STORY AND PHOTOS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER
“ …the ordinary becomes beautiful as a trace of the true. And the ordinary becomes a trace of the true if it is torn from its obviousness in order to become a hieroglyph, a mythological or phantasmagoric figure.”– Jaques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics – The Distribution of the Sensible
Ownership. It’s a difficult concept to define, given that it can be applied to relations between a person and an object like a painting or a piece of land, or relations to legal entities like a business, a domain or a copyright. Ownership is usually protected by law, although the details of this protection vary according to cultures, economic systems, and other customs. In each case, the details specify who has which rights to what they own, and also who is allowed the use or enjoyment of others’ possessions only with the owners’ consent.
There are often ethical questions around ownership that we have trouble resolving, despite all the laws. Should we appoint scientific ownership to cells taken from an individual without consent? (Think Henrietta Lacks.) The privilege in that case was assigned to the scientific community and the pharmacology industry (which, of course, benefitted heavily from this ownership).
Should we grant ownership of discovered skeletal remains to the anthropology community or to Indigenous tribes demanding that the remains be returned under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act ? In the case of Kennewick Man, it took a nine-year legal battle, advances in DNA testing, and a 2016 legislative change that finally allowed the ancient bones to come home to a coalition of Columbia Basin tribes for reburial according to their traditions.
Who is the owner of objects that were illegally obtained? Jewish families whose art was stolen or expropriated under the reign of National Socialism have been granted restitution by the courts. African American plaintiffs, in a case arguing that daguerreotypes of their enslaved ancestors belong to them and not Harvard University, have been denied by the courts. The argument that the photographs were taken under conditions of slavery and with the explicit intent to demonstrate the “truth” of White superiority by depicting the slaves in full frontal nudity, and thus constitute crimes against humanity, held no sway with the judges.
There is a different kind of ownership, no less beset by ethical concerns. This kind lies in the role of the gate keeper who owns the power to control access to a given domain, and, equally important, the power to frame the criteria that define the domain and the rules of participation.
The ethics of gate keeping – in the realm of art as well as politics – are addressed by Linfield University’s new exhibition:
- Theodore A. Harris: Art as Social Praxis – Dedicated to Art Historian David Craven
- October 11- November 20, 2021
- Opening Reception/Artist Talk: 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct 14
- Linfield Gallery, Linfield University, McMinnville, OR
Harris, collage artist, writer, and founding director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Black Aesthetics, is based in Philadelphia. He is a warm, approachable man, whose thoughtful explanations are often punctuated by bursts of enthusiasm, quite infectious. As a writer, Harris is co-author of books with Amiri Baraka: Our Flesh of Flames (Anvil Arts Press) and Malcolm X as Ideology (LeBow Books); with Fred Moten: i ran from it and was still in it (Cusp Books); as well as TRIPTYCH: Text by Amiri Baraka and Jack Hirschman (Caza de Poesía). His visual art can be found in public and private collections, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Center for Africana Studies, the W.E.B. DuBois College House, and Penn Libraries, University of Pennsylvania; Saint Louis University Museum of Art; and Lincoln University. Since 1985 he has taught at the renowned Anti-Graffiti Network/Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, which he co-founded.
The artist has created work that is historically pertinent and initiates political thought – two benchmarks that are essential for art to be significant, in the eyes of eminent art historian David Craven (1951 – 2012), to whom the exhibition is dedicated, and whose analytic insights have clearly informed the art before us. (A helpful introduction to Craven’s life and work by Brian Winkenweder, professor of Art History and chair of the art department at Linfield, who organized the exhibition and invited the artist, can be found here.) Winkenweder has a track record of placing his students in first-rate MFA programs, not least by using exposure to the various complex exhibits in the beautiful Linfield Gallery as a “learning laboratory.” The university fully supports his endeavors, not something you hear often across art departments in this country, testimony to an institution that, in this case, at least, understands the value of an art education and the critical thinking that it instills.
Harris’s work on display is, as it turns out, prescient in some ways, eerily transposable from one era to another.
Take the collage murals now affixed to the walls opposite the Linfield Gallery. One depicts a young, masked boy – looking at us perhaps cautiously, perhaps accusingly – next to an inverted image of the Capitol building. Created in 1995, the context then was the Rwandan Genocide, the boy witness to the massacres against displaced persons, masked to combat the stench from the scores of killed Tutsis, the ethnic minority that fled Hutu persecution. The United States did nothing to intervene in the systematic slaughter of hundreds of thousand of people, missing an opportunity to mitigate a crime at best, actively pursuing its own geopolitical interests at worst.
When looking at this collage in 2021, the mask can come to denote another kind of symbolism – the fate of a world exposed to a pandemic and “responses” that again range from missed opportunities or misplaced optimism at best, to the pursuit of political and economic goals while sacrificing lives at worst. The inverted capitol building brings to mind the attacks of January 6, an attempt to turn the democratic process upside down and put structural agreements enshrined in the constitution on their head.
The second mural invites the viewer to a mix of visual depictions of armed conflict and text, including a written justification of the Iraq invasion by Condoleeza Rice. The triptych from 2008 is titled “Don’t Shoot the Caregivers.” At the time it invoked the controversy over the true reason for the war, whether the U.S. had to protect the world from weapons of mass destruction or whether an insatiable appetite for fossil resources motivated the invasion. Independent of reason, the fact remained that the victims of war were those indigenous to the land – its caretakers. Fast forward to 2021, when native populations spearhead the protest against resource extraction and dangerous transport through tribal lands on our own continent. The fight against the construction of various pipelines exposes the caretakers to violence, at times deadly, now on our own soil. Alternatively, 2021 also provides scenarios where the polarization around the vaccination debate has led to violent attacks on caregivers who are trying to heal and protect those afflicted with Covid-19.
