“Touch Me: I am Violent”

Last night I had the singular good fortune to be present at a real, soul-rocking happening. Yonnas T. Getahun has brought together artists working in diverse media to create a show of tactile art that, in defiance of longstanding art gallery convention, invites you to reach out and touch it.

The title of the show ended up being startlingly prescient: One work in particular, by Daveda Russell, touched us even as we touched it, provoking violent outbursts, deep engagement, and visceral passion.

A vertical form like a door: On one side, names written in marker of 150 black women who’d been murdered in lynchings. On the other, a mirror, a noose, the words: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall… Who’s the fairest… Strange Fruit?” (I may be missing something; Please forgive any misrepresentation.)

When I saw my reflection in that mirror, my face framed by the noose I felt a pang of grief deep in my gut. For the women whose light had been snuffed out by the evil of white supremacy. For my own ancestors who’d been exterminated in the Holocaust. For all of those who’ve been victimized by the insane systems of oppression that deem certain human lives unfit for existence, that disseminate hatred and fear.

Later in the evening, I talked to a man who’d been brought to tears by the piece as he reflected on the hardship experienced by his family in Latvia, his parents who’d been forced to flee, his aunt who’d spent time at a labor camp in Siberia. He cried. This was real. This was raw. This work made us hurt.

And yet – there was someone who was pissed about it. She argued that it cheapened the experiences of black women, made their suffering into a circus attraction for “white folks milling around a gallery.” She contended that the dialog that was occurring as a direct result of the piece was only possible because she was standing there and talking about it, that most visitors to the gallery wouldn’t be able to understand it, and that, therefore, it was an invalid representation of black women’s suffering.

A few thoughts on this…

1. Art is meant to be received and experienced by whomever happens to be engaging with it at the time. To suggest that the potential for misunderstanding of a piece (unless the artist is on hand to explain their intent) makes it inherently disrespectful seems pretty bizarre. There are as many perspectives as there are human beings, and each of us interprets art – music, painting, literature, film, whatever – through our own unique filter.

2. Dismissing someone’s power to empathize, to deeply, viscerally feel you, just because they happen to look different, puts up walls. It narrows your circle of alliance, diminishes mutual understanding, and feeds into the Self/Other paradigm that’s responsible for systemic racism in the first place. I wanted to enter the discussion, to talk about how the piece had moved me, how I, as a “white person” (an identity with which, by the way, I’m uneasy – my dad is brown-skinned and Jewish) really got it. But I felt excluded, shut down, unable to contribute my voice.

3. Racism is real. We don’t live in a post-racial society. White privilege is a thing. I have had countless advantages as a white-looking woman that wouldn’t have been available to me had I been born with skin of a different color. But: I’ve also spent many years mired in the misery of isolation, depression, a deeply distorted self-concept. White privilege didn’t protect me from that.

I am enraged that Jim Crow lives on in racist policing practices, in a for-profit prison system, in schools that are separate and most certainly not equal, in a broken penal system that makes a mockery of the word “justice.” FUCK THAT. Fuck the forces that let Trayvon Martin’s murderer get away with it, that label Richard Sherman a thug for refusing false modesty, that dishonor the bodies of my black sisters.

Having said all that… Privilege is as privilege does. What of rich white dudes, the rulers of the world, the ones who have all the shit locked down? Who are so insulated by their material and cultural privilege that they can’t access the kind of vulnerability that would allow them to be truly moved? Who are so wrapped up in maintaining their vacuous, shallow identity that they never experience true community, true pleasure, true love? Constantly worried about their money, their things. Busting illicit nuts in bathroom stalls because their position won’t allow them wholesome open expressions of love. Lonely and numb and terrified of the void that’s always in their peripheral vision, ready to swallow them up.

I have no sympathy for the forces of evil. Prejudice and greed are abhorrent. But: On an individual level, inside each human heart, there is a spark, a common essence. We all suffer. And those who are disconnected from their own suffering are terribly impoverished.

Art has the power to shake people out of their complacency, to open new realms of understanding, to make a middle-aged white man weep openly in response to a piece about the rape and torture of black women.

The person who felt that the piece was disrespectful was “offended,” and thought it shouldn’t be there. It’s righteous and necessary to stand up to systemic injustice and to a culture in which racism, for all that people try to gloss over it, is still deeply entrenched. But eschewing fruitful dialog in favor of circular narratives of victimhood is entrapping. It’s narrowing. It’s excluding. That shit is fear based.

In the end, she was vindicated: The piece came down. Against her protestations, her appeals to civility, a man who’d been opposing her claims, in a paroxysm of violent passion and visceral emotion, took the noose down. Threw it in the street. Removed the mirror. Tore his pants in the process. Unwilling to follow her contention that the piece shouldn’t exist to its logical conclusion (the destruction of said piece), the woman retreated behind pleas for restraint.

But what had risen up would not be contained.  Art happened.*

*I’m not condoning the destruction of the piece. Yonnas made it clear that, while the art should be touched, it shouldn’t be altered. I do, however, condone zealous, disruptive displays of raw feeling.

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2 thoughts on ““Touch Me: I am Violent”

  1. I wasn’t there when this happened. I did stop by that night. I wonder if it was a great idea to have a piece that dealt with racial violence in the midst of many pieces that were more frivolous. Don’t you think the racial aspects of the piece could get lost of people who aren’t paying much attention and led to unintentional insensitivity and cause offense? It seems like it would lend itself to a situation like that.

  2. Jules – your point is well taken.

    I had a jarring experience early in the night while touching another piece. I was in a lighthearted zone, and then realized that the piece I was idly running my hand over was about rape and incest. It was startling and shocked me out of my state, leading me to a sadder and more reflective place. However, I’d not be surprised if many people didn’t connect with the deeper themes of those pieces: Some people’s sensitivities will predispose them to look for underlying messages and themes in everything they see, whereas others will remain unmoved even when they’re confronted with art dealing with intensely disturbing subjects.

    In galleries the world over, “frivolous” art mingles with that which explores heavier aspects of the human experience. Art is made in response to everything people feel and do, and sometimes the juxtaposition between “light” and “heavy” themes in art can make it more effective. I think the fact that art confronting racial and sexual violence exists in a setting like Vermillion creates high potential for dialog and challenge. If art dealing with these themes is confined to rigidly defined “reverent” settings, it will be seen and experienced by a narrower range of people. And aren’t privileged white folks the ones who need their sensibilities upset, their self-congratulatory illusions of a post-racial society, shaken by this type of art?

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