Unending, too, is the ongoing crisis of police brutality, white supremacy, and state sanctioned murder. This article in a sense is a response to a protest that happened here in Toronto, my adopted city, back in December, but the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement has not diminished over the course of six months. Far from it. Every few days news of another atrocity comes in, while the political establishment and corporate media continues to turn a blind eye to the crisis where it can, and vilify them where it cannot.
This article is triangulated upon three different sources of information that I want to put at the front and center of my analysis for this week. In a sense, this article is a vehicle for these resources, which are the real voices I want to elevate here, but while my role here is something akin to a curator of this information, I do want to try to contextualize these a little bit with my sense of the broader art world and the world of public art in particular. As a white writer, it’s not my job to speak for black writers, but I might be able to use my privileged access to the (white) art world to dig into some of the behaviors of that world and the contradictions and racist practices that underlie those behaviors… and the actions of liberal art and culture patrons.
So, with this in mind I want to start, before the cut, by putting the three resources I will be working from front and center.
If you can only pick one article to read through today, please read one of these.
The first article, by Kirsten West Savali from The Root, is about a recent art exhibit which features a mannequin dressed to look like Michael Brown’s body. Obviously, trigger warnings for… everything related to that. This article drags the thought process behind this piece over the coals, labeling it a “revictimization” of Brown and his family carried out by a white artist.
The second is a statement by artist and activist Bree Newsome. Newsome, with a group of collaborators, engaged in a daring takedown of the confederate flag in front of South Carolina’s capitol building several weeks ago, and her statement eloquently articulates the issues at stake in what some see as “vandalism.”
Finally, I want to link to the facebook page of the Toronto iteration of Black Lives Matter, which has been my main source of information for actions happening in the city. This source in particular is important because it seems like many white commentators perceive this to be a uniquely American problem. This organization and others like it demonstrate the ways in which the movement transcends national boundaries to challenge white supremacy in a variety of locations. In particular I think it’s worth noting the response to the recent police shooting of a mentally ill Somalian man, and the way in response the group has highlighted the particular vulnerability of the mentally ill to police brutality. This represents one of the most admirable aspects of the movement: the way in which the movement has centered itself upon those who are most at risk--the mentally ill, the homeless, the queer, and those who face similar difficulties.
This final resource is particularly important because it leads into the main event that this article revolves around: a protest in Toronto last December. This protest started with a rally at city hall and a march to Dundas Square, one of Toronto’s largest and most garish commercial hubs. The march concluded with a die-in which took place in the center of the square. Not in the center of the sidewalk, but in the center of the intersection, the bodies of the protestors blocking the street. At the conclusion of the protest, the words BLACK LIVES MATTER were spraypainted on the road, and participants were invited to leave their signs around the spraypaint.
From my perspective, this protest represents a temporary artistic intervention into the space, and the difference in reception between this form of artistic expression and more culturally sanctioned forms of “protest art” exposes the hypocrisies of the white liberal art establishment.
This protest action is interesting to me because it parallels other uses of spraypaint as a tool for protest in the wake of white supremacist violence. In the wake of a horrific mass shooting in South Carolina, alongside a number of thefts of confederate flags, confederate monuments have been vandalized with BLM slogans using spraypaint. These actions, for many, represent a kind of public nuisance--they’re interruptions of the daily flow of (typically) city life, defacements of monuments, things that, in the words of some liberals I’ve run into, just burden poor blue collar sanitation workers with additional work.
And yet we can see similar actions in the art world that have been canonized for decades now, if not a century. Certainly the idea of performance as a thing designed to piss off its intended audience has been with us for a hundred years now. We can trace it back to a variety of different ideas--whether the fascist Italian Futurists, who were known to book ten people to a seat at their performances in order to prompt fist fights, or the Dadaists, who reveled in the public outrage at their bizarre, anti-art performances, knowing that outrage was itself a kind of engagement. The idea of performance--not just putting on a show, but art as a way of performing an action--has developed over the course of the following century to include the kind of interventions that various individuals and groups have made in protest to white supremacy in America and Canada. The notion of entering a space in order to transform people’s conceptions of it has been a feature of art for a long time as well, with artists attempting to dismantle the hierarchy of the gallery, sometimes by tearing up the walls and floors of museums in a literal dismantling. Even the destruction of monuments is quite sacrosanct, albeit paradoxically, within the art world: some of Ai Weiwei’s most famous works involve defacing and even dropping ancient Chinese pottery.
