Read this week

  • White Debt by Eula Bliss in the New York Times

  • Ta Nahsi-Coates and a Generation Waking Up by Britt Bennett in the New Yorker

  • Beyond the Pale by Kelefa Sanneh in the New Yorker
  • I am Doubt itself: Criticism, Narrative, Ethics  By Michelle Cahill in Sydney RB
  • left-wing critique of liberalism in Slate
  • How Cathcart’s interview shows us how we relegate voices by Ahmed

  • The Is Have It – Asian American Identity in the July/August 2017 Poetry Foundationwhat exactly does “Asian American” mean? The term “has always been an inelegant conglomeration,” writes Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis:

    of peoples from all across the world, from nations and cultures too disparate to gather coherently, and equitably, together…. “Asian American” is a fabrication, a blinkered prayer for something like solidarity. We have always imagined our cultural landscapes and broken diasporic supply chains and bomb-shelter ethnic enclaves into being.

    How, despite such distinctions, to gather together? And how to imagine oneself, and one’s community, into being?
    This poem —maps all manners of boundaries: not just linguistic but also domestic, cultural, and personal.

  • Getting In and Out by Zadie Smith in Harper’s Magazine 

    Before I came, I had read the widely circulated letter to the curators of the Whitney Biennial objecting to their inclusion of this painting:

    I am writing to ask you to remove Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket and with the urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum … because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.

    I knew, from reading about this debate, that in fact the painting had never been for sale, so I focused instead on the other prong of the argument—an artist’s right to a particular subject. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.”

    I want to follow the letter very precisely, along its own logic, in which natural rights are replaced with racial ones. I will apply it personally. If were an artist, and if I could paint—could the subject matter be mine? I am biracial. I have Afro-hair, my skin is brown, I am identified, by others and by myself, as a black woman. And so, by the logic of the letter—if I understand it correctly—this question of subject matter, in my case, would not come up, as it would not come up for the author of the letter, Hannah Black, who also happens to be biracial, and brown. Neither of us is American, but the author appears to speak confidently in defense of the African-American experience, so I, like her, will assume a transnational unity. I will assume that Emmett Till, if I could paint, could be my subject too.

    Now I want to inch a step further. I turn from the painting to my children. Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so, by the old racial classifications of America, they are “quadroons.” Could they take black suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any? Their grandmother is as black as the ace of spades, as the British used to say; their mother is what the French still call café au lait. They themselves are sort of yellowy. When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern? Their grandmother—raised on a postcolonial island, in extreme poverty, descended from slaves—knew black suffering intimately. But her grandchildren look white. Are they? If they are, shouldn’t white people like my children concern themselves with the suffering of Emmett Till? Is making art a form of concern? Does it matter which form the concern takes? Could they be painters of occasional black subjects? (Dana Schutz paints many subjects.) Or must their concern take a different form: civil rights law, public-school teaching? If they ignore the warnings of the letter and take black suffering as their subject in a work of art, what should be the consequence? If their painting turns out to be a not especially distinguished expression of or engagement with their supposed concern, must it be removed from wherever it hangs? Destroyed? To what purpose?

    Often I look at my children and remember that quadroons—green-eyed, yellow-haired people like my children—must have been standing on those auction blocks with their café au lait mothers and dark-skinned grandmothers. And I think too of how they would have had many opportunities to “pass,” to sneak out and be lost in the white majority, not visibly connected to black suffering and so able to walk through town, marry white, lighten up the race again. To be biracial in America at that time was almost always to be the issue of rape. It was in a literal sense to live with the enemy within, to have your physical being exist as an embodiment of the oppression of your people. Perhaps this trace of shame and inner conflict has never entirely left the biracial experience.

    To be biracial at any time is complex. Speaking for myself, I know that racially charged historical moments, like this one, can increase the ever-present torsion within my experience until it feels like something’s got to give. You start to yearn for absolute clarity: personal, genetic, political. I stood in front of the painting and thought how cathartic it would be if this picture filled me with rage. But it never got that deep into me, as either representation or appropriation. I think of it as a questionably successful example of both, but the letter condemning it will not contend with its relative success or failure, the letter lives in a binary world in which the painting is either facilely celebrated as proof of the autonomy of art or condemned to the philistine art bonfire. The first option, as the letter rightly argues, is often just hoary old white privilege dressed up as aesthetic theory, but the second is—let’s face it—the province of Nazis and censorious evangelicals. Art is a traffic in symbols and images, it has never been politically or historically neutral, and I do not find discussions on appropriation and representation to be in any way trivial. Each individual example has to be thought through, and we have every right to include such considerations in our evaluations of art (and also to point out the often dubious neutrality of supposedly pure aesthetic criteria). But when arguments of appropriation are linked to a racial essentialism no more sophisticated than antebellum miscegenation laws, well, then we head quickly into absurdity. Is Hannah Black black enough to write this letter? Are my children too white to engage with black suffering? How black is black enough? Does an “octoroon” still count?

    Looking at their work, I found I resented the implication that black pain is so raw and unprocessed—and black art practice so vulnerable and invisible—that a single painting by a white woman can radically influence it one way or another. Nor did I need to convince myself of my own authenticity by drawing a line between somebody else’s supposed fraudulence and the fears I have concerning my own (thus evincing an unfortunate tendency toward overcompensation that, it must be admitted, is not unknown among us biracial folks). No. The viewer is not a fraud. Neither is the painter. The truth is that this painting and I are simply not in profound communication.

    This is always a risk in art. The solution remains as it has always been: Get out (of the gallery) or go deeper in (to the argument). Write a screed against it. Critique the hell out of it. Tear it to shreds in your review or paint another painting in response. But remove it? Destroy it? Instead I turned from the painting, not offended, not especially shocked or moved, not even terribly engaged by it, and walked with the children to the next room.

  • Dutton’s New White Australia by Andy Butler in Overland
  • critique of the big sick  / I’m Tired of Watching Brown Men Fall in Love With White Women Onscreen

    Who are you calling radical? by Helen Razer in Wheeler Centre Blog
  • The Personal Essay Boom is Over by Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker 
  • Chart Collective Editorial to Legends 
  • How Economics Became a Religion by John Rapley Guardian (Long Reads) 
  • Let’s Talk About Hecs Baby  by Samantha Forge in Kill Your Darlings 
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