Seeking Illumination in Dark Times
On the power of art, race and racism, and the limitations of science and politics
Reading our series on the arts, provides some hope in our dark times, on this cloudy and humid Friday afternoon in New York. I have long believed that the key to liberation is illumination, that we have to see the ways things are, and see how things might possibly change, in order to challenge the order of things: to pursue social justice and the good society, or, even more desirable from my point of view, “the better society.” Through my experiences around the former Soviet bloc, facing up to the depths of modern barbarism (Hannah Arendt’s synonym for totalitarianism), and studying and contributing to its opposition, I have learned that the better society is a most noble pursuit. I, thus, have offered here two cheers for revolution and examined the gray qualities of collective memory.
I have also long noted that works of art provide illumination, when science and political activism fail us. I saw this most dramatically on my first great research adventure, when I went to Poland to study the social bases of independent public expression in Communist societies. In preparation, I reviewed all the relevant literature on Polish society that I could find, and when I arrived, I asked professors at University of Warsaw for further suggested readings. There wasn’t much. In the end, I concluded that I developed a clearer sociological understanding of Polish society through the insights provided by Polish theater than from the scholarly literature on the topic. Indeed, my job talk at The New School for an advertised position in the sociology of the arts many years ago was “On Polish Student Theater: A Sociology of Theater/ A Sociology through Theater.” In my presentation, I tried to explain how the theater wasn’t only my object of inquiry, but also my means of developing a more accurate and richer understanding of Polish society than could be gleaned from the scholarly literature, and the political commentary, mired as that was by blind communist faith, matched by unthinking anti-communism. I think mine was not a unique experience. I wouldn’t argue that the arts are superior to science and politics, but do think that they offer special opportunities for understanding, judging and acting that should be paid special attention, especially now.
Consider the posts we have published on race and racism. We have published many describing the structures and experience of racism, and debates about these. Book forums such as this week’s series on Jaskiran Dhillon’s recently published ethnography: Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention, and earlier this year on Christopher Lebron’s: The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea. We published a book on white supremacy, populism and resistance leading to and following the tragic events in Charlottesville, and we have published telling pieces on the long history of the relationships between slavery, racism and capitalism, including this week’s welcome by Maya Cotta of Michael Dawson to The New School’s Heilbroner Center of Capitalism Studies, introducing its upcoming event, a conversation on race and capitalism with Dawson and Nancy Fraser. We can clearly examine and discuss the problem of race and racism in the U.S. much more insightfully than my Polish colleagues could study Poland and its problems in the Polish People’s Republic. Yet, I also note that even so, art and commentaries on art’s significance reveals the concealed, and that creative form very much matters.
Williams’s review shows how Lee is answering D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” considering Lee’s success in showing the embeddedness of racism and white supremacy in American life and in the stories Americans tell about themselves to themselves. Williams ponders how Lee manages to do this beyond clichés, in the developing body of his work, as it responds to the the unfolding challenges of race in America, using a unique film vocabulary. Williams demonstrates Lee’s achievements, analyzing the brilliance of the art by considering its broad historical contexts, responding both to Woodrow Wilson’s racist response to Griffith racist film and juxtaposing the film fiction with video recordings of the massacre in Charlottesville. He also looks very closely at Lee’s cinematic focus, identifying and identifying with the details of the body language of black resistance to racism, which includes a beautiful reflection on Lee’s focus of the power of intimacy, which reminds me of Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things.
Balthaser’s review is of a more challenging film, with a very radical message and apparently chaotic form, yet praised by mainstream critics in mainstream media outlets. Balthaser reflects on the significance of the form, understanding that it’s departure from realism is a key to the film’s artistic and political meaning:
“One of the problems we face on the left continues to be that we fight new situations with old strategies – we are slow to see the new realities in front of us. This is the work that science fiction, or speculative fiction, can do for us. Not to give a prescription for what is to change, but to prepare us politically and culturally for changes when they come.”
This observation reminds me very much of the presentation of my findings at my job talk at The New School more than forty years ago. It is also based on an understanding of art’s potential that led me to argue recently that to write poetry after Auschwitz is not barbaric .
With this in mind, I very much appreciated the conversation between Lewis Gordon and Gregory Doukas on the “The Black Panther,” and the conversation between Gordon and Derefe Kimarley Chevannes on “Get Out.” And, back to Poland, I enjoyed Anita Stepien look at Marta Frej’s feminist artwork, and in the U.S.A., Nicola Sayers critical reflections on the ironies of Alex Israel’s art on “sun, sincerity and simulacra in SPF-18″ was quite provocative.
I realize that my belief that illumination is a key to liberation has an old fashion enlightenment ring to it. Yet, I judge that it is in art and art criticism that the potential of this old fashion position can be realized, as its limitations are recognized and avoided, something pressingly needed at this mad moment.