“In general it’s time for all us to shut up and listen.” ~ Jerry Salz
“Fund the work of non-white artists and suppress their white counterparts, censor white productions, belittle the achievements of white people while celebrating non-white people” ~ Travis Webb
“White supremacy lives and breathes within every single white person” ~ Naima Lowe
By the logic of those demanding the censorship and destruction of the three artworks I’m going to discuss, the above painting by Norman Rockwell must be destroyed as well. I will argue why this should not be the case.
The decision to censor or destroy a work of art is a moral decision, and should be based on a very strong and persuasive ethical argument. Destruction of art goes even beyond censorship, as it also destroys the artist’s property which is part of his or her livelihood. The accusation that you’ve created something so vile that it should not even be seen, and should be eliminated once and for all is going to tarnish your reputation probably irreparably. Thus, assuming our goal is to be more ethical, we must be very careful to not damage an individual with exaggerated, highly debatable, or spurious charges. We only need to think back to when conservatives like Rudolph Giuliani or Jesse Helms were trying to censor or defund liberal art to realize this power can be used in a way that many would find unethical. In matters of ethics, I hope we agree that we should defer to the most ethical argument.
[There is a strong tendency for those on the radical left to label anyone who doesn’t agree with them a “white supremacist”, in which case that person is a vile cretin and automatically wrong (the logical fallacy of the ad hominem attack). For those with a knee-jerk itch to brand me with that undeserved label because my views are not in sync with the far left worldview (nor that of the conservative or alt. right), you might first look at my article condemning the white supremacist, Richard Spencer, before hurling stones: The Sad Racist Specter of Richard Spencer.]
It seems ridiculous and makes me self-conscious and uncomfortable to have to say what my general social/political beliefs are so that people don’t accuse me of the opposite. But I guess I have to do it. I’m anti-racist, anti-white supremacist, a bit socialist, and believe in individual rights and freedom. I’m pretty much with Bernie Sanders, who I was really hopeful about. My hopes were crushed when Hillary and the DNC elbowed him out. I particularly like his ideas about free education, free healthcare, and raising the minimum wage. If other countries (mostly the most prosperous ones because of the payback in the long run of having an educated, well-employed, healthy populace) can afford it, so can the richest country in the word, perhaps if it holds off on investing so much in war and the military and bailing out corrupt banks. If everyone knew they could get an education, not have to worry about a freak accident or disease destroying their lives, and be able to survive if they worked full time, all that defensive variety racism and scapegoating would evaporate (the kind that stems from people being thwarted and looking for a scapegoat). We already have free public school education. Do you want to get rid of that? I’m a product of free public education. So are most Americans who are reading this. Now just imagine you had free college too. It doesn’t level the playing field, it just gives everyone a chance to play.
Now that that’s out of the way …
There is a rift on the left side of the political spectrum between those who want to end oppression, and those who want to reverse it (at least as a temporary measure to more speedily achieve equality). Jerry Salz’ statement that we (white people) need to shut up and listen, in response to Native American’s demands to burn a work they find offensive is shading into reverse oppression. Much of the censoring of well-intentioned liberal art, campaigns against public figures who commit minor faux-pas, and haranguing of classic liberal teachers stems, consciously or not, from this latter, more radical and militant strain of postmodern/identity politics liberalism.
A shift has occurred in recent years in which the global enemy is no longer commonly seen as those in the highest positions of power who abuse that power (corruption), but rather the everyday privilege and unconscious bigotry of all white people, and cis-gendered, straight white men in particular (hence the hashtag #killallwhitemen). Never mind for the moment that reverse oppression is the spread of the cancer of oppression, or that insisting a person by virtue of their DNA must embody deleterious beliefs is essentialism. Under the banner of fairness the far left is becoming righteously unfair, and taking a certain perverse pleasure in it.
It is both surprising that those presently demanding censorship of art are no longer members of the conservative, religious right, but rather the radical left, and that the art and persons they seek to destroy are not on the far right, but classic liberals who are on their side of the struggle to begin with. Curiously, we will find that liberal artists attempting to be allies with the plight of marginalized groups are the ones receiving the most opprobrium. While liberals of the past would have written critical articles challenging the underlying rhetoric of a work of art they deemed to be politically backwards, and would hope to embarrass the creator into evolving his understanding and perspective, the new liberals demand the destruction of the work in question and don’t mind at all if the career of the creator is destroyed along with it.
It is now possible to make a faux-pas, be branded with a label, and then be punished as if you’d committed a serious crime. Thus, for example, the astrophysicist who wore a tasteless print shirt with babes on it was reduced to giving a tearful public apology for his transgressions: the sort of punitive measures we’d expect meted out for a convicted rapist.
I address this issue at all with some trepidation. I have to ask myself if it is worth it to stick my neck out, especially when people are scouring the internet looking for fresh victims to pillory and make examples of. It apparently does not occur to people that throwing the first stone, or setting their proverbial phasers on kill might be an indication that they could be acting immorally and be victimizers, even as they claim for themselves eternal victim status and a complete rhetorical incapacity to do any harm to others (which should in itself be a red flag). We might pause and look back on the bloody revolutions of the 20th century and admit that those who dared oppose them with appeals to greater reason, a broader morality, and compassion were murdered while onlookers gleefully rejoiced. Reason and ethics were and are useless against tribalism, mob mentality, and scapegoating. And while the postmodern/identity politics narrative that is behind the current instances of censorship and opprobrium merely eschews reason as the tool of the white oppressor, it easily devolves into anti-reason when emotions or groups of protesters are involved.
If you don’t already know what I’m talking about when I say PoMo sidelines reason, consider this quote by Lyotard:
Reason is a tool by which certain empowered groups retain their hegemony, oppressing other groups; the emotions and experiences of such groups are to be valued over rational argument. ~ Jean-Francois Lyotard
Yes, I was taught this in college, and it is the underlying idea of much of what students are being taught today in universities. This cornerstone of postmodern/identity politics rhetoric automatically places the feelings of minority groups above any reasoned or ethical argument that a white person can put together (hence what I am writing is futile). This is why Salz echoes the undergrad, marginalization-theory-major’s rallying cry that white people need to shut up. Never mind for the moment that everyone should resist any attempt to subordinate them, and there’s a certain sadistic quality to telling people to shut up with impunity. It positively reeks of what devolved in the Stanford Prison Experiment.
An inverse hierarchy is produced in which the experience of minority groups not only trumps any logical argument put forth by certain empowered groups, which has come to just mean any and all whites, but also trumps their experience and feelings. It becomes impossible to have an objective standard of morality based on reason. Instead, morality is dictated by the feelings of minority groups. This is why white art critics are afraid to stand up against calls for censorship of art when those calls come from POC (people of color).
I have to ask myself if this is a time when if good people don’t speak out ignorance and violence will prevail, or have we moved into the phase where it’s too late and it’s better to keep silent and preserve oneself until the revolution has passed, to not rush blindly into the roaring slaughter. Is this a time when journalists should not speak out, but like Dith Pran, as immortalized in “The Killing Fields”, pretend to be a taxi driver? If you haven’t seen the movie [tied with my all-time favorite], Dith must not show any signs of being educated or he will be killed, and thus when an authority demands to know his occupation, he meekly pantomimes holding a steering wheel and says “Taxi”.
Curiously in contemporary America, not only do we have the danger of the extreme conservatives with a veritable orange boogeymen at the helm pledging to destroy the environment, threatening using nuclear weapons, and crafting economic strategies that would only benefit billionaires at everyone else’s expense; we also have a dangerous, radicalized, and militant left that advocates censorship, destroying art, essentialism, and attacking their teachers, even if the people they are targeting are on their side, support them, and are themselves bastions of liberalism and equality.
I would prefer if the two extremes would square off against each other, but the most likely victims are going to be people who don’t pledge their allegiance to either group, and thus are vulnerable to attack by one, the other, or both. Individualists, non-conformists, and those who hold broad principals over a narrower, applied morality favoring a certain group may be either sacrificed or wisely eject themselves from the battlegrounds and quietly cultivate their gardens on the periphery (I should probably be doing the latter).
I don’t think the apparent insanity of the reigning president or his cohorts needs much further argument. I say apparent insanity because I don’t believe any of the players are actually insane – though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn otherwise – but rather see that groups, like mobs, produce insane situations and outcomes. Part of how this operates is the diffusion of responsibility. Soldiers, say, in Vietnam, might have committed atrocities in the field of battle that they would never contemplate in a peace environment, and this has a lot to do with their not having any individual responsibility, all of which must necessarily be deferred to superiors if one is going to kill. [The documentary Winter Soldier, in which Vietnam vets confess the sickening atrocities they committed during the war, should be a dire warning of what happens when people are sent to fight without a moral compass.]
One is only absolved of murder if all responsibility belongs to an itself unaccountable government, an abstract conglomerate in which rarely are the actually guilty individuals responsible brought to trial (see the contemporary portrait and still-life painter, George W. Bush). Thus, while I won’t glibly proclaim Donald Trump, his advisors or cohorts insane, I would argue that their policies constitute insanity. I won’t here chop down low-hanging fruit. In any case I’d need to dig a hole to excavate it, that’s how obviously pernicious it is. The policies of the Trump administration are suicidal.
What I want to address is more the errors of the far left, though there is a shared mindset with their presumed opposites, which is an either/or, black & white, you are with us or against us, Us Vs. Them mentality. If we can see something as wrong, we next presume the exact opposite is correct. If it turns out that Indians were not the bad guys, as portrayed in classic cowboy movies, than we must assume that it was the cowboys who were 100% bad (forgetting that things like scalping people alive might suggest some Indians were less than kindly stewards of nature). There’s no middle ground, and on either side no admission that we ourselves as individuals can be wrong, are potentially evil, are part of the problem. We must, like the Hatfields and McCoys, convince ourselves that we are innocent, no matter what we do, and the other, whoever that may be, is purely the evil one. All problems of the world are projected onto the evil other with whom we have no sympathy, and nothing in common. A characteristic of people who have fallen into this trap is that a non-hostile dialogue becomes impossible, and people are not addressed by their names so much as by labels: terrorist, Muslim, Christian, infidel, white supremacist, lib-tard, Nazi, cis-gendered white male, snowflake, SJW… There is always a need for an enemy, and a corollary blindness to the possibility that the enemy in question could also be a scapegoat.
When we refuse to acknowledge our own potential for evil (as in wrongdoing, not some supernatural thing), and that the real culprit in all instances is the human mind, which each of us possesses, than it’s a good sign that we may be well on our way to perpetrating evil in the name of fighting evil, and in our own faux innocence. We may find ourselves both proclaiming that we are victims while undeniably victimizing someone else in the very present.
In most every case the enemy is corruption of the mind, and each person’s mind is vulnerable. The first battle against evil is always a battle with the self. Those who eschew this battle in favor of fighting a convenient foe (skin color, dress, affiliation) are easy prey for those that want to conscript them into a battle, and make them into cannon fodder.
Some may protest that they have no potential for evil, but this merely means they have never had to test themselves. It is far easier to decry atrocities committed on the battlefield from the comfort of ones own sofa. Those who say I would have done this or I would never have done that don’t realize that in different circumstances they become a different “I”. Each of us has a battle with selfishness, greed, jealousy, and so on. The least we can do is admit it, and not project all those qualities on other peoples’ bodies, and then convince ourselves that by killing them we extinguish once and for all the problem (ban all Muslims, exterminate the Jews, #killallwhitemen…).
Are any soldiers sent into battle told by their superiors that they are being asked to murder in the name of a plot to aggrandize a tyrant that rules over them? No. There is always a justification that we are taking arms against a deplorable enemy. Even serial killers have their rationalizations, such that the slaughterer of sex-workers will produce some grievance against prostitution and blame the victim.
