Transmuting Pain into Power

The Alchemical Process of Deriving Authority


The noise of sixty people talking at once bounces off the concrete gallery floor, reflects against the sharp edges of the pedestals before settling on the smiling faces of the crowd. I'm there catching up with friends, talking to people I haven't seen in awhile, making my way around the room, occasionally looking at the artwork trying to figure out what to think before I'm once again sucked into an enjoyable swell of conversation from someone who, through the constant momentum of bodies, I've found myself standing in front of. It's in these moments, after I've run through the formalities of "how're you doing?" that the intimate closeness of two people pokes through and the conversation snakes from the safe territory of jobs, projects and applications to something heavier, more uncertain, less comfortable, to a place that makes the person I'm with take a quick look around, lean in and in a lowered voice say, "You know, I wouldn't say this in public but..."

It's this phrase that sticks with me because in the ideologically homogenous culture that is the art world, the one shared value would seem to be inclusion, and you would think that would apply not just to the color of someone's skin or the flavor of their sexuality but to the content of their mind as well. You would think that in a medium that purports to value breaking down artificial barriers, speaking truth to power and critically challenging stale orthodoxies, that an idea, a few sentences, a small point of challenge to the everything-is-politics post-modern art world, wouldn't be such a dangerous thing that it would require someone to bend their head, check their surroundings and whisper.

The weight of this judgmental burden hangs heavily in social spaces but can easily lift in the face-to-face intimacy of conversation. I experience it all the time in my own small community. I find people I trust and tell them the truth and likewise shield myself in layers of guardedness from people that might not have my best interest at heart. This dynamic however gets complicated in the flattened reality of the internet. Here, there are no forgiving smiles, reassuring glances or actual embraces, and when I speak, it's not in staged levels of calculated intimacy, rather it comes out the same way, all at once, to everyone.   

It is through this particular 21st century context, of manipulating words and pictures to try and explain who I am and what I believe, that a familiar nervous feeling sets in. It starts when my fingers pull away from the keyboard and I'm left to stare at the words I've carefully set in place, the cursor rhythmically blinking, my hands hovering as I privately play out the social ramifications and name calling that will result for saying something in public I believe to be true. 

It is in this moment, with my hands in my lap, staring at the screen that I'd like to zoom out far enough where the tops of houses become grey squares, where massive oak trees soften into green blobs, where cities become silent grids and everything looks like the most intricately laid out miniature. It is from this imagined height that the cracks in the cement are no longer visible, the smiling faces of my friends shrink into the distance, and my personhood melts into the ground its situated in. It is only from this vaulted perspective, looking down on the world below, that I can theorize about simple large scale narratives and try to imagine how we've come to this unique point in history.

In the beginning art was entirely meshed into religious practice, and its meaning was not up for debate. It served specific ritualistic functions that were decided long ago. As political institutions started to separate from the religious conceptions they sprang from, as novels and plays emerged that focused on the inner lives of its characters, and as modern psychology started to discover the unconscious, the authority of meaning was refocused towards the inner life of the artist, what most people refer to as "the modern phase". In essence, meaning was derived from the makers relationship to his or her work, and it was up to the viewer to gain information about what the artist's true intentions were in order to better understand what a work of art meant. The post-modern phase that proceeded it was a rejection of the fact that the maker's meaning existed in any sort of hierarchy over the viewer's. In this phase meaning was derived entirely from the viewers interaction with it. All meanings were equal and there was no way to come to a consensus over the true meaning of any work. There was an infinite amount of valid interpretations and each one sat next to the other in a long flat line that extended out into an infinite horizon.

It took us thousands of years to come to the point where we allowed people to interpret artwork for themselves and one should stop and congratulate post-modern thinkers on at least this much. This accomplishment though was short lived and came with some unintended consequences, the first being that no matter how much we like to think of ourselves as non-judgemental, we can't escape the fact that some opinions are better than others, some interpretations are more developed and that it is a philosophical trick of the imagination to think we can exist in a valueless state of non-judgement and non-hierarchy. Merely existing in this valueless state caused a Crisis of Authority. If there is no way to argue that one opinion is more or less valuable than another, if institutional authority is thought to be passé, if there is no grand narrative that has any special status, how should we go about negotiating meaning and deriving authority?

One strategy that seeks to address this crisis is Critical Theory, a means of constructing authority along the lines of the immutable characteristics of identity. It creates a reverse hierarchy where people are categorized by their group identity and then valued by the level of suffering their group has undergone. It is a 30,000 foot view, that, like looking out an airplane window turns every individual into an indistinguishable black dot in a green checked landscape. It seeks to answer The Crisis with the claim that group identity and historical oppression are the tools which one divides its people and simultaneously values and arranges their opinions.

I first encountered Critical Theory when my friend Peggy Noland made a dress that had an image of Oprah printed on it. An article came out that interpreted the object in what is now a familiar critique; historically white people have oppressed black people and profited off of them and so a white woman printing a black woman on a dress is a continuation of this marginalization and is thus racist and wrong.

At it's core the interpretation is that Peggy should not be treated as an individual with specific motivations and desires but as her group category - white woman.  Oprah is also not a specific person with an important life history and public persona. She's simply "black person" and is treated as such. The grand narrative of human history that Post-Modernism tried to destroy was simply transformed into a tale of subjugation, the powerful over the powerless, with the grounds for valuing interpretations resting squarely on how well you can align yourself with the unfairly oppressed.

