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Art Jones

Knowledge Reigns Supreme . . .
(1991) by Art Jones

I'm trying to write about my take on the relationship between social activism and video-making, and I realize that what's most important is looking at the context in which any possible mono- or dialogue can occur. I may not have again the opportunity to be heard/read by fellow workers in the art industry, so I am anxious to make the most of it. In speaking to artists of color, I've found that there often exists a sense of limited opportunities for "speech." "Speech" enables artists of color to comprehend their individual beliefs about cultural practice and social/moral commitments in a way that is very different from that of other artists, who may be more confident that their speech is an art-world given right and not simply a privilege that can be withheld.

In keeping with the western dualistic model of ordering reality, the art world finds it helpful to divide video (and every other "type") artists into two distinct categories: political artists – whose work involves themes which more or less address the general subject of power, usually in a manner that makes visible the power relations which mainstream art culture takes for granted or obscures; and artists, who of course need no definition. Political or Artist, you can be sure power determines what work and who's work will be shown, where in what show, at what time, on what channel.

If I accept my put-upon political-artist American-African status, my acquiescence only validates the historically contemporary art industry practice of aesthetic disqualification: "Well, it's very raw, sort of faux-naive, rough edges but with an art-school pedigree. Let's put it in our 'Silenced Voices from the Outside Margins' show." In mind/body split terms, my end definitely aint up. Accepting the definition of this particular otherness fuels the market, providing a fix for the conventions of the white avant-garde (R.I.P.) . Viva multiculturalism!

A scenario: the conveyors of art world/industry-sanctioned speech open the door just enough to let a few of us art-school educated exotics squeeze through. Between sampling the latest Thai or Ethiopian cuisine, they study and theorize about the new style of "opposition" and "identity" (your existence as a person of color equals your oppositional stance). When they figure they understand the work (no easy feat, since your work isn't universal), they're much relieved to realize that you (we) all aren't some monolithic movement pushing a (gasp!) social agenda disguised as Art. Now they're free to enjoy the spectacle of one "other" person competing with every "other" person for the (diverse) scraps of success that comes with being the videother of the moment. Welcome to the Terrordome.

I'm too through with talking about otherness while sameness is assumed. What are the politics, identities and representations of whiteness?

Multiculturalism is the latest spin on the same old history if it ignores the realities of video/art/activist classism and racism. The only thing to talk about at this point is who will give up some of the power to say yes or no, who will gain that power, and who would be listening (watching) if speech was more than a privilege.

August, 1991.




Response to Rea Tajiri's article:

Rea speaks eloquently about the vital need to contextualize ourselves as mediamakers of color, individually as well as collectively. The precarious position we may find ourselves in by engaging in "public" dialogue can help to produce and make necessary the "ongoing paranoia" that seems to characterize so much of the dealings of artists (and other folks) of color with art world institutions. The reality of being a dash of color in a multicultural stew based on traditional recipes for exclusion/ghettoization/exoticization/"appropriation" can be turned to a progressive advantage if it helps to open spaces that are closed to most, but ways to achieve substantive self-determination within the art industry must be thought about. Am I wrong, or are we saying that we should keep pushing even as we create new ways of working and thinking about work that validates our experiences?

For myself, I feel that so much of the pushing is part of the day-to-day struggle against marginality, while the latter represents the only hope for non-paternalistic relations between those who own or claim the space for speech (and many other things) and those spaces. Traditional resources are shrinking, and loss of privilege and a frustrated sense of entitlement definitely has many videomakers and other artists going for the scapegoat/backlash option, like many other Americans these days, with "multicultural" artists cast as the art-world's stigmatized quota cases. Now, who will surrender the privilege of not engaging in dialogue to discuss these "white" issues? Can we talk?