My point is not that there aren’t marauding mobs raping and pillaging, who are clearly guilty of the most vile crimes, or that we don’t need armies to defend ourselves from invasion, but rather that in their own minds they are fighting the evil other, the inhuman, and that they are doing the work of the good, even if it’s just cleaning metaphoric scum off of the sidewalk. Yes, we humans can justify murder and rape as being done in the name of the good, and this is the problem.
This gets tricky when dealing with the deeply rooted urge to revenge, the use of torture, and capital punishment. In order to oppose those who commit the most vile actions, we will ourselves inflict the same actions upon them. I don’t think it is a good thing to start over at the year zero in a revolutionary new bloody dawn and forget all that went before, and hence it is worthwhile to remember that the torturers of the Inquisition were considered to be the keepers of virtue.
This is not to say that I am invulnerable to the desire for revenge or resorting to physical violence. On the contrary, it is to say that we are all vulnerable to devolving into barbarism, in which case it’s best to have values that help protect us from doing so, and this includes not denying such potential in ourselves and projecting it onto an evil other.
See the Invisible Beings
Much of the controversy in art and academia today revolves around just such values. All the instances of which I will address come from the viewpoint that those protesting are upholding a moral good, and are acting against victimization. They believe that they are the underdog fighting against the brutal oppressor. Blasphemy as it might be to question whether this is really accurate or not, the only way to find out is to examine the moral arguments on each side, and the actions arising from them.
We each come into any discussion with some already operating values, and it is worth noting that any party that refuses to have a discussion casts suspicion on itself. Here I would like to confess one of my values that I carry into the debate, which is the notion of people as invisible beings. Bear with me. I will try to make this short, and if I can’t, it’s probably ponderous nonsense to begin with.
I maintain that we should, difficult as it is to do so, regard ourselves and others as minds and not bodies. We can probably agree that the mind is not determined by the body, and with a nod to science also agree that while a brain is a visible thing, a mind is shapeless, colorless, genderless, and weightless. Science cannot even locate consciousness as a thing. Nevertheless this thing which cannot be found is our core being. We all instinctively understand that when a prince is turned into a frog, the frog is still the prince despite his new amphibian body and increased jumping and swimming ability.
If we observe our own minds we will notice how quickly we define people by their bodies, or as their bodies, and how difficult it is to properly see them as that which is behind their eyes, and not what is in front of our own. This is partly because when dealing with strangers we have no access to what is behind their eyes.
I suggest that the way forward, learning from identity politics but not being caught in its more militant interpretations, is to transition to thinking of people as invisible minds which occupy bodies, instead of bodies which incidentally house minds. Therefore when we say someone is black, white, a man or woman… we are merely addressing their bodies, largely out of convenience, but just as likely denying their mind. Further, at the core of each mind is the sense of being, the recognition “I am” which we all cherish as our deepest sense of self. In that way, one could argue, the more layers we peel away, the more the evil other is just our self in another body and another circumstance. Once we make this realization, harming anyone becomes much more difficult.
This is not to deny the history and cultural influences which impact an individual. The opposite is true. We can only truly see someone when we see through her or his eyes. That definitely includes any strong factors that have effected their lives. This is much more easily said than done. I try to keep in mind that I can’t really see anyone.
Censoring and Destroying Art
This is a thing now, and gaining in popularity, hence the motivation and my hesitance in writing about it. I write to counter the trend, but don’t want to be censored myself, which has already happened (more on that later), in which case you are not being paranoid if there really is a shark in the surf.
I will introduce three works which were subjected to calls for censorship and destruction (and later discuss the related attack on a teacher). In each case the artist was a liberal attempting to make work condemning the societal ill of racism. Ultimately the artwork was felt to be so racially offensive itself that it must be destroyed. Curiously, we usually think of radical conservatives faulting art coming out of the far left, or vice-versa (protests of a Milo Yiannopoulos lecture), but in this instances all the players are on the left and fighting for the same ostensible cause.
There is an apparent divide these artists were unaware of that separates the left from the more radical left – a chasm between classical liberalism and the new liberals. An example of this most Americans might be familiar with is when radical activists shutdown a Bernie Sanders’ rally. From one perspective it would seem preposterous for anyone on the left to see Bernie as an adversary, but from a more radical or militant standpoint it is obvious why he is seen as being on the wrong side of history. We are witnessing a conflict between classical liberalism with its notion of individual freedom and class awareness versus a radical left based in postmodernism and identity politics that portrays white, male, Western culture as a scourge on the Earth responsible for every problem.
Please note that the philosophers responsible for this radical new perspective were themselves white, and to the degree that fault can be found with those currently espousing the more egregious aspects of this vantage, I would place responsibility on the educators who inculcate and indoctrinate postmodern/identity politics to the exclusion of other perspectives, and not on the students who are being deprived of a more broad-minded education! Also bear in mind that while this new paradigm presumes to credit itself with social justice, the civil rights movement, anti-war movement, the first wave of feminism, and most all of the significant and successful social movements took place either before or independent of postmodern identity/politics.
Those who have seen footage or read about the shutting down of the Sanders’ rally will remember that he and his supporters were accused of “white supremacy”. This confrontation between militant postmodern leftists and classic liberal whites is the battleground where all these conflicts occur, and the Sanders’ rally epitomizes the struggle.
When the activist was permitted to take the microphone, she accused: “Now that you’ve covered yourself in your white supremacist liberalism…” and then proceeded to inform the audience that they are on what was formerly tribal lands. Not surprisingly, the audience took umbrage at being branded with the worst epithet (there is hardly anything lower in America than a bonafide racist). Most notable is the conviction that a liberal white is a white supremacist. Another key thing to notice is how blacks can comfortably speak on behalf of Native Americans, as if all POC have mutual understanding and concerns, and only white people are a separate group that does not belong to greater humanity, but is portrayed as a blight upon it.
Significantly, in all the cases of censorship, the attack on the teacher, and shutting down the Sanders’ rally, the charge leveled is one of “white supremacy” even and especially if those targeted were expressly opposing racism and white supremacy. Note that Sanders had intended to address the spate of police shootings of black suspects in the speech he was unable to give. Please keep in mind that it is not only POC who believe this rhetoric, but also radicalized whites, and thus, of course, the problem is not due to race, but rather to people’s ideas and beliefs in their immaterial, colorless minds.
This is also not to say that postmodernism, political correctness, and identity politics have not made important contributions to our civilization. They have forced a revaluation of history and how it is written, and introduced the stories and perspectives of people outside of the mainstream or dominant culture. There is a persistent critique of power, how it operates, and how it is abused. Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”, with its analysis of the panopticon design of a prison in Illinois, how it uses surveillance and self-surveillance as a measure of control, and how this has been mirrored in the work environment, has awakened my understanding of the workplace and surveillance ever since. The biggest gift PoMo has given us is allowing and encouraging marginalized persons to express themselves. We all benefit from having multiple metaphoric windows to look through, and to be able to see ourselves and our culture from an outside perspective. I am personally drawn to PoMo’s insight that all narratives are ultimately fictions. It’s safe to say I ponder this continually.
[To read my in-depth examination of how PoMo has worked against us, go here.]
But instead of the best insights and arguments of PoMo being retained, and the rest discarded, PoMo has become institutionalized, literalized, and radicalized. Instead of it being a useful reeling in of the excesses of Modernism and the Enlightenment, it has replaced it entirely. We are no longer incredulous at all narratives, which is perhaps the central idea of PoMo, we are true believers in the tenets of PoMo as unalloyed reality. Instead of a counter-narrative modifying and checking a one-sided story of history, it replaced it with its own unchecked, one-sided, and even much narrower story.
If PoMo reeled in Modernism, it is time to reel in PoMo now that it has moved into the dictatorial traits of censorship, witch hunts, and the destruction of art. We need to resurrect the baby of Modernism that we threw out with the bath water. Clearly an ideology has run amok.
Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”
Dana Schutz’ made a stylized oil painting of Emmet Till lying in his coffin. The controversy surrounding this painting may have sparked the other demands for censorship, so I will spend a bit more time on this one in order to outline the main points of contention.
The 14 year old black boy who is the subject of the painting had been brutally beaten, including one of his eyes being gauged out, and finally shot by white men after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. Making matters worse an all white jury did not find the murderers guilty, ironically because the boy’s body was so disfigured that he could not be positively identified. Black people were horrified and outraged, as were many whites, and Emmet Till’s story has stood as a sobering lesson in the human capacity for depravity, violence, and abject cruelty – in this instance as a consequence of a virulent strain of white supremacist racism. I think it’s safe to say that anyone who isn’t or wasn’t shocked, disgusted, and properly horrified by such an act lacks core humanity.
The artist stated that she chose this infamous incident from the 1950’s as a stark reminder of historical white supremacy, and as a protest against the recent spate of killings of black suspects by police.
Shutz is not the first white person to retell this cautionary story. Bob Dylan wrote his song, “The Death of Emmet Till” in 1962.
Dylan’s lyrics expressed his anger and indignation not only at the atrocity of the beating and the murder, but also at the perpetrators being set free. Here are a few choice verses:
I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin’ down the courthouse stairs
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free
While Emmett’s body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea
If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
I don’t know if anyone objected to the song then, or now, but I would hazard a guess that a central difference between Dylan’s song and Schutz’ painting is merely the specificity of words versus the subjective impression given by a painting. Even if someone wanted to, they couldn’t twist Dylan’s condemnation of Jim Crow, the KKK, the smirking brothers descending the court steps, or the unspeakable crimes committed into anything but a searing indictment of white supremacy.
Had Dana written song lyrics or an article expressing her sentiments, all criticism might have disappeared. A painting, however, is vulnerable to wild interpretations and misinterpretations being projected onto it. If viewers already believe that whites are necessarily racist on some level, beneficiaries of racism, and in cahoots with white supremacy, than they will see what they already believe. Ironically, while Dylan argued that If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing you are basically a zombie, Dana Schutz’ crime was to speak out against this kind of thing.
In such instances we might defer to what the artist has to say about her intent, but the postmodern perspective (deconstructionism) maintains that the viewer’s interpretation is as valid as the author’s, in which case critics of the painting may blithely disregard the artist’s own intentions. As an artist myself I strongly disagree with this view, as nobody really is going to know where an artist is coming from and what they want to express better than the artist. We may end up disagreeing or finding where they fell short or contradicted themselves, but the idea that we need not consider the artist’s own interpretation of their work, or attestation of their intent, is to rob them of all agency (unless it is a pernicious impulse we project onto them). In the comments section of an article dedicated to providing comebacks to any defense of Dana Schutz, one of the authors disregards the artist’s intent:
“I don’t think the artist’s intentions matter in this case. Even if we took Dana at her word that she wanted to portray empathy for Mamie Till, she failed. I also don’t fully buy her explanation. She often, on some level, uses shock value and so why would this be the only painting not meant to shock?”
The author refused to give credence to the artist’s voice and instead superimposed her own perspective, most likely knowing next to nothing about the artist or her art other than what she read from other condemning critics. It should be immediately apparent to educated people that such a methodology is bankrupt.
This point about people projecting whatever they want onto a painting, and postmodernism justifying this, is so important that I will make a small digression to explore it with a couple more examples. When I was 18 I read a (Freudian) psychological biography of Vincent Van Gogh. Even at that young age my eyebrows raised at some of the conclusions the author drew. Take a gander at Van Gogh’s 1888 painting, “Gauguin’s Chair”:
Disregarding the artist’s intent, the author interpreted the candle as, you guessed it, an erect penis, and thus the painting was about Vincent’s homosexual desires towards his fellow artist. Never mind for the moment the disembodied penis candle on the wall (if there’s something we can’t fit into our narrative, we disregard it). It’s possible that the author could have been onto something, but it’s equally possible it was sheer projection, or utter bullshit.
