By Lune Ames, on behalf of the Editors
June 5, 2020
Art critics often reward shock value with glowing reviews, but this week, art publications and institutions walked a tightrope of “solidarity” as the shock was a result of their own antiblackness staring back at them. Seeing as the discourse of criticism is tethered to oculus worship, the notion of optical allyship couldn’t be more relevant. Coined by maternal health maven and master doula Latham Thomas, optical allyship “only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally.'” And my, how art critics love to look at themselves looking! She goes on: “It makes a statement, but doesn’t go beneath the surface and isn’t aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress.”
The shock of not doing enough, or rather the appearance of enough, to combat racism is merely one symptom of antiblackness. Otherwise blasé masses mobilize against the brutality of Black bodies only for a finite time before returning to their daily lives, as if to be able to look back and say to themselves, I did something. All the while antiblackness pervades the everyday in, what Black Studies and English scholar Christina Sharpe describes as, the wake of chattel slavery. In In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Sharpe asserts that “the ongoing state-sanctioned legal and extralegal murders of Black people are normative and, for this so-called democracy, necessary; it is the ground we walk on.”
To not perceive antiblackness is knee-jerk for nonblack critics. It is not merely a matter of hatred, but indifference, too. Whiteness trains the body to suppress sensations and normalizes the subsequent symptoms. But the body tells truths that the antiblack mind refuses to admit. Embodied criticism confronts systemic racism as somatic. Shallow breathing, heavy shoulders, pursed lips—how does indifference feel in the flesh?
Antiracism work for the critic is to address that they don’t notice. This value on what isn’t said is not nuanced storytelling. The critic is a conduit of stories, each requiring different demands on the body. The writer contorts accordingly, when she shows up to protest or to document protest or both or neither. The critic is observer witness activist. No comma or conjunction can pin down the writer’s relation to the world.
As for Degree Critical, the journal of the MFA Art Writing program at the School of Visual Arts, its body of work tells a story, too. Degree Critical has functioned as a body of writing for the program’s students and alumni, as well as other critics. The journal’s initial search for antiracism materials, in tandem with this week’s mass circulation of resource lists on social media and news outlets, highlighted how antiblackness remains a category or topic within the curriculum, as if it does not undergird all frameworks of society. As Degree Critical sought to compile books, artists, writers, and exhibitions to put forth in this article, students and alumni of color pointed out that most of these resources are not present in the department library, core curriculum, or lectures. Like In the Wake, recommended to me by my black colleague after class. It matters that we read the texts we recommend as resources.
As two white editors of this journal, we are reflecting, listening, reading, conversing. We take seriously what the ongoing commitment to Black lives requires—in ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods. As we address how this journal, itself a community, can embody this responsibility long-term, we are considering Sharpe’s questions from In the Wake:
What happens when we proceed as if we know this, antiblackness, to be the ground on which we stand, the ground from which we to attempt to speak, for instance, an “I” or a “we” who know, an “I” or a “we” who care?
[. . .]
[I]f museums and memorials materialize a kind of reparation (repair) and enact their own pedagogies as they position visitors to have a particular experience or set of experiences about an event that is seen to be past, how does one memorialize chattel slavery and its afterlives, which are unfolding still? How do we memorialize an event that is still ongoing? Might we instead understand the absence of a National Slavery Museum in the United States as recognition of the ongoingness of the conditions of capture? Because how does one memorialize the everyday? How does one, in the words so often used by such institutions, “come to terms with” (which usually means move past) ongoing and quotidian atrocity?
Today would have been Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday. In her honor, the editors invite you to join us in advocating for her by contacting Kentucky politicians to demand legal action as well as supporting the Louisville Community Bail Fund and Loveland Foundation.
Antiracism resources recommended by MFA Art Writing alumni:
Lune Ames (Class of 2020) is a writer raised in Indiana and now based in New Jersey and New York City.