- Nicole Davis
Activism Looks a Lot Like Self Indulgence
Updated: Jan 12, 2020
Activism Looks a Lot Like Self-Indulgence
I'm an artist and I have a confession... Recently I went to a small arts and makers collective in Las Vegas, New Mexico and heard a lecture from a member of a Los Angeles based arts organization whose focus is on time based, interactive projects with the goal of allowing people look at culture from a different perspective. I purposefully left out the name of the organization because this confession has little to do with them. What I really want to talk about is a general trend I see in contemporary art and cultural organizations around the country, but especially in cities that consider themselves hubs for progressive community engagement. I've worked for a cultural and arts based organizations my entire career so I spend a lot of time attending lectures of this sort. I absolutely love my work and I'm able to meet and interact with people from a wide range of backgrounds and a variety of perspectives. I also have the opportunity to work with youth in my community and introduce them to the power and importance of creativity in all its forms. A lot of my work is what I consider, "boots on the ground." I spend a lot of time interacting with the wider, non-arts community, and working with young people experiencing homelessness, incarceration, displacement, as well as undocumented immigrant families, and students and teachers inside some of this country's lowest performing schools. While my job is endlessly rewarding, I'm often faced with situations within the art world that make me question the effectiveness of the industry in terms of tangible cultural and societal change. I often meet people working in the non-profit arts arena who are great artists and cultural creators with lofty ideals and bleeding hearts. I also meet a lot of people who are incredibly successful, interested in art, but woefully misinformed about the role and purpose of creativity in the 21st century. In these circles I hear the word, 'conversation' a lot. Phrases like, "let's have a conversation," or "this project is meant to spark a conversation," and "the only way to bridge the wealth, race, gender or class gap is to sit down and have a conversation." I get so tired of that word, conversation. On the surface, talking to people is the best way to understand their perspectives. It's obviously a great place to start. But when does a conversation lead to action? When does a dialogue sparked from an arts perspective lead to actual change? From my view point, I would say rarely, if ever. When it does spearhead any sense of change, it is fleeting at best. For many people, simply having the conversation allows them to feel as if they've contributed. They've made their voice heard and that's what is ultimately important. But their voice often exists in an echo chamber, in spaces where they're surrounded by like-minded people, where they only ever hear their own ideas parroted back to them. There is no real challenge, or space for criticism, or growth. In these spaces, there is no real demand for action. There are just groups of like-minded people creating self-indulgent artistic conversations, patting themselves on the back, while trying to pass it off as activism or worse, cultural change. I meet people who will endlessly complain about the dismal state of education, the economy, energy regulation, politics, and on and on. My community alone has a massive collection of community based arts organizations dealing with these issues, far more than a city of 80,000 ought to have. Many of the organizations in my area do great work, and I don't want to detract from them. But some arts based organizations, with massive budgets, engage in work that is essentially ineffective and irrelevant when attempting to deal with real world problems and the cultural shifts facing our community. People are so focused on their utopia and sexy ideals - they aim to please their boards, which consist of white, older, wealthy donors - so much so that they see the world through a narrow lens and ignore, if not perpetuate, the flaws of the status-quo. And my community isn't even the worst. In fact, I think most organizations in this city do the best they can and I respect that. The Los Angeles based arts collective and its lecturer (we'll call him Joe) who showcased work in the Las Vegas presentation is a prime example of an organization that claims their creative practice aims to begin a conversation, yet the work they do is inaccessible to those who would have the most to offer (and gain) in such a setting. The lack of accessibility allows this organization to preach their deeply flawed mission with impunity. The collective did a project called Breaking into Cars for Kids, in which they brought together children and parents to teach them how to break into locked cars as an exercise in parent/child interaction. This gave the presentation's audience quite a fit of the giggles, "Oh, how cute!" This was sold to us as a workshop really focused on the workings and mechanisms inside of vehicles. The end goal of the workshop was for children and parents to gain the knowledge of what it takes to break into a car that isn't yours, which is something I find problematic.
The project is described as follows:
"For most kids (and adults), modern cars are simply these gleaming, aggressive-faced jellybeans that house air-conditioning units and MP3 players while they idle in traffic. But underneath their shiny surface lurks all manner of exciting machinery that needs some demystification. That’s where we come in. In this class, we'll focus on a few key aspects of cars, and our interactions with them, while learning a bit about the physics and mechanics behind how it all works. This is a hands-on workshop, with an actual car to break in and out of. Taught by car historian and inventor Jason Torchinsky, who has already successfully guided at least six children in Los Angeles towards a future in grand theft auto."
My inner dialogue while hearing about this:
"What the fuck? Breaking into cars is a crime. You better pray to the Goddess above that one of the kids involved in your workshop isn't killed trying to take his neighbors Mustang for a joy ride. This is so ridiculously irresponsible!" For me, this project is what happens when arts collectives aren't racially and culturally diverse. More than anything, this was an exercise in privilege with an absolute blind eye to the wider, gaping, implications. Not only were the families involved in the workshop racially white and nationally American, they were also absolutely above suspicion due not only to the color of their skin, but the safety net cast by this trendy LA based arts organization. This project operated unopposed, unchallenged and was marketed and facilitated by a liberal, arts based, community organization and yet there was no one involved in this workshop who said, "Hey - what are we doing here? What message are we sending?"
(Clip Above - An example of what actually happens when someone is thought to be breaking into a car).
