In this era of cynicism and disconnect, maybe we need to experience things – even horrific things – up close and in real life in order to break free of our numbness.
It has been reported that the Luminato Festival in Toronto is backing away from showing Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, a provocative art installation that, I’ve read, reenacts real life historic horrors with willing black actors being displayed and shackled, which is dehumanizing.
I have not seen this installation, so I can only speak to the censorship of it. Censorship in any form irks me. I wish those with the Luminato Festival were able to see the installation before making a decision. Blind censorship is the worst kind. Did Bailey video any of it? I know it’s not the same as actually being there, but in the face of censorship, a video might be a valuable tool.
If I were in charge of making the decision about whether to include Exhibit B or not in a festival, here’s how I would approach the thought process:
I’d think about something that would be difficult for me to watch – let’s say a reenactment of black men and women on display for the purposes of perpetuating grossly unjust stereotypes deeply rooted in absurd lies, or let’s say a reenactment of a child getting beaten with a belt or called a worthless asshole by someone s/he loves, or let’s say a reenactment of a woman being dehumanized. Is there value in seeing any of this reenacted in real life in a safe space? Where my mind and body would be stimulated in a way that wouldn’t be stimulated through other mediums. Would I see something new that would give me the opportunity to deepen my understanding of, and therefore my compassion toward, a specific suffering that I have not personally experienced? For some, an important visceral response might be that they actually, for the first time, do feel that drive to reach out and help these people, even though they are only actors, because of the way they are reenacting being shackled and set up to be humiliated for entertainment.
Everyone assigns value to art differently and that is how we get caught up in a discussion of ‘should we allow this human his/her right to freedom of expression in this specific case?’ when nobody has seen the work of art. I recently watched a very disturbing documentary about slavery which graphically depicted in detail the tools of oppression used to dehumanize black men. It shocked me. It upset me. It pissed me off. It gave me a deeper understanding and a greater compassion for those who were slaves, as well as the generations of men, women and children who were born to this group of people who had been systematically dehumanized. How many people go to the library to seek out a documentary about slavery? And how many would go to an art festival?
We cannot control what people get out of art. We cannot control how they come to art – what preconceived notions or prejudices or personal experiences or fears or needs they have – and how that affects the impact of the work. We cannot control what people consider art.
Let’s go back to something I mentioned earlier, which was that I would consider it disturbing to watch a woman being dehumanized. Over and above evidence in the daily news that women are being dehumanized, women are objectified in the media every fucking day. But we don’t censor any of that. It’s quite clear to me that these women are being paid to stand in as objects for the fantasy fluffing and viewing pleasure of misogynists. Nobody has stopped that from happening for many reasons, some of which are: there’s too much money involved, free will of the women who actively participate, and demand for this image of women in entertainment means people keep buying tickets. And as it goes on, quite fully self-sustained, we as the people get to individually decide the value of each movie, tv show, play, novel, and installation as art. We get to decide for ourselves if certain writers or directors or producers are interested in creating conversation about the objectification of women or if they are simply perpetuating a dangerous and violent trend for whatever reason. We, as consumers of art, get to decide after seeing certain work by certain artists if we will take them seriously or if we will dismiss them. And if we will buy their product or protest it by not viewing or reading anything else they create and by writing entries in blogs and scathing reviews in newspapers.
We get a sense of who an artist is and what they represent by participating in their art. We get a sense of who a critic is and what they stand for or against by reading their reviews in papers. If we do get the chance to participate in art, we have the choice to never again participate if the work feels offensive or violent, or even just shallow. In this way, we can dismiss them. It should be a personal thing. I want to have that choice.
I think it’s a shame that we are attacking an artist who comes from a different culture and country because of what we’ve gleamed from the color of his skin and from a scathing review by a well-respected black man in London with his own agenda who did not see the show. In the middle of serious racially motivated violence in the USA, we attack a man who may sincerely want to start a difficult conversation that we have not yet been able to have with much efficacy. We want to shut him down before we even see the work because Dr. Kehinde Andrews, a sociologist, activist and author of a recently published book about racism, called for a boycott in The Guardian using the Nazi analogy. (This analogy is a sure sign that a reasonable debate just isn’t going to happen.) The boycott was supported by Andrews, but was a nationally organized callout lead by Sara Myers, a Black African mother from Birmingham. On her campaign website, she writes, “If Brett Bailey is trying to make a point about slavery this is not the way to do it. The irony gets lost and it’s not long before the people behind the cage begin to feel like animals trapped in a zoo.”
Following the successful boycott which brought the installation to a halt, Andrews wrote in The Guardian again, this time condescendingly dismissing the support of actors in the installation by telling one actor that “black artists have a dubious track record of appearing in and supporting racist art in the past.” Andrews states his decision to infer that Bailey is racist and that his art is meant to harm the black community comes from what he read: reviews as well as interviews with the actors and Bailey. The only allusion to what makes Andrew’s think Bailey is a raging racist is the fact that the founding director of UK Arts International ( a white female) Jan Ryan describes the artist as “a South African who has grown up in an environment which has repressed the majority of its people”. Andrew’s states this is “clearly disingenuous”, and then launches into his Nazi analogy.
What Andrews does say that I find interesting is, “This is not a discussion about censorship, but about racism, what it is and who has the power to define it.”
I’m going to go ahead and say it: we’re having two different conversations. Because, as a person who hasn’t seen the installation, I can only speak to the censorship issue. But for Andrews, it’s about who has the power to define racism, and it sounds to me like he sure as hell doesn’t feel that a white man has that power and he should be boycotted for trying to bring the issue to light. Inference is not enough these days. If you expect me to protest art, you better give me exact quotes and show me how that makes the artist a racist in your eyes. I’m not convinced by fear-inducing analogies and veiled threats.
