Thesis Overview

Abstract

My thesis considers how the ideology of Whiteness is reflected in visual art. I examine how my visual practice flows out from my grappling with the contentious ideology of Whiteness. By considering how I may navigate such a discussion, I take two approaches.
It is necessary to step back, as much as is possible, to provide critical distance. At the same time I consider my own subjectivity and lived experience as a source of knowledge. These two approaches reinforce the ideas I have chosen to highlight in this paper: interpellation, and embodiment.

Additionally, both a clinical approach and lived experience are reflective of two streams of work I have produced throughout the MAA research period. I discuss four projects: dollhouse, Skin Tags, The Cleaning Girl and the Boarder, and Scope. I ground the discussion of these projects with an examination of the ideas of interpellation as discussed by philosophers Louis Althusser and Slavoj Žižek. To support an embodied position I explore the arguments of cultural theorist Sara Ahmed, as well as historians Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison. To provide context for these theories and my work, I also discuss, among others, selected projects by artists William Pope.L, Jenny Saville, Wangechi Mutu, and Izhar Patkin, as well as a collaborative project by Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy.

Several complications are also considered and in particular how the idea of normalcy is connected to the way Whiteness is constructed. These approaches on the ideas of subjectivity, embodied orientation, interpellation, and normalcy frame the discourse on the ideology of Whiteness in my thesis project.

Rationale

Several years ago I was given a copy of William Pope.L: The Friendliest Black Artist in America (2002) to look over. I found that thinking about his projects prodded me to consider my own White privilege. Pope.L’s work hailed me, so to speak, and prodded me to consider how I might change my orientation in relation to Whiteness. I am interested in how the idea of hailing (Althusser) into a specific ideology requires the individual to turn towards that ideology, and how in turn Whiteness specifically orients (Ahmed) White bodies away from the ideology of Whiteness.

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Note

For an excellent discussion on the usage of the terms “White,” “Whiteness,” and “non-White” (“Black,” “Blackness,” etc.) see Richard Dyer’s chapter The Politics of Looking at Whiteness (pgs 8-14), in his book White (1997).

As well, Lund and Carr explain their use of the capitalized usage of “White” and “Whiteness” in the article Exposing Privilege And Racism In The Great White North: Tackling Whiteness And Identity Issues In Canadian Education (pg 229), published in the journal Multicultural Perspectives 12.4 (2010): 229-234.

Method

As I contend with the discussed concepts of Whiteness my work flows out from my encounters with those ideas, especially the notion of normalcy. Not as illustrations, but as visual responses to them. It follows a general logic rather than a specific medium or set of supplies – taking what is at hand, re-contextualizing, using low-tech materials, employing a diverse set of skills – in response to a particular idea.

My MAA research work can be divided into two main types. Work that takes a more clinical approach, and work that incorporates some aspect of my lived experience. These two approaches are reflective of the ideas I have chosen to highlight in my thesis: Althusser and Zizek’s thoughts on interpellation, and Ahmed’s notion of embodiment.

My Mother Told Me, Detail of removal, 2011.
My Mother Told Me, Detail of removal, 2011.

Methodology

My methodology ties the idea of interpellation or hailing (Althusser) to the odd way in which an individual becomes a White subject by being hailed – turning 180 degrees towards the ideology – while at the same time being oriented (Ahmed) away from Whiteness. I aim to apply this idea to several art works asking how the work hails the viewer as either being oriented towards Whiteness or away from Whiteness? As a person who lives with White privilege how am I implicated? Part of my strategy will also examine these ideas through the notion of embodiment (Butler, Merleau-Ponty, Daston and Galison, Haraway).

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Notes

For an excellent discussion on the usage of the terms “White,” “Whiteness,” and “non-White” (“Black,” “Blackness,” etc.) see Richard Dyer’s chapter The Politics of Looking at Whiteness (pgs 8-14), in his book White (1997).

As well, Lund and Carr explain their use of the capitalized usage of “White” and “Whiteness” in the article Exposing Privilege And Racism In The Great White North: Tackling Whiteness And Identity Issues In Canadian Education (pg 229), published in the journal Multicultural Perspectives 12.4 (2010): 229-234.

