Black artists protesting Emmett Till painting are fatuous philistines

A painting of murdered black boy Emmett Till’s beaten body on show at New York’s Whitney Biennial has become the latest object of fatuous, philistine claims of cultural appropriation and so-called systemic racism.

In 1955, 14-year-old Till was beaten and murdered in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman. The attackers were acquitted by an all-white jury. Till’s mother famously insisted on an open casket so the world could see the full horror of the crime.

‘Open Casket’ by Dana Schutz recreates the original, iconic photo of Emmett Till’s disfigured face, as an impressionist, modern and powerful reminder of a decisive moment in the movement towards civil rights in America. Whitney claim the painting was made as a response to worries about police brutality against black people today.

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However, a number of protestors have taken it upon themselves to brand the art work as racist and illegitimate, claiming that Schutz has no right to objectify black victims, as a white artist.

Rather than see the painting as a sign of solidarity, these silly, imbecilic activists are determined to make Schutz the enemy.

Artist Hannah Black has written an open letter to Whitney calling for the painting to be destroyed. She writes:

‘Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.’

It appears we are suffering here from the ‘sacredness of the protestor’ syndrome. From Islamist victimhood to Black Lives Matter’s self-entitled immaturity, all someone needs to do now to be taken seriously or to make a university board cow to their every need, is to pull off the pose of the protestor.

We have been so programmed with the Apple Mac repackaging of the sixties, that the image of a marching, placard-carrying youth is now the shorthand for progressive ideas, and any attempt to criticise it is automatically reactionary.

Protesting has now become a lifestyle choice, a badge of honour for the instagram age. People seem more concerned with being seen to be on the right side of public opinion, than they do on being on the right side of history.

We really have to take a look at the issue of white guilt. Doing so does not mean we are re-writing the past, or turning a blind eye to colonialism. If we now live in a public space in which any reference to whiteness and privilege clears the ground for arbitrary moral claims to be given extra weight than they really deserve, then surely there is something wrong with the idea.

It is now impossible to weigh the claims of Black Lives Matter protests or outcries over ‘Islamophobia’, on their own merits. All someone needs to do to rise above scrutiny is shout accusations about systemic oppression or marginalisation, and all of a sudden they elevate themselves to some ethereal moral space that rules out further discussion.

If you pursue the fundamental moral worry, you hear all sorts of apologism about such and such a person’s experience, the marginalisation of their historic perspective and so on… on and on and on. All of this is supposed to give such claims a special dispensation against scrutiny and challenge.

If you are black, muslim or gay, for instance, you are now immune from such ‘white supremacist’ concerns about free speech, logical consistency or public order.

And this doesn’t even touch on the concern about artistic freedom. History tells us that when a movement begins to prescribe which art is morally acceptable and which is not, then that movement has turned from revolutionary to reactionary, it has assumed the role of executive power, and often does so without any deference to public warrant.

Not only that, the protestors in this case are not content with the removal of the pice of art in question, nor the closing of the exhibition – both of which would be an outrage in their own right. What is being piously demanded is the destruction of the piece of art in question.

How close are we now to book burning? How much further do we need to go from destroying works of art that we don’t like, to exterminating people we deem to be collectively guilty?

These protestors have ever right to protest and express their anger. But that same right gives the rest of us the freedom to not give a monkey’s behind about their feelings, and ignore them.

Crying wolf about racism and oppression is a double insult. Firstly, such claims are false and amount to a slander on what is undeniably one of the freest and most expressive cultures in history.

Secondly, they are a mockery to the countless feminists, journalists and political dissidents currently languishing in rat-infested cells around the world for simply disagreeing with their governments, or being of the wrong skin colour or racial group.

Appeals to invisible racism, or sub-conscious oppression, or hidden biases, amount to nothing more than a tenuous attempt by spoilt, bratty bourgeoisie kids to give their life some kind of elevated meaning. All you need to do to make yourself feel like a revolutionary is to invent through circuitous sophistry some reason for explaining away your liberties as examples of fascistic oppression.

Ultimately, if we are to accept the claims that only black people are allowed to discuss or creatively reflect on the crimes of white racists, what will happen to the numberless songs or works of art that formed the backbone of the civil rights movement? If we destroy this piece of art, what other mementoes of struggle do we have to wipe from our history? And who gets to decide which works stay and which have to go?

Some may respond to what is being said here with a claim that though the reaction of the protestors is extreme, their concerns are legitimate, that Dana Schutz’s art is an example of cultural appropriation, so we as white people should ‘check our privilege’ nonetheless.