On a more personal note a woman who was deeply offended by an article I wrote in which I pointed out the anatomical anomalies of a Gauguin painting (Gauguin again!) decided to take up arms against me, so to speak. Going through some of my images she determined one was extraordinarily offensive. It was an oil pasted drawing I made from my imagination for a drawing class in Jr. College when I was 21 years old. The assignment was “The Stages of Life”, and, for each stage I chose something rather dark (this was a period in which I generally thought facing reality was confronting the uncomfortable aspects of existence that remind us of injustice, our mortality, and vulnerability).
I’d only ever seen my drawing as about domestic abuse, and my only concern was that people would think it was autobiographical, which it is not. My childhood was not easy, and I grew up in an era when corporal punishment was still a viable parenting technique, but I never endured anything of this magnitude. I could, however, easily imagine being in such a circumstance and my sympathies I think would be obviously entirely with the boy. The woman, perhaps not bothering to notice when I’d made the image, in which case she thought I’d done it in my 40’s, interpreted it in a way that had never occurred to me, or anyone else that I know of, for roughly 30 years. She boldly declared that it was about pedophilia, and accused that I painted one of my victims, of which she was convinced there were many, and threatened to report me. Thus a drawing which was an Expressionistic portrayal of the brutality of child abuse was turned by a demented mind into a portrait of a victim by a serial, sadistic pedophile. This is the danger of allowing people to have their own interpretations of paintings while disregarding the artist’s intent and interpretation of his or her own work. People may portray their own phobias, dementia, sadism, perversity or sickness onto you.
Here I will mention that I wrote a long article in defense of Dana Schutz, but took it down after I received a comment from a self-proclaimed Black Muslim group dedicated to destroying white art. Among those whose work they were offended by was that of Picasso (cultural appropriation of black art) and Gauguin (exploitation of brown people). They saw fit to label me as a “white supremacist” and “racist” and insisted that I “stop pontificating”. At the time I felt that I didn’t want to engage with such people, nor to be a target of their campaign. I still don’t. I was aware, as I am now, that when you label someone a “racist” or “white supremacist” that gives you license to be overtly racist to them in the present. Warning me to shut up because of my race is racial harassment. Now, I’m not sure, but it may be better to stand up to bullies, wherever they hail from, and armed with whatever excuses for their actions. They want to hurt innocent people. If we let them walk over us they will be emboldened. For this reason I wrote a revised version explaining why I took down my post, which made the point that extremists on the other side of the issue were threatening me, that’s how ridiculous they are.
The reaction to Schutz’ “Open Casket” may have kicked the ball rolling on the recent spate of demands for the immolation of art. Radical activists who define themselves as black determined that the work is a voyeuristic showcasing of black suffering and death for the consumption and enjoyment of a white audience. Further, they maintain the white artist is trying to capitalize financially off the oppression and suffering of the black community. This conviction was expressed by (black) writer, Christina Sharpe:
“images of Black suffering circulate for a certain kind of enjoyment and profit. We’ve seen that circulation over and over, in the history of the Whitney Biennial and the history of this country.”
This notion may baffle white readers who do not take pleasure in the suffering of others, and find incidents of physical harm inflicted on individuals to be repugnant and unacceptable regardless of race (see Bob Dylan’s song, above). Nevertheless, one needs to appreciate that there are those such as Christina Sharpe who honestly believe that white people, in the present (not the antediluvian south) traffic in images of black suffering for fun and profit. If this does occur, my guess is it’s a rarity and something most whites would want nothing whatsoever to do with. The Dylann Roofs of this world are not going to be popular with the average white person, not by a long shot. Never mind for the moment how belittling this is to white people who become the evil other that celebrates the torture of other beings and schemes how to fiscally profit off of it.
We are additionally to understand that a white person cannot possibly fathom the suffering the image proposes to address, and neither does it in any way convey it. Instead, the image is a travesty and mockery of historical black suffering, in which case it operates to fortify white supremacy. The artist, they argue, is the direct beneficiary of the racism she pretends to denounce, in which case we cannot take her criticism seriously. In order to be an ally to the cause of fighting oppression, she must identify herself as an oppressor and align herself with the villains in the notorious killing. If this sounds like hyperbole or an overstatement, remember that those making the accusations were demanding the destruction of the artwork, in which case they must be serious and their charges must be severe!
The argument against the artist was early penned by Hrag Vartanian, the editor of the online art magazine, Hyperallergic. It is worth quoting an entire paragraph of his critique [I put some parts in bold which I will want to address]:
“The portrayal of violence, and particularly this type of extreme disfigurement of a victim, is difficult to look at, and the artist’s choice to paint it is particularly strange. The image is particularly troubling because a white woman’s fictions caused the murder of the young man, and now a white female artist has mined a photograph of his death for ostensible commentary, which in reality does little to illuminate much of anything. What is Schutz contributing to the imagery or story of Till, or to the rendering of violence? The position of the contemporary artist is one of precarious privilege, but here the artist appears to have absolved herself by refusing to implicate herself in the image, preferring to let the history of the image, and her painterly additions, make the case for her. Removed from culpability, she has instead used Till’s brutalized likeness as a way to explore painterly technique, and without consulting the title, most people would likely not even recognize the subject. What does this do? How does the subject work here? How is this not a form of exploitation?“
To have treated the subject properly, Hrag maintains that the artist needed to implicate herself as culpable (blameworthy). Hrag wants us to link the facts that a white woman made the painting, and it was a white woman who spread a lie that got Emmet killed over a half century ago. It is because of this connection that the artist is “implicated” and “culpable”, in which case the painting is “exploitation”. There is no real argument how the painting is exploitation, unless it is a magical connection between white women over generations, but merely the statement “how is it not exploitation?” I may simply make a counter assertion, “How is this argument not ridiculous essentialism?”
There is an underlying belief here that we will see as a justification in each of the incidents of censorship and disapprobation, and that is the (selectively applied) belief that peoples’ minds and moral character are determined by either their biology or conditioning. Here, because the artist is a white woman, she is more culpable (blameworthy) and implicated for the death of a teen-aged boy, which happened before she was born, than is, say, Hrag Vartanian himself. We know her psychological make up and how she orients herself to the world, and in relation to POC because
of what she’s openly confessed in interviews and the history of her actions and behavior she is white.
If either the artist were black or the victim were white, this same link between minds and bodies crossing geography and generations would be considered impossible. This is curious because we don’t even insist that the children of Charles Manson are somehow guilty for his murders.
According to Wikipedia, Emmet Till’s father, While serving in Italy, … raped two women and killed a third. He was court-martialed and executed by hanging by the Army near Pisa in July 1945. We would not, at least I would not, ascribe any deleterious qualities to Emmet because of his father’s actions, assuming for the sake of argument that he wasn’t himself framed, which I would not write off as a distinct possibility. In any case, nobody is guilty of the crimes of another because of blood relation, let alone merely being the same skin color. Nobody is born guilty.
This culpability is assigned only on a racial basis, it only applies to ones moral character, and it simultaneously completely disregards ones actual moral character. Instead of comparing someone living today who lies and frames another with the historical figure, Carolyn Bryant, Hrag makes a moral connection based on race. More curious still, this kind of insisting that ones character is defined by their race, or that one person is responsible for what another person of the same race does is why we have racial profiling and have seen stop and frisk laws. Assigning deleterious qualities and guilt to a person based purely on his or her race is the core foundation of textbook racism. It is called essentialism. People who employ essentialism usually do so in order to elevate themselves above another group of people.
This view is not confined to Vartanian, but is shared by another writer at Hyperallergic, Ryan Wong. Ryan wrote:
“Dana Schutz’s painting “Open Casket“ in the 2017 Whitney Biennial highlights this phenomenon: Schutz, a white woman, attempted to stir our collective empathy by painting the disfigured body of Emmett Till. But her identity — and, likely, her experience — is actually closer to that of Carolyn Bryant, the white woman whose lies led to Till’s murder.”
We are to understand that Schutz is not a suitable person to “stir our empathy” because she is necessarily mystically connected to Carolyn Bryant. This is an astounding accusation! Wong is boldly stating that Dana Schutz’s identity is actually proximate to someone who framed an individual and is responsible for his murder! By virtue of race, Dana Schutz becomes, to some degree, the reincarnation of Carolyn Bryant.
Imagine that a Muslim-American made a painting of a person leaping from the burning Twin Towers, and a white journalist wrote that the artist’s identity actually has more in common with the terrorists who flew the planes into the buildings than with the victims who were killed. I, for one, would write a scathing comment in response to the article.
The artist’s identity and experience, insists Wong, are determined by her race. A classic liberal would see this very differently as more of a struggle of good versus bad, in which case a kind person would easily identify with good or innocent people, and have more in common with them than with vicious sadists, irrespective of the shade of their epidermis or which part of town they were raised in.
Speaking from experience I went through a phase where I read a small stack of Toni Morrison novels. I’d been introduced to her novel Sula in my Contemporary Literature class, and found it moving and enriching enough that I sought further knowledge, perspective, mental and spiritual nourishment in her other books. I read The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Jazz, and perhaps the most memorable, Beloved. And in that reading I never identified with the white plantation owners and rapists. Quite naturally I identified with the protagonists, who were obviously black, and which was undoubtedly the author’s intent. The idea that there is a barrier of understanding or compassion between people, because of race, is a new and vehemently strident one.
The easy assignment of race with moral character, identity, and guilt that Ryan Wong projects onto Dana Schutz does not apply to himself. His continued argument, precisely articulates the position of the militant new left. It is worth understanding what this perspective maintains as reality:
“Everyone, including the artist, agrees that Schutz doesn’t know what it means to be Black in America. What’s more disturbing is that Schutz doesn’t seem to know what it means to be white in America. If she did, she might have examined her relationship to the very present social, political, and economic structures — call them white supremacy, for short — which killed that 14-year-old boy in 1955 and so many Black people before and after him.”
Notice here that Wong implies that he, by virtue of being a person of color, has a much better understanding both of what it means to be black in America AND to be white. This is that same notion I mentioned earlier whre POC can all understand each other and whites, but whites don’t even understand themselves. We are not to see this as condescending or dehumanizing, but rather as some brilliant insight into the crippled mind of the oppressor. If anyone questioned whether or not he knew what it was like to be Chinese, again, they would be a bigot. He further insists that the artist has a relationship with white supremacy, and because of this relationship is part and parcel of the ideology that killed Emmet till and still continues to kill innocent black people today. He has here accused her, to some significant extent, of being a white supremacist and being responsible for contemporary murder of black people. Wow! That’s not just finger pointing, it’s volleying a stone. At what point does this become slander? How is such a characterization supposed to effect her career?
I am reminded of something that happened decades ago. I heard a radio commercial for a Pearl Harbor anniversary documentary. In this commercial a surviving Japanese kamikaze pilot was recorded as saying, unapologetically and in a harsh and sinister voice, among other things, “I would do it again!” At the time I was taken aback, not by what the man said, but by the vilification of Japanese. Maybe there’s a reason in my early history, but I never understood the hatred of groups of people. I never hated the French, and was always perplexed that people who had never met a French person comfortably expressed derision for them.