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N is for Normal

White Girl’s Alphabet (N is for Normal) (2002) by Wendy Ewald
See Google Books: <http://books.google.ca/books?id=NsolmLbz8igC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false&gt;.

In 2002, Wendy Ewald produced the White Girl’s Alphabet in collaboration with private school teenage girls. White Girl’s Alphabet is one of several Alphabets she has produced. Her collaborative projects consist of helping subjects produce self-portraits that include having them write on the negatives before printing. White Girl’s is a part of four other alphabets which also include an African-American, a Spanish, and an Arabic alphabet. About White Girls’ Alphabet, Ewald explains that she is interested in “how young women, particularly white women such as myself, used language” (Ewald).

What Ewald’s work brings to my research is manifested for example in N for Normal. In “N for Normal” the girl demonstrates that Whiteness stands in for the idea of what normal is and by implication what it is not (Marien 500). In the rest of Ewald’s studies participants use words that reference race, while in White Girl’s Alphabet there are no explicit references to race. The young women, because they are White, are able to disregard terms related to race. The choice they have to ignore their privilege is a part of their privilege, which is a part of belonging to a group that defines itself as normal (Hyde 183, McIntosh 18, Gustafson 156, Lund and Carr 231).

Additionally, Ewald’s project also points to the idea that Whiteness never stands alone, but in this case is also coupled with feminine gender (Hyde 183). There are many variables that inform identity such as nation, religious community or lack of it, race, ethnicity, gender, class, and vocation. Irit Rogoff in Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (2000) explains that a pure national identity bounded by a specific border is only to be had through violence (113). Additionally, Trinh T. Minh-Ha in Questions of Images and Politics (2001) asserts that within difference there are similarities, which is why difference should not preclude separatism or violence (245). Taking this idea one step further, I suggest that within similarities (white people as a group for example) there are differences. Within each group, whatever that group is, there are no two identities that are the same.

In conclusion, I think it is important to note that many who have been involved in the critical discourse surrounding the topic of whiteness (see my Bibliography) have already covered this ground. However, for many of those who are seen as White and live with White Privilege as a matter of course, this is still new. White people still live most of their lives seeing themselves as the “norm,” the standard against which others are judged. Whites may also be aware of the notion of intersectionality, but fail to include their Whiteness since generally they ignore it.

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Works Cited & Consulted

Berger, Maurice, Wendy Ewald, David R. Roediger, and Patricia J. Williams. White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art. Baltimore, MD: Center for Art and Visual Culture, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 2004. Print.

C Way. “Art of the Day: Stills from Paul McCarthy & Mike Kelley’s “Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone” (1992).” Web log post. Snailcrow. 11 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.

Dyer, Richard. White. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Ewald, Wendy. American Alphabets. Zurich: Scalo, 2005. OpenDemocracy. Open Democracy, 13 Mar. 2006. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

Gustafson, Diana L. “White on Whiteness: Becoming Radicalized about Race.” Nursing Inquiry 14.2 (2007): 153-61. EBSCO. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

Heidi: Midlife Crisis Trauma Center and Negative Media-Engram Abreaction Release Zone (1992) by Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy

http://www.snailcrow.com/2011/12/11/art-of-the-day-stills-from-paul-mccarthy-mike-kelleys-heidi-midlife-crisis-trauma-center-and-negative-media-engram-abreaction-release-zone-1992/
Links to stills from film: http://arttorrents.blogspot.com/2008/03/paul-mccarthy-mike-kelley-heidi-1992.html

Hyde, Katherine. “Portraits and Collaborations: A Reflection on the Work of Wendy Ewald.” Visual Studies 20.2 (2005): 172-90. Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Harvard University. Web. 13 Jan. 2012.

Kim, Byron. “Audio, Byron Kim, Synecdoche, 1991-present.” Edited Interview. Audio post. MoMA Multimedia. MoMA, New York. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

Lund, Darren E., and Paul R. Carr. “Exposing Privilege and Racism in ‘The Great White North: Tackling Whiteness and Identity Issues in Canadian Education’.” Multicultural Perspectives 12.4 (2010): 229-34. EBSCO. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.

Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: a Cultural History. Upper Saddle River ( N.J): Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.

McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women, 1988. Print.

