This work is entirely exploratory. I have not yet decided to continue on with painting or not for the coming year, but I try to finish things I start. The series will consist of two similar sized canvases to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915, 1927), a few odd sized, and several 11×11 inch square paintings. Although my supervisor mentioned the slippage that occurs between dichotomies, I had noted in my book several weeks ago that it would be worth looking at how the black and white paint might migrate into each other. It will be especially interesting with a mixed black.
While painting today I made several notes. Black and white pigments can both be squeezed directly from the tube. I am using a mixed black consisting of Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna. However, it is impossible to create a mixed white. White must always come from the tube.
Diving into The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills is a bit harrowing at first. Especially for a white person like me. (By white I mean that if someone were to categorize me by race, they would surely say that I am white.) Beginning with the first line of text Mills introduces the term “White supremacy,” followed by “is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today” (1). Further on he writes, “The general purpose of the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the nonwhites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them” (11). No mincing of words or glossing over in this book. I push on however, because I contend that nothing is gained by disengaging.
As with several other writings on the topic of whiteness, Mills notes that the subject of white supremacy is avoided by whites for the reason that whites “take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination” (1). He argues that white supremacy is “itself a political system, a particular power structure of formal or informal rule, socioeconomic privilege, and norms for differential distribution of material wealth and opportunities, benefits and burdens, rights and duties” (3). The notion that whiteness remains unmarked, unnamed, avoided is also echoed by Richard Dyer in White (1997), Ruth Frankenberg in White Women, Race Matters (1993), and Annalee Newitz in White Savagery and Humiliation (1997). Mills calls it “structured blindnesses and opacity” (19). He points out that whites generally look to rewrite history in order to deny white domination accusations (27, 30). It is interesting in light of the recent news that Mark Twain’s book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will be republished so that all instances of the “n-word” will be replaced with the word “slave” (“Huck Finn”). While there are many discussions over the merits and faults of censorship (protecting children, being non-offensive, dictatorial, etc), removing the “n-word” also rewrites history, effectively removing a salient entry into dialogue. In addition it allows whites to trade truth for myth.
Mills provides an Overview of the remaining chapters of the book which detail the various parts of the Racial Contract, which he explicitly states is an “exploitation contract” (9). He first establishes the basic ideas of the Social Contract, the Moral Contract and the Political Contract. What is important to Mills is that these other contracts are altered to meet the requirements of the Racial Contract. For example, Mills states “The terms of the Racial Contract set the parameters for white morality as a whole, so that competing Lockean and Kantian contractarian theories of natural rights and duties…are limited by its stipulations” (17). In other words, the natural freedom that all people should possess, as described by Locke and Kant, is restricted/twisted in the Racial Contract to whites only.
Global white supremacy did not occur overnight, but as Mills accounts, it is shaped over 500 years through “papal bulls…theological pronouncements, European discussion about colonialism, ‘discovery,’ …pacts, treaties, legal decisions, [scientific] debates about the humanity of nonwhites,…the establishment of formalized legal structures of differential treatment…” (20, 21).
Mills contends that the world as we know it today is a “racially hierarchical polity” that is dominated by European (or white) language, policies, and capital (27, 36). Although he writes this in 1997, it seems that in some ways this may be changing and in other ways white supremacy remains entrenched. For example, China’s GDP has moved into second place behind the US, and is about to become the largest English (a European language) speaking nation on the planet (Francis, Pierson). How China’s economic growth (along with growth in India) can/will change white supremacy remains to be seen. If China’s growth can change white supremacy, one wonders if their new dominance will also be hierarchical/based on dualities in the same sense that whiteness is.
He concludes his Overview with the following paragraph:
Both globally and within particular nations…white people…continue to benefit from the Racial Contract, which creates a world in their cultural image, political states differentially favoring their interests…taking the status quo of differential racial entitlement as normatively legitimate, and not to be investigated further (40).
I must fail to live up to my end of the Racial Contract.
Francis, Diane. “China Largest English Speaking Nation Now – Diane Francis.” National Post.com. 18 Jan. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Frankenberg, Ruth. “White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness.” 1993. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 425-31. Print.
“Huck Finn Expurgated And Other Censored Books.” Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. 6 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1997. Print.
Newitz, Annalee. “White Savagery and Humiliation, or a New Racial Consciousness in the Media.” White Trash: Race and Class in America. New York, NY: Psychology Press, 1997. 131-154. Print.
Pierson, David. “China’s Economic Growth Quickens in Fourth Quarter – Los Angeles Times.” Featured Articles From The Los Angeles Times. 20 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2011.
Exploring the idea of sampling a Vogue magazine further.