When someone called the French “cheese eating surrender monkeys” it was obvious that they hadn’t themselves been to war, and knew nothing first hand about where this antipathy came from. Or at least, more importantly, I knew that I didn’t know what the hell it was about and thus was disinclined to muster my own hatred out of thin air. Similarly, I don’t understand or accept the demonization of Russia that is presently popular even among the left. I don’t understand how people can be at all comfortable with the notion of bombing Iran or North Korea. And so, days after that Pearl Harbor documentary trailer aired, I was not surprised to hear in the news that anti-Japanese hate crimes had suddenly blossomed. I had the good sense to know that your average Japanese individual has absolutely nothing to do with kamikaze pilots, just as I know that Dana Schutz has absolutely nothing to do with white supremacy, Carolyn Bryant, or the incidents of police killing black people in the street without necessity.
Note that as a Chinese male Ryan Wong has not, as far as I know, implicated himself in the tradition of foot-binding or female infanticide which are a result of the patriarchy in China, past and present. A little research shows Wong organized a show called, Media and Mobilization Beyond Tiananmen Square. Interestingly, because Wong is a liberal, his biology does not connect him with the Chinese government’s brutal crack down on the protestors advocating democracy, but selectively with the student protestors. In this instance his character is relevant – a good person now identifies with good people in the past – but he does not extend this to Schutz or whites. If you are a liberal white today, you are not connected with liberal whites who were a part of the civil rights movement, or opposed slavery, or were properly horrified by the murder of Emmet Till: you are only related to the worst individuals of your race. Do I need to point out the danger of substantiating race as an empirical reality?!
If someone were to insinuate a connection between Wong or Vartanian and the worst elements of their own racial or cultural history, it would be considered extremely bigoted. Nevertheless, both he and Hrag propose that white people are guilty by association, (until proven otherwise through admission of guilt) for that which they may have no part in whatsoever, and are completely opposed to. This breezy condescending lecturing to white people and dehumanization is a constant we will see repeated ad nauseam. It is certainly a staple in the journalism at Hyperallergic, and that is because it is a staple in current liberal arts education, which we will see in the attack on the teacher.
I shake my head at how progressive intellectuals could be oblivious to such an obvious double-standard, but find that it is the case that those who received a predominantly postmodern education are far better at elaborately articulating their position than they are at critical thinking or debate. My graduate art education was the epitome of radical, political, postmodernist, identity politics, and theory. And I can assure you that never in that part of my graduate education was there anything that taught or encouraged genuine critical thinking using reason, logic, argument, and evidence. I attained those skills previously, independently, and elsewhere.
Rather, in the postmodern climate reason and logic are impugned and smeared as the tools of the white, male, patriarchal, racist, colonizer. Deference is given to the feelings of minority or disenfranchised groups. Thus, where a classically trained critical thinker will instantly look for and detect a double-standard as a self-contradiction that invalidates his or her argument, a postmodern thinker has conviction in a felt conclusion and if an argument doesn’t successfully support it, they are confident that with a little tweaking it must. They are convinced that they are right, and this is key. Arguing with a postmodernist is like arguing with a religious fundamentalist. If they don’t believe that reason trumps feeling, belief, or conviction, you cannot possibly disentangle their assertions by logically dissecting them. Postmodern thinkers can spin elaborate arguments in sophisticated and impenetrable prose, but which don’t stand up to a relatively direct and simple logical cross examination. [See my dissection of Rosalind Krauss’ ultra-pretentious postmodern gobbledygook here.]
As Vartanian’s and Wong’s texts clearly illustrate, the case against the artist is not based so much on the art in question, but rather on a bundle of assumptions insisted upon relative to the racial makeup of the artist. Had a black artist made the same painting, Hrag’s response might have been the complete opposite, as is evidenced in his praise of a similar offering by a black artist, Henry Taylor’s “THE TIMES THAY AINT A CHANGING, FAST ENOUGH!”
“Unlike Schutz’s ‘Open Casket,’ Henry Taylor’s painting about violence against African Americans, this time by the police, is less gratuitous and more successful. It starts by giving us a straightforward and identifiable view of the infamous scene in a car that was livestreamed to thousands of people online.”
Vartanian dances around the artist’s choice to make the officer’s arm and hand conspicuously Caucasian, even though officer Jeronimo Yanez is Mexican-American:
“The perpetrator’s arm is lightened, while the victim’s eyes look upwards and his wound is removed, replaced by splashes of yellow and black paint. This gesture emphasizes the fiction of the painting itself and reflects a self-conscious understanding that the artist’s image can never compare to the original.”
Here the officer’s arm is “lightened” but Vartanian doesn’t mention his race has been swapped out for a white officer. Perhaps he applauds this minor alteration to history. In any case, Henry Taylor’s depiction of a murdered black victim is lauded, while that of Schutz is reviled. Never mind for the moment the peculiar praise of one painter’s use of paint to abstract wounds in order to signal the fictive nature of a painting, while disregarding the other’s similar use of painterly abstraction to do precisely the same, which is why the critic was able to say that without the title, we wouldn’t even know it was a painting after the famous photo of Emmet Till in his casket. The conclusions come first, the arguments later, and they don’t need to be consistent or devoid of self-contradiction.
A British artist who is at least 25% biologically black herself, Hanna Black, led the campaign to have the offending painting by Dana Schutz removed from the exhibition, and insisted it be destroyed, or at least never displayed again. She wrote a petition and got dozens of black signatories to support her. Significantly, whites were initially not welcome to sign on (we will see this theme recur in the attack on the teacher). Eventually she reversed this initial prohibition perhaps because it highlighted that whites were not welcome even to support a protest against what was determined to be a botched protest against white supremacy. This could give the impression that no matter what, whites were not welcome, and cast doubt on the objectivity with which Hannah assayed the artwork in question.
In this instance, the curators did not comply.
This may all still be difficult for an invisible mind in a white body to comprehend. It’s taken me a long time to quite get it. You need to be able to see yourself as the enemy and other, as the bad guy, and this can be a difficult mental somersault, especially if you have always been fundamentally on the side of the good. But it helps me to sum up this incident as follows: Dana Schutz, by virtue of being white necessarily has a relation with white supremacy, and therefore is implicated and culpable for the murder of Emmet Till, in which case for her to make a painting of his murdered body is akin to being both the executioner and a marketer of souvenirs celebrating his death. Surely a murderer cannot make hundreds of thousands of dollars off of a poorly executed portrait of his own victim! Nobody as far as I know is saying anything quite that strong, but that seems to be the general vibration of the feeling behind the protests. It requires a leap of the imagination to occupy that perspective. I can briefly make it here and there.
I do not say, and I am confident Dana does not say, that the insights and perspectives of black people are not extremely relevant to the interpretation of her painting. I’m pretty sure other than labeling her and demanding her work be destroyed Dana would welcome the input of a black audience with curiosity, hunger for knowledge, and some humility. And there has been some of this positive and constructive criticism. While Schutz’ painting, as I see it, is evidence of a crime, and rubbing it in the face of a white audience while indicting the belief system that made it possible, for some black people the dead body is not an evidentiary fact. Many black people have been haunted by this image their entire lives, and it has a symbolic power and emotional resonance that a white artist, even if she is appalled at the horror and feels genuine compassion for the victim and his mother, has not lived with for decades.
While I think it is extremely unfair to insist that Dana must align herself with the villains, one way or another, such an image could also reopen old psychological wounds for black people, and even if they appreciate a white artist thrusting the atrocity committed in the face of white supremacy, they don’t appreciate it being thrust in their own faces. Were she alive, would Mamie Till want to see this painting? I think we can be pretty sure if it was gifted to her it wouldn’t end up hanging in her living room (which is not to say art should be made living room friendly). This perspective I find enlightening. And it is worth recalling that both black and white people of a certain generation – those who were around when it happened – are scarred from the terrible beating of Rodney King AND that of Reginald Denny. I am.
But we go overboard. Instead of saying that the artist did too little to indict white supremacy, and hasn’t had to live with the symbolic power of this image her whole life from the perspective of the victim, we say that she hasn’t indicted herself, that she did it for fun, and that she did it for profit. These are grotesque and cruel exaggerations and projections in their own right.
One thing has become clear over time: nobody ever had to see the actual painting. The art is evaluated on a symbolic level, and filtered through foregone conclusions. Because from a certain perspective it is impossible for a white person to make a compassionate depiction of the suffering of a black person, the painting is automatically racist. Any number of paintings could have secretly been shown instead, some of them painted by black artists, and the conclusion would not be altered because it is a firmly held belief.
If one were to ask Dana Schutz’ critics, “Is it possible for a white person to make a painting that compassionately conveys the suffering of black people, and in so doing is an indictment of white supremacy” the answer would be “no”. The painting fails on (flawed) ideological grounds, sight unseen.
Before I move on to the next pieces it is worth mentioning that in my own graduate art school education I was exposed to this same postmodern/identity politics perspective which necessarily connects all present day white people with the worst crimes of members of their race and believes that white people have a price to pay.
In a graduate seminar, for instance, my Mexican American female instructor said to me, in front of my peers, “We’ve heard from you for 2,000 years, and nobody cares what you have to say anymore”. No protest from my peers. Another teacher counseled my peers not to get caught up in hating the white male (which I presumed included me) because, “are you going to hate a pig for the rest of your life?” It is a curious thing for ones instructor to tell ones peers not to hate you because you are not worthy of the sacrifice of their precious time because you are a pig. This kind of revenge against whites in the art world and academia can be seen clearly in another article in Hyperallergic, which is perhaps the leading purveyor of the postmodern/identity politics platform in the art world. Writer, Travis Webb offers this advice on how to “disrupt white supremacy in the mainstream art world”:
“White supremacy in the art world suggests the supremacy of white people. And it seems to me you are asking, how we disrupt the hegemony of these white people. If that’s what you’re asking, then fund the work of non-white artists and suppress their white counterparts, censor white productions, belittle the achievements of white people while celebrating non-white people. We know these tactics work because historically white people have used them very effectively to steal rock n’ roll, dehumanize native “crafts,” and elevate European “art” music above other “colored” musics. The tactics of the bully are well established.”
Here an art magazine is supporting defunding, suppressing, censoring, and belittling people based on their race, if they are white. The idea is that these bully tactics are a necessary or desirable counter-measure against all white artists in order to compensate for such tactics allegedly practiced by (select) whites in the past and present. Here we are not looking for justice or equality in the now, not trying to end oppression outright, but reversing it with new innocent victims.
Returning again to my graduate art education, I distinctly remember a female peer arguing in a graduate seminar that it is not enough to bring equality, but that she wanted the tables to be turned, and to have power over white males. My colleagues nodded sagely at the radicality of her stance. I showed no sign of emotion or having an invisible mind inside the husk of my white male body. I barely breathed.
The shocking error of this kind of thinking is that there is any reversal of oppression, as opposed to just the continuation of the cancer of oppression in different minds. The people who want to be in a position of power to exploit others most likely have never in their lives been exploited in the way they desire to exploit others. To give an exaggerated example, virtually no living person born in America has experienced being either a slave or slave owner (excluding wage slavery which is an equal opportunity employer). If someone wanted to enslave whites in order to right past wrongs, they would not be punishing the perpetrators of slavery, but instead be creating innocent victims and themselves merely embracing evil for selfish reasons.
That is an extreme example, but just above I mentioned one of my teachers telling me nobody cares what I have to say, and effectively silencing me. I have not in my lifetime witnessed a POC ever subjected to such treatment, and I went to integrated schools in LA. In college some white students, if we are past the 60’s, would probably kick up a furor if a teacher spoke that way to a black student. I would. I’m well known for standing up to my teachers (I have a bit of a problem with abuse of authority) and have been kicked out of more than one class for doing so. More importantly, I have never myself silenced a person of color or been in a position of power to do so. How is silencing me giving the ostensible perpetrators of silencing others their just deserts? It is not. It is a new and completely unjustified abuse of power over an innocent person.
