PRINT December 2016

Helen Molesworth

THE STUNNING RISE OF NATIONALISM, populism, and fundamentalism has roiled the world. It is tempting to imagine that we are witnessing just another rotation of political modernity’s cycle of progress and backlash. But we can situate the undoing of the demos in democracy’s longue durée while rejecting the false comfort of the idea that what’s happening is not new, that we’ve seen it all before. How did we get here? How did we create the conditions for Trump, for Brexit, for Mosul, for a daily sequence of devastating events, whether shootings or strikes? Is shock, that quintessentially modernist avant-garde strategy of instigating mass perceptual—and therefore political—change, somehow more prevalent than ever, albeit in radically transformed ways? Does shock, in fact, go hand in hand with apathy and desensitization?
Art must confront these shifts in experience and form. And so Artforum asked curator HELEN MOLESWORTH, activist TARIQ ALI, and political theorist WENDY BROWN to reflect on the year in shock: on the sudden reaction, the surprise turn, the violent wake.

Patrisse Cullors and Tanya Lucia Bernard lead the Black Lives Matter forum “What Is Contemporary?,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, July 7, 2016. Photo: Casey Winkleman.

MY EARLY-1990S LIFE involved reading a lot of theory in graduate school accompanied by near-compulsive listening to Jane’s Addiction. This meant that while I was at home reading, lyrics like these hung in the air:

The TV’s got them images
TV’s got them all
It’s not shocking
Every half an hour
Someone’s captured and
The cop moves them along
It’s just like the show before
The news is
Just another show
With sex and violence

Meanwhile, in my seminars, there was much talk of modernism and modernity and, therefore, of shock: shock as a modality that allowed us to understand everything from the destruction of bodies on the killing fields of World War I (Dada collage), to artists’ responses to the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (from AbEx to Gutai), to the effect of technologies on bodies both individual and politic (the trauma of modernity’s speed, from the train and the telephone to the novels of J. G. Ballard). In this way, the avant-garde was understood as countering shock with shock. Its strategy of épater le bourgeoisie suggested that there was a stratum of society that needed to be shaken from its anesthetized stupor by another set of shocks. But truth be told, I was skeptical of such talk: Must meaning be predicated on shock? Why was a cut or a break always required for something to be historically serious or significant? Why couldn’t continuity or gentleness, even, be imagined as a hermeneutic of radicality? As someone with a nascent interest in domesticity and the quotidian, I felt that shock didn’t help me understand much of anything. I wasn’t interested in Duchamp’s readymade as a shock to the very category of art; I was curious about how a bottle rack or a bottle of perfume might be engaging larger societal shifts in how women were being taught to be consumers of mass-produced goods.

Since the murder of Trayvon Martin, the media has been awash with more images than ever of the massacre of innocent black citizens by law enforcement. There has been a lot of hand-wringing about how this can be happening “now,” as if our present were somehow severed from our past. This stream of snuff films has been accompanied by talk of shock. People are shocked by the killings, shocked by the footage, shocked by the constancy of both. But I have to say I am not shocked. Indeed, I find talk of shock in this instance galling, for I understand it to be a statement—inherent, implicit, unconscious—of extraordinary privilege. In other words, I think the only people who are shocked are those who still don’t understand that this violence began during the Middle Passage, continued through slavery, was perfected during Jim Crow, and is, as I write this, being ruthlessly carried out, with ever more efficiency, through the practice of mass incarceration.

One of the most prevalent responses to the recent documentation of this violence has been to call for more body cameras on police officers—a call, in other words, for more images, which, in turn, is ostensibly a call for more shock. But I think it is fair to say that, as of yet, the cameras—turned on or not, footage made public or not—have not served to deter these murders, nor have they clarified any of the police accounts of various officers’ personal fears and split-second decision-making processes. In fact, quite the opposite has happened: The cameras have made these executions weekly television-news fare. And since it stands to some kind of “reason” that repetition mitigates shock’s force of singularity, then the continued display of shock in the face of these state murders, is, for me, ever more disturbing. Alas, I find the demand for the “veracity” of police-generated footage to partake, extend, and perhaps even polish to a new shine the long history of spectactularized violence against black bodies in our country—from public whippings to communal lynchings, from the photograph of Emmett Till in his coffin to Andy Warhol using “Race Riot” to title a silk screen that depicts a young black man being attacked by police dogs. I know people feel shocked—and of course they should—but I cannot be, because I feel like being shocked now is just a polite way of saying you haven’t been paying attention. This isn’t to say that I haven’t wept at, and been devastated by, this violence. It’s to say that, today, shock and desensitization are wedded together in a complicated dialectic that so far has tended to translate into an exhausted, tacit, cynical acceptance of business as usual.

