PRINT December 2020


Free Speech

I WOULD NEVER theorize incarceration by infantilizing expressions of it because the first time I was locked up I was in the womb. I am the Black son of a Black woman so strong police officers shackled her to the bed where she delivered me. I don’t know what Rosalyn Deutsche could possibly know about freedom that I don’t, but the best her imagination seems able to yield in “Staking Claim” [Artforum, September 2020] is the structurally unsound assumption I framed images of the sea as unfixed symbols (conditions) of unconditional freedom in the curation of “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay.” Freedom is not unconditional. Freedom is as conditional as the “Approved by US Forces” stamp marking every artwork exhibited. Furthermore, I don’t derive generalities from particularities because it’s beneath me to reverse the rules of injunction for the sake of an argument. I don’t need to break the rules to fathom the mundane tragedy of someone historically reenacting a critical shortcoming of scholarship they themselves once described as failing “to show meanings are conditional, formed out of struggles.” Whatever this ironic review hoped to achieve, I think the connection between “the quest to establish humanity” and the daily “effort to obtain justice” could have been concatenated by the very pages Deutsche squandered moralizing the difference.

—Charles Shields


Rosalyn Deutsche responds:


I’m very sorry that Charles Shields is offended by my essay about “Ode to the Sea: Art from Guantánamo Bay.” But I’m not sure why he is. I didn’t claim to be an expert on freedom. I simply quoted one of the artists, who writes that “the sea means freedom,” observed that the exhibition and catalogue largely echo this statement, and noted that other artists and writers associated with the show contradict it by presenting the sea otherwise—as a symbol of torment, cruelty, indifference, and danger. That part of my text is descriptive. I didn’t use the adjective “unconditional” to modify “freedom,” and of course I agree that meanings are contingent on historical and social circumstances, which, as Shield notes, I have persistently argued elsewhere. With regard to the effort to establish the humanness of the detainees and obtain justice for them—which is to say, make them subjects of democratic rights, including due process—I wanted to point out the intimate connection between the two goals, which I would have liked to have seen foregrounded in the rhetoric of this important exhibition.