Perhaps an analogy would serve better. Imagine that a member of the Smith family breaks the leg of a member of the Jones family. Mr. Jones, the father, goes out and breaks the leg of the first Smith he comes across. Does this avenge the original assault? No. It is just a repetition of the same evil act. You cannot punish or censure someone for the crime of someone else. You cannot tell a student they can’t speak or announce that they are a pig because of social crimes ostensibly committed by people with a similarly shaded epidermis in centuries or thousands of years past.
Nevertheless this obviously bankrupt psychology is promulgated even by liberal contemporary art publications and is behind the censoring of art we are seeing.
Tom Megalis’ Painting of The Shooting Of Tamir Rice
Now that I’ve laid down the groundwork this one is easy. Foolhardy artist Tom Megalis painted the shooting of Tamir Rice. Have a look:
Where was Tom when the protests against Schutz’ painting broke out? Poor bastard. Had he only known he would not have bothered to try to make such a painting. We can just place his painting in the same template as the Schutz’ controversy, in which case we have the same foregone conclusion: a white person has no right to paint black suffering, for fun, and to profit from it. Close the books, and blow away the dust – case closed.
Megalis received such an onslaught of criticism and personal attacks when he posted a video on Facebook about his painting, which had been accepted in a Pittsburgh art exhibit (the jury did NOT know the race of the artist), that he withdrew his entry and took down his Facebook post. The main objections were that he is white and profiting from black pain.
The artist has stated that he was inspired by an editorial by (black) commenter Isaac Bailey on CNN which implored white people to show support for Tamir and stand against police brutality: “Why aren’t more white people standing up and demanding that this kind of injustice no longer stand? Why aren’t more white people mourning Rice with us?”
Megalis decided to show his support through the medium of painting. Ultimately he was cowed: “I’m not black, and I can’t say I understand what it’s like to feel their pain … I meant it as a tribute.”
There are two curious notions here, one is that pain is racial, and the other is that a member of one race cannot understand the pain of another. Classic liberals and humanists would maintain that we CAN understand each other’s pain, and that we have infinitely more in common with our fellow humans than we are separated by race, class, gender, or any other designation. They would respect those differences, fully acknowledge that nobody’s experience encompasses that of another, and that the only way to really understand another’s suffering is to walk a mile in their shoes. It is the postmodern paradigm, or the militant identity/politics strain of it that maintains that whites, and only whites, cannot fathom the suffering of anyone else, which they are necessarily primarily responsible for.
Even further, a classic liberal or humanist would argue that not only can you understand the pain of others who are superficially unlike you, whether because of race, gender, or circumstances, you should try to do so.
I do appreciate, however, the difference between understanding the suffering of non-whites when that pain is communicated by a black artist (such as when I read Toni Morrison) and presuming to communicate it yourself, to speak for them. THAT is a much more tricky proposition. THAT requires quite a bit of insight, research, experience, knowledge, and commitment. It is necessary for most any novel or historical account.
To illustrate this, I remember when a teenaged friend flirted with fiction writing and wanted to write a novel. When I asked him what his novel would be about, he said, “Vietnam”. I remember this snippet from over 30 years ago merely because of how ridiculous the proposition struck me at the time. He hadn’t been to Vietnam. He hadn’t been a soldier. He had no idea what the reality of the situation was that he wanted to write about. But I got that he was deeply effected by the Vietnam experience.
I also remember briefly toying with the idea of writing a novel myself when I was 18-19 and became interested in poetry and spent most my free time reading modern classic novels. This idea never lasted for even a minute as I knew I couldn’t possibly flesh out other characters because I couldn’t speak for perspectives other than my own. I didn’t have enough experience.
But I would not have said that it was impossible for someone else. If my friend had pursued his dream of writing the great Vietnam novel, he could have researched it, interviewed vets, visited Vietnam, enlisted, and gone through any number of measures that could eventually give him the breadth and scope to address the material, just as a historical novelist can write about the civil war without ever having fought in it.
I suppose the big question is: are humans inherently similar or insurmountably different? Classic liberalism says we are similar, the new left says we are inherently different. Rather cynical is that.
Mary Anne Evans wrote novels with the nom de plume George Eliot so that people wouldn’t dismiss or categorize her writing as women’s fiction, or the product of a woman’s mind. She fooled everyone. This would be impossible if she were unable to fathom the male mind. She is proof positive that the human mind can jump the gender gap, and without introducing another new author into this discussion we might say that Toni Morrison was able to jump the race barrier and get into the mind of her white characters.
Why deny this rich human potential we all possess in favor of a cynical notion that another person’s perspective is impenetrably opaque? I suppose it’s because in order to have a radical theory it must go against its predecessors, even if their achievement was grand. We would rather decimate our human potential if in doing so we will be recognized as having a radical theory.
However, I have already addressed the double-standards of the militant left. POC can understand each other and understand white people, but it is only white people who are so narrow and shallow that they can’t even understand themselves. And to this I will say again that we all have the same invisible minds, and they are all capable of understanding each other with enough care, effort, interest, and selflessness. If minds in white bodies are incapable of jumping the race barrier, so are all other minds because there is only one kind of mind, but in a vast array of circumstances. The truth is fuzzier and more complex than either polarity, but I think it’s far better to assume that in each body, regardless of race or gender, resides the same person, than to assume each person is substantially different regardless of circumstance. It is better to see yourself in your enemy than to see your enemy as your opposite.
This, however, is not even a necessary point to make, as the artists were never attempting to convey the subjectivity of their black subjects. They were merely showing the result of the violence of white supremacists. That is why no real white supremacists are defending Schutz or Megalis [and by “white supremacists” I don’t mean someone who didn’t get the memo and ignorantly wore a sombrero to a Halloween party, but people who actually HATE minorities and view them as less than human]. For the true white supremacist, these images are a hostile attack on them.
A completely separate issue is whether these paintings succeed in conveying the horror of their subject, and I don’t think they do, but that is not the main criticism, and most who say they don’t would say that whether they did or not.
My Own Attempt At a Very Similar Subject
This isn’t self-promo folks, for the two reasons: one is that it doesn’t seem to do any good, and people no matter how much they are interested in my art criticism are not the least interested in my art (and say so); two is that nobody seems to like this piece, so, it’s a baaaad choice for getting attention to my art. I also have nothing for sale. It is only interesting or relevant in how I chose to address a very similar topic to the two former paintings.
To explain this I will quote my blog post which will make it obvious why the subject is relevant to this discussion, and also eliminate the possibility that I am retroactively and disingenuously tailoring my arguments:
“My original inspiration came from all the executions I was seeing in the news around that time. There were the beheadings by ISIS, misguided drone strikes, revolution in Syria, and of course the shooting of Michael Brown. It’s not a high point for the evolution of consciousness of our species that we still go around executing people on slim cause, having so little understanding or appreciation for the lives of others.
As usual I like to build ambivalence and multiple possible readings into my imagery. We don’t know why the robot has shot up the humanoid, and I say humanoid because he appears to be some sort of mutant. I think people would side with the mutant because he looks to be surrendering, and to no avail. I chose to make him a mutant as a sort of visual metaphor for the way people “other” and dehumanize those they perceive as outsiders and different from themselves. It’s rarely a “human being” that is being executed, but some sort of monster or inferior being. Though the same could be said for perceptions of police or soldiers, who are also humans, and usually working class people with their own struggles. However, my sympathy is more for the victims of execution than the perpetrators, even if we must realize that we are or were all capable of such barbarities, and no one is inherently ethical or good. It’s a lifelong struggle between selfishness and generosity, and most of us aren’t really put to the test.
The robot of course has no compassion and is just following its programming. It could be a soldier, sentry, border patrol, revolutionary, extremist, or police… Whichever role it is in, in the circumstance it has the power, and uses it without reservation. This could take place in the future in a robot Vs. humans war in which the robots are systematically annihilating what’s left of a post-apocalyptic, decimated, diseased and dying human species.
This also stems from my suspicion that the robots that are being developed by DARPA and others may be used in battle against humans, perhaps even as the troops of the 1% when the thronging mass of people rise up against them. We already have drones, and killing from afar. By me, we don’t need to be developing new and more advanced military weapons, but rather making friends with the rest of humanity and investing in alternative energy and using technology in ways that will benefit everyone. We probably already have enough military might. Besides which, it’s time to evolve, folks.
Well, you could read it that a clean robot is ridding the world of some vile, terrorist, cretin, and I deliberately created that effect, but I really intend our sympathies to be with the living, conscious, suffering being. The victim is pleading at all costs, “don’t shoot”, and is riddled with bullets as a perfunctory matter of course: the execution of an equation by a calculator. All the mental might of the victim, his will and every bit of energy he could marshal were helpless against bare circumstance – an unfortunate and irreversible role of the dice.”
I knew from my graduate education that it would be stupid for me to depict a person of color in my art, as a victim, and I also new that I wouldn’t be able to do that powerfully without more knowledge and insight than I had into the identity of the real Michael Brown. Additionally, knowing that there are hundreds of white victims of police shootings, I chose to pan back and address the abuse of power by unaccountable state entities exercised against a perceived expendable other. I made the conflict between the vulnerable, suffering human and the calculating, indifferent, machine. I could put myself in the role of the mutant and the robot.
It is still possible for someone to insist on a sinister misinterpretation of this work and completely disavow what I’ve written above. I hope that day never comes.
Sam Durant’s “Scaffold”
Durant’s piece is a re-creation of a historic US platform on which public executions, in the form of hangings, took place. Here it is:
It’s safe to say I am generally NOT a fan of conceptual political art. I wrote a long article over a year ago about Ai Weiwei and the Inarticulateness of Conceptual Art, in which I argued that such pieces don’t really say anything about the events they purport to address unless you read the placard adjacent to them. If the goal of the art is to inform people or persuade them that a historical injustice has occurred, a documentary would be far more effective. This piece suffers from that same problem, and is vulnerable to the other phenomenon I mentioned earlier, which is people can impose any interpretation they want on a painting, and in this case a sculpture, when it would be much more difficult to do so with a written statement. Here, as with all the other artist’s work in question, had they expressed their political convictions in written form, there would be no problem.
I’m not sure what I would have thought of this piece had I encountered it before learning of the controversy surrounding it, but I doubt I would have been very impressed. It doesn’t really say anything clearly about capital punishment, and I would just assume it’s against it. It’s a prop for a missing story. And while this structure was employed to hang four of those responsible for the assassination of Lincoln, including the first woman to be executed in the United States, the protesters are offended because it was used to execute 38 Dakota Indians, and stands for them as a painful reminder that history. This is quite understandable when the structure is erected on the metaphoric front lawn of the remaining descendants of the tribe in question. But is it that simple? Rarely is anything simple. In any case the Dakotas demanded the work be burned.
If the object of the art is to inform on the subject, I could learn more in a few minutes of Googling. For me, a period picture that captures a moment is usually more powerful than a physical re-creation of a site. I might get as much or more from a period drawing of the event which the current conflagration centers around:
Well, now, I DO find this drawing more informative. Now I know that the Sioux Indians (also called the Dakota Indians, which the States were named after) were hung around the periphery of the structure, and there were several rows of soldiers around the event, assuming the drawing is accurate. The re-creation, with includes a metal base, and is snugly centered in a park, next to a lake, doesn’t have the same effect, at least in photos.