The artist, Bailey, is a white man who grew up in South Africa during the racial segregation Apartheid. He was on the side of privilege because he is white.I think I read somewhere that his ancestors participated in oppression of the black people. I believe that his personal experience gives him some credibility in a desire to explore these issues. One protester outside the show in London accused the artist of creating an opportunity for white people to appease their guilt by masturbating over the fact that we no longer do this. Sounds like a heated, dramatic, blanket statement response to me.
Can we not believe that the horrific experience of actually growing up under Apartheid rules and likely seeing some awful and disgusting things might actually inspire compassion in some? True compassion. Can we not allow that we are all individuals who make and seek art for different reasons and who think and feel and believe different things after experiencing art?
Do we automatically dismiss Bailey’s voice as worthless in this situation because he is white? This makes me think of a similar situation that is close to my heart. We have heard from men who call themselves feminists. And I now understand the importance of allowing men to speak out against violence against women. These men are powerful allies in the fight against the objectification and dehumanization of women. Because men who have made up their minds that women are objects and therefore worthless beyond providing sexual and aggression release, cleaning the house and offering banal platitudes to assuage egos do not – I repeat: do not – and will not ever find value in words, no matter how eloquent or intelligent, spoken from a female’s mouth. These type of men have discredited all women. This means that everything any female says is immediately dismissed as crazy, stupid, a fucking lie, or incited by hormones. Who do misogynists value? Whose opinion might they actually hear? Perhaps another man.
And yes, it’s offensive to have “our” battles fought for us by men if we are stuck in the antiquated perspective that it’s Us against Them. It can be seen as condescending that men have to step in and lend their credibility and power to a cause when it doesn’t need credibility because it’s valuable and valid and true all on it’s own (except to those who fully believe women are worthless, or not as valuable as men).
But I see this point of view as the female ego protesting fiercely after a sensitivity driven into us for centuries. Of course we’re sensitive after what our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers have been through, and after what many of us are still going through. But does that sensitivity serve us?I don’t think it does. When I was able to let go of my sensitivity by accepting (through a ton of arduous work) that men who want to live in a world where woman are objects will never hear my words as credible or valuable, I found a certain peace and a new perspective. Does that mean I stopped feeling passionate about the fact that women are still devalued? Did I give up by beliefs? Did I give up on the hope that misogynists will ever change their minds? Nope. But I did stop wasting my breath trying to convince those who’ve already made up their minds. From this perspective, it makes no sense to me to censor a credible male who wants to bring attention to the suffering that comes with being objectified and dehumanized. Because that guy might actually make a difference in the way a misogynist behaves. Even a tiny bit. Even if it just means that misogyny becomes less acceptable and therefore forces misogynists to practice their beliefs under the radar. Then we can have a new conversation.
I think it’s possible that having an artist from a different country would create a new opening for dialogue about the deplorable, inexcusable, absolutely horrific ways that black males, women and children were treated historically, and how that treatment has fostered the racial inequalities, racial profiling and other racially motivated violence that is so prevalent in North America, especially in The States, today. Pulling back just a little from the current real life tragedies, from the latest victims of racially motivated murders and killings, and their grieving families, might give us enough space to find the perspective we need to take the edge off of the fear we all feel when faced with these atrocities. How do we calmly discuss this issue when there is no longer a cooling off period between incidents of violence because it happens over and over again, rightly inciting more feelings of anger, frustration and fear, ripping open each not-so-old wound? Maybe, just maybe, through art, a few steps back from the politics of currently crumbling and stumbling, antiquated systems designed to keep certain people down and others up.
What if that is the opportunity that Toronto has lost? Weigh that against the possibility that Bailey is looking to increase his personal power and fame by sensationalizing a highly controversial issue.
If he came here and turned out to be a shallow prick whose only purpose is to sensationalize and re-brutalize a group of vulnerable people, then we would stop it on the first day without an organized boycott, and then we would spend months throwing virtual eggs at him and never invite him back to our country again. We would be able to say how his work was racist because we would have experienced it. And Bailey would be forever disqualified as a meaningful and valuable artist in this community. And his reputation would be shat upon justly. (But would that be cost effective?)
That’s how to allow freedom of expression without resorting to blind censorship. That’s allowing people to show themselves as they are and that’s allowing response to that showing, allowing people to decide for themselves what they think, feel and believe about what they experience. By creating something so provocative, Bailey is surely aware of this risks. Let those play out.
Disqualifying a person before s/he has had a chance to prove him or herself a genuine asshole just creates a buzz of controversy around a person. It glorifies the controversial nature of a person instead of allowing the work to be judged on its own merit. Right now, in North America, Bailey is the censored artist, the voiceless artist. Fuck that. Allow him his voice. Let him be judged on his work. And let’s assess the level of ingrained racism in societies by reactions to the work. This information could be used in an empowering way.
If there was a man who was creating installations about women being beaten and dehumanized and he had some credibility because he grew up witnessing violence against women and his past work had been well-received by some, I would risk the pain of watching a reenactment of brutality that would reach me on a visceral level. Because it would hopefully open up a conversation with new communities. Maybe men would see it and be affected by it in a way that no movie or video game violence could elicit. Maybe it would simply provide information about how widespread and accepted misogyny is across all different ages and socioeconomic groups. Maybe we’d be shocked to find how females respond to these types of installations. I would risk the pain because I would want to see for myself if this was credible and done in a way that didn’t actually dehumanize women, or if he was using art as an excuse to brutalize submissive women who needed the money. I want the right to make up my own mind. And then I’d write about it. And if it was the latter, I’d write about what makes something art and what makes it more like a live, overtly violent pseudo porn. And maybe we need to have another conversation about that fuzzy line. Because that sure as hell isn’t resolved.
But that’s just me.