This dynamic was played out to a more extreme degree when the Dana Schutz painting of Emmett Till was shown in the Whitney Biennial. Activists interpreted the painting in a similar fashion. Dana Schutz is a white woman and as a white woman she does not have the authority to touch on issues outside her race especially one's that cause pain to a group that's been historically marginalized. The activists went further and demanded the painting not just be removed from public space but destroyed. Their interpretation of the painting, that it caused harm to marginalized communities and was inherently exploitative, superseded anyone else's interpretation to the point that they concluded the object must not be allowed to exist. 

A more recent example happened this last week when The Nation published a poem that used the word "crippled" in it which was interpreted by some as causing harm to a marginalized community. The poem's voice was also thought to be inauthentic, since the white author used what was considered "a black voice" one that he shouldn't have access to. In what should now be a discernible pattern, the artist was replaced by the group category of "white man", and the dissenting voices were assigned their marginalized group category. The demand was that the poem be removed from public space, and in the end, The Nation apologized and the poem was removed. 

There are plenty of examples, but I believe these three make the rules within the strategy clear. Authority is derived from a group category in combination with the historical pain they've suffered and criticism is only valid from an inside perspective that goes down the power hierarchy (not up).

The never ending horizon line of interpretations was shattered with the question, "How can you let an object exist when it's causing pain in another human being?" The callousness of such a stance was thought to represent a lack of empathy, and in a culture that wears it's empathy on its sleeve, that was a serious transgression. Sure, you can interpret artwork in many different ways, but if one is shown to cause suffering, what do the others really matter? It's simply an intellectual exercise to value the multiplicity of opinions, whereas someone who's proactively trying to reduce suffering by removing these objects is taking the correct moral stance. It is in this moment that the alchemical process of transmuting pain into a hierarchy of power began, and it is the deficiencies of this process that I now turn.

The first problem with deriving power from pain is that it weaponizes our suffering. It creates an incentive to find suffering where otherwise we would not. There is no greater example than a brief glance at social media. Calls for boycotts, takedowns of cultural objects deemed offensive, pile-ons for behavior that is "beyond the pale" are now regular occurrences and almost always rationalized by pain, typically not the person's own pain, and not even another individuals pain, but the pain of a marginalized group. 

The second problem is that it forms a consensus around identity when there isn't any. There are approximately 42 million black people in the US, 18 million Asian people and 5.3 million Jews, who have a wide variety of beliefs and points of view. Thankfully group categories don't tell us much about individuals and are not great predictors of behavior, and yet in most Critical Theory takedowns you have sentences like, "this piece of work has hurt the (fill in the blank) community", or "the (blank) community is outraged", an obvious case of taking a single opinion and assigning it to everyone.

The third problem is that the group categories that are imposed are presented as unbridgeable. There is no way an Asian man could possibly understand what it's like to be a Jewish woman, or an older white man could comprehend the perspective of a black teenager. The imaginative attempt to create a character in a work of fiction is seen as a hubristic offense. People are instructed to "shut up and listen" as if an outside group's perspective has no value. Given that in-groups often form biases that hide in plain sight, trying to eliminate out-group commentary not only sows division and keeps people in their lanes, but tries to stop a stream of information that is valuable, that of the outsider looking in.

The last problem I'll touch on is the ease in which these grand narratives are constructed and the way they're morally instructive. Life is complex. The variables are tangled. Our predictions fail to account for everything that's happening. The phrase, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," carries the sentiment that overall we're bad at enacting and foreseeing our future. Critical Theory offers, not just a means to derive power, but a certainty with which to wield it. Instead of talking about economic, socio-political or cultural forces as mysteries we don't yet understand, it offers simple flat identity based explanations that captures everything in the oppressor/oppressed drama, that offers a cookie cutter method to understand not just art objects, but every single worldly event that is deemed culturally relevant.

So far I've focused on the unhealthy version of Critical Theory and its authoritarian tendencies, its desire to want to be the only interpretation that matters, its desire to shrink that ever expanding circle by dividing it into an intersectional pie that slices us into ever smaller pieces. There is however, a healthy version of this critique and the pathology of its stance can be easily dispensed with so long as you discount the specialness of its interpretation, so long as you relinquish the desire to use it to dominate in such a fashion as to argue art objects (and opposing interpretations) out of existence.

It is at this point we can zoom down, fall back through the clouds, back to where the flat grey squares of the roofs bloom into sheets of grid like shingles, back to the where the silence of the atmosphere explodes into a cacophony of insects buzzing, cars honking and neighbors yelling next door, to the sights and smells of my room, the fan blowing in the corner trying to keep me cool, my eyes still fixed on the screen, my fingers gently taping, removing words that only five minutes ago I thought were important. 

A small point of challenge should be no great thing. It should be like shopping for groceries, mundane yet necessary for survival. After all, the disagreements I have are with friends, people I care about and have respect for, individuals who have rich contexts and a complex inter-web of reasons for believing the things they do and acting in ways that go beyond the simplistic representation of the problems I've pointed out. My critique here is not of people, not of their stated goals of justice and equality, rather it is with the ideas themselves, and it is a critique offered with respect and hope that it generates a better conversation between friends.