Currently you are beloved, apoliticized, or, capitalized. We think of one of your names headlining Hirschorn’s gentrification project, your name invoked as a shield against his. No mention in the headlines of your anti-fascist activism, your writing against the artist bourgeois, vulnerable education systems.
It is as if you existed solely, in your own space, unable to scorn fascism or its aesthetics, as if you wrote some unattached, appropriatable things at some point, then died.
We—and we use we as an invitational “we”, as Ailish Hopper has described, as a we that is open, without unity and uncollapsed—we write to you not because we believe your life, your memories are a vessel, an empty shell to be filled by the desire of present day politics, but because we have spent the last few months, actively remembering you.
We read Janet Poole’s When the Future Disappears about Korean writers and artists during the Japanese colonial era, who, thirty years into the occupation (which by colonial occupation standards, is not the longest and at the same time, spans a generation)—could no longer imagine its end. Their writing and art depicted their entrapment in the present. Poole queries, what did they make—as one time or closeted communists, revolutionary, leftist artists, if not about the future?
The distinction between those who will be allowed to speak, and those who will be shut down are not made by the distance of a parallel universe, but by the politics of the present day.
There are galleries, Mnuchin, and there are dealers who broker transactions and there will be an upheaval of manifestos. There are those who will defend art organization founded on, and supplied by DeVos as an economic necessity. All of this has begun, as has been beginning, as you know.
They say collaboration with the enemy is an economic necessity: only the privileged speak against this terrain. They say everything is muddled, everything is tarnished. Nothing is clean. As Max Haiven has written, they say this as a way to radically suppress all imaginations not their own.
In thinking about the rise of the privatization of the prison industrial complex and the ways they thrive under fascist culture, or they thrive fascist culture, we went back and read the notes we took in our earliest art history and literature courses. The ones that described the momentum of the futurists—nuancing their hatred of women with the hatred of domesticity—the ones that asked us to study their innovative typography but never their politics.
The courses that asked us to read essays that preached on the novelty of futurism.
“The novelty of Italian Futurist manifestos, in this context, is their brash refusal to remain in the expository or critical corner, their understanding that the group pronouncement, sufficiently aestheticized, can, in the eyes of the mass audience, all but take the place of the promised art work” (guess who…!!!)
Novel art works they made. Fluidly they ran.
No mention of you, Gramsci in these notes. No mention of your ideas in these classes. No mention that you were alive, in the same novel moment, at the other side incarcerated for your anti-fascist activism and pulling fragments together in your notebook.
No mention in the essays we read or in our classes that perhaps the momentum witnessed in the futurist manifestos were a condition of a mobility granted to fascist subjects…
In writing to you we wanted to connect the histories of anti-fascist writers and artists across the globe, who existed in “a moment without future” (Poole). The history of you is a history where collaboration was no longer a possibility. Where it wasn’t a matter of, how to work with, to work against the state. Perhaps in writing to you we can think about the tension between who is allotted the space of collaboration, infiltration even—and for how long?
In thinking about fascist aesthetics, and foreclosing the anathematic debate, Poole defines that “fascist culture refer not only to culture under fascism but also to a culture that actively espouses fascism.” Which Poole states is the condition of “Capitalism without Capitalism” where subjects and communities deemed useless or worthless through capitalism (though they are necessary to capitalism) are sought to be destroyed. We turn to Nicole Fleetwood who discusses “carceral aesthetics” —the form that incarcerated persons may take up in order to witness and revise—a term we wish we learned about earlier to imagine and study you, and all those held in your conditions.
Rather than the novelty of mobility as a fascist subject, the innovation of war innovation:
the forms of absolute opposition
A parallel seeking that repudiates the present, a subject who is not considered a member, so makes art so opaque we always believe it is from a different time, a differentiated space
Figures and narratives we needed to learn then to prepare for the present, then.
In writing to you we want to remember how you said no, and how you continued to say No, until the end.
Last week a cartoon image circulated of Betty DeVos, an appropriated Norman Rockwell painting, “The Problem We All Live with (1963),” which depicts the anti-black racism Ruby Bridges faced on her way to a supposedly desegregated school.
In 2017 the visual imagination is being worked to imagine Devos, a homophobic, ultra conservative billionaire with no experience in public education, as the victim.
Her refusal is not witnessed as triumphant, but the error. The schools that will be torn out during her terror-reign, how will they be remembered and memorialized?
When we voiced these concerns, some close to us stated that such imagery were exceptions. Artists are mostly left-y.
Is that how we all sleep at night? By clutching to some imaginary notion of the artist left brand?
We were reminded that in 1942, the beloved children’s book writer and illustrator, Dr. Seuss was an ardent supporter of Japanese internment camps, and voraciously anti-Japanese.
