Uncomfortable Thoughts: Can Left-Wing Art Be Racist Too?

Recently, this story popped up in my Facebook feed, via one of my former teachers from high school:

STOCKHOLM (FRIA TIDER). A macabre scene with racist undertones took place on Saturday when Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth attended a tax funded party for the Stockholm cultural elite. The self-proclaimed “anti-racist” Liljeroth declared the party officially started by slicing a piece of a cake depicting a stereotypical African woman.

Oh, but it gets better – soooo much better. Because the whole thing is supposed to be a comment on female genital mutilation, Liljeroth sliced the cake from where the woman’s clitoris would be while the artist whose actual head, in blackface, was on top of the cake, screamed in mock pain.  Now THAT takes some serious chutzpah! The pictures have to be seen to be believed, but what truly takes the cake (if you will) is the video, which is below. Warning, it’s not for the faint of heart:

I find this whole thing interesting on so many levels. My high school English teacher, who happens to be black, was deeply offended by this episode, seen as it was through the lens of a conservative online rag that was jumping at the opportunity to savage a government official of which it didn’t approve. (Choice quotes include “The shocking photos show several established left-wing members of the Stockholm cultural elite watching and laughing as Minister of Culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth slices a cake depicting a black African woman with minstrel-esque face.”) His Facebook friends all felt the same way, at least those who commented, and I imagine many readers of this blog will as well.

The full story is a bit more complicated, however. The artist, a fellow by the name of Makode Linde who is no less black than Barack Obama, turns out to specialize in “revamping the blackface into a new historical narrative” by exaggerating racist stereotypes to grotesque extremes. In the Skype interview below with Robert Mackey of the New York Times‘s The Lede, Linde claims that he is interested in “problematizing racism” and defends the organizers of the World Arts Day event for which he created the cake sculpture.

For her part, Liljeroth has refused to resign over the incident and posted a statement on the Ministry of Culture website that reaffirms her commitment to free expression, averring that “art must…be allowed room to provoke and pose uncomfortable questions.”

Wow. Before we go further, let’s take a moment to consider this: can you imagine the shitstorm that would have ensued if Rocco Landesman had found himself mixed up in something like this? Folks, this is why the NEA does not support individual artists. This, right here. Exhibit A. Trust me, it’s better this way.

Anyway, to the piece itself. Aside from disgust and revulsion, the other dominant response I’ve observed so far is the one from defenders of the work like New York Times commenter Brian, who writes that “The piece, the reaction to it, the reaction to the reaction…all of this is part of what makes this ‘art’.” I see where Brian’s coming from, and obviously the fact that I’ve decided to write a blog post about it counts as evidence that it’s been successful in provoking dialogue. But I’m not sure that it’s the kind of dialogue that the artist had in mind. He complains himself in the Skype interview about the images being taken “out of context,” but how could they not be? Has he not heard of Facebook? The fact that this has apparently taken the folks involved by surprise is mind-boggling to me.

My problem with art that deliberately sets out to shock is that, all too often, it’s just bad art. I believe in respecting an artist’s intent, but assuming the label of “artist” doesn’t let one off the hook for accountability. If the intent is to shock, my question is “to what end?” It’s not a rhetorical question. Is it to raise awareness of some important social issue? To gain attention for the artist himself? Or just for the sheer thrill of seeing the shock you’ve created on other people’s faces? Some of these goals are more virtuous than others, and frankly sometimes I’m not so sure where the real motivation lies. But even assuming a virtuous goal, we have to ask the question of whether it succeeded or not. Has this raised awareness of female genital mutilation, and in anything resembling a helpful way? It seems to have raised awareness of Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth more than anything else.

But, in fairness, I’m open to being convinced. Digging around for material on this turned up some pretty racist stuff on Swedish websites, so maybe it will ultimately be successful in driving a dialogue about that rather than FGM. And the piece does raise some fascinating questions, even if unintentionally. Like the one in the title of this post, for example. Can art that’s supposed to be ironic in its racism end up being earnestly racist by accident? That seems to be what has happened here, at least judging by the reaction of my former teacher and his friends. Not to even mention the whole man-acting-out-female-genital-mutilation bit – all I can say is that someone’s going to have a lot of fun writing their critical race theory/gender studies dissertation chapter on this whole mess.

[UPDATE: here's another perspective, the most interesting I've found from among many others that are out there.]

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7 Comments

  1. Posted April 19th, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    It sounds as if the artist was a bit naive. But then creatives are usually good at imagining something new and not necessarily how it will be received. Potential consequences for any action are not nearly as tangible as the manifestation of the idea itself.

    What’s surprising is that we are at all surprised that things can be misunderstood or taken in a plurality of different ways. Even the most canonical of received wisdom can generate bitter disagreement. Even the most obvious things in our lives will find someone who can argue the other side with conviction. So why does the parochial nature of our own grasp on things still surprise us? We can’t ALL be ‘right’?

    The miracle of communication is not that we so often agree with each other. Rather, the true miracle is that we are sometimes curious and open minded enough to see the sense in what others say that disagrees with our own views. The world has this fabulous potential for multiplicity and plurality, and its only our curiosity that keeps it alive for us. Without curiosity we are baffled and surprised that anyone could possibly not agree with us or fail to see things as we do. Without curiosity there are no shades of gray, only black and white. There is no mystery, and there is nothing left to explore.

    And maybe this is why asking difficult questions is still important. Maybe this is why its alright to say something that has every potential to be misunderstood. Maybe this is why we still need art that challenges us. Or would we rather just have our own limited understanding continually confirmed for us? What’s that phrase about breaking eggs to make an omelet?

  2. Aaron Andersen
    Posted April 19th, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I actually think the gender issue is really important. I would like to know what a black woman, especially one from Africa, would think of this.

  3. Kim Cook
    Posted April 19th, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Just ask Dave Chapelle why he left his show….

  4. Maria Vlachou
    Posted April 19th, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Dear Ian, after everything I´ve seen and read in the last two days, I´ve reached the conclusion that nobody at this moment is problematizing about female genital mutilation. People are either discussing the artist´s and minister´s terribly bad taste (I am one of those people) or art and freedom of expression…

    Dear Aaron, my female african friends (all of them) were disturbed, to say the least.

    One of the most interesting responses I read was this one: http://www.micmovement.com/2012/04/5-ways-to-eat-your-racist-cake-have-it-too/

    • Posted April 20th, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Maria, that article is great and I added one that was linked in the comments of that piece to the main post here as well.

  5. Posted April 21st, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Anyone who supports the basic principles of democracy and civil society– even those who are right of center– should be anti-racist, but we know this not to be the case in the real world. Racism often occurs on a visceral level: sometimes it coincides with one’s political ideals and aspirations, but often times it can lead a compartmentalized existence. Leftists are not immune to forming opinions based on stereotypes and prejudice.

    In fact, I have dealt with this question before when I noted that Bread & Puppet Theatre founder and artistic director, when discussing his position on the middle-east conflict, recycles the anti-Semitic tropes he grew up with as a child of the Third Reich: http://ianthal.blogspot.com/2012/01/if-amnesty-international-had-its-own.html

  6. Posted July 20th, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Wow, that painful cake is …. weird. Must be quite the experience to cut and eat it.

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  1. [...] for instance this recent artistic faux pas (WARNING! If you are sensitive and sheltered like me this can be quite disturbing and [...]

  2. [...] that Swedish artist thought he was expressing, what it communicated to the public was either a public relations disaster or a brilliantly reckless instigation of dialog about [...]

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