record burners, anti-sex, anti-pot, anti-rock, anti-fun, perspective that just demanded one show up on time to sit behind a desk for the rest of their life as an elevated wage slave with a patterned noose around ones neck. Art was the thing that freed my mind from all that bullshit. My idea of morality, which was probably the most popular, was that if you weren’t hurting anyone, whatever you did was nobody’s fucking business. But of course I was all for the morality that saw war as stupid evil. It was a kind of hippy morality.
Contemporary morality is a lot more strict and takes no prisoners. The kid gloves are off and hands are poised to pitch stones at the next immoral victim. Young moral sleuths fresh out of indoctrination (college) comb the internet searching for someone to topple, say, someone who missed the memo and didn’t know better than to wear a shirt with bikini babes on it. No longer can the individual get away with whatever they wanna’ do or think or feel as long as they don’t hurt anyone else: you aren’t even allowed to have unconscious biases anymore in the privacy of your own mind. And even if you don’t have those biases, objectivity be damned, they can be projected on to you if someone else FEELS that you have them, especially if their story is seen as automatically more authentic than yours.
It used to be that the moralists came from the far right. Jessie Helms and Rudolph Guliani types would condemn artists like Andres Serrano for his (aesthetically rather beautiful) photo of a cheap crucifix submerged in amber-orange urine; Chris Offili for affixing elephant dung to his layered, elaborately built-up painting of a cartoonist Madonna (Mary, not the singer), or Robert Mapplethorpe for showing cocks in his photos. Pretty much the morality police reacted to art that was at least partially directed at pissing them off in the first place, or “challenging” them, or presumably challenging everyone. Everyone else is always somehow morally and otherwise behind artists who are perpetually at the vanguard of civilization. Morality was anti-freedom, anti-youth, anti-fun.
The new morality kinda’ shares some of those qualities, but is no longer Christian, about “family values”, and all that Beaver Cleaver stuff. The new morality hates that shit, especially Theodor Cleaver himself. Probably the best example of the new morality police is the outraged response to a painting in the politically correct, identity politics themed 2017 Whitney Biennial. No, it’s not enough to get a PC Biennial curated by two Asians, we must prove that “the art world is a white supremacist institution” whether it really is or isn’t.
let me just pause here to point out another curious logical fallacy, which is that of the spotted dog. It goes a little something like this: “All spotted dogs bark, therefore all barking dogs are spotted”. We’ve all heard about how there aren’t enough women in art history. True. But 99.9% of men who have ever lived didn’t have the opportunity to be artists either. I don’t mean artisans doing underpaid brickwork, but the type of artists that we are talking about, old master types who painted portraits of royalty or Napoleon in person. So, if the top players in contemporary art happen to be white and rich in a predominantly white country, it doesn’t necessarily follow that being white is synonymous with success in the art world, or that others are being shut out based on race. All we have to do to prove that is show the amazing work of the great artists that are being shut out. Incidentally, I haven’t been able to break into the art world either. In my case, oh shit, it can only be because of me. If you are a white dude and you didn’t make it (yet), it can only because you are a loser and vile cretin, which you are anyways until proven otherwise. Anyone notice how identity politics has taken its rhetoric so far that if you are white you are assumed a “white supremacist” until proven innocent?
Back on task. If you don’t know the story, a white woman named Dana Schutz painted Emmet Till in his open casket. And if you don’t know, Emmet Till is a black boy who was brutally murdered by some white folk back in the 50’s. Incidentally, lots of people insist that the tragedy in question is just as relevant and true today as it was 62 years ago, whether that’s true or not, 5% true or 25%. It might seem that today’s social justice advocates have slimmer pickings to battle than did their comrades of a half century ago, in which case their ire might be directly at an anti-racist, liberal artist, who was nevertheless still unconsciously an inherently bad person, whether she really was or not.
Now, some people, a lot of them, would say that the artist in question is an SJW (social justice warrior, if you’ve been gone from social media for some years), and “virtue signalling” (showing you have the right moral values and are thus a part of the right side of history…). Here we have a white woman rubbing white supremacy in the faces of her white audience, or at least that’s how it’s seen from one side of the coin.
