This last week has become a container for a rapid stream of awakening and movement. I feel like things are being revealed at a pace that I am struggling to keep up with but that I simultaneously feel absolutely ready to show up for, fully and without any hesitation. It is exciting and intimidating. Beautiful and humbling. I feel very vulnerable and grateful.
Yesterday, I was scheduled for a three-hour critique of my work with a graduate seminar class. Before each critique, the artist is asked to present an object, reading, or film that will help to frame the conversation about their work or to offer an example of their interests that may lie outside of art theory or art history. Each of us leads a talk prior to the critique in which we can raise important questions, present inquiries, or prompt the discussion of our work.
Since the acquittal of George Zimmerman was announced, I have not been able to focus on any kind of cultural material or art making without situating it or seeing it in relationship with the existence of racism and specifically anti Black, white racism. This includes my own work, my own creative process and begs for a reevaluation questions: How much have I taken my own anti racist practices for granted, assuming they are present and visible? Have I opted out of an explicit identification with these principles? Have I let my work become too easily mistaken as collaboration or at the very least a complacence with whiteness and the white art world? Do I fear professional retaliation or exclusion by the gatekeepers of a white privileged art career path? Why haven’t I been more explicit?
Despite my long-term engagement with racial justice work, despite my commitment to an ever deepening consciousness of the meaning of my own whiteness, despite my acquisition of critical language, I do not feel I have done enough work or gone far enough as an artist with white skin privilege. This moment has highlighted this truth as simple fact.
Among young artists that I have shared classrooms with over the last three years, there is often voiced a disdain for feminist art making practices and an even greater trepidation around calling oneself a feminist artist. There is an expressed fear of having ones practice pigeonholed into a specific, politicized category, and a deep worry that this will create a tight restriction around the work, preventing it from moving into lucrative territories or from building a professional credibility. I often push back on this fear by highlighting the ways that this phenomena functions to preserve patriarchy and an art world that is still dominated by men; how it builds an encasement of silence around our grievances and experiences, marginalizing perfectly reasonable reactions to patriarchy like rage, sadness, frustration, and despair, to the point that they can be characterized as crazy, overly sensitive, or out moded, the implication being that we live in a post sexist society. And though I bring up similar tendencies in relationship to race, I do not believe I have been clear enough with my desire to betray whiteness.
In preparation for this critique, I recognized it as an opportunity to bring this conversation into the room and I selected a text to share that began with this: It is time for white people to acknowledge the power and meaning of their race. Today, most white people, even the most liberal, are oblivious to the psychological and political weight of their whiteness. If Black people must evaluate the status of their Blackness in relation to the prejudice they experience everyday, most white people, by their unwillingness to assign whiteness meaning, are freed from the responsibility of accepting, or even understanding their prejudices. Yet, it is precisely the acknowledgement of this whiteness that can help white people understand their racist behavior, attitudes, and complicity. (Maurice Berger, White: Whiteness And Race In Contemporary Art, 2003)
In many circles of learning and activism that identify as radical or grounded in critical cultural theory, this statement about whiteness may seem elementary or obvious (and so very 90s!). However, in the context of formal, private art education spaces, this seems to be a wildly controversial statement, something that simply goes unsaid and is rarely, if ever directed towards artists themselves. In fact, in the three years I have been attending this school, I have not been assigned a single reading in the fine art department that deals with race or racism, and the only critical pieces of writing or dialogue dealing explicitly with race have been the ones (like this text) that I have brought in to share.
Certainly, I have been assigned readings that deal with power structures (eg: Foucault, DeLeuze, DeBord, Zizek, etc.) and there has been a peppering of feminist art theory scattered throughout the curriculum (albeit, only coming from a white feminist perspective). But in my experience at this school… never has a group of students been asked by their faculty to reflect on their own experiences of racism, whiteness, and social privilege. Never has a Black art or cultural theoretician been included in a reading assignment. Never has race or racism been addressed explicitly by the program as an important aspect of a critical cultural education. Never has it been named by those in charge of constructing this program (who incidentally are exclusively white and predominantly male) as something which shapes our concepts and experiences of the social.
Here, at this school, the idea of power is discussed as a theoretical concept, an idea abstracted to the point that it simply becomes a neutered gathering of words on a page, sitting at a comfortable distance from its material consequences in our very tangible daily lives. Power systems and the ways that they are structured are examined with a distinct loyalty to art making and to the art world and are largely (if not exclusively) disjointed from an integration into social realities outside of art. In this light, it becomes very clear that because of this loyalty to an art world that is unavoidably shaped by white supremacy and because of this subsequent loyalty to whiteness, an address of power and specifically of white racism will never go as far as it needs to in this space. To do so would mean a shattering of the very foundation upon which the institution rests, and a complete obsolescence of the practices and careers it produces.
