Destroying Performance Art (On Dana Schutz and Donald Trump)

It seems at this point that the leftist consensus has cohered: our president is disjunctive.

It is, in other words, the end of the neoliberal regime, ushered in some 37 years ago; even its collapse merely completes the familiar narratival gyre of “reconstruction” (Reagan), “articulation” (Bush Sr.), “preemption” (Clinton/Obama), and now, yes, “disjunction.” The terms for this political cosmology are those of Stephen Skowronek, who sees American political regimes in dynastic cycles measured less by the platform of personality of its executives than their ability to marshall a party to their purposes. The repeal of AHCA this week would surely affirm Corey Robin’s premonition some weeks ago, then, that this presidency marks the dissolution of an era:

“Disjunctive Presidents are affiliated with a tottering regime. They sense its weaknesses, and in a desperate bid to save the regime try to transform its basic premises and commitments. Unlike reconstructive Presidents, these figures are too indebted to the regime to break with it. But the regime is too dissonant and fragmented to offer the resources these Presidents need to transform it.”

Anyway, I’m still trying to speak, to stay silent, and I wish I could manage one even at the expense of the other. What I mean is, I’ve been reading about Reagan, here and there, and it’s hard not to see the current administration as a kind of contrapasso of its origins four decades ago. The words, too, disjoin: I don’t know that I can find coherency to say what I mean.

Let me try. By the 1970s, the U.S. had recorded its first absolute trade deficit in modern history, had witnessed a number of industries (textiles, iron, steels) move overseas, had seen its share of world production half from what it had been in the late 1940s. The industrial era wasn’t over; the domestic industrial era looked like it might be. The Bretton Woods system allowed the U.S. and its free-traders to invest overseas; because the dollar was the lingua franca of the globe, as Joel Rogers and Thomas Ferguson wrote in 1981, the U.S. had only to print more money to conquer business abroad. Increased imports only meant a dwindling demand for American products investors no longer supported anyway. And so the global rule of American business interests depended precisely on the economic attrition of its own populace. In short, America was hollowing out. Not even 37 years of God and picket fences could paper over the country’s spiritual cavity as the rich got rich, and the poor got reverse mortgages. For whatever it’s worth, I am 30 years old, which is to say: this hollowness is something of my own.

The issues of the 1980 election were, then, those of 2016’s. Here, for example, is Walter Dean Burnham in 1981:

“The political-capitalist state with which the Democratic party is so closely identified no longer ‘works.’ But this had been its chief, if not sole, claim to legitimacy. Stripped of this claim, its managers and defenders must inevitably wind up in an in intellectual and political disarray. To move toward a social-democratic position is literally unthinkable for many or most of them, and the only coherent alternative is that represented by the resurgent Republicans. In the specific situation facing the United States at the moment, everything favors the use of the contemporary state’s capital-accumulation and imperial-defense functions to the exclusion, more or less, of its social-harmony and welfare functions.”

By 1984, Reagan would win every state but Minnesota, but in 1981, the economy was faltering, and by 1982, unemployment and interest rates soared as banks failed. All part of a monetarist plan for later easing to spur the stock market (did Volcker understand that the real war was psychological?), but in 1982, the New York Times could ask, “How could the nation have gone from hope to gloom in less than two years?”

And I guess it was at this point that the reconstructor found himself disjoined. Not Reagan — but David Stockman, the upstart libertarian charged with designing a new budget. An ideologue so convinced of the righteousness of his plan that he detailed each of his Mr. Smith steps to journalist William Greider, Stockman angrily admitted that his budget forged numbers to project savings that would never occur. He had reason to be vindictive against his own administration: he had hoped to undercut not only Social Security and the welfare state, but special interests and the rich, as well as defense spending, a pillar of Reaganomics that Stockman saw as monopolistic, eschewing the free market for the state as sole client. Of course, Reagan scuttled these last cuts.

Am I saying this right? Stockman’s concerns about compromising free-trade competition were not simply economic but moral: “Once things are allocated by political muscle, by regional claims,” he said, “there are no longer idea-based agendas.” Inversely, his budget was designed as an ideological proposition in opposition to “constituency-based politics” that align different interest groups without the kind of cohesive vision necessary to revolutionize a country long-term. But as he found his own vision attenuated by Reagan’s supply-side promises, he realized he was manufacturing numbers to appease Boeing, General Electric, and above all, oil companies. “The client groups know how to make themselves heard,” Stockman told Greider. “The problem is, unorganized groups can’t play in this game.”