The problem arose because this work, which had been shown before in Germany in 2002, without incident, was now erected in Minnesota, not far from where those 38 Native Americans had been hung. The local Native Americans were not impressed, or rather not impressed in a good way. Photos of some of the signs of protest give us an idea why:
Some people could take the sign about the reward for the scalp of the artist as a death threat, but I see it as humor and am guessing the person who put it up probably doesn’t have the reward money to offer. Just a guess there, folks. But it is perhaps a small irony that while nobody I know of has commented on this death threat, we are to interpret Durant’s “scaffold” as necessarily traumatic for the Native population.
Even after reading a half dozen articles on the protests to this piece, nobody ever mentioned WHY the Dakota Indians had been hung. Without that information I just assumed it was out of sheer meanness. I never learned about this in my American history classes. Judging from the uproar I just assumed those hangings were the equivalent of lynchings, just with a different race of victims of white supremacy. Perhaps the reason why the Natives were executed is irrelevant to the debate, but, out of sheer curiosity, I decided to look it up. This old newspaper clip is enlightening, as there are at least a couple salient details left out of the dialogue so far.
Why had nobody mentioned that Abraham Lincoln was the one who ultimately selected those to be hanged? How odd. Or was it because those who were sentenced to death had participated in a massacre that claimed the lives of roughly 800 settlers, including women and children, while the able-bodied men were off fighting in the civil war? The 38 killed had been charged with murdering unarmed citizens, women and children. I’m certainly not going to take a newspaper clipping espousing history written by the victors as truth, so I did some more research, which largely substantiated the outlines of this report.
Among other things I believe I uncovered what that scalping sign was about. According to a U.S. History site, “Little Crow, who eluded the Minnesota militia following the end of the uprising but was killed in 1863, was also scalped following his death. His scalp, dressed with feathers, along with his skull, was placed on public display at the Minnesota Historical Society until 1915.” This is something I’d never heard of before: white people scalping Indians! Apparently there was quite a bit of this going on, and it’s worth remembering this tidbit should anyone mistakenly accuse that the Indians were more savage. But there is also this detail, “In some cases, the atrocities committed against white civilians were truly horrifying. Letters claimed infants were nailed to trees alive and were left to die in the sight of their captive mothers.”
I readily concede reading up on the internet for an hour barely gives me any understanding of the events, which are in any case all via third-hand sources. Even if I had been there when it happened I’d only have a partial understanding of the situation. I do think it is worth acknowledging, however, that hundreds of defenseless civilians were murdered, there were rapes, and there were hostages. We may or may not find justification for this, but my initial impression that the Indians had just been rounded up and lynched because of white supremacy was just an impression, and the kind one would get when critical evidence is left out.
My guess, and it IS just a guess, is that the re-creation of the scaffold structure, minus the nooses, and interspersed with a conspicuous metal support and stairs (the only way to mount the scaffold) does not cause a visceral reaction, as the event took place 155 years ago. Even the artist states that the structure looks a bit like a plaything, something to be climbed upon. Rather, my impression (could be wrong here) is that people are reacting to the scaffold on a symbolic level, and in accordance with their beliefs, convictions, interpretation of history, and so on.
What I do know, or think I know, is that whites subjected the Native Americans to a genocide and destroyed their civilization(s). In such a case, who the F would dare contradict those that survived?! Not Sam Durant!
My American history is pretty weak. I was never one for doing homework in High School, and thus the rote memorization of names, dates, and so on didn’t occur, and given that’s the way the classes were taught, I’m pretty sure I daydreamed or doodled through whole courses (until college, when I got serious). I knew history was white washed, but I didn’t know it was washed and sterilized every which way. You’ll have to excuse my tangent, but I just stumbled upon this tidbit:
“The Indian Removal Act of 1830 led to the exodus. About 17,000 Cherokees—along with approximately 2,000 Cherokee-owned black slaves—were removed from their homes.”
What? Who? Cherokees owned black slaves?!
I know, I know, it’s a different tribe, and nothing, and I mean nothing is going to justify the genocide of the indigenous people of the American continent. Don’t worry, that’s not where I’m going. Where I’m going is that there are no easy villains and no saintly innocent. Additionally, the five tribes that did own black slaves were the ones who most modeled themselves after the European settlers. However, even before the arrival of Europeans, indigenous people kept slaves – usually war captives – whom, according to Wikipedia, “they primarily used for small-scale labor. Others however, were used in ritual sacrifice, usually involving torture as part of religious rites, and these sometimes involved ritual cannibalism.” There is no wholesome good race, and there is no bad race. People, in whatever shape or form, wherever you will find them, get up to unspeakable atrocities. But this is in no way an excuse for genocide! On the contrary, I’m suggesting we don’t selectively excuse any atrocities in order to create a narrative with an evil or dehumanized other, in which case the greater crime is not selectively excused because of the lesser.
Who is the artist? While a survey of comments sections of articles shows a good sampling of usually virtue signalling white people expressing how sick they think the artist is, few have bothered to look him up. Sam has a Wikipedia page, and within a few seconds anyone who bothered to look would find out what he’s about:
“Sam Durant is a multimedia artist whose works engage a variety of social, political, and cultural issues. Often referencing American history, his work explores the varying relationships between culture and politics, engaging subjects as diverse as the civil rights movement, southern rock music, and modernism.”
Sam is the sort of political artist that gives me a headache. I already agree with probably most his politics – until he goes over the top, himself being a true believer in the PoMo/identity politics world view – so what’s the point for me in looking at props signalling something I already know and agree with? The work is a kind of propaganda, though for my side of the spectrum. But I’m not learning anything from it. It’s not visually interesting to me. But the thing to catch here is this guy is a dyed in the wool lefty who does work about civil rights. In other words, he’s a self-subordinating cheerleader for the very people who are protesting him (which will become clear in his response to the demands that his work be immolated).
Scaffold is one of the artists more subtle pieces. Gawd is he ever annoying. Have a look at these fantastic works of visual art.
OK. I think we can all agree with that. With this type of art there’s the question of who is the reactionary audience this is targeted at? Do they go to museums? But do check out each of the signs (or are these paintings?) in this gallery show:
Wait a second. Wait just a second. That green masterpiece states, “YOU ARE ON INDIAN LAND SHOW SOME RESPECT”. Three things about this stand out to me. One is that the offending artist is an over-the-top political artist who believes white people are the scourge of the Earth and is 100% for Indians (I know Native Americans are not from India, which is why I keep putting it in italics, OK?). The second thing is that I find this preachy kind of art really annoying in that it supposes that the audience, including me, needs to be told this message. It’s not just schoolmarmish, it’s condescending as all hell. The third thing is that the bombastic messages don’t make protest posters into good art. This shit’s just too easy.
Let me try my hand at making some with Photoshop. Be back in 5 minutes.
Here you are:
That was easy. I never got the political slogan art. Or maybe I did get it and that’s the problem. I made my own posters with caricatures of George W. Bush in diapers with my own slogan, “Disarm Dubya” when I protested the war on Iraq. I didn’t consider them museum worthy art. There just doesn’t seem to be much of anything to this kind of work, other than preaching political talking points to non-existent, ass-backwards, hillbillies out of Deliverance.
What I find even more interesting than the Dakota taking offense to Scaffold is the art establishment quietly sitting on their hands, or actively endorsing destroying the work. We’ve come a long way when the art world condones the destruction of art. Let’s take a look at some of the arguments of art critics who have made statements in support of burning the work in question.
Writer and critic Chris Kraus argues:
“People don’t want to be reminded of their own or their ancestors’ victimage, which itself carries shame — particularly by an outsider, and within a community that isn’t their own. Any “empathy” or “education” in response to the Holocaust by non-Jews would have been, and still would be, enormously resented.”
Could we then say that any “empathy” or “education” in response to Hiroshima by non-Japanese would have been, and still would be, enormously resented? Would this include John Hersey’s famous book, Hiroshima with it’s survivor accounts and graphic descriptions of Japanese suffering at the hands of Americans? This included the description of the horrifying aftermath of the atomic device: people with melted eyeballs, or people vaporized, leaving only their shadows etched onto walls [Wikipedia]. It was certainly educational and empathetic. It even caused a Manhattan Project scientist to weep as he remembered how he had celebrated the dropping of the atomic bomb. As a result of reading the book, Scientists along with the American public felt shame and guilt at the suffering of the people of Hiroshima. That’s how I felt when I read it. There are probably countless examples of writers and artists making work condemning their own group’s exploitation of another that have not been protested or found offensive.
We will certainly need to destroy Norman Rockwell’s painting about racism, “The Problem We All Live With”. Let’s take a look at that again, now that we’ve covered some of the rhetoric by which it should be part of a moral campaign to rid the Earth of white supremacist art.
Personally, this may be my favorite of Rockwell’s paintings, and not just because of the political content. It’s also gorgeous. I’d say it’s his masterpiece. And we are NOT supposed to feel for this girl? Rockwell was, you say, incapable of understanding the subjective suffering of black people and incapable of rendering it in paint. Is this a trafficking in black suffering executed in fun and for profit? Did the artist have any business portraying this subject matter? Did he sufficiently implicate himself (not just other white people) as culpable for the multiple hate crimes we see here, scrawled on the wall, and thrown at the girl. What a painting! It makes me angry and it makes me sad! I don’t associate with the white assholes tormenting her. All my sympathy is with the young girl trying to survive and get an education, and surely that is what the artist intended.
I would consider the destruction of this painting to be a hate crime. Who would like to do the honors of destroying it? Perhaps our next radical ideologue to come along.
Hrag Vartanian makes another appearance. He’s written in support of Durant’s politically correct activist art in the past, so applauds Durant’s decision to engage with the Dakota community and listen. His art is a “practice” that allows “flexibility”, in which case destroying the work becomes a part of the piece. Hrag has a hard time not getting in a dig at white artists and Western culture: “Ultimately his idea is the work. This is particularly interesting because in Western culture we’ve built up this stereotype of the white male artist as unquestioned genius, but here we have someone who is open to a local community and has decided (I’m going to assume no one is making him do this) his ego isn’t central to the conversation.”
I’ve had a lot of art history classes and never encountered a notion of “white male artists as unquestioned genius” except as an exaggerated attack on white artists issued from the virulent postmodern/identity politics paradigm I was taught in grad school. To the degree genius was ever invoked at all in conventional art history courses, there was no specificity that it had to be white (ex., Egyptian art), or that it was unquestioned. This is merely a straw-man argument the writer uses to attack his convenient scapegoat, as we’ve seen in his writing about Dana Schutz, in which case he elevates himself over an entire group of people. The white artist is only any good when he humbles himself before the feelings of members of a minority community, or self-indicts. While Vartanian is supportive of the self-abnegation of the artist, himself a member of the same church of identity politics, he tacitly offers no resistance to demands to destroy the work.
This basic idea that real art is now something that is political and negotiated with the permission of minority groups or various communities is an extreme, and extremely narrow interpretation of art. Imagine this applied to music. A musical piece is successful if the musician destroys it as part of his practice because it was offensive shit, but if he makes something sublime and interesting using skill than he’s automatically dismissed as a clueless, antiquated, deluded white male who thinks he’s a genius. How convenient. Viewing art as essentially political is the refuge of those who have no real appreciation of art. It’s little better, if at all better, than seeing art through a Marxist, Greenbergian, Freudian, or a Dwarkian feminist one.
Jillian Steinhauer, like Vartanian, returns to Lyotard’s notion that the experience of marginalized groups trumps any reasoned argument a white person might make. This is a delicious piece of self-denial: “Rather than offer my own take, I’d prefer to hear what a Dakota art critic thinks of the work. And a Black art critic. And a Latina art critic. And an Asian art critic. As long as our field continues to be predominantly white, we’ll never have the most honest and rigorous conversations about art that we could and should be having.”
