MoMA’s ‘Salon’ on the topic of “White Male”: Flogging a Dead Scapegoat

 

A few days ago MoMA uploaded a video of their “salon” on the topic of “White Male”. It could have been called “White Male: The Enemy” and the content would not have needed to change.  I find this sort of thing in 2019 not to be the more enlightened, open-minded, generous, just, and progressive view. Rather, it seems backwards, stuck in biological determinism, essentialism, and otherwise insisting that people are categorized and defined by their DNA at birth, and not by their minds, their experience, their beliefs, their decisions, and their actions. Everyone will benefit when we jettison the mindset of prejudice and stereotyping, rather than holding on to it in order to use it against one particular group with impunity, as assumed tit-for-tat. For me to watch this video is to endure a steady stream of abuse from Harvard professors and the institution of MoMA. Fun!

In her opening statement, Paola Antonelli, who is the organizer and host of the “salon”, and also the Director of Research & Development at MoMA, clearly stated:

Stereotyping is not something we should stay away from, because it’s about time to also stereotype white men.

Possibly the foundation of anti-discrimination is to NOT judge an individual by generalizations about his or her group, based on biology. We rail against stop and frisk policing because it is racial profiling, and we reject islamaphobic notions that Muslims are somehow synonymous with groups like ISIS. Stereotyping is antithetical to giving people the benefit of the doubt, to treating them with a modicum of respect and dignity. Yet here, stereotyping is desirable, and what followed was two hours of hammering home negative stereotypes about white men.

There’s nothing new here, because these are the same stereotypes and arguments that were drilled into me when I was a graduate student in art over 25 years ago. Some of the names and examples have changed (it’s Trump instead of Reagan), but the template is identical. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect in 25 years — including living in 4 different Asian countries in the last 15 years, and learning 3 new languages — though Homi K. Bhabha will state that for males “speed is more important than reflection”. There was apparently enormous resistance to this particular “salon” happening, but it wasn’t coming from white men. My guess is a lot of non-white-males are also starting to realize what is obvious to me, that 25 years of stereotyping white men is no longer a progressive move, but something we need to put behind us for far better ideas.

I started to watch the video and take notes, but after about an hour it just became nauseating, and boring. Like I said, none of this is new, and it’s all terribly one-sided. There wasn’t a debate, and there were no positive things that could be said about white men. I’ll share my notes up until I just lost interest, but first I want to knock out some very simple ideas that I think need to be acknowledged, and also may hint at the way forward. I’ll do bullet points to keep it really simple.

  • The Museum of Contemporary Art, in 2019, put together a panel of people dedicated to condemning one group of people based purely on biology at birth. This tells us that the art world and radical left politics have united, in case people hadn’t noticed that trend. And while speakers in the video will say that white men represent structures of institutional power, and dominant the art world, this is MoMA speaking, not an underground newspaper, or someone’s private blog.
  • Nobody is born guilty.  Is that so hard to understand?
  • People should be thought of as invisible minds (which are colorless, shapeless, and which science can’t even find), not physical bodies. To judge a person by his or her body rather than by the mind, is like judging a card player by the cards dealt to him or her, and not by the way he or she plays.
  • If you go around insisting people are defined by their biology at birth you are affirming biological determinism, that race and gender are hardwired to anatomy, that who and what one is are determined before one is born.
  • A double-standard is hypocritical, and surely negative tit-for-tat can’t be justified for more than one or two hits. I’ve been told I’m, well, shit on a platter for a quarter century, and this is payback. It’s not payback, it’s just more attacking innocent people based on their biology.

This video is a throwback to outmoded and shoddy thinking, which might have served a purpose 20-30 years ago, but by now is obviously backwards.  Here are some of the notes I took before finally giving up because it just wasn’t worth wasting any more of my attention on. I hadn’t saved the document, so I lost my notes on the third to fifth speaker. This is just the first two, but it’s enough. I wasn’t going to write about this, but in the end thought it mattered a bit just to show that MoMA was doing this.


Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture & Design and Director of Research & Development at MoMA (host):

  1. “Stereotyping is not something we should stay away from, because it’s about time to also stereotype white men. I’m assuming here that we are still maintaining that it is bad to stereotype people in general, but in my case, it’s virtuous to do so, because I deserve it.
  2. “It is this fear of the other that is moving the discussion today.”  I am to understand I am afraid of people who are different from me, whereas all other biological types are not afraid of those dissimilar to themselves. But, how ironic is this? The “other” here is the “white male”, and she has already stated that she had a lot of “fear” in negotiating this “salon”. Clearly the “white male” is the “evil other”.
  3. “This idea of while male anger as another display of white masculinity. The implication I’m getting is that it is uniquely white to associate anger with masculinity. In order to be masculine, I need to show anger.
  4. I was teaching at Harvard, and I had a seminar about fear and safety, and I had a small group of students so diverse it was just amazing… and then I had this Bible Belt white man. When asked… what makes you feel unsafe and fearful, he said, ‘peoples opinion of me. I am immediately stereotyped as the kind of retrograde and reactionary type that will stop America’.” Notice that the white man isn’t part of the rich diversity, but the antithesis of it. Here, she seems to be presenting his “fear” as ridiculous paranoia, while at the same time stereotyping him as “Bible Belt” and not being a part of diversity, in a “salon” which she set up as about stereotyping white men. If MoMA puts together a group talk stereotyping white men, what we should learn is that white men are never stereotyped by institutions of power, and certainly not in the art world.
  5. “Much naivete and also a privilege that comes from not money necessarily but just the fact of having been born white and a male.” There’s no slipping out of this one. It is a fact that I was born white, and male, therefore I am naive and privileged. Is this part of the stereotype, or a presumed fact itself?
  6. “So much of this white supremacy rage that is happening right now is of course embodied by white men.” This doesn’t just say that white supremacists are white, which would be obvious, but adds something more with the idea of “embodied”, which makes white male bodies a tangible expression of white supremacy. Thus, my body becomes synonymous with white supremacist rage.
  7. “The NFL, where you have all white owners that treat players as plantation workers.” This seems a little odd because more than 25% of football players are white. Are we to understand that the owners treat them equally as plantation workers, or are they treated better because of their race? Is the broader implication that white bosses treat their non-white employees like plantation workers, or slaves?

