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On the AICA-USA Black Lives Matter Statement

Post #1866 • June 13, 2020, 3:53 PM

Theodore Dalrymple once observed,

In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is to co-operate with evil, and in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control.

While I stop short of calling AICA-USA a society of emasculated liars, their statement in response to the George Floyd murder has the distinct sound of writers being cowed. Their entry into what Brian T. Allen recently called the Groveling Olympics is “AICA-USA stands in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives.”

In the days leading up to the publication of the statement, discussion about what shape it should take appeared on the internal message board for the membership. My contribution was as follows:

I would support such a statement on the condition that it connects in an obvious way to the stated purpose of our organization. Rioters smashed into the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art last weekend. They sprayed graffiti on the NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale and vandalized a gallery in Fort Lauderdale. They damaged (in some unspecified manner) the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Monuments have been vandalized in Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and here in Boston, where—irritatingly—they defaced the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial and a statue of Abigail Adams. This destruction pertains more directly to AICA’s reason for existence than the injustices that [another member, name redacted] indicated, but that’s not to say that we can’t heartily condemn both.

It says, right there on our About page, emphasis mine:

As part of the international organization, we benefit from a global reach in presence. AICA-USA is intent on international communication, elevating the values of art criticism as a discipline, and acting on behalf of the physical and moral defense of works of art.

This was not done, and consequently I cannot support the statement.

I support significant parts of it. Black lives matter, first of all, and the organization’s proposals to support and enrich them are laudable at least in intent. Likewise the support of the right to free speech and dissenting opinion.

A lot of it is a mixed bag. The Movement for Black Lives demands some items that I would endorse in a heartbeat (the demilitarization of police) and others that I would condemn in a heartbeat (the abolition of private schooling). If AICA-USA is going to go down a purity spiral, let’s demand that every member who had private schooling—right down to childhood piano lessons and soccer camp—resign. The six remaining members can do with the organization what they want.

The call for museum departments to diversify sounds good on its face but indicates mostly that our members have slight experience in museum management. Take a hypothetical museum marketing department of three people in a Midwestern town. What is their racial composition supposed to reflect, the city, the state, the country, or the world?

Speaking of lack of knowledge of museum operations, this is ridiculous:

Art institutions must divest from police organizations (such as by moving security functions into staff) and must remove defense contractors from their boards.

I have been in museums all over the world and have never seen city cops patrolling the museum halls. There is typically some mixture of staff security and contracted security, neither of which is a “police organization.” What the defense industry has to do with the heinous death of George Floyd eludes me, and eight years of dormancy of the anti-war left under the Obama administration makes this distaste for arms contractors seem overly convenient. Chaos and militarism instigated by Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State ended up restarting slavery of black Africans in Lybia and murdering thousands of Muslims across the Middle East. Those black and brown lives matter too.

Generalizing from a tiny handful of pessimal cases to a whole population is not something that we should be doing to black people, and it’s not something that we should be doing to the police either. It’s axiomatic regarding systemic injustice that the oppressors are also victims of the system. Nelson Mandela: “When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both.” The whole purpose of the concept of systemic injustice is to avoid overfocusing on the culpability of individual actors, but oftentimes in practice it serves as an excuse to do exactly that.

The point that needs to be dealt with is that there are better and worse ways of reforming the system. From what I can tell, a significant or at least vehement portion of AICA-USA membership and much of the art world along with it has come to regard any criticism of any action done in the name of protesting the death of George Floyd as criticism of all of the protest. This is assenting to a lie, as Dalrymple put it. Despite the complaint in the AICA-USA statement about “flagrant misrepresentation of peaceful protests by the media,” which has happened, the media’s refusal to call anyone a rioter turned into a running joke among conservative news analysts. The media became its own punchline when a CNN center in Atlanta got attacked, and the network was obliged to say that protesters were vandalizing its signage, breaking in via the windows, and destroying the interior of its offices. “Protesters were also heard chanting anti-media rhetoric,” they reported. It fell to the alt-media to spell out that they were yelling “Fuck CNN.” (Finally, the Burn It All Down Left and the Burn It All Down Right agree on something.)