The concern about ownership is forced on us by those who ask:
Is it art? “Oh no,” would the gate keepers of yore respond while clutching, if not pearls, then their tie pins. Belonging to a guild of self-referencing art critics and art historians, learned, territorial critics like Clement Greenberg or Hilton Kramer seek to legislate who counts as an artist and also to frame what constitutes art, in particular establishing formal rules and focusing on the purity of medium and style (no language allowed!).
Is it art? “The essential kind given its content,” would perhaps be Craven’s answer, “the notion of aesthetic quality has to be expanded!”
This contrast of opinions between progressive art historians and those considered establishment is brilliantly skewered in Harris’s body of work Thesentür: Conscientious Objector to Formalism, with many examples displayed as large prints in the current exhibition.
Riffing on Martin Luther’s then-revolutionary theses pinned to the church door in Wittenberg, the title points us to the urgency of reform, of change, needed when it comes to whose voice is allowed at the table. The various exhibits contain snippets of quotations of and references to the luminaries in the art world, some more accessible to the uninitiated than others. They are anchored by a repeated image of a group of men familiar from Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting “The Syndics” (1666). These were the men from Amsterdam’s Drapers Guild, appointed to exercise quality control of dyed cloth, assigning prices and marketability during a time of intensifying import/export business and slave trade with the expansion of the East Indian Trade Company, a de facto colonial ruler since 1602. The excerpted image was found by Harris on a Dutch Masters Cigar box. Gate keepers in their own right.
Voice. The question of who is allowed to speak has been debated since Aristoteles. The decision of who has a voice reflects power hierarchies, then and now, with the Greek philosopher among the first to marginalize certain populations whom he deemed not to have logos, the power of speech needed to participate in the political arena. Whether we look at medieval guilds claiming their territories, to the contemporary exclusionary mechanisms reserving access to education to certain classes, or to which nations are allowed to join global alliances, a seat at the table was something that was never guaranteed. The most glaring example in our own country is the institution of slavery, followed (as an obviously related issue) by the question of who has the right and the access to vote. In these and other domains, marginalized populations, including, of course, people of color and women, have had to fight to make their voices heard.
Which voices are admitted will also influence the framing of issues, and this can have major consequences. Is affirmative action a necessity that compensates for past injustice or is it yet another entitlement in a society that (some claim) has reached (or, in the view of the Supreme Court, needs to reach) a state of color blindness? Are vaccine mandates depriving us of guaranteed freedoms, or are they protective measures needed to ensure freedom? Is housing a human right, or is it to be treated as a financial asset only? These are not just theoretical questions. Consider, for example, that different framing of crime leads to different political outcomes. If you ask people how to combat crime that “invades the city like a virus,” they are twice as likely to vote in favor of social reform (rather than adding police forces), compared to people who are asked how to combat “crime that preys like a beast on the city.” (Ref.)
Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) once said that art is no longer able to perform a vital function in our culture. I strongly disagree. Art like Harris’s work lends its power to social movements that add new and different voices to the chorus, voices that help address social inequality. Those previously unheard not only want to have a voice, but they want to use that voice to challenge the framing that favors existing power relations, and encourage transformation instead. No longer content to be silenced, this art provides a template for those gathering the courage to speak up.
The exhibition lifts up excluded voices. It is beautifully curated by Thea Gahr, who has been teaching art at Linfield for almost a decade and is a notable print maker in her own right.
Importantly, it provides a welcome signal at a fitting time and place. Tenured Linfield professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who had spoken out against university leaders about allegations of sexual misconduct as well as antisemitism and the mishandling of racist graffiti on campus, was abruptly terminated not half a year ago. The move created outrage in the national and international community of educators and scholars, aghast over the silencing of a Jewish voice, and those of the students he encouraged to come forward, by a Baptist-affiliated organization. A since-filed lawsuit by Pollack-Pelzner interprets the firing as retaliation against a whistleblower – a discriminatory business practice with no due process. (Subsequent events seem to vindicate the whistleblower: One of the people accused has now resigned from the Board and has since been indicted on multiple counts of sexual abuse. Another Trustee and long-term donor to the university immediately resigned from the Board in protest of the firing; another Board member stepped down several weeks ago.) Whose voices are heard?
“The ordinary becomes beautiful as a trace of the true. And the ordinary becomes a trace of the true if it is torn from its obviousness in order to become a hieroglyph, a mythological or phantasmagoric figure.” Harris’s work reminded me of Rancière’s insight, since it develops familiar images and quotations into a truth that can only be discerned by ripping them out of their context. By turning things upside down, the artist encourages us to look and listen in different, new ways, appropriate to moments of crisis. It is enormously empowering in its suggestion that the gate keepers can’t keep out all of us. The potential for transformation is there; repair is an option, if we use our voice.
Plan a field trip to McMinnville. Talk to the artist, who is in residence until Thursday, Oct. 14, and the folks who make it all happen. Much to contemplate.
Theodore A. Harris: Art as Social Praxis – Dedicated to Art Historian David Craven
- October 11- November 20, 2021
- Opening Reception/Artist Talk: 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct 14
- Linfield Gallery
- Linfield University, McMinnville