Friday, June 13, 2008

when good (white) people do bad (dumb) things

this little scandal has such a high irony content that i felt it merited the writing of my *second* post in 2008...

a latin-american artist living in NYC, yazmany arboleda, was arrested the other day and his exhibit shut down due to what appears to be a strongly adverse public reaction. in fact, not only did local and federal police board up the show, but even the secret service were called in. (thank god there is The Law to prevent art from offending people.) what was it that so enraged the masses that the thought-police had to come rushing to the scene?

why this: an exhibit called 'the assassination of barack obama' (its counterpart, 'the assassination of hillary clinton,' was shown in february of this year will barely a feather ruffled).

i first heard about this incident through feministing, a blog i usually admire for its swift and well-delivered kicks to the crotches of douchebags. so, i was surprised by how hard they missed the point this time. i then followed their link to this blog, truthfighter (had never heard of it before), where the writer displayed an even more thorough dimness.

as they put it: "The artist thought his racist views were protected under the Constitution because he was expressing himself through his art. Wrong." (ps/ i really love one of the comments below the post observing that "latinos are the most racist people i have ever encountered.")

and from feministing: "These bluntly racist images are not 'philosophical and metaphorical.' I don't see this 'art' as critiquing how the Obamas' race has been dealt with in the media. This is just adding to that media portrayal, amplifying the racist filth that's already being spewed."

fortunately most of the commentators on either blog seem hipper to the situation than the bloggers themselves.

i wonder how ann at feministing was able to type that sentence without immediately realizing her own bad logic. she seems not to realize that amplification and critique aren't mutually-exclusive elements of good political art; or rather, that the amplification is itself the method of incisive critique. that by scraping through the veneer to the quietly bigoted subtext in a given situation viewers may be provoked to confront and analyze it (in this case, the media coverage of a presidential race that has finally unearthed and laid bare all the dark, uncomfortable, and historic racism that most americans would rather avoid talking about in polite society).

one installation that drew particular ire was a large photo of barack obama's two young daughters with the caption "nappy headed hos" (a phrase don imus made immortal). before they could catch their collective breath, the faint of heart denounced the piece as sexist, racist filth (as, indeed, imus's remarks were). it was deemed heartless and disgusting to apply such an epitaph to those two sweet girls (as, indeed, it would be, if that were the point and nothing else).

but even as the viewer is shocked and disgusted, they are betraying themself, perhaps because somewhere deep down they harbour views, if not equally repugnant, at least somewhere not far removed on the scale of things-you-secretly-think-about-black-women. they, as privileged white people (with at least some peripheral knowledge of the NY art scene), are not so distanced from the systems of oppression that still give them incredible access to power. with that power perceivably threatened (the audacity of [black] hope), everyone shifts a little uneasy in their seats. imus's "nappy headed hos" line was often attributed to a 'slip of tongue' -- for imus, it was probably more of a minor trip. but how many such slips have been made by the white men whose faces still dominate the news-hour? like the time, for instance, when an MSNBC pundit described taking hillary clinton "out behind the barn," or when lou dobbs referred to "those damned, cotton-picking (black) politicians." more recently, a fox-news journalist called michelle obama "barack obama's baby mama." as with the rest of the exhibit, this piece screams people's prejudices in their faces, rather than whispering them under its breath.

and what's really splendid about this whole situation is the fact that by prompting the liberal white masses to shield their eyes and demand that the exhibit be removed, the art has been rendered more successful than perhaps even the artist himself could have imagined. they were forced to confront their guilt about histories of violence, and about stereotypes many still cling to, and that truth stung. so much that instead of pausing to self-examine they simply censored it into oblivion. people who would normally give up an organ before seeing freedom of speech (especially artistic expression) compromised, willfully read the exhibit literally and shallowly -- some even questioning the very right of art to display offensive content -- thereby taking the posture of the unsophisticated, conservative, 'anti-intellectual' crowd they usually hate on.

yet another example of the blindly stupid things well-meaning white people are always doing to assuage their guilt and show their 'solidarity'... in this case, just demonstrating how much they're still not helping.


in other news:

- just got back from egypt where i survived five weeks with family despite being 25 and with no plans to get married. my grandmother seems to think that if i don't reproduce soon, my womb will atrophy, and our line will perish. this was the chorus. for five weeks. add to that cairo heat and perv-tastic egyptian men and you have a summary of my trip. (thank god i got a job at a magazine and was able to escape the house to a place that wasn't the streets, and vice versa).

- glancing at my last post (from feb 2008): boy, was i drugged. i'm happy to report that we've since won. that's right, friends: the ministry saw things our way after a couple of media stunts and some old-fashioned kissy, and come sept 2009 ontario students will have the WGS course they deserve (and we plan on monitoring how often/well it's being taught). i am also happy to report that with that unpleasantness behind us, i plan on never writing so poorly again.