Nowadays we only look at one side of the coin. It’s very important to define ourselves AGAINST others, who embody everything wrong with the world, in which case we are pure as the driven snow and incapable of doing anything wrong. We seek that which substantiates what we already believe, and this is known as “confirmation bias”, which tends to occur in an “echo chamber” (social media). We understand this to mean that the people on the other side of the coin are doing this, never us. If you understand that YOU are also a victim of confirmation bias, congratulations, you are a rare individual. We might reflect back on how this is the antithesis of the core tenant of PoMo, that we should be incredulous at any and all narratives, but these days we are least suspicious of the firebrand, literalized, reductionist version of PoMo that has filtered through radical polemicists in the academy and elsewhere. Again, this is no surprise, and is just like Eastern mystical religions in which the word is always false and an impediment to truth, but is nevertheless branded on everyone’s forehead as the truth (your significant donations are welcomed).
While the alt-right, and other conservatives see the artist as an SJW engaged in virtue signaling, the “radical” left sees her as necessarily a white supremacist in denial. From their perspective Dana is WHITE and thus must absolutely embody in her very DNA certain beliefs, orientations, and limitations. It is impossible for a white person to fathom the suffering of a black person, we are told, just as it is impossible for a black person to be a racist. Have you heard those two things before? If not, I’m glad to hear you’ve been released from solitary confinement. Schutz’ painting which aspired to be an empathetic indictment of white supremacy, ended up being the unconscious baton of white supremacy, handed from one generation of racists to another, according to her critics. The painting collided with a pre-existing foregone conclusion built on subjective feelings and rhetoric.
It really didn’t matter what the painting looked like, and if a black painter, say, Kerry James Marshall (who is amazing) was commissioned to paint it secretly, not in his signature style, and the result was tagged with the name of an artist who could be fingered as WHITE, than THAT painting would be condemned as unconsciously white supremacist. One has to understand that it is theoretically impossible for a white person to make a painting of black suffering that isn’t exploitative and a continuation of historical, institutional, white violence enacted on black bodies. If you BELIEVE this trope, than the painting automatically fails and is anathema to everything good in the world. This belief is repeated so much and by so many people of authority that it’s accepted as Biblical truth. We don’t analyze it because that’s not necessary and is the tool of the oppressor anyway, plus if you do criticize such all-encompassing conclusions, you might be NEXT.
For these savory reasons, the painting never stood a chance. Nobody ever needed to look at it, or into it. Sure, sure, people will argue that they would be able to tell the difference between a painting made by a black person and white person, but, again, we are talking about belief, and it might be worth remembering that such a belief never need be tested anymore in a post-postmodern world. How do you test what you would do or think if… ? Y’know, “If I saw a car was going to run over a child I’d risk my own life to save it.” OK. We’ll just have to take your word for that. Things are true whether they are true or not.
None of this means we couldn’t have a very sophisticated conversation about whether or not the painting ultimately succeeds in its political message, and as intended, or backfires, as many black critics argue. Such a discussion couldn’t proceed if it was initiated with bold conclusions and a document with signatories demanding a work be destroyed. I’m guessing if people really get analytical about it, and enough views are thrown into the mix and properly integrated, the work isn’t going to be either a shinning success or an abysmal failure: the coin isn’t going to land on one side or the other. I’m not objecting to a complex analysis of the work, which could be interesting: I’m objecting to a discussion-ending, oversimplified stance. One of the ways to predict whether a constructive discussion is going to take place is whether or not one or the other party, or both, is alienated by how the discussion is framed, and if a shared goal or compromise is even on the table.
The new morality is as scary as the old one. People were demanding that the painting be destroyed. I’m not even sure dinosaurs like Guliani and Helms called for the destruction of Serrano’s, Ofili’s, or Mapplethorpe’s work. I’d have to look that up. Incidentally, I got in a couple fiery debates outside the Brooklyn Museum defending the Sensation show, featuring the YBAs (Young British Artists), which conservatives were protesting. I haven’t changed so much. I like to think I’m wiser and not just older and balder. It’s just that the protesters against art have changed. I’ve always sided with art.
After I wrote an article explaining why Schutz’ painting shouldn’t be destroyed, and why we shouldn’t embrace essentialism and behaviorism, even if it’s using the master’s weapons against the master, a self-proclaimed black Muslim group sent me a little message to shut up. They have a manifesto demanding an expansion of white art which should be destroyed for appropriating black culture… (including Picasso and Gauguin). They decided to target me for destruction as a “white supremacist and racist”. It is always best to brand someone as evil before you perpetuate evil upon them.
Jesus F’ing Christ! If we are not burning a woman’s painting for being insufficiently politically correct, even though she was trying her damnedest to take a big smelly shit on white culture (or rather the worst elements of it), we are villains and our art, career, and lives should be sacrificed on the alter of rabid, reductionist, identity politics. [Note, it has occurred to me that the ostensible black Muslim group was a put-on from an alt-right or white nationalist group – that’s how hard it is to differentiate propaganda from parody – but I would find the motives behind such an impersonation on par with that of those they sought to lampoon. Either way I would be dealing with a radical hate group. And while I want nothing to do with those groups, and took down my post to avoid them and their poison, I don’t think those types would READ something like this. More likely, they’d just do a key-word search, find a headline (this one won’t catch their eyes), and attack without reading.]
