tonight, art is served

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The minister of culture was making a joke about female circumcision, or rather clearly believed she was playing the role of doctor in a larger joke about female circumcision. The way it was engineered, she really didn’t have much of a choice. Being an art gala, there would have to be a cake, and as the most senior official in the room, Liljeroth would have to cut it. When it comes to cutting people’s bodies, senior government officials usually have other people to do it for them. But cutting cakes, that’s what they do. But cakes aren’t supposed to scream.

Faced with performance-art-as-trap, she could hardly refuse to participate, that would be an insult to the artist and the event planners, who are probably very good friends of X, Y, and Z very important people. So Liljeroth giggles and jokes while the simulated black body screams in pain as she mutilates it for the cameras and smiling onlookers. What she didn’t quite realize was the degree to which her own life would not be better after this. Here’s how The Mirror describes her attempts to walk back what happened:

Speaking to the TT news agency, Liljeroth claimed she was sympathetic to the [National Afro-Swedish Association’s] reaction but defended her actions.

She reportedly said: “I understand quite well that this is provocative and that it was a rather bizarre situation.

“I was invited to speak at World Art Day about art’s freedom and the right to provoke. And then they wanted me to cut the cake.”

But the culture minister argued that the association’s anger should be directed at the artist, not her and claims the situation was “misinterpreted”.

Let’s play out a counter-factual: Say the Swedish Culture Ministry reacted as the National Afro-Swedish Association would have had them. Say they had took one look at Linde’s plans and said “Look, we like art, but that looks crazy-racist and the idea of cutting it, especially in a room full of powerful white people having a good time, makes our insides shrivel.” They could have gone with a big vanilla sheet cake instead. The politics folks could have smiled and checked their watches while the art folks smiled and bitched about how hypocritical the whole exercise was.

That scenario happens every day around the world, and unless you’re an artist, have a foundation with your name on it, or work in catering, you never have to much think about it.

Even though this complacency with the state and capitalism preoccupies many committed artists, art that attempts to shine light on the problem ends up doing more harm than good and strengthening power-elite claims about tolerance. For example, participants expressed real worries that a New School occupation’s anti-school graffiti would end up framed as an exhibit about the university’s radical roots.

Occupiers end up doing a sort of uninspired redux of an ABC No Rio exhibition from 1980, for your university’s now “super edgy” art gallery, and for free. The artists end up taking all the blame, while the gallery or school rakes in some cred. That’s why most self-respecting left artists if asked to design a cake for a culture ministry would weigh the possible benefits of doing something controversial and probably just tell the ministry to fuck off.

So while the art world eats vanilla cake, Linde is at home painting Golliwog smiles on Western cultural icons. The pieces are good: a sardonic grinning blackness brought to the fore of Europe’s self-representation, the critical reinsertion of the happy slave scrubbed from an otherwise unchanged cultural identity. But maybe some people think the work is a little heavy-handed, that it’s been done before. A blackface version of the mustache on the Monalisa. And why do black artists always use blackface anyway? Isn’t that a little antiquated?

So imagine this isn’t working well enough, and Linde wants to do something really bitingly critical about the Swedish art-state’s relationship to Africa. So she* paints a picture in the photo-realist style of the Swedish minister of culture performing a clitoridectomy. The equivalent of something like this:

Now this one people think is really heavy-handed. We get it already, they’re complicit with bad things that happen, blah blah blah. Art is boring. This is political imagery at the artistic level of a Daily Show graphic.

But that’s not what happened.

If an artist had somehow lured President Bush into pouring champagne down an ice-louge while the performer lay under it pretending to be water-boarded, no one would misunderstand the artist’s intent. And no matter how much the president thought he was in on it, he wouldn’t be, because his confidence that art is safe is already a part of the work. That relationship is what’s being presented for critique. That’s the piece: the situation itself, and the crowd’s inability to see that they’re cheering on while a government minister cuts up a black body. It’s an image of blindness.

If this photo had been conceived, arranged, captured, and placed in an exhibition by a photographer, it would be understood as an incisive statement about self-satisfied European whiteness. Of course it would be understood as such only for a moment by white photography enthusiasts while they sip their wine before they move on to the next shot.

But that’s also not what happened.

If the performance had never occurred, we would just see the continuation of a balance of power that everyone who’s now upset already agrees is abhorrent. Except we would have seen it less, or under circumstances that incline us less to discomfort. We would be where we are but more so, unmoved.

There’s a bigger problem here, which is that for the last decade or so art criticism has been dancing way ahead of art, looking back and making neener-neener taunting faces. The instruments of critical theory can take down any piece of contemporary art by treating it as a symptom of the inequalities of the society that produced it. The art objects don’t become racist, sexist, or classist, but are revealed as inevitably so as superstructural products of a capitalist society. I don’t mean to make it sound like that means this line of critique isn’t valuable, because I think it’s right-on nearly all the time. But does that mean so-called “fine art” is fully subsumed by control society?

I don’t think so, lately I’ve been feeling like we’re about to see art (and not just individual artists) sprint ahead of its criticism for the first time in decades. And watching the critical side in denial as art whooshes past is painful.