Of course, this is the only formal art education space I have ever been a part of, so I cannot speak about the presence of this conversation in other institutions. However, this condition has consistently triggered questions (and extreme concern) for me about the glaring absence of a discussion of the history and continued presence of racism in this country among artists and in this case, art students in a private art institution. And further, whether it is consciously intended or not, I understand this act of exclusion of Black people and Black voices to be a preservation of the institution of whiteness, one that inherently insures the continued abuse of Black bodies.
During this critique, in which I shared a very plain and direct idea about whiteness in the art world, I felt the weight of the mere introduction of the concept of a self-awareness about race and racism within communities of cultural production. Through the tender, nervous vibration of my lips as I read aloud this passage, I knew that it would (even among this small group) out myself and my practice as explicitly committed to a betrayal of white racism. Even as I write this, I feel self-conscious and I do not know how to properly illustrate the lack of safety or preparedness there is in a space like this institution to discuss or adequately address white racism. As I have often described in other writings, there is a clear split for me, between the spaces in which it is safe to bring forward these ideas and spaces in which it is not, even for me, with the safety I possess as a white skin privileged person.
When I completed this reading, I looked up at my classmates and asked if there were any questions or comments. The room was mostly silent until my professor asked why I specifically identified with this issue, why I felt the need to take it to task in my work. I responded with a brief narrative about my current body of work, explaining that it began with a simple observation, followed by a simple question: I feel deeply motivated to contribute to the work of fundamentally transforming this world. Why do I feel this way while others do not?
I described my process for this work by explaining that it began with a recollection of personal experiences that I believe may have constructed this deep desire. These were situations in which my personal agency, my ability to exercise my will, to make choices was taken away from me, without my consent by a force outside of myself: rape, violent sexual harassment, institutionalization, poverty, aggressive and politicized confrontations with police. My intuition being, that there is something significant about ones proximity to the memory of their own trauma or the traumas of others to which they bear witness. This proximity, the ability to remember, can become a site upon which a greater capacity to feel radical empathy or compassion for others can be built. And that maybe, this place, the place of empathy and compassion that often remains seated quietly between passivity and action, holds the potential to transform the recognition of and recovery from the experience into active solidarity.
The context for this narrative was framed by a move from the neighborhood I lived in for the first thirteen years of my life, a neighborhood composed of mostly brown and black families, a neighborhood in which my deepest friendships were with children of color, to a neighborhood composed of white middle class people. It was in this new neighborhood I had my first experiences of explicit, unapologetic white racism.
In this new place, it was common to hear racial slurs pouring from the mouths of white youth and their parents. In this new place, it was understood by everyone where the white supremacists lived, their house casually named The Klan House, situated among other homes on my walking route from school. In this new place, people of color were not present, unless employed by its residents or as abstract characters in a rarely told story about racial violence in the neighborhood.
In this new place, I was stopped by police while walking home with my friend, a young Black man who was not from the neighborhood. He, ordered to empty his pockets, sit on the curb, explain why he was there, defend himself against suspicion. And me, pulled aside to be given a lecture by a white police officer about how a nice girl like me (aka white girl like me) should be careful about who I associate with, separated from my friend, driven home in a squad car. In this new place, I acquired the beginnings of an awareness of just how much danger my friend escaped that night while sweetly walking me home; a context for just how much danger boys like Trayvon Martin are in every single day.
As we moved further into a critique of my work, a room full of sculptures and video projections that travel through the territories of prison architectures, white identity and narcissism, gender expression, and police violence, the conversation about whiteness, white racism, and power remained politely hypothetical. It did not get personal. There were suggestions made that I should include Black bodies in the work if I really wanted to discuss racism. There was often a palpably skeptical tone regarding my qualifications to be discussing this issue. There was disbelief that there lies a connection between gender and race. And it wasn’t until the blonde haired, blue eyed, German exchange student began to ask questions that the conversation moved into a deeper, more meaningful place. How far in do you need to go to be able to talk about this? What are the ethical implications of discussing this as a person that is not a victim of racism? He expressed concerns that are similar to mine and then he asked to borrow the book about whiteness and contemporary art that I brought in to share.
His clear interest in this discussion prompted me to think about his point of view as a young, German man making art. I began to reflect on what his inheritances might be; having been born into a social geography that includes the inescapable mark of The Holocaust. I considered the fact that as a non-Jewish, white German, his very existence is tied to his inevitable ancestral connection with the Nazi party. This reflection dramatically enlarged the scope of my thinking about whiteness and the legacies of white racism. What must it mean for him to address this in his work? And why does he feel compelled to do this?