While many grievances launched at America, the 1%, and white culture are legitimate, we may want to pause when the crime committed is something the alleged perpetrator didn’t even know they did. Usually you know when you do something terribly wrong. Otherwise it’s just a faux-pas. But now the faux-pas, the uncouth thing said or done, is a crime. I would make a clear distinction between the kinds of crimes that people don’t even know they are committing, they are that subtle, and the type which everyone knows is wrong because it’s violent or directly harms someone. I would tend to go lenient on crimes where there is no victim, the culprit has only had good intentions (no corruption), the offense requires a rather obtuse lecture in identity politics to explain, and it’s a debatable issue as to whether there was really any offense or not. I would reserve labeling people and destroying their work for those who intended to do people harm, not those who were honestly attempting the opposite, who failed to be good enough.
Here’s the curious thing about the “radical” left embracing essentialism and behaviorism. Essentialism says that you are your DNA at birth and there ain’t shit you can do about it to change who you are. Essentialism was most famously used to justify chattel slavery in the United States by claiming that blacks were not fully human. They were essentially different. This is why radical black intellectuals in the past, like Bell Hooks, argued that “essentialism is the foundation of all racism and sexism”.
Nowadays words are redefined to suit new narratives (in a post-postmodern world where we accept fictions as reality), and, y’know, the old definitions were made by evil white fucks, and so new definitions are better. Well, no. They could be better. They are potentially better. Given more perspective and including formerly marginalized or silenced vantages it would naturally seem that we could elaborate better definitions. We might need to evaluate this on a case by case basis. But, it doesn’t really seem to happen because, well, our ancestors, being human and intelligent and living lives every bit as complex as ours were able to use English pretty damned well and accurately. Note here the common arrogant belief that those who came before us were inferior, hence the need of a wholesale revolution of one kind or another, destroying all that went before, and a year zero.
Anyway, the new definition of racism is something like “institutional power plus privilege”. Or, rather, you need institutional power and privilege in order to be a racist, and if you have it, you kinda’ are automatically a racist. If you are white you pretty much automatically have rhetorical institutional power and privilege even if every institution out there is trying to crush you (what, you didn’t get the white discount for your student loans?). You are assumed a white supremacist until proven otherwise. There’s probably some truth in this. That’s the thing these days, if there’s some truth in anything, it can be hiked up a flagpole and declared absolute truth, and people will go to social media to mow down anyone who doesn’t agree with the absolute conclusions based on partial truths. Folks, some things can be 15% true, and that’s it. may I offer another definition of racism that’s much more direct? too bad, I’m going to do it anyway. If you are dehumanizing someone based on race, you are a racist. Look for the dehumanization, which will show up in signs of imposing limitations and deleterious qualities on an individual based on their biology.
The important thing to notice here is the essentialism and behaviorism being employed. Why does it matter that Dana Schutz is white unless her DNA defines who she is (racism first class)? The answer is behaviorism – if she is white she is defined by her conditioning as a white person in a white supremacist country. Again, if America is say, 9-15% white supremacist, that makes it 100&1% white supremacist. Essentialism and behaviorism define who you are based on your DNA at birth. That’s if folks. And it would seem ironic that the radical left is peddling these perspectives.
Writers at the online radical politics and sometimes art magazine, Hyperallergic, including the editor, have boldly stated that Dana Schutz has more in common with the woman who framed Emmet Till than, say, Emmet Till himself, or his mother, who was the one who insisted on an open casket funeral so the world could see the horror inflicted on her son. Now, how do we know that the artist has more in common with the shameful liar of the past? Is Dana Schutz an immoral person? Has she ever framed anyone? Do we know what choices she’s made in her life that are similar to those of the woman who brought about the murder of a young boy? Surely, if we are going to judge someone morally, it should be on the grounds of her choices and actions in her life. Nope. None of that is on the table. Our conclusions are based solely on her DNA at birth, which she had no control of, and we conveniently exclude as evidence anything that she does have any choice in regards to. By virtue of her race and gender (here she is oddly more guilty because she is a woman), Dana Schutz is melded with a historically vicious person, and because of this rhetorical extrapolation her painting must be burned. We wouldn’t say this is “racial profiling” because it’s impossible to racially profile a white person because of power, privilege, and institutional power.