In the end, Stockman got a budget passed through the same trades, compromises, and “constituency-based politics” he despised. And he has been disillusioned ever since. Three days ago, he wrote to respond to the AHCA failure: “The idea that there is an actual working GOP majority and that some pro-growth policy juggernaut is coming down the pike has always been a case of the wish being father to the thought. After all, the present day Republican party is such a fragmented gang of factions that it couldn’t even nominate a presidential candidate. What remains of the party got mugged by a rank amateur and insurrectionist.”

Stockman agrees, it seems, that our current president is disjunctive. Eager to enact so many of the same policies as his “amateur and insurrectionist” forebear, Ronald Reagan, he seemingly forgot that the GOP is merely a collection of different constituencies, the most extremist and most moderate of which each refused to support the new health bill. And the very different constituencies that Reagan assembled in Americans’ minds, simply through an actor’s delusion they were ideologically driven, now come apart.

At least, I think that’s how I see it. I don’t know. After all, another way is to remember that in his first couple years in office, Reagan looked like a disjunctive president too.

***

I have been listening to Milton Friedman’s “Free To Choose,” a 1980 TV show that Reagan called a work “of rare importance, that some historians might miss.” It occurs to me that Friedman, whose free-trade principles were those of Stockman as well, was both constituency-based politics’ great proponent (as he argued that self-interest would propel the greater good) and great critic (as he adamantly claimed the only constituency one should ever belong to in capitalism is to oneself alone). I am trying to think through these things as I wonder to what degree I should acknowledge the potential bias of my own constituency — the straight white male — and to what degree this is yet again a way to focus attention on white men.

***

I mean this, I think. I had thought to remain silent about Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” a restaging of the photograph of Emmett Till’s mutilated face, which elicited a petition by Hannah Black and a number of black artists calling for the work’s destruction. Per artnet, the painting has the art world “split in two,” though to judge by my facebook timeline, that two would roughly be not-black and black. Which is where my first questions arose. Wouldn’t speaking as some arbiter of this work by a white artist on black experience replicate the issue of a white voice laying moral claim to black experience? Or would abnegating one’s voice signify a refusal to take sides when it matters?

Both questions presume my voice counts: a self-fulfilling prophecy when they also focus attention back to a white guy in the first place. But both also presume that my position itself doesn’t count, just as accusations that black artists are engaged in Nazi book burning presume that the position of the painting doesn’t count, or that their position as black figures in white institutions doesn’t count, that one can find universalist principles for free speech without regard for what is being said. And since what is being said matters, my own hope is that it’s as much a form of listening as speaking to affirm that the work is problematic, that calling for its destruction is not. I may be very, very wrong, but this is how I’d like to write, to listen, and I don’t know that I can, or that anyone can.

***

Have any black artists advocated for the work beyond Kara Walker elliptically defending its existence on instagram? There are, at least, plenty of white men writing positively about it, from Jerry Saltz to Adam Shatz, who says that “Schutz makes no claim to see Till through black eyes.” There are two ways to read this statement, I think. One is that it’s wrong: the Emmett Till photographs were taken for a black journal after a black mother insisted the world see what she had seen; the very premise of the photos was for viewers to see through black eyes after Till’s murderers accepted the fabricated story of a white woman that Till had been whistling at her — that is, after Till had been tortured and mutilated for being seen through white eyes that accused him of seeing back.

In that sense, Schutz’s rather decorous painting, with its pretty swirls to represent the carnage of Till’s face, can be seen as an attempt to supplement the original photo with a contemporary take for 2017 audiences. As we gawk at the mangled (but-not-too-mangled) black body and marvel at the technique of a white artist, we can accept the artist’s statement that it was made in response to police crimes last year — that it is, in other words, an attempt to whitesplain the horrors of the original photo for a high-paying public by updating and palliating the original work from the black community. I think this is the more charitable reading, the one advocated by most white critics: it’s an anti-racist statement! Or rather, it’s a statement telling us how not-racist the artist is. In that case, like so many white people — and I’m in no position to excuse myself entirely here either — Schutz tries to exculpate herself of her own racism in one of the most racist gestures imaginable, the reappropriation of a black gaze and black work solely to show both her own righteousness as a white painter and moralist.