Each hole-punch is taken from each and every large enough body or face featured in the February 2011 issue. Some faces are too small to fill the hole punch area (5mm). Some possible titles are Skin Tags or Love in the Trenches.
Diving into Orlan: Carnal Art (2004) by Caroline Cros is enlightening. I have a new respect for Orlan’s work. Work that previously I found difficult and disturbing. Following are some highlights from the book.
Orlan’s work titled Origine de la guerre (1989), which translated reads “Origin of War,” directly critiques Courbet’s Origin of the World (1886). It is a cibachrome of a portion of a man’s torso with an erect penis. What a delight (yes, a delight) to see how she handled this reactionary gesture. Not to belabour the point, but it is the humour and wit that is wonderful.
Surprising also, is her work surrounding concepts of the Baroque. “…her interest in the Baroque aesthetic was not motivated by provocation. Rather, the Baroque offered a context for exploring how art uses imitation and artifice to solicit the senses, and provided a means for testing art’s capacity to suggest what lies beneath the surface of things” (85-86). This is tied to the claim that Orlan’s work is “organized according to a dialectical principle…[t]he division between these terms is not conceived of as an opposition, but as a “fold,” as theorized by Gilles Deleuze…the fold that unfolds infinitely (in matter and in the soul) is proper to the Baroque. Knowledge resides in the fold, which is multiplicity in unity, difference within itself, in its unfolding and refolding, the fold engenders form, space, and time” (90-91).
The notion of knowledge lying within the folds is also tied to her surgery works. Régis Durand in Texts for Orlan draws a comparison between Lyotards Économie libidinales (1974) and Orlans surgery. “Here we have a patient unfolding of the ‘vast membrane of the libidinal body’ like an endless moebius strip,” an “opening out” (208). The unfolding of Orlan’s body during her surgery performances reveals a knowledge in the space of the fold, which is then refolded so to speak. Her action becomes Baroque in style.
She says, “If I am verbally described as a woman with two big lumps on her forehead I’ll probably be taken for an unscrewable freak; but if people actually see me, it’s possible they’ll look at me differently, or at any rate they’ll realize that the lumps are [a]esthetic possibilities – assuming of course, that people manage to free themselves from the models conditioning their judgement” (199). Orlan questions notions of beauty, which in turn challenges identity.
Of interest to my current project is her “Self-hybridation” works. In this series of cibachromes she digitally collages imagery of herself and imagery from Pre-Columbian and African civilizations. Orlan, a French woman, has spoken from a position of “white” privilege. It would be interesting to hear (or read) what those of a non-European background/heritage have to say about this work in particular. Does it constitute an inappropriate form of appropriation? Is there such a thing as inappropriate appropriation?
I don’t recall the name of the work, but the show is called Under the Sun. It is on now at the CAG until March 27. I carved out a couple of hours from a busy weekend full of family obligations to stop for a visit. The “bike” does not go anywhere; the “windmill” (it might better be called a pedal-mill since it is not moved by wind, but pedal power) does not store energy.
Arden’s collage work was the main focus of my visit, since I am working on some ideas related to collage.
Understanding the concept of visual culture is an ongoing pursuit. To that end I read An Interview With W.J.T. Mitchell by Margaret Dikovitskaya in her book Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual After the Cultural Turn (2006).
What stood out for me is that there is no scientific theory of visual culture, not in the same way that there is for language for example. Language is “based on a system (syntax, grammar, phonology) that can be scientifically described; pictures and visual experience may not have a grammar in this sense” (239). Visual culture which includes not just only “art,” but also includes a broad spectrum of media, lacks a scientifically measurable syntax or set of rules. Mitchell suggests that visual culture includes memory, imagination and fantasy too (248). Mitchell sees the process of formalizing a set of rules for visual culture as placing it within a “straight-jacket” (239). Yet he also states that science begins with wonder (242). Science like art begins with a question.
Mitchell explains the difference between society and culture. Society is about the relationships between people, where culture is what makes those relationships possible (245). Visual culture then is “the seeing of other people, and the experience of being seen” (245). What clothes a person wears, how they speak, what they eat, etc. all fit into culture which makes it possible for a person in one specific culture able to interact with others of the same culture in a way that is fruitful. Misunderstandings are kept to a relative minimum.
Other writings mentioned by Mitchell in the interview offer other connections.
Oliver Sack’s To See or Not to See
Lacan’s The Eye and the Gaze
Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method
(Mitchell says “I prefer an anarchist epistemology, in which the interesting thing is what is in the question” (249).)
October Magazine’s Questionnaire on Visual Culture
Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste
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Dikovitskaya, Margaret. “An Interview With W.J.T. Mitchell.” Visual Culture: The Study of the Visual After the Cultural Turn. Cambridge: MIT, 2006. 238-57. Print.