Like it or not, breaking shit is a firmly established art practice. That’s not in question.
And yet, when certain people do it, it seems to receive a very different response. Even the mere act of occupying a public space, let alone protesting in a way that leaves a tangible trace in the form of spraypainted slogans and an ad hoc monument, seems to be increasingly treated as anathema to civilized life in what purports to be a glorious democratic society.
Isn’t it true, though, that confederate monuments are themselves a kind of public nuisance or public violence? The confederacy, whatever your increasingly compromised textbooks may tell you, seceded from the United States in order to preserve slavery. I just want to really emphasize this in particular for my non-American readers and those Americans who have been subjected to Texan-controlled history classes: in the middle of the 19th Century, America fought a bloody civil war because the South wanted to preserve the conditions of chattel slavery. This is what the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments represent. They represent pride in the domination of an entire race.
This certainly presents a nuisance, at the very least, to many members of our society. My point here is that there is a dramatically different ability of various groups to access public space in order to support certain ideas, and there is a dramatically different response to the ongoing work done by these artworks. Public monuments continue to do their work of upholding white supremacy every day; just because a protest action is conspicuously new doesn’t mean it somehow is more of an action than the propagandistic work of monuments.
These spaces are already occupied.
These are not novel arguments. For example, TIME of all bloody things actually published an excellent article on Bree Newsome’s actions in South Carolina by Dr Collette Gaiter, defending her actions as a form of artistic practice. She points out that Newsome did not intend to remove the flag permanently--which of course, a small band of protesters could not effectively do--but rather intended to challenge it symbolically. two
This is not merely an academic justifying the actions after the fact with theory. Newsome herself, a graduate of art school well aware of the way art and politics intersect, describes in detail the decisions her group made and how they were influenced by the question of symbolism:
“We discussed it and decided to remove the flag immediately, both as an act of civil disobedience and as a demonstration of the power people have when we work together. Achieving this would require many roles, including someone who must volunteer to scale the pole and remove the flag. It was decided that this role should go to a black woman and that a white man should be the one to help her over the fence as a sign that our alliance transcended both racial and gender divides. We made this decision because for us, this is not simply about a flag, but rather it is about abolishing the spirit of hatred and oppression in all its forms.”
These protest actions are not random events but are deliberate attempts to use imagery and performance in order to effect change. The effects, then, of white liberal dismissal of these attempts and demands for parliamentary, gradual, infinitesimal change, as with the white democrat in South Carolina who bashed Newsome’s actions from the safety of twitter, are profound.
The greater scrutiny given to these conspicuous actions has a very real effect on who is allowed access to public platforms and public space--the “public sphere” if we want to resurrect that idea. This extends beyond the ownership of public space to the control over black bodies. As I discussed in my previous article on this movement and in my article on the king of Original Character Do Not Steal, Shepard Fairey, artists--particularly artists that position themselves as leftists--are often eager to co-opt black bodies for their own purposes.
I won’t speak here to the experience of this appropriation; I can’t and shouldn’t. Instead I’ll refer again to Savali’s article on the art installation of Michael Brown's body. I’d like to refer, too, to P.E. Garcia’s response to a similar event, in which a white poet read Michael Brown’s autopsy report as poetry. Both pieces are stunning for their language, though Garcia’s is subtle and strong while Savali’s is raw and immediate, and both speak to the urgency of these questions. Those pieces, I think, speak for themselves.
I do want to dig into some of the broader cultural dynamics surrounding this piece, however. What really makes this piece particularly sketchy to me is the discourses surrounding it and their assumptions. I’ll start with the broader picture and wrap back around to the logic of the curators. I found out about this piece through a Fox News affiliate, which immediately made me suspicious. After all, Fox is no friend to BLM, to black people in general, to protest movements that aren’t violently reactionary, or to Fine Art. Fox News reported, in particular, that Michael Brown’s father found the piece to be in poor taste. Maybe so, but is it in good taste to vilify protesters while lionizing brutal militarized police forces? Is it in good taste to side with the oppressor until it becomes convenient for you to take a swipe at Fine Art by co-opting the voice of the oppressed?
The situation reminds me of an old Onion article: Republicans, Dadaists Declare War on Art. There’s a truth to the joke, where the Dadaists are looking at art and seeing it as a bastion of reactionary ideology, whereas Republicans see the art world as degenerate art and calling for its destruction. It’s worth keeping in mind that they are looking at protests, however, and seeing them as equally degenerate. People’s real pain is merely fodder, in that context, for whatever ideological target reactionary ideologues have selected for that particular Hate Week.