Lena Dunham’s show Girls is remarkable first of all because of the way it’s understood as the creator’s show. You know it falls into the tv-as-visual-art category with Mad Men and The Wire because the writer/creator is being held publicly accountable for its content. Unlike say The New Girl, which everyone knows is Zooey’s fault. So if we’re looking at the show as “less a television series than it is a self-reflexive piece of performance art,” then the critics should exercise a little more caution.

Dunham has been pilloried critically, even by those who generally support her work, for the representation of race (or lack there of) in the show. So, as a paragon of white privilege writing a story about young, privileged, white women, how should she represent race in the show? If it were a network sitcom, there would probably be a token black girl or Latina. Since this is HBO where characters get to be a bit deeper, maybe her portrayal wouldn’t be as painfully stereotyped, but she would mostly be a way for the show to avoid being labeled racist by critics. Any plot lines about the imagined black Girl dealing with racism wouldn’t serve the purpose of revealing social inequality because hey look we can make television with real narratives about racism now! It would be not a sign, but a simulation of anti-racist progress. The character would ultimately be in the service of the white artist and the white network paying the bills. But pretending that race doesn’t exist by refusing to see it – even if that’s what the characters as constructed would actually do – as Friends, Sex in The City, Seinfeld did, is definitely not good enough for the show itself.

If this show had been made five years ago, I think there would be a token character, but Dunham did something much more impressive. In the pilot’s last shot, her character is walking out of her parents’ hotel room having just stolen the maid’s tip after trying and failing to order room service on their bill. As we get ready for the episode to end, the viewer (and character) see the first black character. It’s the most important shot in the episode. This is what the interaction looks like:

Critics use this scene as glaring proof of the show’s racism: There’s one black character, and of course it’s a homeless guy! Gotcha, dumb bitch! But it’s the creators who scripted this scene when they obviously didn’t have to, and Dunham who acted half of it. Hating the show because of rich white girl privilege is ignoring that it’s already a show about rich white girl privilege in a way that Sex in The City never was; can you imagine Samantha cringing away from a black person while on the phone talking about her shoes? And if critics think an artist trained at Oberlin doesn’t know how to count the number of black people in a tv show, then they’re forgetting they probably learned how to do it in the same class.

Girls is a show about a racist who doesn’t hate black people, she just doesn’t see them, and when she does, she looks at her shoes. The shot is in such a significant place in the episode because it is absolutely crucial that the viewer see her not looking.

That’s what’s at stake in Linde’s cake performance as well: How do you represent a failure to see? In both the photo of the smiling culture minister and the still from Girls, we get a depiction of a blindness, of the inability of white people to reckon with a black body as human. They have both been effective as pieces of political art, I hope we’ll see more.

*Linde uses female pronouns on her Facebook so that’s what I’m going with. I currently have no information on her genitals.

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Malcolm Harris

Malcolm Harris is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York who focuses on generational politics. Malcolm is the managing editor at The New Inquiry. He's also a contributing editor at Shareable and the editor of the collection Share or Die forthcoming from New Society. IN PRINTBifo Says Relax | TWITTER@BigMeanInternet

9 responses to “tonight, art is served”

  1. Zac in Virginia says:

    The use of Dubya analogies really drove the point home.

  2. Oh, I get it. The show is actually a subtle critique of racism written by a very subtle auteur. One can imagine the impact it will have on American society that is waiting with bated breath from a postmodernist Harriet Beecher Stowe.

  3. vanderleun says:

    I see you have naturally overlooked what overwhelming human pieces of shit everyone involved in this thing actually is. I wonder why you fail to perceive that …. seeing as how you are so deeply insightful.

  4. […] Stuff White People Like n.135 Humanitarian Intervention […]

  5. […] really have the time or the energy to write about this in detail, so I’m grateful that Malcolm Harris has posted an excellent essay on art that addresses modern racism and the failure of critics to keep pace with it.  His reading […]

  6. […] cake” performance, blackface is wrong when a black artist dons it, in the service of an anti-racist performance. Linde showed that blackface still has a sickening, visceral power, and that it can be […]

  7. […] for being too blithely white/privileged/frivolous etc. — but, as Malcolm Harris pointed out in his excellent piece on the first episode for The State, Dunham is a very self-aware and self-conscious artist who knows exactly what she’s doing by […]

  8. […] Malcolm Harris has a usefully provocative piece that’s mostly about the recent Swedish Culture Ministry blackface cake debacle, but that has […]

  9. Brian says:

    Why is everyone obsessed with the lack of black characters or any dealing with race outside that one shot? Your obsession masks the fact that she has created a really great story where the characters actually develop. How many rich white privileged 20 something’s do you know living in New York right now? The odds they have a non-token friend of color is pretty fucking small. She’s made the right choice for this story by not trying to do something she isn’t comfortable with ie write an actual real POC that isn’t some dumb cliche. Do you want numbers or do you want quality?

    And the authors note of racists who don’t hate black people but just don’t see them is pretty much an observation of the entirety of white America.

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