Well, this too has hidden repercussions. Beneath this seemingly moderate claim is the admission that artistic value depends on political correctitude. And what is deemed correct still needs to be referred to some mythic council of tastemakers.

Fundamentally, the protests against Dana Schutz’s work are an insult to everyone who would otherwise get to make up their own mind about the painting. The very idea of cultural appropriation itself is an insult to the notions of artistic experiment and cultural exploration.

The people protesting this painting are using the right to protest to give their ideology credibility it does not deserve. They will no doubt claim to stand in history alongside Martin Luther King Jnr as dissenters against ignorance and racism. However, this claim has no more weight than the claims of warmongers to stand alongside Winston Churchill as one of history’s just warriors.

We must not be cowed by accusations of racism, or feelings of white guilt. A free society depends on its citizens feeling empowered to protest the protestor, to dissent against the dissenters. This right is the foundation of creative freedom, and the only thing that stands between civilisation and rapacious philistinism.

The unsurprised liberal’s conceited nihilism

These days to be switched on and ‘hip’ is to be devoid of any idealism, to affect a dreary disillusioned scowl, which has become a cultural shorthand for intelligence. This attitude, or pose, is the most prevalent among academic people, or in the sphere of media professionals. These atmospheres have seeped into the arena of middle management and administration – the civil service and commercial office spaces where the majority of graduates work.

Among genuinely working class people, or among more courageous entrepreneurs, you’ll encounter more optimism and, ironically, more openness to dissenting views.

In a discussion among nurses or construction workers, any criticism of Islam, for instance, or any talk of the myths of feminism, will not be met with the same scorn and reproach as they will be in council offices, real ale bars or newsrooms.

It’s a curious fact that the more educated one is these days, the less able one is to deal with new ideas or competing interpretations of everyday experiences. The paradox of this is made more strange by the fact that intransigence and consensus thinking is often accompanied by a smug, affected and simplified form of irony that rarely amounts to anything more than sneering and sanctimonious self-praise.

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Go to a party or a gig or any social interaction involving 20-35 year olds, and you will encounter the ubiquitous educated cynic, the foot-soldier for consumerist nihilism, the type of person who unwittingly propagandises safe, consensus thinking while deluding themselves that their acerbic, non-conservative tone of voice puts them on the vanguard of independent thinking.

Most likely this person has a passing knowledge of Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, without actually having engaged with these ideas in any deep way. Like owning a blues anthology and thinking you know everything about Blind Lemon Jefferson, this dilettantism makes people think they have the inside scoop on the folly of cultural values, regardless of what those values may be.

Everything is relative; Christianity is just as bad as Islam; America is just as bad as Russia; all love is reducible to a sexual agenda, and all beauty is a matter of opinion and most likely the product of some conspiracy of white men.

The blandness and despair concealed in this worldview is buried under the affectation of edgy scornfulness and sarcasm. The apparent irony gives the snotty cynic the sense of being cut off from the crowd – an ‘observer of people’, when in actual fact their nihilistic insouciance is an excuse for doing nothing, for conforming to the flow of consumer pressures and pop culture fashions.

This is what irony has become. As long as you pull off the odd wisecrack, and perfect a visage of imperishable non-surprise you can fool others and yourself that you are an independent thinker, without ever having to take an intellectual risk, or feel humiliated for taking an unpopular point of view.

True irony involves self-deprecation. Not the socially polite kind, but a deeply-held knowing of your intellectual limits.

Thinking independently means caring less about having the ‘correct’ views, and devoting one’s energies to the process by which those views are formed.

Disputation is not a sport. It’s not something to pass the time away, or a platform for showing off. It’s a way of making doubt and scepticism a kind of neural institution, part of the fabric of your inner world.

The real test of an independent mind is sacrifice for a higher ideal. It involves suffering. Commitment, in a word.

Scepticism is a habit of thinking, it is not an ideology in itself. If we allow doubt to become an end, rather than a means, then we start to celebrate meaninglessness.

Being a cocksure, manipulative and sneering teacher’s pet may garner cool points when you are down and out on the scene, but it also helps to cultivate a sense of moral capitulation too. Slavish nihilism is the lifeblood of the tyrant.

Charlie Hebdo emerges victorious: Why ISIS have lost once again

hebdogreat1Another day the same old fascist. The thing about these Paris attacks is that they mark out the enemy very clearly.