Homi K. Bhabha, scolar, critical theorist, professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University…

  1. His talk is titled, “Is there such a thing as white male culture?”. it’s not “Do white people have culture”, because everyone does, and it would be really difficult to argue otherwise. Here he seems to be suggesting that white males, as a group, have an individual culture, which is different from white female culture… I wonder how he defines my culture.
  2. “Of course white male culture exists, it’s got a very long history. It’s a history of Eurocentrism…” I’m a little perplexed by this, because it just seems to say that Europeans saw things from a European perspective. The implication must be that all other cultures saw themselves and everyone else from myriad perspectives, and Europeans were the only ones who could only see from their own.
  3. “The white male culture and the whiteness of male culture, the whiteness itself is as if something unmarked. Identities are unmarked. This is the normal, this is the neutral, this is the common good.” I get what he’s saying, but I have a little of the same problem as with the quote above. White Euro-Americans see themselves as normal, and take their culture for granted as not anything exotic, or weird, or unnatural. Is this untrue for other cultures? I’ve lived in Asia (China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam) for more than a decade, and the people seem on the face of it to consider, for example, their diet, their clothes, and their behavior as natural and normal. But, he must be saying that it’s unique for white people
  4. “The male is about all forms of efficiency versus ethics, action versus a notion of the means, judgment is made less important than achievement, speed is made more important than reflection.” The male kinda’ sounds like the Terminator, all speed, efficiency, and achieving goals without care about ethics, judgment, or afterthought. I hope that’s intended as a generalization, and certainly there are exceptions. [Note, he does not say “not all” or that there are any exceptions.]
  5. “When you put whiteness and the notion of the unmarked together with maleness and its sense that it is born to progress, it will be unimpeded, it will achieve irrespective of ethical and moral issues, then you get a white male culture.” Got it. White male culture is unethical, immoral, believes it is natural, the norm, the center, and has a right to achieve whatever its (unethical) goals without obstruction. Those don’t sound like good things.
  6. “What we see now with the increased aggression and violence unleashed against minorities is not a white male culture, as much as it is a white male subculture.” Presumably we’ll learn the difference he means between culture and sub-culture, but add aggression and violence to the list of negative traits attributed to white male culture.
  7. “Its violence comes out of the conviction that though it is a majority it is oppressed as if it were a minority.” I think I got it. There is a more violent and aggressive strain of white male culture which is lashing out because it feels threatened, as if it is being oppressed, which is impossible, because the minority can’t oppress the majority. It just happened to occur to me that the white settlers were initially the minority in America, and yet oppressed the larger population. It also occurs to me that even if you are in a majority, you are always just an individual. So, for example, I’m alone watching this video put out by MoMA, and I’m outnumbered by authorities telling me, so far, that I’m naive, unethical, un-reflective, and so on, all bad qualities. If I felt threatened by this, than I would be lumped in with the violent goons who attack minorities.
  8. “The imperial histories or the cold war histories of white male power.” When I lived in China, I didn’t encounter much anger against white males (except when the government ramped up nationalism, for whatever reason), but there was a lot of hatred of Japan for invading China, and especially the atrocities committed by the Japanese army in Nanjing. As with other points, is this a trait that only applies to white male culture, or does it apply to Genghis Khan as well? Is this a thing where we only blame the victor for being warlike? Y’know, we rightfully shudder at dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we shouldn’t consider the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan to be imperialist?
  9. “They [white male culture and white male sub-culture] are not the same thing, but in many ways they relate to some of the same ideas.” OK, white male culture is unethical and thinks it’s the norm and all that, but the sub-culture is more violent and aggressive. While they are not synonymous, they overlap. Clearly, there is nothing good in white male culture. It only goes from bad to worse. And that’s his full talk.

I’d watched more and taken notes, but, abandoned all hope, and just lost interest and didn’t find it worthy of my attention.

The “salon” tells me that I have quite a rap sheet of terrible qualities, and no good ones. I am defined by my culture — violent, aggressive, unethical, and so on — and my culture is defined by my parents’ DNA at the moment of inception. MoMA, which is certainly as powerful and influential an institution in contemporary art as any,  is telling me that I am, in a word, bad.

Meanwhile, I watched this alone, on my computer, in Thailand, and I was not some evil majority of people, but rather one individual, up against Harvard professors and the most prominent contemporary art museum unanimously telling me I’m shit.

I reject it. It’s not even interesting any more. I mean, at some point this just has to get old, and, as I said, I’ve been hearing it for more than a quarter century (initially in the institution of the university, and from my instructors). Paola, I dare say, was wrong. It’s not about time to also stereotype white men, it’s time to also stop stereotyping white men.

Let’s start talking about how we aren’t defined by our biology, that our actions define us more than our bodies, and that we are invisible minds and consciousnesses. It’s the better argument and the way forward.

~ Ends

 

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