Minh-Ha, Trinh T. “Questions of Images and Politics” (1986). Art and Feminism. Eds., Helena

“Paul McCarthy & Mike Kelley – Heidi (1992).” Web log post. Art Torrents. 7 Mar. 2008. Web. 15 Jan. 2011.

Reckitt, and Peggy Phelan. New York, NY: Phaidon Press, 2001.

Rogoff, Irit. Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Playing in the Dark

Nov 16, 2010

In the essay Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison two things jump out at me. One is the dichotomy of white and black. The other is that this perspective is US-centric.

I have written previously (quoting myself):

Can we then say that both white and non-white are defined by the spaces where they meet? I have wrestled with this previously in a recent paper. “In works such as Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) […] the blackness of the square is understood in relation to its white ground. Discussion about Black Square is centered on the black square as the subject of the painting, while the white ground remains unnamed.” What I think is also important here is that the positioning of non-white in relation to white (foreground and ground dichotomy enters the discourse too) provides a way for the white to remain unnamed, not the subject of deconstruction or analysis.

Toni Morrison suggests throughout her essay that the white American(1) imagination is involved with comparisons of the cultured whiteness against the savage darkness.

As far as the essay being US-centric, Morrison explains that for the white American author in dealing with fears as well as trying to find a way to justify or answer questions of oppression that the “fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire […] is uniquely American” (82). She acknowledges that “European-Africanism” also exists, but here she is not dealing with that.

A final observation by Morrison is given in her discussion of William Dunbar from Voyagers to the West (1986) by Bernard Bailyn. She quotes Bailyn writing “…and feeling within himself a sense of authority and autonomy he had not known before, a force that flowed from his absolute control over the lives of others” (83). This implies his control over the lives of any women he may also have in his life. The American was “new, white, and male” (83).

The idea above stands as another example of whiteness being defined by the blackness around it. That whiteness is what blackness is not, as Morrison concludes, “he is backgrounded by savagery” (84).

From Life Picture Cook Book, 1958
From Life Picture Cook Book, 1958

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Footnote

1. For the purposes of this writing American means United States of America, since north and south of US borders is also America.

Cited

Morrison, Toni. “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.” 1992. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 425-31. Print.

Adrian Piper’s Passing

Nov 16, 2010

As a first thought, the racism Adrian Piper is talking about in Passing for White, Passing for Black is experienced in the United States. She is a US citizen, born and raised. While her perspective (and statistics) is American it is good to keep in mind that many of her experiences cross political boundaries. And yet it is difficult for me to understand in what ways racism is experienced outside of North America, since my experience of racism is contained there. What is the experience of racism like in China, Indonesia or Italy? How is whiteness lived or experienced in these locations? Is it just as privileged?

Piper’s statement that “any proportion of African ancestry is sufficient to identify a person as black” bothers me (427). What I mean is I understand that historically this was written into the law. I am also not so naïve to comprehend that in the minds of many this is still the case. (I only need to think about the websites devoted to promoting the “pure” white race.) What confuses me is the apparent contradiction. If a person has some white ancestors can they not also claim to be white? Again it is complicated by the notion that whiteness and blackness is initially about skin colour, not simply class or economics. A person may indeed have white ancestors, but if they “look” black they will not be identified and treated as white, but as black.

I appreciated Piper’s frankness too. At one point she relates that it is fairly easy to tell if a white person is racist by simply commenting how they look as though they might have black ancestry (428). The person’s face and first reaction will give them away. She admits that she will never do it again.

There are two things about the above notion that I think are important to mention. One is that I admit that I have done this myself. I mentioned this about a relatives family and it didn’t go over very well. The second point is that Piper explains that a person who is truly rejecting racism is not motivated by what they think they can do for black people, but if they can think of themselves as having black ancestors (428). It is the doing here that I think is important. In doing, a person who is white would still remain in a privileged position, still in the position of socially perceived and lived power. However, for a person to acknowledge that they may have black ancestors, to think about and dialogue about those possibilities is the ultimate test to Piper.

As a final thought, the way in which white and black are defined is a problem since these definitions uphold the notion of racial categories. It may be (I hate to invoke him) that this is the reason Tiger Woods explanation of his racial status as “Cablinasian,” a blending of his Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Thai heritage had garnered so much criticism (Kamiya).