What would this workshop have looked like if it was Black or Latino families? What about Muslim families or immigrant families? Wouldn't that have forced a more constructive conversation, the type of conversation this organization claims to spark? Even if this project was only designed for the least suspicious among us, only those of us who could get away with such a crime without being arrested or worse, why claim it is being used to broaden perspectives? We all know that white people, especially blonde haired housewives and their angelic children are far above reproach.
My sneaking suspicion is that they wanted to be controversial (breaking into cars is so titillating). They wanted something that looked subversive when printed on a flyer, just enough to get a Hipster dad to pause at the coffee shop community posting board. But, did they didn't want to actually dive into the diverse cultural implications an action like breaking into cars could have for anyone who isn't white, privileged, or protected by the organization in a controlled environment? No. Of course not! Why? Because the latter approach would have forced them to engage with people of color in an actual dialog about racism, perceived criminality, police violence, and inequities in the justice system.
As I've come into my own as an adult woman, I have shed a lot of the shyness I once had and have become increasingly more comfortable in immediately calling out problematic words and behaviors, especially in the context of advocating for and standing up for the people in my community, especially youth. So, after the lecture I felt an overwhelming need say something because I knew if I didn't say something about what we'd all just heard, no one would. So I plucked up all my courage, and spoke directly to Joe.
Me: "You say that your work is meant to broaden perspectives and introduce people to different cultures. But which people and whose culture? For example, with the project about breaking into cars, if this was my brother, a black man, learning to break into a vehicle, wouldn't he be at risk? He could be arrested or killed. Wouldn't this have meant something different if it was kids who look like me learning to break into cars?" I think it's a fair question, but when I presented it to Joe, he was unable to answer in meaningful fashion. In fact, Joe seemed taken aback by my comments but acknowledged that I was asking an important question. His body language alone was enough to indicate that he was not used to being challenged in this way, that was clear. As a professor at a highly respected California university, who was I as a 20-something year old black woman, to suggest that his work was irresponsible, morally ambiguous, and culturally blind?
How dare I?
To be fair, the idea of the project didn't bother me on the surface. In fact, I think the idea of teaching workshops about the mechanisms involved in vehicle maintenance and offering opportunities for parents to engage with their children, are both interesting and worthy endeavors.
However, what the project ignored is so obvious it must be stated. Teaching an unlawful skill to white kids is seen as cheeky, cute and harmless without any subtext or introspection. It was simply a way for parents to bond with their children and have a bit of fun on a Saturday afternoon. But if the same project was facilitated using families from the North Side of Minneapolis, or the South Side Chicago, or The International District in Albuquerque, or inner-city Detroit, this project would not have come across as quaint and adorable as it was presented. It might have had the potential to provoke a deeper conversation about crime, race, privilege, and inequality within the justice system, which would have positioned the collective on the side of something far more interesting and impactful. But, that's not what they did.
The Breaking Into Cars Project might seem like one mild indiscretion or half-baked idea from an otherwise cutting edge and trendy arts collective. But unfortunately, that isn't the case. The collective did another project in which they brought together different art forms for a day of artistic immersion. It sounds great on the surface, right?
The mediums included knitting, cooking, and dressing in drag. "Oh how fun!" But did this project even attempt to discuss any of the systemic problems present in drag culture and by extension the inequality and violent hostility directed towards the transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming community? Nope, not by a long shot. Here again, we have a project that is marketed as a platform to create cultural conversations, but doesn't bother itself with deep questions. They didn't, at any point, take a moment to discuss or even acknowledge the unique issues present in LGBTQIA+ communities.
Drag culture is not an art form like knitting. Knitting doesn't risk putting a target on a person's back. Yes, drag is first and foremost, a form of creative expression and performance. But for those who participate in drag culture have historically been faced with instances of social and familial rejection, isolation, shame, fear, and violence. I believe in "gay spaces," the idea that gay, trans, and gender non-conforming people are allowed to have their own spaces, (dance clubs, drag shows, Pride events, etc.) and their own forms of cultural expression and identity. For many LGBTQ+ people, going to the gay club, dressing in drag, and otherwise being involved in the community is not a game or something silly to be appropriated by cis-hetero-hipsters in feather boas and hot pink heels. That's not appreciation or cultural inclusion, it's a caricature of a community that already deals with gross misrepresentation.
For the collective to not even approach the subject of inequality, violence and discrimination throughout such a project, when they write their grants on the premise that they actively engage in cultural dialogues meant to spark change, seems unfair. Especially when there are committed arts organizations boldly confronting real issues while competing for (and losing) the same financial support. I honestly believe that art has the power to change lives. It changed mine. It opened up a world of possibilities that I never knew existed at a time when I was at my most vulnerable. I believe that creativity, in all its forms, can change the world and I have seen it in action. I also believe that artists have the ability to define their work in any number of ways and their practice is by no means required to have a 'message.' Art is certainly allowed to be fun and self-indulgent, a lot of the work I love is the embodiment of this type of approach. But you don't get to say you are involved in social change and cultural bridge-building when in reality all you're doing is getting your problematic white friends together to play cops and robbers, and play dress up. You can't be both self-indulgent, self-promoting while existing in a world where no one ever tells you you're wrong then, in the same breath say you're an activist, advocate and warrior. It doesn't work and if anything, it makes it harder for everyone else involved in real arts based cultural activism to be taken seriously. So how do arts organizations, artists, and creative practitioners interested in cultivating lasting change get the platform and funding they need to do real work? How do we take to task organizations which do the opposite of what they preach, especially if they are well funded and propped up by archaic views of cultural innovation? How do we weed out self-indulgence in the social practice art world to make room for those with the vision and the empathetic capacity to positively impact their community, whether local, national or international? How do we make this work actually matter?