The utterly inescapable reality of the horrors of the Holocaust is something that blatantly marks German art history post World War II. German artists producing work after the war expressed that the undeniable memory and impacts of this event was something that must be addressed. And globally, (including the Americas) you can easily find countless examples of non-Germans expressing an obligation to acknowledge this event. Even Italian born artist Rico LeBrun, a non-Jew, stated that “the Holocaust was a subject that no serious artist could neglect.” (1) And nearly every major American city affords space to the recognition of this tragedy through museums and memorial sites dedicated to the Holocaust. Today, contemporary German artists still feel obligated to grapple with its residual effects as is evident in the German landscape, marked by innumerable monuments acknowledging the Jewish lives lost, explicit apologies and attempts at reconciliation as evident in governmental and institutional initiatives, and an continual expression from young artists to assume responsibility for making sure that something like this can never happen again.
The power that memory has in shaping consciousness and culture has remained a steadfast focal point for German cultural production since. And it seems that among cultural workers and non artists alike, there was and is a sense of responsibility for its happening. Present in these narratives is a recognition that in addition to people that were directly involved in carrying out the genocide, there existed the complacency of the good Germans that simply looked the other way; an understanding that this silent collaboration contributed directly to institutional, militarized white supremacy and the mass murder of Jewish people.
While I speculate on how my German classmate is relating to whiteness and social responsibility in his work, I cannot help but wonder why white people do not feel a similar remorse in relationship to the history of anti Black racism in the United States? And if they do, why are they so silent? And why are white artists in the United States, whom occupy a strikingly similar position in terms of the inheritances and memory of something as atrocious as the Holocaust, do not collectively agree that as artists, the history of slavery and anti black racism in this country is “a subject that no serious artist could neglect.” Why is there an overwhelming absence of white cultural workers dealing with the legacies of racism in the United States? Why, during this critical moment, when racism is so pointedly illuminated, isn’t there a presence of white artists claiming a visible responsibility to contribute to its eradication?
I write this as a grandchild of Jewish immigrants, a beneficiary of the generational traumas of anti Semitism, while also being the recipient of the privileges of the absorption of Jewishness into whiteness. So to be very clear, this is not to propose that either event is more horrific than the other or more or less deserving of attention. This question is simply meant to underline that surely, the enslavement of Black people that spanned several hundred years, followed by a century of Jim Crow, that reaches into contemporary examples of de facto segregation, the over whelming impacts of poverty on communities of Black folk, racial profiling carried out extra judicially and by law enforcement, the murder of a Black body every twenty eight hours (2), the statistically racist criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex must be considered as horrific and grave a series of events as the Holocaust.
One would think so. However, the major difference is that while Germany may be able to rightfully occupy the historical space of a post WWII, a post Holocaust, a post Third Reich, its artists charged with the task of articulating the memory of the events in hindsight, the United States cannot yet be afforded that position. And the primary reason we cannot remark on the memory of slavery and anti Black racism is simply because you cannot make a memorial of something that has not yet ended. In order to feel remorse, you have to observe the event after the fact. After it has occurred. Remorse happens in hindsight. And again, to be very plain, we do not occupy that historical position when it comes to anti Black racism in this country. White people cannot claim the fantastical privilege of being able to refer to a bygone time when racism once existed, a time in which they were not alive and therefor cannot possibly harbor any responsibility. White American artists and cultural workers cannot commit to making sure that slavery never happens again because in actuality, they must still commit to its abolition. This is not the time to reflect upon the harm that was done. It is time for the abolition of the systems that perpetuate the damage that is being done. There can be no monuments, no memory, no hindsight applied to the abuses that are presently with us. And there is no clear punctuation mark on the end of these horrific American singularities like there may be for the Holocaust because they are still happening.
This is meant to put anti Black racism in the United States into perspective with what is considered globally (by the art world and otherwise) to be one of the most shameful acts in human history. To highlight that the institution of whiteness has allowed our perception of this atrocity to be diminished, if not completely absent. To say clearly that the whiteness or Blackness of the victims of each event has everything to do with how we recognize and internalize their consequences.
It is not a bygone era. It is right here. Right now. And you are not innocent.
