23 November 2021

Representationalism as Certainty

Evidently this has been making the rounds:


When I look at this image, I see a concept made perfectly transparent and rendered powerfully with a high degree of technical and aesthetic skill alike. I see a devastating and pessimistic statement made pleasing to look at. Like a "beautiful" but "sad" piece of music, this makes for a particulary powerful combination.

All of this is familiar, though it is not to be taken for granted. It is unusual to find the technical skill and the powerful conceptual sense merged in the same artist. (This in itself is no dig at conceptual art; it's just simple math.) But backing up a step, another thing this image makes clear is that the artist has total confidence and total certainty vis-a-vis his "message." A mere unconscious twinge of doubt would make the creation of this particular image impossible. Artists customarily are praised for such displays of fortitude, for "really going for it." But this is far more admirable in the realms of abstraction and aesthetics than it is regarding concrete politics. When political actors assume this degree of certainty, bad things tend to happen. And history is littered with artists whose certainty about individual political figures later turned to equally intense regret. If all it takes for us to lose sight of this is for us to agree with the "message" we are receiving in a particular moment, then we will not get very far (and we won't deserve to).

Images are uniquely powerful vehicles for any "message." That power is a responsibility. It is not a toy. McLuhan's hypothetical piece of cloth with "American Flag" printed on it has, as he indeed argued, nowhere near the power of the genuine imagistic article. There is much more to this aspect of images than their being worth "a thousand words," or any number of words. The point is, they are totally different than words. And as powerfully as the above image conveys its "message," and as strongly as I am inclined to agree with that message, all of this nonetheless reinforces for me a deep uneasiness with this kind of political art. I am not certain enough of anything in the world, not even of the beliefs I've spent the last 15 years writing about in this space, that I would be comfortable making this kind of statement against another person using a caricature of their own image as its basis.

The poverty of words as against images is precisely what makes words suitable (and images unsuitable) vehicles for political dialogue. That entire line of argument is summed up concisely and profoundly in this image, as it is also by many of the images of George Floyd which have been installed on sides of buildings and freeway underpasses over the last year and a half. In seeking to put an individual human face on issues which remain too abstract to too many of us, these images also, perhaps unwittingly, signal a retreat from decades of hard-won intellectual and legislative momentum toward understanding racism as a structural problem. Instead, we are treated to, alternately, the beatification or the condemnation of individual social actors who cannot possibly be, not even in these two cases I don't think, reducible to such either/or judgments. If you think that anyone is so reducible, then I question your fitness for political participation (and I urge you to stick to words in any case).

These are images which obfuscate and mystify the underlying structural factors as viciously and totally as any piece of government or media propaganda ever could. I can only hope this is because these artists take that awareness for granted, not because they are woefully ignorant and/or incapacitated (far too easily) by rage, and not because their identification or contra-identification with the skin-deep traits of any given person is as deep of a political analysis as they are capable of making or understanding.

The transparency of "concept" here is a double-edged sword. It ensures that the "message" cannot be lost in aesthetic translation, but it also traps the artist on a level of crudity which is totally unbecoming of the issues at stake here. What is this work, really, but a very sophisticated piece of name-calling? Rather than modulating legitimate anger into a mature and nuanced political statement, aesthetics and technique in this case serve merely to amplify the visceral sentiment while leaving its infantile quality intact. A pencil-drawn moustache-and-glasses overlay involves far less craft but operates, conceptually, on the same level of (im)maturity, the same level of historical and political understanding. This is the trap that conceptual brute force lays for all political artists.

(This post was written in an hour (i.e. tonight) after germinating for many months.)

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