I would counter that if we silence critics based on race (I am silenced here) a more rigorous conversation is prohibited. Not only is Steinhauer supportive of destroying the work, she self-censors and by logical extension of her argument censors all whites from expressing their opinion (unless, of course, it is a perfunctory self-devaluation such as her own offering). Notice how any person of color’s opinion is automatically worth more than a white person’s here? Why should we listen to an Asian critic and ignore a white one? These critics sound like they just got their diplomas. I was subjected to this overarching rhetoric over 20 years ago (that’s how lamentably prescient my radical art education was at the time) and this is the kind of simplistic talking points I’d expect of someone who’d barely digested the material and never bothered to integrate it with other perspectives, such as socialism, Buddhism, psychedelic shamanism, SCIENCE (especially brain consciousness research and theory), any other broad philosophy, and so on.
Mary Louise Schumacher, art & architecture critic, offers that: ” White Americans bear a responsibility to dismantle white supremacy, but we are also, so often, interlopers in need of schooling and humility. Let it burn.” An interloper is like an unwanted trespasser. So, she is saying that even though Durant, like her, is a white person fighting white supremacy, this very act can trespass on minority spaces, in which case whites need to be schooled and humiliated. Whew!
Writer Aruna D’Souza argues similarly to Vartanian that: “If we’re smart, we’ll come to see this process — the construction of the piece, the protests, the mediation, as well as the ceremonial destruction — as one of the most important social practice art works of our time.” At least she qualified “art” with “social practice”, and didn’t throw in a jab against white male artists. I can tell you right off that burning the work is NOT smart, and at best the protesters should settle on it being removed. But let’s move on to someone who is tied for my least favorite critic of all time.
I’ve already quoted Jerry Saltz, senior art critic for New York Magazine, in my intro. But let’s look at his whole statement: “In general it’s time for all us to shut up and listen. The work wasn’t that good in Documenta either. The real problem with it is that ALL its supposed content is in the work’s explanatory wall label. The work itself is meh-sensationalism. Male fixation on big death.” I couldn’t get a chainsaw through the hypocrisy of this statement from a 66-year-old white art critic. In order to remain relevant Salz seems to be trying to sound like an undergraduate fresh out of a seminar on marginalization theory. An astute reader may ask why he continues to write art criticism if white people need to shut up; and a more astute critic would notice that he says this from a cozy position where he is near retirement and thus comfortably condemns any younger incarnations of himself to a fate he escaped.
What all these critics have in common is they are adherents to the postmodern/identity politics narrative which I also was indoctrinated into, and can spew myself ad nauseum. How hard is it, after all, to say that white people need to shut up and listen? Most these critics are white themselves , and I gather a few are making a career of being critical of other whites. It’s all fine and good saying white people need to shut the F up as long as you are getting paid to say that. That’s a nice little niche you’ve carved for yourself, when if you were true to your word, you would join the anonymous ranks of millions of whites toiling away at humdrum jobs in order to merely survive. I say to the white person who announces whites need to shut up the same thing I say to the president who wants to send troops to risk their lives in war overseas. Lead by example. Start with yourself.
Not only do these critics advocate the burning of the artwork, they rather cruelly and insultingly demand that white people shut up. This is layers of censure and censorship. This is not a dialogue, it’s automatically ceding to the demands of a minority group because, according to PoMo, their experience is more valuable than white reason (as if white people can take credit for logic or reason!). A reasonable discussion is off the table, and those that would make it are silenced.
Why the Art Should Not be Destroyed
I agree that we should listen to what the Dakota Indians, the black protesters, or what any marginalized or disenfranchised group has to say about an artwork that pertains directly to them and their experience. That could be very interesting and informative. However, I do NOT agree that they are automatically right in whatever they say, and that white people should shut up and listen. I do NOT agree that the meaning of an artwork is decided not by the artist, art connoisseurs, art historians, art critics, or armchair art lovers, but by the feelings of minority groups. We don’t determine how offensive an artwork is by a universal standard or by agreeing with the most reasonable and ethical argument. Instead, an artwork is as offensive as a minority is offended by it. We are not allowed to question their feelings, because we are told that we (if we’re white) can’t fathom their feelings.
The risk, which these critics seem oblivious to, or in some cases may actually want, is that this won’t be the end of art-burning, but rather the beginning of a trend. Do we nip it in the bud, or do we fuel it? Do we want the conservative counterparts to go on a crusade to destroy art that they find immoral? Do we have a double-standard? Should we, as the Black Muslim group demands, start destroying works by Picasso and Gauguin? Should we stop at just works we deem to be cultural appropriation or exploitative of brown people, or should we destroy all of those artist’s works, as surely their other work reflects their same white, oppressive, colonialist, racist beliefs? Should we punish the artists directly?
If we pan back and don’t automatically assign one group of people righteousness and another perpetual odium, should we destroy cultural productions based on the unchallengable subjective feelings of one group? It seems ludicrous and disastrous – a recipe for injustice and revenge. Is there any group of people that we trust will not abuse this sort of power over another?
It may surprise people who disagree with my writing that I have argued both for and against censorship. If it isn’t obvious by now, I’m the type of person who is drawn to the fact, insight, or bit of understanding that undermines a narrative (and I agree with PoMo on this), rather than the type that selectively excludes those things and amasses only information which bolsters his or her narrative of choice.
I’ve recently enraged people for arguing that the alt. right sometimes hides behind “free speech” to disregard the legitimate grievances of those who oppose their arguments. You can easily protest the content of a Milo Yiannopoulos lecture, for example, without insisting on curtailing his right to free speech (though that’s not what happened in Berkeley). Generally free speech does not include the right to lie about and slander people without repercussions. Considering that Milo sometimes does this, it becomes disingenuous for him to say that people are merely against free speech, and not the content of his specific abuse of it. Usually in a debate over censorship I can get people to admit that they don’t approve of disseminating a How To book on abducting children or making chemical weapons. There is a line, such as gratuitous and vicious slander or manuals on how to harm or kill innocent people, that most will not want to protect as unassailable expression.
Aside from malicious texts devoted to harming individuals, and without redeeming qualities, the idea of freedom of expression must first allow that which we find most objectionable. Everyone is going to object to something and people have polarized views on a lot of topics. If we don’t allow the most objectionable than there is always the risk that one group will seek to censor their political opponents as a way of defeating them. Free speech is about tolerance, and the wider the margin of tolerance the less potential for abuse by a self-interested party with some toehold on power.
But in each of the artworks I shared the artists weren’t slandering anyone, not inciting any violence or harm to anyone. All of them were well-intentioned, and specifically attempting to call attention to and condemn the societal ill of white supremacy. If this is the standard of what should be censored – art which fails to be sufficiently moral – than we must destroy any overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-LGBTQ, or Islamophobic art…
In a mind-boggling invulnerability to see self-contradiction, people who support the right of Charlie Hebdo to make degrading images of Allah also don’t support the right of white artists to make art which depicts the victims of white supremacy, or an instrument used for it . That is a weird double-standard. Instead of a universal ethical standard based on reason, we have a selectively applied judgement based on association, feeling, and whim.
If insufficiently moral attempts at moral art must be destroyed, than surely those white nationalist metal and punk bands have to go. So does all the homophobic and sexist rap music. We have a lot of art, books, music, and movies to destroy! Shouldn’t it be that the most obviously egregious art should be the first to go? Why are we stopping at the art of liberal, anti-racist, white artists?
Why are they the enemy who we are taking punitive measures against? To help us understand that we can learn from the recent student protests of a white, liberal professor at Evergreen College.
White professor under Fire
A white liberal professor of Evolutionary Biology at Evergreen College, Bret Weinstein, has been accused of racism and white supremacy and students have demanded that he be fired. 50 of his teacher colleagues have also signed a document in support of disciplinary actions against the teacher for endangering the students by talking to the public. What, we may well wonder, did this teacher do to become the poster boy for white supremacy?
He appealed to a broader sense of reason, fairness, morality, anti-racism and anti-essentialism. He resisted the push away from anti-discrimination and to actively discriminating against white students. He took a stand against the idea that it is virtuous to oppress whites out of a misplaced sense of vengeance.
Specifically, he wrote a letter in opposition to a change of a tradition at the school. The school has a tradition called The Day of Absence in which each year, for a day, the black students (and POC) do not have to show up to their classes. This is in relation to a work of fiction in which black workers do not show up to work for a day in order to show the white establishment that they cannot function without them. Bret had supported this tradition for over a decade of teaching at the school and agreed with its message. He is anti-racist, and in his past at another school reported a white sorority for inviting black prostitutes to a party and engaging in a bizarre racist activity involving cucumbers and tomato sauce. This did not go well for him at all, but as we will see he is a man of principals and is not one to back down. His crime was to object to a double standard.
The problem with the school tradition this year was that there was a change. Instead of black students not having to attend their classes if they didn’t want to, white students were not welcome on the campus, and were supposed to go to sensitivity seminars off-campus. The teacher felt that this crossed a line, and that it wasn’t ethically right to tell students they were not allowed on the college premises because of their race. Also, being Jewish, he was weary of negative prohibitions assigned to any group of people based on race, culture, or the like. He was taking the higher moral ground. He’d written this in an email which somehow became circulated, and the radical students interpreted it as “racist” and “white supremacist” and decided they needed to do something about it.
They convened on his classroom, surrounded him, and excoriated him. Epithets, curses, and orders abounded. This movement spread to the administration, and teachers were trapped in a building while students chanted and made demands, including the firing of Bret Weinstein.
Any description I give is not going to do justice to the videos that are circulating online of these protests. They need to be seen to be fully appreciated. Please notice that there are white students among the protesters, and the culprits should NOT be described by race but rather by ideology. Within minutes the students go from accusations and swearing to chanting that the teacher must go: “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Bret Weinstein has go to go. Hey Hey, Ho Ho, racist teachers have got to go!”
[I don’t endorse the channel that uploaded this video. I merely searched for a decent segment without commentary.]
The ideology in question is the same radical postmodern/identity politics worldview expressed by the art critics who supported destroying art, and which was used to shut down Bernie Sanders. The students didn’t cook this up on their own: they were taught this by some of their teachers, in what is probably the second or third generation of this ideology being filtered through academia, and each iteration becoming more militant and hypocritical. And the teachers who indoctrinate the students into this worldview, convinced that they are doing what is right and essential, don’t themselves have the zealousness of the young who are willing to fight, right now, for what they honestly believe is right. They really believe this liberal teacher is the enemy, and thus would confront him and even go so far as to take teachers and administrators hostage. There is footage of them discussing how to do it, which they did. The president had to beg to be allowed to go to the bathroom, and he was only granted the privileged on the condition two students accompanied him so he didn’t attempt to escape. And what evil are these students fighting against? The idea that it’s a double-standard to kick white’s off the campus.
There are excellent interviews with Bret Weinstein on The Ruben Report and Joe Rogan which I highly recommend, as the teacher is pushing for leveling up our ethics, and the interviews include clips of the student protests, including rather shocking ones of them making a dancing bear of the president of the college. I would have to write an article three times as long as this one to convey all that is covered in those interviews.
For a shorter clip, which is lamentably on Fox News (other news sources, including Democracy Now, weren’t inclined to cover it) here’s an overview:
There was no smart discussion about the issues on the campus, but rather stereotypical demands that could be leveled against any university that was not radicalized. Nobody countered Bret’s idea that it was going too far to say that white students weren’t allowed on campus. They went straight to branding him a white supremacist and shouting that he needs to fucking shut up. There is a connection between their conviction in what they were doing and ideas promulgated by the likes of Jerry Salz, Hrag Vartanian, and the others.