Lorna Simpson, Three Figures (detail), 2014, twelve panels, ink and silk screen on Claybord, overall 9' 8 3/4“ × 8' 1 1/2”.

Yet I am not without hope. Modernity may be an incomplete project, but it has had a sufficient number of critics who have produced other tendencies of thought. That so many of these critiques have come from the very communities being terrorized is no coincidence. Lately, I have felt that we may be in the midst of another avant-garde—albeit one that has declined to call itself that, precisely because of modernism’s checkered history.

The refusal of the mainstream media (whatever that means) to cover the complexity of the Black Lives Matter movement is also not shocking. So I’m especially grateful to the editors of Artforum for this little patch of print to spread the word about what I see as a set of cultural discourses and practices that are happening in response to the very particular horror of our current moment (with its global turn toward xenophobia and religious radicalism), and which have replaced modernist tactics of shock with something close to its opposite. On Thursday, July 7, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (where I work) hosted two artists—Patrisse Cullors and Tanya Lucia Bernard—central to the Black Lives Matter movement in LA. We had originally invited them to participate in a forum called “What Is Contemporary?” and given them the brief of discussing the relationship between activism and art. But the night of their appearance, scheduled months in advance, turned out to be during the week Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had been killed within days of each other, and Cullors and Bernard rightly shifted gears. At LA MoCA, we prepared for an overflow audience: We rented three hundred chairs and arranged them, as requested by Cullors and Bernard, in a town-hall setting. More than eight hundred people showed up. Cullors and Bernard led an open-mic forum where people were offered an opportunity to speak to a temporarily convened public. The pair prefaced their personal abdication of the microphone by asking white people to hold back from speaking if they were near a person of color who clearly had something to say. No white people spoke publicly for the entire evening. For about an hour the talk was of pain, and grief, and mourning. Several people discussed the rampant mental illness in their communities, neighborhoods, and families. No one mentioned shock; people were too damned sad. The last audience member to take the mic was a man whose narrative, in contrast to his peers that night, gave way to rage. He indignantly described his long commute via train to the museum. He angrily explained his late arrival to the event because he had to escort an elderly female neighbor to the grocery store; she was afraid to go out on the streets alone. His voice raised, he wanted to know why any white people occupied any of the seats at all. How dare they let any black people stand, given the current situation?

To say that the tenor or feeling in the room turned in that moment is an understatement. The man’s anger was so real and so profound and so precise that it felt like the room was awash in a form of energy that I can only describe, with all of my personal ambivalence, as apprehension—a feeling that, I confess, I identified in this context with my whiteness. But what happened next was, for me, completely remarkable. Cullors took a microphone—indeed, she had taken it early in his testimony, looking at him the entire time he spoke—and addressed him intimately and directly, person-to-person, and said: “Thank you for your honesty.” And then she paused, and addressed the group: “What we are being allowed to do tonight is listen to people’s pain and rage, righteous rage, so I appreciate you for naming it, and being honest and being vulnerable.”​ In this one linguistic, affective moment of pure genius, she reframed his rage—and all of its implicit and attendant fear and violence and its potential for confusion and miscommunication—as the very attribute that makes us most human: vulnerability. In doing so, she suggested that it is only in our vulnerability to each other that we can truly recognize and see one another. She held that space open for all of us that evening; I don’t think I was the only person who left the building thinking about how to bring about ethical change one personal encounter at a time. And it seems clear, to me at least, that this work comes through repetition, and continuity, and gentleness. I do not think shock, with its trafficking in rupture and cataclysm, was what allowed Cullors to enact her extraordinary position of leadership that evening.

I have come to understand this work of healing as central to Black Lives Matter. And it is not isolated. I see it in Simone Leigh’s therapeutic workshops with women in the movement at the New Museum in New York; the new lexicon of “self-care”; Karon Davis’s elegiac show “Pain Management” at Wilding Cran Gallery in Los Angeles and Lauren Halsey’s spiritual funk fest “Kingdom Splurge (4)” at Recess in New York; the eloquently reparative albums of Dev Hynes and Solange; and the emergence of the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago and the Underground Museum in Los Angeles (which offer yoga and meditation, respectively, as part of their programs). I see all of these endeavors working together to form a web of responses to the cancer of racism in our democracy. Maybe the rhetoric of shock is part and parcel of this illness from which we are all suffering, and perhaps it is time to treat both the symptoms and the cause, not with the outmoded technique of shock therapy, but through a quieter, more painful, and more intimate palliative of continuous self-reflection and regard for others.

Helen Molesworth is Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

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