The other is that Shatz is right; it is not a work pretending to appropriate a black gaze because its real concern, as in Schutz’s other paintings, is the spectacularity of figuration itself: Till’s body itself was refigured (or rather, disfigured) by both his attackers and his mother in presenting him as an aesthetic object for the world to…. I don’t want to go on with this stupid, offensive reading, in which Schutz’s continued disfigurement of a black body obscures what Mamie Till wanted us to see. But based on Schutz’s other works of abstraction-as-mutilation, this is how I see the painting with white eyes, and how I’ve seen some others defend it. In this reading, Schutz sees Till’s mangled face as a canvas to question the violence of her own aesthetic gestures — a form of self-criticism that keeps our concerns about the artist herself by continuing the disfigurement against a black body for her own conceptual currency. (True enough, as we’ve all continued devoting attention to this white artist). This deliberate problematization of the white guise, willfully engaging in the act of violence it depicts in order to proclaim its own complicity with the oppressors, recalls Ken Chen’s writing on the minstrel show of conceptual poetry:

“In Goldsmith’s performance, Michael Brown was not a person, not a body, not a boy who was murdered for no reason. He was a transaction. Goldsmith saw a transcription of Michael Brown’s body being dismembered as simply another “dry text,” just another document undifferentiated from any other document and ready to be “massaged” into literature.

…Like Place and Goldsmith, the minstrel approaches what she takes to be authentic (the black self) and extrapolates it into both a sexual object to be defiled and a fantasy to be performed. For Place and Goldsmith, the most famous Conceptual Poets, black trauma is simply a trauma commodity, automatically poignant subject matter than they can deploy from above. And one might look at the roles they performed as two avant-garde reactions to supposed ethnic authenticity: the overseer, the supposed rational intellect who dissects and surveys the primal subject of color; and the minstrel, the emotive artist who does not insulate herself from the “wild” emotions of people of color, but enviously seeks to perform them herself.”

Schutz, impressively, does both.

***

Between Goldsmith’s dissection of Michael Brown’s body and Dana Schutz’s disfigurement of Emmett Till’s, another privileged figure reappropriated the struggle of the underprivileged for “profit and fun” (in Black’s words) under the guise of moral concern: the president’s ventriloquism of the white worker with job promises and locker-room talk even won over the community he was impersonating. In the long run, I wonder if it could prove positive for him that the AHCA bill didn’t pass, as it would have offered his constituents the fullest evidence that he would gladly kill them for the profit of his wealthy compatriots. Isn’t the fun of performance artists that they never say what they mean?

Instead, his constituents might be allowed the delusion that he fought for them against the oppressive tides of Obamacare defenders, and what could be more in keeping with the current presidential narrative? If the president is disjunctive, well, that’s been his character all along. Liberals have a tendency to mock him for his ostensible pose as a winner, a man who seems to style himself at all moments after a slot machine ejaculating the jackpot, three cherries in his eyes. I wonder. For me, he has styled himself after the great American archetype: the loser underdog, the shambling fat kid who’s eternally facing the final act of the movie in which, unexpectedly, he’ll topple the hegemonic powers of the bully, the boss, or the really, really buff soccer team. And this is why he talks of winning. Not because he is winning, but because winning is always one act away, and paradoxically, its impossibility codes it as certainty in the narrative of the American loser. For winning is also code for a far more relatable statement. It is an admission that he is a loser, that nobody wants him, that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, that he stands in opposition to the powers that be.

The truth of these statements is almost enough to convince us he actually cares about the white bodies of the underclass. American genre dictates that it’s so, after all.

***

This is why, in place of these poverty mimes, I think answers might start with the story of an American art critic who revolted against the oppressive powers around him with a single gesture: Corey Menafee, the black dishwasher who used a broomstick to break a stained-glass depiction of slaves at Yale’s then-Calhoun College. I don’t remember liberals being particularly upset at this destruction of art, though of course, there are differences. The stained glass could not hold claim to good intentions, and as architecture, it wasn’t going anywhere unless it was destroyed. Do these matter? To understand whether these are oppressive and repugnant works, it’s enough to listen to the black community in both cases; and in both cases, the works are representative of a profit-seeking institution that has historically denied exactly that community. You could say this is the point too: Menafee was employed by a profit-seeking institution (Yale) that impressed its own historical impression on him, while we willfully choose to look at the art. But what about the Whitney workers?

I bring up Menafee because I’m somewhat mystified by the claim that art should never be destroyed. (Let’s ignore the issue of critics conflating the call for destruction with actual destruction of the work). There seems to be an assumption among white liberals that “freedom of speech” is truly a universalist claim; destroying buildings is a lamentable but necessary practice for profit, destroying animals is a lamentable but necessary practice for food, and even destroying a person’s life may be a lamentable but necessary practice if they threaten your own life (self-protection). Destroying art, however, is Nazi censorship.

