Saturday, February 28, 2015

Anselm Kiefer, Exhibit B, and Controversial Works

I started writing this months ago...but never got around to finishing it.  But it keeps coming up in conversations I have so I'm posting it now for posterity.   It's a bit of messy thinking and questions with literally no answers. 

With thanks to @ChurlishMeg, Laura and I visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibit when we were in London in November.  It sparked some interesting conversation about controversial artists.

Kiefer is a post-WWII German artist who was one of the first of his generation to wrestle with the Nazi era.  At time when few in Germany were addressing the German history he confronted German identity and used in some of his earlier works Nazi imagery.  As his work evolve his use of symbolism became more nuanced and evocative--grand celebratory spaces, sunflowers, lead pipes, fields (with people and objects buried beneath them).  He moves from personal space to the public space as the symbol. He confronts when and where we build monuments to our ideas. He looks at how we create spaces to inspire and unite ideas--including highly destructive ideas. And then those spaces are abandoned or destroyed through wars.  But does that stamp out the ideas?

After we saw the exhibit (and got lost in the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland crack nightmare), I started to think about how art can be misinterpreted.  If Kiefer's early work had come to light in an internet age I can see how quickly his early work could have been seen as possibly pro-Nazi and quickly shutdown. But seeing a retrospective of his lifetime of work it was interesting to see his style and approach change and how that earlier work fit into the entire picture.   

It made me think about other work lately that has raised questions of appropriateness and work that has not seen the light of day because of protest--the first instance was the Barbican pulling Brett Bailey's Exhibit B, the second was Death of Klinghoffer being stopped from being broadcast in movie theaters. 

Death of Klinghoffer did get performed live at the Metropolitan Opera despite accusations of antisemitism and after I saw it I was really glad that important work was shared.  But I found myself happy that Exhibit B was shutdown even though I never saw it. And I wondered if I was being hypocritical about that.  As Isaac Butler's essay on The Interview points out, one cannot criticize work that one has not engaged with. 

Was it enough for me to accept reports from artists such as Selina Thompson that as an artist of color Exhibit B's point of view was racist and that it was perpetuating destructive acts of colonialism.  Did I need to see it for myself?  Did more people need to see it to dismiss it?  Frankly at the time I was thrilled that a work that just on the surface seemed revolting had been closed down. Exhibit B was not just depictions of racist scenes but used performers to demonstrate them.  And here was a white South African artist expounding on issues of colonialism in Africa using black performers to do so.

I continue to have strong feelings about The Scottsboro Boys.  I left that show wanting to vomit in the street in anger and revulsion.  For me it did not do enough to comment on the form it was using--a minstrel show--to criticize that form.  Having a white creative team did not help matters.  In the end I felt like I was trapped in racist minstrel show and I was really angry about being put in that position.

But should it never have existed.  Was it better that audiences saw it?  My reaction was certainly a minority position.  Others find it powerful for the reasons the creative team seemed to intend whereas I felt like it was perpetuating the issues it had set out to criticize. 

Point of view is everything when it comes to art tackling challenging subject matter.  Who is speaking, what they are saying, and how they are saying it are crucial to the analysis (for instance the recent Hamilton).  And of course misinterpretations of intent and expression can certainly occur.  But as one of my film school teachers used to say--once you put it up on screen, your intention goes out the window.  How it is taken by people will become how people see the work. 

But also do we need to look at whose voices we are amplifying and whose voices we deny space to?  Was my issue that Exhibit B was yet another white artist whitesplaining racism and colonialism in a world where we hardly let artists of color have space to do so?

Neo-Nazi's could appropriate Kiefer's images and see support for their cause.  But I guess I was most concerned with people being comforted in their racism by seeing something like Exhibit B.  If the work is taken on face value, and people walk through a human zoo, using the language of past racist acts which we have never really truly dealt with or wrestled with, and never question that that is a problem for our humanity.  But does that mean that exhibit should not exist in the first place.  Is it more important to walk through a protest outside which might help reframe your view and help you question the exhibit?  The protests around Klinghoffer certainly made me want to see the work and judge it for myself. Would it be better to see the work and start the conversation?

I feared that we would not even get to that conversation with Exhibit B.  We need to address the most deeply embedded aspects of racism in our cultures but it seems we struggle to have even basic conversations about racism.  Would we really be able to engage in the difficult, hard conversation that Exhibit B would require?  There were the many inappropriate selfies at Kara Walker's A Subtlety exhibit but she then turned the camera on audiences and filmed people's behavior at the exhibit.  She thinks it's part of the conversation.  So maybe I'm being wildly paternalistic.  Or I don't have enough faith in humanity.  Or I'm a terrible snob. 

But just this month I had to argue with someone that there's no such thing as reverse racism. So maybe I'm just really pessimistic about the world we live in.

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