In spite of the notion that our identities are fluid (Foucault et. al.) it seems difficult for people to consciously accept changes to an image they have of themselves. Even though daily, however imperceptibly, the reflection in the mirror changes (Noorderlicht).

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Works Cited

Kamiya, Gary. “Salon | Tiger Woods.” Salon.com – Salon.com. Web. 28 Oct. 2010. <http://www.salon.com/april97/tiger970430.html&gt;.

Noorderlicht. “YouTube – Bekijk De Noorderlicht-aflevering ‘Killing Time’.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. 7 Apr. 2008. Web. 27 Oct. 2010. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKsNraFxPwk&gt;.

Piper, Adrian. “Passing for White, Passing for Black.” 1997. Critical White Studies. Ed. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 425-31. Print.

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Edited: Dec 15, 2010.

More on White Trash

Introduction:

Exploring the idea of “white trash” further I found the article by Charles Castle titled “White Trash” Identities, Media, and Popular Culture: Redefining White Hegemony in Contemporary American Culture (published in Cultural Landscapes by Columbia College Chicago in 2007).

Invisibility

Castle introduces the reader, with several quotes from other authors, to the idea that “whiteness” is generally invisible. “It is always whiteness that is centered and assumed. Difference is understood in relation to it” (Rothenberg 2 qtd. in Castle 4). “To be white in America is not to have to think about it” (Terry 120 qtd. in Castle 4). [Whites] “stand as unmarked, normative bodies and selves” (Wray and Newitz 3 qtd. in Castle 4).

Castle’s position is similar to that of Wray and Newitz in their assertion that the way to contribute to the dismantling of whiteness (racialization) is to expose the dialogue, the institutionalization, the material, as well as the cultural practices that hide whiteness and essentially make it invisible. The goal is to “make whiteness visible to whites” (Wray and Newitz qtd. in Castle 5). Castle also uses a quote from Frankenberg (in discussing the identity of white trash): “The naming of whiteness displaces it from the unmarked, unnamed status that is itself an effect of its dominance” (29). It is here again that there is an acknowledgement that whiteness needs to be named. This whole process in turn seems to continue to entrench the idea that there are different races.

It becomes a kind of paradox. To talk about and expose the present construct of whiteness (what it means and what it is) in order to again make it invisible. Although in attempting to articulate what needs to happen here, I am tempted to suggest that this should not be the goal (and these authors may also be saying that). What seems necessary to me is to recognize difference (with a sense of the awesome diversity of this planet), but to not use that difference to oppress or dominate.

Pulling a few other relevant ideas from this article it becomes apparent that the whole notion of whiteness is very complex. For example Castle states:

Being white is not something I choose, and the related manifestations of privilege are not something that I consciously take and, therefore, do not have the option of not taking. Privilege is something that society bestows. Unless I speak and challenge the conventions which continue to give me privilege, I will continue to have it no matter how much I try to live my life outside it (6).

Another idea that deserves to be mined is the notion that the elite use etiquette to ostracize and create a lower social Other (white trash) in order to dominate and control (10-11). What comes to mind is the the use of the the term “lady”, as well as the definitions of “Mrs.” and “Miss.” For instance a portion of the definition (Oxford) of lady is “woman belonging to the upper class or fitted for it by manners, habits, and sentiments” (emphasis mine).

Castle also discusses the commodification of white trash where whiteness buys select portions of the white trash identity, which in turn constructs whiteness. It is not a question of being born into whiteness (although I think this still does happen too, which Castle acknowledges when he earlier says that he does not have the option of not taking the bestowed privilege), but being able to buy into it (14,15).

Castle concludes his article by asserting that the appropriation of a white trash identity in popular culture serves to continue to make whiteness invisible. He explains that positive white trash images (rather than stereotypical dirty imagery) serve to embed a positive construct of whiteness essentially acting as a distraction (by becoming a spectacle) to keep societies (white?) eyes away from the the notions of institutional whiteness.

The main question here as I understand it (and this has come to mind many times now) is how to discuss and dismantle the construct of whiteness (as lived and experienced), without continuing to uphold and affirm the same construct.

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Work Cited

Castle, Charles S. “’White Trash’ Identities, Media, and Popular Culture: Redefining White Hegemony in Contemporary American Culture.” Cultural Landscapes 1.1 2007 3-33. Columbia College Chicago. Web. 2009.