In 1993, the curators of the Whitney Biennial mounted one of the most politically charged exhibitions ever to grace a major American art institution. Granted, up to that point the Biennial had become a bit of a lightning rod for critics of all persuasions, since the show’s fundamental charge—showcasing the best new American art of the previous two years—would always put it in the crosshairs of certain traditionalists, as well as those who found the choices to be too tame by half. In short, it’s a guarantee you’ll never please anyone.
But ’93 was a bit of a benchmark. The show was dominated by artwork that directly engaged problems of social justice—feminism, race, queer politics, economic disparity, and various intersections of those categories. A lot of the work was quite strong, and many of those featured in this “controversial” edition of the show have gone on to establish themselves as major artists of the fin de siècle: Glenn Ligon, Sadie Benning, Janine Antoni, Lorna Simpson, Fred Wilson, Robert Gober, and David Hammons, just to name a few. But to a particular establishment, this collection of socially interrogative, hard-charging works from the former margins was an assault on the sanctity of capital-A aesthetics, a rarefied world where police brutality, anorexia, the AIDS crisis, and other daily struggles were but blips on the radar of earthly concerns.
The harshest critics of the ’93 Biennial felt that real art should at least strive to stand the test of time. Works that engaged directly in the politics of their moment, the critics felt, had abandoned the quest for beauty in favor of rank sloganeering. It’s easy to mock this concept of aesthetics, as a white-man’s playground set apart from the vulnerable life of the flesh. But to do so is to accept the conservative characterization of it in the first place. Why should such a dichotomy exist? Anyone who has actually seen the works in question—Benning’s videos, with their use of Pixelvision’s extreme close-ups and dappled grain texture; or Antoni’s “gnaw” pieces, which engage with minimalism’s vocabulary in order to instigate a new relationship between sculpture and the body, introducing the uncomfortable traces of the sculptor’s own obsessive work on the material; or Ligon’s use of paint and print as palimpsest, turning phrases and documents of black life and history into dense, palpable thickets of textual presence and absence—would be hard-pressed to claim that the artists in question have somehow abdicated their aesthetic responsibilities. Those making such claims, of course, are giving in to the sort of “special pleading” they claim led to the 93 Biennial in the first place.
The aesthetic should elevate us, but that doesn’t mean it ought to strand us with our heads in the clouds. One of the things philosophers of art have recognized at least since Nietzsche is that aesthetics are argumentative, or to be more precise, rhetorical. Curating a program or bringing a work within a certain frame of reference is making rhetorical claims for it, positioning it in terms of audience and expectation. Even seemingly trans-historical categories, like the Beautiful or the Sublime of Kantian aesthetics, are rhetorical frameworks that allow some aspects of art to come forward, and others to recede. No text of any kind can exist without a rhetorical frame, and so the fact that the curators of the 1993 Whitney Biennial were open about theirs was admirable. One didn’t have to approve. But one could at least argue with it as a framework. Old-school aesthetic values, on the other hand, arrogated to themselves a kind of inevitability. Because that’s what white male culture does.
One of the most controversial aspects of the 1993 Whitney Biennial was its inclusion on a video by George Holliday. It was shown as an installation, rather than in the film / video screenings of the exhibition; in fact it was projected right above the entrance to the show, so that it would be the very first “work” the visitor encountered. Of course I’m referring to the camcorder documentation of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by four members of the LAPD. Its purpose in the Biennial was tacitly understood to serve as a kind of political preface or amuse-bouche, and not an artwork per se. However, its position within a major American museum (to say nothing of that institution’s flagship exhibition of contemporary art) demanded that we “reconsider” the Rodney King video as a work of art. Or, by extension, putting every other artwork within the Biennial literally under the sign of the King video meant that they could all be seen as documents of injustice.
Although the complication of rhetorical frames is a provocative thought experiment, neither of these options is ultimately satisfactory. Treating all artworks as political documents, full stop, gives needless ammunition to those conservative forces that willfully disregard the artistry of Wilson, Gober, Hammons, et al, allowing their works to be stupidly dismissed as leftist propaganda. But positioning the King video as “art by other means” cheapens the direct real-world consequences of a piece of counter-surveillance. True, everything exists as a form of representation, and as we learned from the four officers’ acquittal, one need not be a dedicated Derridean to rely on slippages in interpretation. But argumentation can only go so far until we reach the limits of rhetorical comprehension. At this point we surpass reframing and veer into category error.
So, why bring all this up now?
There has not been a single short film or video made in 2014, at least none that I have seen, that has had more of an impact on me that Ramsey Orta’s cellphone video of the murder of Eric Garner by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo. In fact, it seems hopelessly solipsistic to even refer to the manner in which such a video personally affects me, or any one of us. It is a document about what it means to be an African-American in 21st century America. Or more accurately, it is a reflection of the racist society we have been living in for a long, long time. What makes the video so important, apart from its immediacy and its undeniable facticity (unless, again, you are empanelled on a grand jury), is that it marks a moment of callous disregard, the state of power so arrogant that the illusion of benevolent hegemony need not even be maintained.