We call the archives that hold Seuss’s drawings because we want to know if we can see them. We want to know how they were contextualized—the majority of them were published in PM magazine from 1941-1942 (Japanese Internment camps weren’t a fantasy in 1942, but situated and growing, as the order to intern Japanese Americans came in February 19th, 1942) which articles were these accompanied by? Who wrote for the issues in which these appeared?
In describing what we were looking for we are told that the images are online and that the originals are too fragile to be viewed. When we ask how many anti-Japanese cartoons did Seuss create we are met with a sigh, and told that Seuss drew lots of things. As if we do not know he is a famous, prolific artist, we are told that he wrote books and wrote about other things too, not just about the Japanese. Our question regarding Seuss’s pro-internment drawings are met with protective, defense responses. As if remembering the beloved children’s book author as politically deplorable, racist and propragandistic (as he also worked for the army corps) would be an assault to his artistic achievement.
That’s how whiteness operates, doesn’t it. By demanding more context and forgiveness, and yet refusing to provide context to anything else.
Seuss, McCoy, and others are not an aberration. These are not accidents.
Poole writes that,
“The history of fascism was, until recently, written as a period of aberration or a clip when people momentarily lost their minds before somehow returning, or being returned, to the path of a true modernity, whose ideologies of progress, development, and democratization could thus be reaffirmed. In recent years, historians have instead devoted much effort into rewriting the history of fascism as an integral part of modernity and to thus examining the relationship between modernism and fascism. By refusing to consign fascism to an atavistic past, they have forced a consideration of fascist legacies in the present; once the dark period is no longer allowed to remain in the dark, as it were, it can exert a different and powerful presence in relation to the present….”
McCoy and Seuss are not aberrations, but continuations of a history that we are invested in as artists working in the global north. One part of breaking this would be to continue to tie the histories to the present, to refuse shock (but not horror) and to work towards ruptures—even when held by its histories.
Eia for those who never invented anything
for those who never explored anything
for those who never conquered anything
but yielded, captivated, to the essence of things
ignorant of surfaces but captivated by the motion of all things
indifferent to conquering, but playing the game of the world
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal
Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
Trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith
Just because whiteness is not articulated, does not mean it is not being deployed. Cheryl Harris writes, “The state’s official recognition of a racial identity that subordinated Blacks and of privileged rights in property based on race elevated whiteness from a passive attribute to an object of law and a resource deployable at the social, political, and institutional level to maintain control. Thus, a white person “used and enjoyed” whiteness whenever she took advantage of the privileges accorded white people simply by virtue of their whiteness – when she exercised any number of rights reserved for the holders of whiteness. Whiteness as the embodiment of white privilege transcended mere belief or preference; it became usable property, the subject of the law’s regard and protection. In this respect whiteness, as an active property, has been used and enjoyed.”
As much as we love the idea of intimate sabotage, we search back in our notes and find that Nazi Philosopher Carl Schmitt theorized the potential of the “irregular” fighter, or what he described as the “partisan.” Schmitt understood the partisan while examining people’s revolutions, from Lenin, and Mao to the Spanish Guerilla War of 1808. But he was also theorizing the partisan as an end, or the potential of its appropriative practice, one that would be taken up during the wars and into the present day,
“…to be a partisan is precisely to avoid carrying weapons openly, the partisan being the one who fights from ambushes, who wears the enemy uniform and whatever insignia serves his turn, as well as civilian clothing, as decoy. Secrecy and darkness as his strongest weapons; he honestly cannot do without them without abandoning his space of irregularity, which means: without ceasing to be a partisan”
Today neo-nazi, white nationalist members utilize what they deem a “ghost skin” to infiltrate police and law enforcement agencies. “Ghost skin” eerily reminds of double agent theories rooted in immigrant narratives, of assimilation taken up to be betrayed. “Ghost skin” “irregular fighter” “intimate sabotage.”
Benjamin reminds: “that not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he is victorious. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
Andrea Fraser has described the patronage system as a direct relationship with authors and benefactors of the economic collapse,
“We all know that the art field is the site of enormous concentrations of wealth and power. Museums are the wealthiest institutions in the world if we calculate their assets. Art objects are far and away the most highly valued objects in the world, rendering the art market a kind of economic freak show…Museums are also directly linked to powerful political interests. And at this point there can be no doubt that the art market and museum building boom of the past decade was fueled by the very same individuals who drove the stock and real estate markets to dizzy heights with unsustainable if not fraudulent financial tactics—tactics that contributed to dramatic increases in social inequality in the past ten years and have now resulted in global economic collapse. These are our patrons.”
We want to imagine a setting where instead of a system that instructs beloveds of the imagination, of the undertaking of the unseen, through discipline and canonical rationality to become recognizable artists, who then make singular objects, in a singular studio to be placed in a singular gallery who then sells to a singular collector who turns out to be Ivanka Trump, or another compatriot of the economic collapse, white nationalist takeover, who eventually unloads the singular object to an auction site—who becomes a professor who manages the tone and the voracity against this market system, and snips all critiques of them as naive, ideal—
Critical race theorist and artist Mari Matsuda delivered the lecture titled “We Will Not be Used” to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990.