The truth of the matter is that no action will be acceptable, will ever be quiet, will ever be conservative enough to fit the sensibilities of this crowd. Fox News wagging its finger at this artwork is fundamentally disingenuous--they’re only wagging their fingers because it’s convenient for them.
However, defending it purely because Fox dislikes it simply plays into a convenient dichotomy where this artwork that sparks outrage while accomplishing very little (what is its audience? Who is going to be confronted by the realities this artwork purports to reveal against their will, when it is stuck in a gallery far from the public eye?) and doing harm to the people it claims to represent is the only viable site for battle to liberals opposed to direct actions like those of Bree Newsome or the protesters here in Toronto.
We can see this in the statements about the Michael Brown installation piece from its curators. The curators claim that their pet artist is speaking for those who cannot speak. Well, I say that’s their claim, but maybe y’all should read their statement for yourselves, as it’s pretty mind bending:
“When you have people who are trafficking young ladies across the globe and the people speaking up for them aren’t the people being trafficked,” Frances Guichard told the Guardian. “The people speaking up are those who care about making sure that it’s just based on humanity and that’s [the artist] Ti-Rock.
I’m going to struggle to set aside everything else brain-meltingly wrong about that statement and focus specifically on this idea that this work is necessary to “heal a country torn by racism” because, like victims of human trafficking (????????), they have no ability to speak for themselves.
But we’ve already seen a number of examples of black artists and activists speaking, in far more public and inflammatory ways than anyone working within the gallery system could! For a curator with the power to decide whose voices are heard within galleries to claim that they represent someone speaking for those without voices is nonsensical and lacks awareness of the power of curators--or critics!--to centralize oppressed voices and act as a support system for those voices.
By condemning direct actions, though, we endorse these curators, and we endorse the battlefield that Fox and other reactionaries have selected. It means that we have to engage the debate of whether or not this particular artwork is worthwhile--a profound waste of time--rather than support the more effectively radical demonstrations of symbolic resistance. It is a self fulfilling prophecy where marginalized speech is systematically dismantled and silenced, and then the dismantlers and silencers take on those voices--whether it be liberal artists co-opting black bodies, or conservative pundits co-opting black pain for their crusade against degenerate art.
We have already ceded so much ground to reactionaries that the wankery coming out of the art world, this fortress made of justifications thin as the next paycheck, unstable as the stock of a Young British Artist, has somehow become our last bastion. Well, that, or waiting for what centrists can get elected to maybe throw people in crisis a bone now and again. This is not ground that we can win on. Even if we did win in this ground, all we would win is the right of white artists and curators to continue producing exploitative garbage.
No, we need to stand with both those who actively occupy and transform public space into a realm for resistance, and those critics who explain the logic behind that occupation.
I’ve struggled with my own role in this problem of elevation or appropriation, as someone doing something vaguely resembling journalism. Ultimately I’ve concluded that not writing about this issue would be more unethical than writing about it, and I’ve tried to position myself as a kind of curator, elevating the voices of others and providing the context for why those voices are important. Using this platform I have to reach a reasonably sized audience and even change some minds, as I have in the past, seems like the least I can do.
I wouldn’t say that I should be emulated, though. That seems presumptuous. I have no reason to think that I’m succeeding here. Instead, I’m asking that people think about the way that silencing certain means of expression, and condemning it as counterproductive, cedes important ground to reactionaries while also making the profit engine that is the contemporary art world into the only institution where voices can be heard… but only by proxy.
And beyond that, when black artists and activists speak out about their actions and the urgency of civil disobedience, I think it’s urgent that we listen and pass them on.
To return to the action in Toronto, I think the question is ultimately who the public space of this, my city, is for. Is public space for tourists, or for commuters, or is public space for people who want--who need--to express themselves, when other means of speech have been denied them? If people can only make ad hoc monuments, those are the monuments they are going to make. If you’re going to criticize these monuments, the next question is: what are you going to do to make sure that people’s voices are heard--not heard ten years from now, not heard one year from now, but heard in the present, heard at a time when their message is more urgent than ever?
These political articles have taken a lot out of me, so next I want to write something lighter. What will it be? I'm not sure exactly. Possibly something on Steven Universe, possibly something on Homestuck, possibly something on Mad Max. Something utterly trivial in other words. I'm going to aim for Sunday, August 2nd for the next update.
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