Coming on the heels of the street execution of Mike Brown by Ferguson, MO, police officer Darren Wilson, the Garner video is ensnared in an ugly visual rhetoric, one that obscures its rather obvious meanings. In some of the uglier segments of media punditry, observers are exaggerating the differences between the Garner and Brown cases. This is strategic. If Garner’s death is treated as an example of the otherwise reasonable police of America going too far (oops), and Brown’s characterized as an admittedly regrettable instance of a young black man bringing early death upon himself through bad choices and insolence, then any deeper interrogation of institutionalized racism in this country is short-circuited. Derrida, harking back to Plato’s rhetoric, called this maneuver the pharmakon. We accept a little bit of the disease in order to forestall a larger, harder dose of medicine.
In this case, even some middle-of-the-road observers will nod in assent at the outrage over Garner’s murder. They not only know that the outrage will blow over, in the same way that the Sandy Hook killings led to no substantive changes in U.S. gun laws. Hegemonic opinion-shapers understand that Garner is the pharmakon, the supposedly exceptional instance of racist police violence that can be addressed as a singular unfortunate event, so that the larger systemic problem may be spoken of no more. It is an inoculation against painful self-examination.
The Garner case satisfies certain basic criteria for this purpose. For one thing, Middle America is much more comfortable imputing excessive violence (to say nothing of racism) to the NYPD than it is in gazing in the mirror that is Ferguson, Missouri. Eighteen-year-old Brown’s property crime (a $50 box of Tipparillos) apparently strikes some people as deserving of a death sentence, whereas Garner, a husband and father, was allegedly breaking New York’s “loosie” law, selling untaxed cigarettes, making him not only an entrepreneur but a rebel in the eyes of a certain anti-authority segment of the Tea Party set.
(Of course, the distinctions between Brown and Garner, in life and in death, made by some segments of the media are always set in motion to serve some other purpose. And for a substantial segment of racist white America -- including the cops who killed these men -- there's barely any difference between them at all.)
And although we know that the “conflicting evidence” in the Brown case is immaterial, if not a sham—nothing explains Wilson dealing with an unarmed man, hands raised, by emptying his weapon into him—there is a basic difference in the video evidence from both cases. We have multiple images, from different distances, of the Brown killing, and until they are narrated, they cannot be fully understood. That is, they are not self-evident, at least not in the manner of the Garner video. One of the videos of Brown’s murder, taken from the apartments across the street, has shocked commentary by the man taking the images: “They just killed that boy.” That much is clear, but we can’t see, for example, that Brown never rushed the car (as Wilson claimed). For that information, we must rely on witness testimony. And testimony is framed by the concept of “reliability,” or what classical rhetoricians called ethos. That is, the validity of what is spoken is judged by the esteem in which society holds the speaker. In our racist society, it wasn’t hard to convince a white-majority grand jury that the African-American witnesses to Brown’s murder had some sort of chip on their shoulder, that their testimony was somehow unreliable. (Wilson’s, on the other hand, carried the state-sanctioned patina of the badge.)
So what we are left with are multiple angles of Brown’s murder, none definitive, none sufficiently self-explanatory to obviate the undue credibility affording to his killer, and the circumstances that, in the eyes of those to whom Brown’s life never mattered, made his death a logical consequence of shoplifting from a QuikTrip. The videos form a Cubist portrait of excessive force spurred on by racism. By contrast, the Garner video harks back to early cinema in its single, ineluctable perspective. For white America and its various apologists to actually see racism in action, it has to come at them like the Lumières’ speeding train. And, with an equal lack of sophistication, those same segments of official culture that produce “reasonable opinion” can only respond if they believe that the threat will burst from the screen and run them over where they sit.
Orta’s video of the Garner murder is the undeniable. It is a white cop choking the life out of a black man in real time, while the man pleads with his attacker no less than eleven times: “I can’t breathe.” And depending on how we as a society respond to the murder of Eric Garner, the video is one of two things: the sign of racist hegemony cracking, or asserting its complete inviolability. It is a gruesome and enraging artifact, and we must understand its rhetoric, particularly since, as shown by the grand jury decision, or recent comments by Rep. Peter King (R-NY), even so elementary a text can be flagrantly misread, if the will to do so is strong.
It is a piece of footage that, in recording the taking of a single life, simultaneously makes the future itself seem impossible. But it is not an artwork.
Nothing else I saw this year sticks with me to the same extent, day after day. And so this has prompted me to question what art is for, not necessarily in the larger world or in “these troubled times” or what have you, but in my own daily life. I have generally understood it to be a playground or a laboratory, a free space for the exploration of new ideas, new perceptions and even new worlds. Some have argued that this free play is a luxury afforded to the lucky few. I disagree. It’s necessary for our survival, and the fact that a great number of the people on the earth are forced to contend with struggles for more basic, immediate things – safety, sustenance, and that of those around them—hardly indicates that art is an elitist concern. It’s simply another indication that true democracy eludes us by a considerable distance.