Speech often fails when America talks to itself about race, about dissent, about protest, inequality, or exclusion. Those in positions to manifest systemic change have a practiced manner of mishearing the terms of debate. Prolific cultural critic (and occasional Momus contributor) Aruna D’Souza’s new book Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in Three Acts addresses this selective hearing through its history in American contemporary art.
D’Souza’s project is structured around three contextualizing case studies of fraught racial representation. Each of the interlocking essays details a historical moment when white artists and historically white institutions have tried and failed messily to engage with Blackness. All three cases precipitated public protests, which certain quarters of the art establishment then loudly challenged and accused of censorship. At the heart of each of D’Souza’s three “Acts” is a moment when the dialogue proposed by protesters was refused until its terms could be carefully managed. By D’Souza’s telling, the museums’ strategies appear as deliberate failures to communicate: a theatrics of debate masquerading as open discourse.
Whitewalling smartly navigates its terrain of artworld race and representation. Shifting between rigorous exposition of the factual histories, and incisive, sometimes incendiary criticism of the principle positions, D’Souza marshals a considered and precise assault on a deserving target, Liberal American complacency in the face of white supremacy. And beyond her contributions on the immediate subject of race, D’Souza also offers a vital, timely rebuke to the unfaithful translation and cooptation of protest by unscrupulous institutions. This is of particular significance now, at a moment when an ineffectual centrism is held up as a credible alternative to creeping authoritarianism. These tired, unimaginative rhetorics of comfortable “#Resistance” routinely mishear the demands of the marginalized voices they purport to champion, and avoid genuine engagement with the underlying causes of endemic inequality, persistent racism, and misogyny. Whitewalling is remarkable for refusing to allow the carefully constructed positions of protestors to be overwritten by more spectacular and digestible headlines, amenable to comfortable stasis.
Cable-news reactionary tactics: submerge complexity beneath a disingenuous defense of classical liberal talking-points. As an example, consider how quickly discussions about providing public platforms to notorious racists or misogynists devolve into hand-wringing about freedom of speech. It’s a quick bait-and-switch that exploits the immediacy of hyperbolic outrage and black-and-white thinking to preempt uncomfortable nuance. D’Souza walks around this bait. She patiently traces the precise shape of each of her case studies, before pointing out the exact moments where a reductionist, free-speech-abolutist reading diverges from actual events and protester’s demands. This is the essential work of a critical historian, writing back against the oversimplified narratives that atrophy discourse and obscure crucial stakes.
Whitewalling’s first of three case studies (and apparently the raison d’etre for the project), concerns the controversy surrounding the 2017 Whitney Biennial’s decision to hang a white painter’s abstract rendering of the infamous photograph of Emmett Till in his coffin. After the initial protests of the artist’s and museum’s choices, there followed heated arguments about the criticism of the work – particularly an open letter by Hannah Black – which some commentators saw as censorious.
D’Souza’s ability to track the main threads of the controversy as it unfolded across videos, open letters, public fora, Facebook, and Instagram, is immediately impressive. The history of the early 21st century will, for better or for worse, be partially told in archives of fragmentary conversations, across a variety of media at once. At a purely formal level, D’Souza’s book stands in this regard as an agile work of contemporary political history. D’Souza, herself a fixture in social media, was also a ready participant in the conversations that she describes, well positioned to tell the story of its unfolding.
She wades into the contentious discussion of cultural censorship at a drum-tight moment. On the one hand, under an incipient authoritarianism, we would do well to guard against top-down pronouncements about who is permitted to say what, and when. But the cry of censorship is too easily used to drown out the ethical care that should attend freedom of speech. Returning to strawman defenses of democracy willfully misunderstands the stakes of this debate: intangible principle at one privileged pole, bare violence at the other.
And in any case, it’s a red herring, the notion that Hannah Black or Howardina Pindell or any of the primary voices among her case studies’ protestors were occupied in policing the speech of white people. To reduce their demands to things that white people are, or are not, permitted to say, is to cede the stage, yet again, to the privileged colonial subject: to succumb to the bitter thrashing of a demographic unaccustomed to considering the casualties of its thought-experiments. A narcissism, yes, and also an act of violence.
D’Souza stresses the clear difference in stakes between these positions in her second case study. She highlights the fact that the (mainly white) voices who publically defended the indefensibly-titled exhibition Nigger Drawings at Artist’s Space in New York in 1979, did so either with high-minded theoretical positions on the mutability of creative language, or by emphasizing the importance and reputation of the gallery as a generally progressive institution. These arguments, whatever their abstract merit, could only have come from positions of relative sanctuary and comfort: the unacknowledged security and complicity of a poor ally. When push came to shove, this community gazed uncomprehending at the unseemly racket being made by their peers of color, and offered only pedantry.
At one point, D’Souza allows herself a historian’s hypothetical: what if Hannah Black had penned the same open letter, critical of Dana Schutz’s appropriation of black suffering, but had stopped short of demanding that the work be destroyed? Black surely knew the value of her performed provocation, but the conjecture is nevertheless telling. Should she have tempered her speech: to manage the slight to the colonial ego, and preempt the distracting, derailing outrage? Should this burden of self-regulation have been hers to bear, and would it have prevented her argument from being misread? Ultimately, the point is moot; her letter would not arrive, her speech was bound to be misheard. If there is cause for hope, it inheres in voices, like Black’s, like D’Souza’s, that pierce the smooth functioning of a Liberal rhetoric.