The fact that “art” as an act of speech is incapable of threatening the freedom of another act of speech shows what kind of neutered conception these universalists possess of art as a world-historical act. Of course, the law itself makes no claim to protect all acts of speech: yelling “fire” in a movie theater or telling someone to kill someone else are criminal performances. One freedom is curtailed when it impinges on another. For these liberals, then, “art” is merely that which is incapable of taking performative effect in the material world beyond itself.

This is obviously bullshit: Schutz can claim her work as a recording or a game, and that’s largely how white audiences see it, just as black audiences evidently see it as a reappropriative act within the world they inhabit — not quite a death threat, but a declaration nevertheless of how a white artist and traditionally white institution sees black bodies. The question of destruction, then, is not one of individual pain or provocation, as if artists are too sensitive to handle Schutz’s microaggression, but the continuation of an oppressive historical tradition through a painted work (or at least, this is how I see it). It should go without saying at this point, but there is a huge difference between the kind of provocation working against traditional mechanisms of oppression and those working within. And one reason to believe the moral legitimacy of arguments against the work is that it’s hard to say it’s for anyone other than a historically oppressed group to decide what’s historically oppressive. To put it another way: if you’re white, and you find yourself agreeing with white people and disagreeing with people of color, it’s probably time to rethink your views. I can pride myself that that’s what happened to me this week, though honestly, it’s just evidence of more microaggressions in which I’ve been engaged.

Should we burn all copies of Birth of a Nation then? I don’t know. I’d like to think there’s a difference between historic artifacts we need to evaluate the trajectory of our world and present works that provide performative statements on the part of acting institutions (Yale’s stained glass would be both). But I’m also disturbed by my initial presumption that “freedom of speech” should apply equally to all statements and context, and by my own presumption that I should try to find rules for its appropriateness. Needless to say, this search for a universalist logic — a search I’m certainly engaged in here in my own legalistic rhetoric — flattens differences of historical valences, as if a legacy of oppression were irrelevant to the legitimacy of how one paints or judges. It is also, as Virginia Held has written, a peculiarly white male quest, not only because we’re taught to see ourselves as rational creatures (the presidency may have something to say about this), but because we assume our own experiences to be the norm from which we can extrapolate rules for all others. Because we aren’t usually called upon to perform affective labor, Held explains, we think it speaks to political profundity to talk of principles rather than people. Which is why it’s weird to hear that people’s feelings are not a sound basis for judging art.

All of which is to say: the feelings of a collectivity are the best judge we’ll ever have. Here again, I’m necessarily engaged in my own abstraction in refusing to consider the terms by which destruction would or would not be acceptable according to who would and wouldn’t constitute this collective; I am treating the destruction as a great, theoretical what-if, a question of moral principles rather than utility (a more dubious question), though then again, so is Black, who leaves the agents of destruction unspecified. All I’m saying is that if a worker threw tomato sauce on Schutz’s canvass like Menafee broke the glass, I hope we’d have their back… but we are back to hypotheticals.

Regardless, I’m bothered by the presumption of an equalizing rationality given highly unequal historical traditions, especially since this presumption speaks to my own initial avoidance of dealing with the terms of the art itself, as if they were unimportant to the question of destruction itself. (“‘This art offends me, therefore it must be removed from public view’ is identical to the stance of Jesse Helms and Rudy Giuliani. It is identical,” wrote one white leftist on facebook). But I’m also bothered by the presumption that protecting oppressive speech is protecting free speech, as if preventing the destruction of “Open Casket” were not its own curtailing of free speech too — for if it’s speech to create racist art on a canvas, how is it not speech to take it down? (One reason this destruction would not be Nazi book burning is because it wouldn’t be undertaken by a hegemonic power, but its opposite, as Black has indicated). To put it another way: one person’s freedom is always another person’s oppression, even in the act of curatorial selection. Here’s Eunsong Kim and Maya Mackrandilal in “The Freedom to Oppress”:

“Art as we understand it acts to aestheticize images of imperial glory. Saltz believes art is for the free, because he is free. This antiquated yet foundational understanding of freedom is dependent on the oppression and abjection of others. “Freedom” is a state of exception that exists amid oppression. Art’s white cube of freedom depends on the myth that aesthetics are devoid of oppression. The white male critic’s acknowledgement that it isn’t would entail a responsibility to cede his freedom, which is why requests for him to do so often produce a wounded cry of protest — freedom of speech, i.e. the freedom to “express” is the aestheticization of the myth of freedom.”