Would we stop and consider whether or not defining the artist based on race and gender, and insisting it was impossible for her to thus have the capacity to empathize with a person of another pigment of epidermis is dehumanizing? No. There was a curious article in the aforementioned identity politics rag, Hyperallergic, in which an Asian writer declared that whites could not fathom the suffering of blacks. This, once again, has truth in it, as nobody really understands what another goes through unless we “walk a mile in [their] shoes.” Most of us learned this lesson a long, long time ago. But this was peculiar if you happened to put together that the author, who was not black himself, implicitly could understand the subjective plight of blacks because, well, he must also be a victim of white supremacy in a white supremacist society. But if one stops to ponder beyond foregone conclusions and shouting points, it’s a bit odd to say that all POC (people of color) can understand each other’s plight, but white people can’t understand anyone else’s struggles. On top of it POC understand white people better than white people do themselves, which is why they can see the unconscious racism of white people. And this doesn’t imply in any way that white people are somehow limited or “other” or less human because less empathetic and understanding. Sure, I’ll readily admit that I don’t know what it’s like to grow up Korean in North Korea. But this apparently doesn’t apply to POC, who I gather have magical powers of “knowing”. Note that my non-white girlfriends thinks this shit is ridiculous as well, and said that I sometimes understand her better than she does.
I suppose it’s relevant to mention that I’ve lived in Asia for more than a decade now, in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. I can speak Chinese, Khmer, and even read and write in thai (Vietnamese pronunciation, of which there are 3 varieties, overwhelmed my circuitry). I lived for nearly five years in Chinese cities with only a handful of non-Chinese, and was the potential subject of unwanted attention everywhere I went, which is not to say that my students weren’t wonderful, or that I didn’t have Chinese friends.
Have you ever moved, by yourself, to a foreign country you’ve never been to, where you don’t know a single person, where the people don’t speak your native language, and you are only one of a handful of people that aren’t the dominant culture in the city where you live? Have you gone someplace to live where many of the local people have never seen someone of your race in person and will try to touch you, or will surround you on the street if you stop to talk to a student? If you haven’t walked into a restaurant and seen the majority of people turn and face you, laugh, and take pictures, you may not really have a better idea of what it is like to be the “other” than I do. Incidentally, for those who are among the gazillions who have visited Thailand, no, being called a “lao wai” or “wai guo ren” in an untouristed city in China is infinitely more intrusive than being called “Farang” in Thailand or Laos. I’ve experienced all three, and the Thais just can’t compete with the Chinese for calling attention to the fact that you are a foreigner.
For a period when the Chinese government was ramping up nationalism, I couldn’t leave my apartment to go for a walk, or go to the store without hearing at least one “Fuck you Laowai (foreigner)”. On one long walk I was subjected to 6 isolated cases of “Fuck you Laowai” and didn’t know if I could handle staying in the small rural city to finish my year contract. It’s always stressful being in a foreign country on a visa that can be taken away at any point (such as that your work visa is tied to your teaching job, and your boss is trying one scam after another on you like he’s got a checklist), and then you have to scramble to another country. True story. What I’m getting at is that I’ve been outside of America and America-centrism for so long that identity politics strikes me as a very Western, and even quaintly American view of humanity. I can be being exploited by my Chinese boss at the same time I am being told that I am inherently, rhetorically the exploiter. Do I believe the narrative I’m being told, or the reality I’m experiencing?
Every time I hear “we live in a white supremacist society” I am in a non-white country. For me the obvious response is, “Uuuuh, I’m living in Cambodia, and it’s not a white supremacist country”. Might have some other issues though, especially historically. Oof, and if you start thinking about the politics of that, other than Nixon’s bombing campaign and the instrumental role it played in events on the ground, it’s a very pointed reminder that non-whites can do really, really terrible things. A lot of identity politics doesn’t work when you live in another country.
Identity politics is definitely not Buddhist, which isn’t to say that even Buddhist monks don’t get up to burning people alive in Burma. It also seems almost as antiquated as racism and sexism proper.
Have you heard the one about how only white men are serial killers and mass shooters? You might imagine that being told only your race is capable of the most heinous atrocities is kinda’ racist, but in this instance it’s not, because it’s true, even if it isn’t true. It turns out the idea never came from a rigorous sociological study or anything, and there are black serial killers. On the bright side, if you are a white male actor in Hollywood, you have a much better chance of getting the role as the villain today, because it’s just too risky to make a POC the villain. I’ve been told since I was in grad school that by virtue of my biology I am a sick, perverted, evil, murdering, raping monster. Gotta’ love that. Perhaps I can be forgiven for saying, “Uh, no”.