The justification, I gather, is that no piece of property is worth a black life. This is true, but the destruction of every art object from sea to shining sea is not going to end systemic racism. Mere mayhem happened as a deleterious sideline of peaceful protest, and the former undermined the legitimacy that the latter was so bravely working to establish. The destruction is gratifying to a lot of progressives, and I think that many of them have the idea that it will prompt the rest of us troglodytes to get with the program. On the contrary, the rioters might as well be the Re-Elect Trump in 2020 campaign, and if violence continues into the next presidential term, 2024 will see a Republican in the Oval Office that makes Donald Trump look like Marianne Williamson. For all of my differences with the progressives, I think we can agree that none of us want that.

AICA-USA is the one organization in the whole country, as far as I know, that had an express responsibility to say that the vandalism of museums, monuments, and art does not count as valid protest and undercuts the work of justice. The demand that we not just say something about this, but do something, graces our bylaws. The board’s reluctance act accordingly injured our credibility, maybe mortally, and calls into question how sincere our commitment is to any other point of the statement, including its opposition to racism.

Or, for that matter, free speech and the right to dissent. The board shut down the aforementioned membership forum with this explanation.

After much consideration AICA-USA’s board has voted to temporarily suspend our internal members listserv. We heard from many members who felt that the discussions that took place were often counterproductive and created an environment hostile to collegial dialogue. We observed personal insults, racist rhetoric, and other insensitive uses of this resource to an extent that makes it necessary to seek alternatives.

I dispute that characterization. What I observed was members demanding that other members assent to rhetoric that I recognize from the visceral, intellectually flawed, you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us declamations of Ibram X. Kendi. That, and not something more insidious, was characterized as “racist rhetoric,” apparently at the prompting of a member-initiated petition citing Kendi by name.

Art critics can serve as reproducers of racist ideology or as agents of change. As Ibram X. Kendi’s work suggests, there can be no such thing as a nonracist art critic. There are only racist art critics or anti-racist art critics. Some of AICA-USA’s membership has deployed racist, hateful speech masquerading as a legitimate debate about the role of race in the discipline. AICA-USA must stop using its infrastructure to give voice to this thinly veiled white supremacist hate speech. It is time for AICA-USA to reimagine itself as an agent for equality, equity, and anti-racist change.

It’s not just that there’s no such thing as a nonracist, it’s that even anti-racism on a non-Kendian model is racist. Capitalism, for one, is racist, so those of us who are anti-racist and pro-market are racist according to Kendianism. The rigidity and narrowness of his argument lead him to startling conclusions. Kendi is explicitly pro-discrimination as long as it causes more equal outcomes among races. As Andrew Sullivan wrote of Kendi,

Every now and again, it’s worth thinking about what the intersectional left’s ultimate endgame really is—and here it strikes me as both useful and fair to extrapolate from Kendi’s project. They seem not to genuinely believe in liberalism, liberal democracy, or persuasion. They have no clear foundational devotion to individual rights or freedom of speech. Rather, the ultimate aim seems to be running the entire country by fiat to purge it of racism (and every other intersectional “-ism” and “phobia”, while they’re at it). And they demand “disciplinary tools” by unelected bodies to enforce “a radical reorientation of our consciousness.” There is a word for this kind of politics and this kind of theory when it is fully and completely realized, and it is totalitarian.

You’ll note at the above link that the petition author marked it as a success. A success of what remains to be seen.

The contemporary politics of humiliation causes an organization without principles to spin like a ship without a keel. MoCA Cleveland just gave us a demonstration. Months ago, the museum canceled an exhibition by Shaun Leonardo at the behest of black activists and staff, with apologies to the latter that “we were not prepared to engage with the lived experiences of pain and trauma that the work evokes.” Now it has issued an apology to Leonardo, who identifies as Afro-Latino and accuses the museum of “institutional white fragility.” That’s one way of putting it. Another might be that the museum, having abandoned any great, disinterested principle to adhere to, is erring on the side of caution, serially, when dealing with people who demand apology while making no commensurate commitment to forgiveness. Thus the transaction that would result in the redemption of all involved never gets consummated, and they limp along to the next embarrassment.

I’m just hearing about this now. AICA-USA should have thrown itself behind the artist and MoCA Cleveland curator John Chaich when it happened, even if that meant contradicting the wishes of the initial activists. That is what the “moral defense of art” means. But it didn’t, it’s not doing it now, and it’s not presently advocating for the physical defense of art in the wake of riots. To paraphrase the title of a Gauguin here at the MFA Boston, where do we come from, what are we, and where are we going?

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