What I’m saying is nothing new; it is at best the continuation of a dialogue and at worst a reappropriated monologue (or, perhaps, both). If we believe in equality — even the liberal tenet of equal opportunity — we have to work unequally to balance existing inequalities. And if we believe in freedom, we have to curtail the freedoms of those who threaten others’ own. Equality means working unequally and freedom means undermining freedom. Rather than undertake an Orwellian stance, I’ve just become suspicious of these terms this past year: equality, for equating one experience with another without regard for contextual difference; freedom, promoting one’s own individualistic pursuits in the guise of collective dialogue and benefit. Or maybe it’s because for the first time in my life, I’ve been trying to listen a little more, a necessary act of self-censorship to privilege fraternity above equality and freedom alike.

Come to think of it, “freedom of expression” has been used in regards to Schutz in more or less the same way as Friedman uses “freedom” as his catchphrase in “Free to Choose”: the freedom to pursue one’s self-interest within a market in such a way that will succeed if it gains traction with others or fail if it doesn’t. The art doesn’t need to be destroyed, we’re told; she’ll paint something more valuable for her audiences next time.

***

And of course, this economic logic has long infiltrated the White House as much as the Whitney. The president, the media tells us, lost out on the AHCA because his ideologically and emotionally volatile attention-deficit-politik has cost him the ability to firmly command his competing constituencies; he didn’t pursue his self-interest in the market in a viable way to meet the needs of others.

Or more precisely: his strength as a candidate, the cult of personality he built around himself, rode on a spontaneous hot-headedness ill-suited to the cold calculations he needed as president to broker between interest groups. Reagan’s sangfroid could bring them together, but the president’s impulsiveness, ramming through a wildly unpopular health bill in a couple weeks, will break them apart.

Fair enough — maybe. But the paradox of the president is that his campaign is the product of cold calculations; Clinton appeared as the robotic candidate in contrast to his late-humanist trolling, but in fact, his was the superior algorithmic candidacy. As Jane Mayer reported this week, Breitbart began supporting the president years ago as number-crunching revealed the public’s potential support for a populist insurgent; in fact, Breitbart got its funding from Robert Mercer, a computer programmer who was developing machine learning for IBM in 1993 when he was offered the chance to manage a hedge fund based on his code. Mercer is, in short, as much a data-driven tech giant as Peter Thiel, another supporter who followed the numbers to the president.

Both libertarian-leaning ideologues have admitted they want to undermine the establishment from within — as businessmen, they believe in Friedmanian individualism and small government as a rule to favor market leaders, though their hatred of the establishment may be as behavioral as it is ideological. Even if the establishment reflected their own beliefs (and after all, it largely does), there might be something attractive to these long-odds data scientist about the possibility of a president as disruptor: that is, the president as a high-risk startup that can pivot and scale quickly because it is an outsider with little infrastructure. At least, this is how things went during the campaign. In office, however, there’s no escaping bureaucratic inertia; it is the equivalent of a startup bought out by an oversized, outdated juggernaut. The startup is doomed — but perhaps so is the system.

There’s another startup metaphor that might give the president’s supporters more hope, however. In tech, we talk about the MVP: the minimum viable product that a company releases without advanced functionality both to get a product to market sooner and, just as importantly, to start collecting data from users on how it should be developed in accordance with their desires. It is, in other words, a kind of hand-guided machine-learning device, improving with the more data it collects by customizing itself to its users’ needs. And isn’t this a better definition for the current president: a minimum viable product of the Republican party who has output competing ideologies to gather information on consumers’ demands? Mercer supposedly collects feedback uses behavior quizzes shared on facebook, but the president himself is not so different. It’s through disjunctions that he customizes his presidency to his users needs.

This, then, is what worries me: not whether the president is disjunctive (he is), but whether disjunctive is simply the necessary style to rule in the 21st century. The impulsive proposals, contradictory statements, and demands for speed in passing a health bill as quickly as possible — aren’t these signs of a flailing personality cult also just normal business practice to collect data from users? We’re left with a question of whether the hot-headed personality and coldly calculating algorithm are so different.

Because if our president is just an algorithm in disguise, there is another paradox here too. He can claim he’s the loser standing outside the norms of the American establishment, and who wouldn’t relate after decades of manufacturing losses and shitty sports movies? Yet at the same time, if the data is good, he is the incarnation of the norm itself — so powerfully, that he’ll be able to change it, like an activist hedge fund. In that sense, he’s not so different from artists who call attention to their perspectives as outsiders only to reaffirm a norm that is greatly under siege: the norm of the put-upon white worker threatened not by police brutality or incarceration, but something far more worthy of think-pieces like this one, ‘political correctness.’

***
End of Part IV