In the lecture she describes the dynamic of the exceptionalized Asian American, and the middle positioning of Asian Americans in the racial hierarchy. She asks if we really are the middle, what might occur if the middle did not obey the top: whiteness, but instead worked to destroy it?
“The role of the racial middle is a critical one. It can reinforce white supremacy if the middle deludes itself into thinking it can be just like white if it tries hard enough. Conversely, the middle can dismantle white supremacy if it refuses to be the middle, if it refuses to buy into racial hierarchy, and if it refuses to abandon communities of black and brown people, choosing instead to forge alliances with them.”
The middle is brought up here as a thought experiment, as a potentiality. Those of us who work in and through representation, as artists and art educators—is this too a middle ground? A space unsuspected, a privileged space, an assumed space—a space that has consistently been beholden to the ideological dreams of more. A space that has too often sided with power, rather than the powerless.
To make and distribute objects poisonous to the dinner setting, the images above would grow, mutate, suffocating the nutritions in place. The performance would not be a small critique where the purchaser could feel elevated by their self-conscious self-awareness, the compromised state of the world—a consumption of the critique. But a cannibalistic ritual, all parties effaced, deteriorated. You think we came for the brain but we came for the whole heart.
In a 1969 letter to Theodore Adorno concerning the German student protests where the police were called to break up student demonstrations, Herbert Marcuse writes that his affinities are clear, “To put it brutally: if the alternative is the police or left-wing students, then I am with the students—”
Marcuse and Adorno engage in a series of fairly painful discussions regarding the potentiality of university student demonstrations, what decorum might mean politically, and who the protagonist might be in an already left-leaning institute: the leftist professors of the leftist students who have issues with their professors.
Adorno argues that the student protesters are hindering university discussions, and should not be seen as potential revolutionaries. Marcuse responds that he does not side with the police and cannot accept an invitation without guarantee that students will not be blocked from attending. While Adorno is doubtful as to whether student activists can achieve real revolutionary change, Marcuse responds that given the global U.S. capitalist systems and their disdain for anything not the status quo, university student demonstrations are, “the strongest, perhaps the only, catalyst for the internal collapse of the system of domination today.”
In differentiating the violence of student interruptions and police violence against student Marcus pleads,
“We should have the theoretical courage not to identify the violence of liberation with the violence of repression, all subsumed under the general category of dictatorship. Terrible as it is, the Vietnamese peasant who shoots his landlord who has tortured and exploited him for decades is not doing the same thing as the landlord who shoots the rebelling slaves.”
(Herbert Marcuse, Letter To Theodore Adorno, 21 July, 1969)
Liberalism does not seem to have the courage to see the difference (no surprise there). The ACLU does not seem to have the courage to see the difference. It seems, too many in managerial roles do not have the courage to see the difference. As the violence of repression becomes normalized, as it appropriates and nullifies the potentiality of something previously built, as it becomes synonymous with the state and their laws—the courage to see rupture and opposition as, is.
More collective action. More collective supporting. No more letting the most vulnerable bodies, the most vulnerable communities stand alone. No more white management tactics, of a left that believes racial violence is the divisive propaganda of the right. No more confusing identity for politics, or for politics as embodied experience. No more stand-ins, for token gestures, for commercializing catastrophe. No capsizing on terror as artistic thematics: our commitment to stand with a community, a politics, is a continuum.
You theorized both the dismantling of arts education, and the specialization of the arts,
“The tendency today is to abolish every type of schooling that is “disinterested” (not serving immediate interests) or “formative–keeping at most only a small-scale version to serve a tiny elite of ladies and gentlemen who do not have to worry about assuring themselves of a future career”
As arts education in public schools receive partial to full cuts (and this is not going into entire school closures), in addition to public programming and funds such as the NEA (0.0625% of the budget) gutted, the professional arts path is carved esoteric, as something those with secret to secured funding can be involved in. Upper to middle pathways.
It’s a tragedy and a farce but not a joke
academia as archive
activism as present
desire as futurity
Poole writes, “the everyday as a site of both crisis and possibility”
to want transformation so badly
to accept it as
to accept that it will occur unabridged
Marcuse, “It is the air that we (at least I) also want to breathe some day.”
**This piece was originally presented as part of contemptorary’s lecture, “When Tragedies and Farce Reappears: Letters to our Ancestors” in February 2017. Thanks to Lisa Vinebaum for organizing “UNSETTLING THE CANON: Decentering Dominant Paradigms / Decolonizing Art Education” and inviting us to be a part of it at School of the Art Institute of Chicago.