There is an even stronger connection between the ranting of one of the teachers at the college and the students’ resultant behavior. Significantly, she teaches Media and Visual Arts. Check out this rhetoric from Evergreen professor Naima Lowe:
“… the white supremacy that lives and breathes within every single white person standing here right now. I refuse to shut my mouth and let white people set this agenda. If what I’m saying right now pisses you off and makes you feel targeted and defensive. Goooood!
Woo wee, she sure is spreading it on thick. She brands all white people as the enemy and then abuses them. A problem here, which you may not know if you are among her ilk, is that not all white people are white supremacists. Most white people, and virtually all the ones I know, would be very uncomfortable around an actual white supremacist. So, news flash to POC, unless they are in ass-backwards, isolated pockets, most white people don’t have anything to do with white supremacy proper, or want anything to do with it. But if your standard of a white supremacist is Bernie Sanders, than you have a new definition of white supremacy that means something like “anyone who is white”, or “any white person who denies they are a white supremacist”.
Yes, I know all about “white privilege”, systemic racism, institutional racism, and unconscious micro-aggression, all of which can be projected on virtually any white person, without them believing in the slightest that whites are superior, or wishing to subjugate anyone. This sort of re-definition of “white supremacy” makes all white people guilty, and of the most heinous crimes. And if you still want to say that Naima is just passionate and expansive, consider this next bit:
“When the white gays , the white middle class assimiliationist motherfucking gays took over the movement later with their assimilationist goals, [indecipherable] kicked them out because they wouldn’t act grateful…” That’s getting ugly. Notice the palpable hatred of gay, white, liberals here. All white people are the enemy according to this teacher, but she is the one who is anti-assimilation, which means pro-segregation.
Actually, this is such an important issue that I need to digress here a bit to explain her, and the protesters’ take on this. This is their view of reality, which they are being taught in the institution. Here is political activist, Jose Gutierrez, defending the protesters and articulating their position:
“We’ve created an environment here where segregation is a better alternative than mixing with people who hate you.”
That argument could have easily come from a white supremacist. So, the white supremacist white teacher, and the “motherfucking gay liberals” are arguing FOR assimilation (as in mingling, not as in converting) and AGAINST segregation.
Bret Weinstein was not saying that POC were not welcome, or were at fault, or making any judgement on them because of their race. He believed they deserved fairness and an equal opportunity. He’d already risked his career to report actual white racism on a campus. What more could you ask?
Naima Low, on the other hand, is saying whites were not welcome on a certain day, and apparently in some sort of POC/LGBTQ community or organization. She blamed them for all the ills of society and told them that if they didn’t like it, that was “good”. She used “motherfucking” in front of “gay” and “white”.
With this type of angry speech I sometimes get just a whiff of an impression that there may sometimes be a fine line between anti white-racism and anti-white racism, and perhaps in this instance Naima skipped over that line.
Is it not obvious here that she’s fueling antipathy or hatred towards whites, and doing anything but fostering interracial trust and friendship? How the hell are black and white people supposed to like each other and be comfortable with each other when people are feeding them this exaggerated, prejudicial propaganda? This sort of material is destroying positive relations between the races! How would you feel if your teachers were telling you that a certain group of people hate you and are trying to oppress you, and even kill you? And how would you feel about other students in the class who were a part of that certain group? One teacher supports this methodology, one opposes it. Who do you get rid of?
Some wise person once said that the way to tell if something is racist is if it is designed to bring people together or push them apart. Would we say that Bret Weinstein, Bernie Sanders, Dana Schutz, Tom Megalis, or Sam Durant were trying to push people apart or bring them together? And would we say their critics are trying to bring people together or push them apart? And no, bringing POC and LBGTQ together against CIS-gendered white men is not bringing people together.
Naima’s job is NOT on the line, even if she peddles impassioned, radical, separatist vitriol (a.k.a. “hatred”). Can you imagine being a white student of hers? I know a bit what it’s like. I’ve sat through a seminar in which the speaker talked about how “only a white male, only a blond, blue-eyed white male can be a true racist”. It’s not a good feeling at all, and not a constructive education. That was over 20 years ago. I’ve gone well beyond believing that kind of rhetoric, and it surprises me that others are still true believers (not that I ever was). These people stopped learning and challenging themselves, and just spew that same, narrow, one-sided, tired old rhetoric I was clobbered over the head with in the 90’s. It’s like people are caught in a time warp, or more likely, a confirmation bias echo chamber.
How long am I supposed to shut up for? This isn’t a new thing for me. Is 20 years long enough? Nobody has the right to tell you that you are obligated to subordinate yourself to them, and if they do, they are trying to oppress you. If you are against oppression, you should not accept your own oppression. There’s a moratorium on how long one has to be “it” before the game isn’t fair anymore (you know, as in the game Tag). Time’s up. How about nobody is “it”?
Can you let go of “it”?
So, why are white liberals such as Bret Weinstein the enemy, or “it”, even though he supports and protects minority students? Well, I don’t really know. Perhaps it’s because he refuses to accept that he is the enemy and that white people should be subordinated (not welcome on campus), and instead he champions reason, individual rights, and egalitarianism. It’s a rival perspective, and I think the morally and intellectually superior one, which makes it even more threatening. When someone like Naima declares that all white people are living and breathing white supremacy, and if you don’t like it, GOOD, who is going to be the target of her wrath if not some white guy who says, “Bullshit!” (especially if he’s right and appealing to a higher standard of morality)? If he’s right, than she’s wrongly attacking people and telling them it’s good if they don’t like it. That’s not going to sit well, in which case he must be silenced. He must be automatically wrong. If this seems like an exaggeration on my part, consider this same woman sent out a message on social media while the administration was being held hostage for someone to “collect” Bret’s wife, who also works at the university, or rather her “racist ass”.
This isn’t a hypothetical situation. This happened. I see this as harassment, and 50 teachers support strong discipline of a teacher for calling a discriminatory plan into question. Meanwhile Naima is untouchable, even if there is evidence she was possibly advocating kidnapping a fellow teacher after branding her with an insulting epithet. I’m not just pulling a lunatic off the internet as an example, this is who the administration of a university prefers over Bret Weinstein, and she’s going around calling all white people racists and white supremacists. This is now OK in academia, and is it too much of a leap to connect this art teacher to the art world? These things are happening in close proximity, with only the Bernie Sanders shut down going back some months. They reflect a growing ideological framework.
Again, I don’t blame any race for this, and there are very articulate members of every race and class pleading for a broader, more reasonable perspective, and not being so simplistic about it and either/or. The problem is the beliefs themselves, which in their rejection of Western culture as a cancerous white creation, end up rejecting the truly positive value of reason and objectivity, and embracing discredited, antiquated essentialism, and biological determinism, which are the necessary intellectual foundation of all they oppose. They are the ones who are defining people first and foremost by their race. Is anyone saying there’s a bad race? Who? Let’s be honest.
In the latest development some of the student masterminds behind the protests posted a picture of themselves armed with baseball bats, and then proceeded to patrol their campus and surrounding area
in search of isolated white people to threaten with assault to protect themselves from raiding, violent, white supremacists.
It doesn’t help their case the they were filmed threatening other students. These mostly appear to be white women (or pronoun of choice), and one transgender POC (or pronoun of choice). Will they be suspended or congratulated for their bravery in facing
hapless whites the Western imperialist military giant with mere baseball bats? Is it even possible to see people actually threatening violence in the present as not the perpetual victims of rhetorical and imaginary violence? Not really.
All this craziness is a self-fulfilling prophecy born of unchecked extremist rhetoric and exaggerated social media click-bait. Universities should be teaching students to arm themselves against being vulnerable to being chumped by propaganda or ensnared in a militant revolution against an imaginary foe, not subjecting them to it. Students should know how to think through the bullshit themselves, and measure multiple perspectives and arguments and come to their own, informed, intelligent opinion. I know from my own experience in grad school that if you were not on board with a certain radical political agenda you were ostracized. Let the students decide for themselves what causes they want to support. Radical ideology should be as welcome in the classroom as fundamentalist religion. The university in not a place to indoctrinate students, but a place to help insure they are never indoctrinated.
The art world and American colleges are looking increasingly like a social experiment about power and tribalism gone awry. And while the dominant worldview behind the censorship of art and ostracizing the biology professor stems from postmodernism, it is a literalized, virulent, and ultimately anti-postmodern offshoot.
The main idea of postmodernism, expressed by Jean-François Lyotard was, “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarrative,” which loosely translates as, “I’m not buying into any Big Picture”. The postmodernists tried to break up the dominant narrative by including other formerly marginalized or unheard perspectives. This was a good thing. But now the successive waves of postmodernists have made postmodern identity politics into a meta-narrative itself that is intolerant of any other vantage point or challenges. We’ve gone from “we want to be heard” to “you are not allowed to speak”. I’ve been hearing “shut up for five minutes” uninterrupted for over 20 years. If you do challenge it you are labeled and condemned in a way that allows people to be actual racists in the very present on the grounds that they are fighting ostensible racism that may be a sheer projection onto an innocent person.
Instead of calls to demand the destruction of artwork we should be having civilized discussions without name-calling or hierarchies. When a group of people are saying that other rational people are not allowed to speak; when they are demanding that well-intentioned artwork be censored and destroyed; when they are screaming for the firing of liberal teachers, and taking administrators hostage, all in the name of fighting oppression, it apparently never occurs to them that their actions are clearly oppressive.
We should not be destroying art because some people say they feel offended, while we simultaneously disregard the intent of the artist, and tell those that would defend the art in question that they need to shut up. Worse, we should not destroy art because of the race of the artist, or for a desire, should this occur, to take vengeance on a group of people. In all three art pieces the idea that the artist is white is far more important than the art itself. Not only is this a recklessly dangerous precedent, which would be painfully obvious if the current targets were anyone but white liberals, if we accept it than what is to stop us from much more censorship and destruction of white art?
If we are going to be that morally pure, are we so sure we can live up to our own moral standards? Are we really sure that destroying an artist’s painting pales in comparison to an unconscious microaggression? Are we sure we want to live in a moral society laced up to the throat when any perceived transgression is grounds for censure and destroying someone’s art or career?
And what if we don’t destroy the work? Well, liberal whites would back off from making work about race issues, unless they were truly masochistic and their work implicated themselves as culpable. The former will happen either way. We don’t really expect Dana Schutz or Tom Megalis to attempt another painting protesting the killing of black suspects by police officers. It’s safe to say white artists have learned their lesson, and so have thousands of other artists. If that is the goal there’s nothing further to be gained by destroying the work. We are already going to see a lot more zombie formalist abstraction and still lifes.
Destroying the art is a power grab and attempt to take punitive measures against well-meaning artists. I don’t see how in the long run that isn’t going to backfire. Even if an artist like Sam Durant agrees to it because he’s a true believer in identity politics, it’s still going to look bad from a future perspective. Not even the religious right actually destroyed works by Serano, Mapplethorpe, or Chris Ofili. Can the radical left be more punitive than their far right counterparts without noticing that in the name of fighting oppression they are resorting to extremes even the most reactionary conservatives didn’t end up using?
The whole thing is kind of funny. The whites who are trying to be really helpful, and are well-meaning liberals, who are anti-racist, anti-white supremacists, who want equality and oppose oppression, end up having their work censored by the radical left because it’s too stupid and offensive. Meanwhile the alt. right, conservatives, and any actual white supremacists don’t like these artists and don’t defend them. Actual racists and white supremacists might be celebrating the censoring of the art themselves, as it is blatantly opposed to them.
If I were an alt-right guy I’d be laughing my ass off.
I’m not laughing. I find this stuff ultimately a drag.
I should be making art instead.
Cultivate my garden.