As I face this reality, my position as a white artist, committed to an anti racist practice deepens dramatically and to be perfectly honest, calling myself a white anti racist does not do justice to the actual work that must be done. This term does not reach far enough into the very roots of this still present, still shameful, still deadly reality. This term… this thinking is still steeped in the white imaginary, in the fantastical, fictional, and misguided belief in a distance from history. And for these reasons, the realities and manifestations of anti Black racism, a verifiably ongoing genocide in the United States are of such incomprehensible horror that our everyday language will never be sufficient to describe or represent its legacies and continued consequences. The very language we use to attempt to represent and deconstruct racism through artistic means are so steeped in the white imagination that as they exist, simply will only stand to serve the white conscience, to console the guilt of whiteness, and to perpetuate its existence. And only through a commitment to a complete abolition of the institution of whiteness will the white imaginary be revealed, dispossessed of its power to assign symbolic language to collective narratives, to arrange these constellations in our historical space. Under these terms, the use of the word abolition as opposed to white anti racist more honestly defines our relationship to cultural event and memory. To say one is an abolitionist addresses the still present violence of anti Black racism, repositioning the white skin privileged cultural worker from the position of a passive spectator of an alleged memory, of their own complicity into the active role of explicit responsibility. Only through the door of total abolition can there be an authentic entrance into a new narrative, into an artistic mediation capable of prompting not a reform of these toxic systems but a radical cultural transformation.
While I articulate this conclusion, I feel a simultaneous exhilaration and extraordinary vulnerability because I believe that we are standing on the cusp of a new culture, one in which all known ways of perceiving the world and communicating with one another through art and otherwise must be dismantled and reinvented, one in which old languages, ways of being in relationship with one another simply do not suffice. And as Primo Levy noted as he addressed the impossibility of accurate representation of the Holocaust, “Daily language is for the description of daily experience, but here is another world, here one would need a language of the other world.” (3) And it is this other world we each have a responsibility to construct once we have thoroughly committed to a betrayal of whiteness and opted into abolition. And until then, every decision is suspect.
And if perhaps you believe that I am asking too much of you, we can look toward an example of another artist, Joseph Beuys, who for the length of his career made it his work to attempt to articulate the inexplicable shame of the holocaust that he inherited as a young German, to build cultural institutions that would ensure that another Holocaust would never again occur, who also claimed that art should provoke thoughts about “how we mold and shape the world in which we live: SCULPTURE AS AN EVOLUTIONARY PROCESS; EVERYONE AN ARTIST. ” Going on to assert that, “art is the ‘only’ possibility for evolution, the only possibility to change the situation in the world. But then you have to enlarge the idea of art to include the whole creativity. And if you do that, it follows logically that every living being is an artist – an artist in the sense that (they) can develop (their) own capacity and therefore, in short, I’m saying, all work that’s done has to have the quality of art.” (Joseph Beuys, 1979) And then, by bringing this claim into this contemporary moment we may say that every living being an artist, every living being can be an abolitionist and that art, in its highest form is abolition and nothing less.
1: “Artists who were not directly involved with the Holocaust have also attempted to enter the subject. This is probably the most difficult road. The stimulus may be some knowledge about the Holocaust itself or analogies made between the Holocaust and contemporary events that demand an emotional or political response in art. Artists may be Jews or non-Jews. Rico LeBrun, a non-Jew known for his Crucifixion scenes, suggested that artists had to deal with the Holocaust. This “outsider” generation (sometimes called “empathizers”) has important ethical boundaries to consider when approaching the subject. The art of this group cannot be “memory,” for they did not experience the event itself. It may be an interpretation (derived from a sense of vulnerability as a Jew or artist), a historical narrative, reflections on place, absence and presence, a Proustian stimulus to a book, photograph or film, confrontation with a survivor or neo-Nazi or simply a confrontation with the impenetrability of the subject. The greater question at hand, however, may not be the Holocaust, but an attempt to penetrate the nature of man and seek light through the darkness of the late twentieth century.” Witness and Legacy, Stephen C. Feinstein, Co-curator of Witness and Legacy, University of Wisconsin at River Falls, http://sunsite.utk.edu/neighborhoods/witness/essays/feinstein/feinstein.html
2: Operation Ghetto Storm: 2012 Annual Report on the extrajudicial killing of 313 Black people by police, security guards and vigilantes. The Report exposes how every 28 hours someone inside the United States, employed or protected by the U.S. government kills a Black child, woman or man. http://www.operationghettostorm.org/
3: Primo Levi as quoted in Michael Kimmelman, “Horror Unforgotten: The Politics of Memory,” New York Times, Friday, 11 March 1994, B1, Witness and Legacy, Stephen C. Feinstein, Co-curator of Witness and Legacy, University of Wisconsin at River Falls, http://sunsite.utk.edu/neighborhoods/witness/essays/feinstein/feinstein.html