Written by Pete Armitage and edited by Sarah Martin
The last months have been characterised by turbulence. Perhaps the pandemic was a final wake-up call for many to the systemic, historical oppression suffered by people of colour. This needed to happen. George Floyd’s murder triggered a series of international Black Lives Matter protests, and there seems to be an air of unity to acknowledge and address the struggles facing people of colour in their day-to-day lives.
Maybe the lockdown period also bred a sense of united vulnerability - and this inspired some empathy in those who have previously been passive in their tackling of equality issues.
This is a time to reflect on our privilege; to reflect on our collective responsibility for equality. In the blink of an eye, our global collective consciousness has been disrupted, in arguably the greatest upheaval in the Western world since the Second World War. Antiquated ideals need abolishing, no holds barred.
The images that international media has chosen to represent recent events have been deeply emotive. Images of BLM protesters tear gassed by the police only reiterate the problems we face as a society. With regard to COVID-19, a saturation of disturbing imagery typified the peak of the pandemic - ice rinks repurposed as mortuaries and the like. Such harrowing headlines consolidate despair, and the frankly despicable history on which the Western world is built, with no apologies or reparations for those affected over centuries and centuries.
From the standpoint of public morale, we are desperate for distractions. We are searching for solace in strength and comfort in our communities. The stark realisation of widespread gross injustice in our societies alongside the deeply unfamiliar restriction and confinement has cast a backdrop of contemplation in 2020. The prospect of our united introspection is an uncomfortable one for many, and an unfamiliar one for almost all.
The uprooting of archaic power structures is an unfathomably difficult task which is of absolute necessity. We live in a world of despicable inequality and it needs to be addressed by everyone, now. We all share responsibility. Especially white people need to realise they just don’t understand racism and don’t understand how to fight it unless they make a concerted effort to inform and empathise. Now, more than ever, the creation and appreciation of art might help us to understand our shortfallings and perhaps help in the tremendous healing that needs to occur in order to make the world a better place for all.
It’s important to acknowledge the privilege some of us have to be able to engage in art, and remember that many people of colour don’t have that opportunity. Having the insight to realise our privilege is paramount. Also, much of the art we consider to be ‘classics’ and of the ‘Western Canon’ embodies privilege, inequality, disrespect and often gross cultural appropriation. Art can only help in spurring us to action - We shouldn’t ruminate, we need to educate ourselves in order to disrupt the broken machine we call civilisation.
Memorialisation of catastrophe
The Trump administration’s recent move to host their first post-COVID campaign rally in Tulsa the day after Juneteenth was grossly insensitive and absolutely racist. We remember this day in history as a celebration of the emancipation of those enslaved in the United States. Specifically, it refers to the proclamation that all slaves in Texas should be freed, made by army general Gordon Granger on 19th June, 1865.
Further adding to the insult of hosting a rally on this day was choosing Tulsa as the location. The town is known for the massacre of 31st May 1921, when a mob of white residents burnt a relatively wealthy black neighbourhood ‘Greenwood’ to the ground as a vengeful response to a false rape accusation of a young black man against a white woman. This massacre is often regarded as the worst incidence of racial violence in the 20th century in the USA.
In 2010, a park was created in the Greenwood area as a commemoration to the victims of the violence and named after the eminent historian and author of From Slavery to Freedom, John Hope Franklin. The park includes three sculptures by African American sculptor Ed Dwight, which represent Hostility, Humiliation and Hope.
Art like Dwight’s helps to memorialise catastrophes such as the Tulsa race massacre, empowering us to resist and call out the white supremacism of the Trump administration and other racist organisations.
Metaphors assist us in processing the unknown
In order for us to galvanise equality after centuries of prejudice, we ought to glance inward and scrutinize our behaviours, actions and emotions. How can we as individuals contribute to a fairer society? How can we understand ourselves better in order to improve ourselves?
In a macrocosmic sense, reason and rationalism can’t help us, there are fundamental problems in our value systems and power structures. This stark realisation has also conjured existential dread, we have had more time on our hands to entertain our fears. When the power of reason fails us, we can turn to our imagination for answers. We can imagine alternate futures, and express them by visual or auditory means for example.
By interpreting the metaphorical expressions found in art we can gain a deeper understanding of our own confused emotions. Take for example Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s Wax Sculpture of Dasha Zhukova with a candle wick in her head. The sculpture depicted the elegant Russian gallery owner in a graceful pink dress reclining in a bucket chair. Over the course of weeks, the wax mannequin melted to the ground, captivating observers with meditations on impermanence; a beguiling metaphor for death.
To paraphrase Archetypal Psychologist James Hillman, we must admit our ‘lostness’ in the presence of an image, whether that be a visual piece or even a dream, in order to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our perceptions.
For a moment let us recall Alexandre Dumas’ oft-quoted axiom in The Three Musketeers, ‘All for one and one for all, united we stand divided we fall’. We are united by our mortality, united by our anxieties, and our progress relies on the directives of conscience and human spirit. Art distills the zeitgeist, and through the cultivation and expression of our abstract ideas we can see more of what we share than that which divides us.
The realisation of what it means to be human is an abstract endeavour, now, more than ever, we must examine our collective humanity in order to convalesce together. Art can aid in this realisation.
Our social media feeds are saturated with fellow artists’ DJ mixes and book recommendations. The increased frequency of these remote personal exhibitions illuminates elements of the human condition and it’s desire to transcend, externalise and ultimately express.
Whether or not these informal spectacles are intended as catharses is irrelevant. Artistic exhibition in all forms enriches our ability to empathise. Our capacity to feel is augmented. To paraphrase Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1), in the stirring of our emotions via exposure to a tragic exposition, we learn how to feel our emotions more healthfully. In other words, the creation and appreciation of tragic art renews and restores us. In a time of such hardship we ought to treasure any renewal of our strength via means of cathartic art or otherwise.
Antidote to the desensitisation of our post-capitalist society
The fifth reason is a more abstract affair. Most of our lives are characterised by an entanglement of psychic obstructions. We are benumbed by pornography, fake news and fast food. We are seduced by all that desensitises us, our society seethes with detachment, narcissism and excess. When we revel in the aesthetic we temporarily dispense of our numbness; surely beauty can only be created and appreciated in the absence of numbness?
Anton Chekhov’s trip to Sakhalin Island comes to mind, where he sought to alleviate the ennui that typified Tsarist Russia in the 1880s. His society was infested with many of the social afflictions that characterise modern society; nepotism, machiavellianism and self-help syndrome. He escaped to a penal colony, to rediscover his soul and invented a new genre of literature.