I dare say the politically correct moralists are overambitious, and turning art into a battlefield in which it is a goal to destroy people’s careers based on foregone conclusions and a post-postmodern belief in fictions or partial truths as realities. I’m repeating myself.
Incidentally, the way forward (and it is impossible for a white person to know the way forward) is NOT to essentialize whites and declare that they are necessarily nothing more than their DNA or products of their environment: it’s to dump essentialism and behaviorism altogether, and to regard people as invisible. That’s right, INVISIBLE. If we are going to judge or understand people, we can’t do it by imposing all manner of things on their exterior bodies, but only through ascertaining their interior perspective. A person’s lived experience is not a perpetual looking in the mirror at their exterior manifestation, but more like watching an endless movie in which the majority of the time you don’t see yourself at all. We need to see someone’s inner movie to see who they are. That’s the real person. We need to look at the choices people make if we want to judge their ethics, and not decide their ethics or vantage based on who they superficially resembled at birth. Now, if that sounds eminently reasonable to you, just find someone else who says the same thing, as long as he or she isn’t white, and take it from them. I am genetically and environmentally only capable of either evil, or denouncing myself as evil, which makes me kinda’ good, as an ally of good, but ultimately second rate in the battle against evil. I wish I were joking, as this is at least 15% true. Note that as a graduate in art school my only option was to “deconstruct [my] white male privilege”. Fun! Almost as good as drowning myself as a witch, but without all the drama. Burning yourself at the stake as a witch is probably the most exalted form of deconstructing your elusive privilege.
Further, the thing that separates people from animals, at least theoretically, is that we are conscious, thinking beings. It is our minds that are most precious. And the mind, scientifically speaking, is a shapeless, colorless, genderless thing. That is our true nature. That’s what the Buddhists and Hindu’s have been saying for centuries, and what science is saying now. Science cannot find consciousness. Thus, when you look at another person, the real person is the mind and everything in it, and is invisible. The critics of Dana Schutz mistakenly insist that she is a body, and not a mind.
OK, fine, if it helps to think of it in more spiritual terms, it’s the “soul”. Not that I believe in a soul, but it’s a good metaphor for the shapeless, weightless, invisible seat of consciousness. Just imagine everyone had souls and I was saying you have to judge people by their souls, and guess what, they are invisible. That’s what I’m saying about our minds.
And guess what, a white person CAN understand and empathize with the stuggles of non-white people, just like POC are assumed to be able to understand each other. If we shift how we define people from the epidermis to the proverbial soul, then it’s easy to see why a good white person would empathize with a good black person. It happens all the time in film and literature. When I read the novels of Toni Morrison, I didn’t identify with the sadistic, rapist, slave owners (say, in “Beloved”) because they are white. And no, I didn’t rush out to get a Dylan Roof haircut after his mass shooting to show racial solidarity. No, really, after his truly atrocious mass shooting, all sorts of articles cropped up, and there were links showing up in my FB feed about how we need to have a discussion about whiteness. Just between you and me, if you do a Google search for “whiteness evil” you will get over 500,000 results. I’ve been hearing that I am the bad guy since I was in grad school 25 years ago. Kinda’ sick of it. It’s the spotted dog thing again. Y’know, if all robber barons were white, all white people are robber barons, or would be if they had the chance (and POC wouldn’t).
Well, a lot of people aren’t going to agree with me on this, and will label me. I could probably out-argue them but that doesn’t matter to them, as they reject reason and objectivity, at least when they aren’t winning using those tools. In an emergency, they can always declare the rules unfair. But I think we can all agree that morality and ethics have been at least a potential enemy of art for as long as there has been art. Sometimes they can align, and sometimes there is genuinely offensive “art”, but in general morality serves to limit the range of the imagination and expression thereof, not expand it. There can be exceptions, such as when one gains knowledge through an ethical enterprise.
In the end, for me, morality and politics are the sort of thing I go to art to escape from, because they are comparatively boring and constricting, and it’s far too easy for the censure of art on the grounds of morality to be patently immoral. Those who insist that all art is political (as opposed to “all art can be interpreted politically”) don’t really understand art, or are confused, otherwise they wouldn’t completely subordinate it to something else which cannot do what art can. Art imaginatively creates universes, the morality police burn its creations. Saying art is necessarily political is like saying enlightenment is political: it is insisting that the terrain is in fact the map, and nothing else but the map. I would prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to condemning and destroying artwork.
~ End Rant.