Despite what this generation has grown up to think, we are living in black and white times, in times of acute opposites.

Freedom and liberty on the one hand, and fascist and death cult on the other.

Orwell was entirely right. The jackboot is here again, and our enemy is not corporate homogeneity, but mass political ideology.

The corporate Coca Cola culture however, has weakened what we are, has divorced us from our history and heritage sufficiently to make the fight more difficult, and to expose us to our enemies more obviously.

It is a mistake to think that any of us has the choice to engage with this fight. You can’t turn off CNN and hope it goes away. Is it myopic to make the tragic murder of 139 people ‘all about you’? No, would that it were that easy.

This IS about you. This was an attack on you.

There was something different going on in 9/11. Although the New York attack was as much an attack on citizenship and liberty as it was an attack on the thousands that actually died that day, the Paris attacks have further reaching consequences for us all.

New York was about the economy. Paris is about the culture. New York was an attack still confined to global geopolitics. Paris is an attack on the every day, the smaller liberties of friendship, music, and the poetry of human communication.

New York, for all the sickness, tragedy and horror, was ideologically one dimensional. Paris cannot be traduced into rationalisations about globalisation, support for Israel, and western foreign policy.

The World Trade Centre was the establishment.

The attacks on Paris were designed to poison basic human love, sympathy and joy, with the paranoia of psychopathic death-lust.

Combined with the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, the culture itself is under attack, not just the establishment or the political superstructure.

All the conspiracy theories at the time of the World Trade Centre tragedy exemplified the divide in the culture at the time. The movement against globalisation seemed to hitch itself to the Islamist agenda. There’s even a sense in which this was designed, that the battle lines of dissent were used by the Al Qaeda fascists for their own designs.

It made it easier for Bin Laden et al, if the west was at war with itself.

Now we are in the third act. These divisions and resentments have set in, and now the fascists have attacked dissenters as well as the establishment.

They think that this will make it harder for us to fight them, because they regard us as a divided culture, and think that all they need to do is exacerbate these divisions.

The enemy has revealed rather a lot about itself.

Not only has it revealed that it is philistine, nihilistic and driven not by politics but by blood-lust; it has revealed that it has very little knowledge of who it is fighting.

‘The West’ for ISIS, is still the same West as it was for Bin Laden. It’s globalisation, imperialism and corporate hegemony.

They really believe that to attack the Paris nightlife is to wound us as a culture in the same way as to attack New York’s business centre was to weaken western economic power.

This is why this week’s Charlie Hebdo’s front cover cartoon is more powerful than any satire on the Mohammad.

No matter how militarily capable an army of philistines is, they always have the same weakness. They have no concept of history, no sense of irnony, no sense of the power of words.

Hitler, Stalin? You use these, perhaps, as counter-examples to my argument here. But you’re wrong.

They had SOME concept of the power of language, and Hitler certainly was a brilliant speaker, in the way that the ISIS demagogues can only dream of.

They had SOME concept of the movement history, and it bolstered their claim to ideological power. But history, culture and language for Hitler and Stalin were really nothing more than tools for their bluster and bravado.

Churchill for his many faults, spoke to his own people through the prism of humour, irony and a genuine love of his own history and culture. No one can say that Churchill’s evoking of ancient British defiance was mere bravado.

Churchill was the weaker rhetorician when put up against the fascists. But to say that is to simply say he was less of a propagandist.

The ISIS attacks on free speech, free expression and western European liberty demonstrate that they have absolutely NO concept of irony.

They congratulate themselves as propagandists, but what they don’t understand is that our culture has been through so many of these ideologies that it is immune to propaganda, no matter how sophisticated.

An ironic culture is a culture that doesn’t divide the world through west and east. A propagandist’s does. An ironic culture is a culture that never simplifies its enemy into an ideological monolith. A propagandist’s does.

The great achievement of the western post-imperialist psyche is to have an ironic self-image. And the value of any irony, ultimately, is to give us a multi-dimensional view of our own fragility, of death.

Of all the displays of solidarity and defiance that have been shown by French citizens, and all the outrage and fighting spirit that have been displayed on social media, the Charlie Hebdo cover deals the biggest blow to ISIS in the long term.

It’s simple, silly, but it’s childishness masks a certainty and confidence that can only come from an ironic culture, a culture that sees the value of human life on a grander, more historic level than just saving ones own skin.

I have no doubt that the ISIS demagogues can’t get their head round the cartoon. They won’t be able to understand if it means they have scored and ideological victory, or whether they are missing something.

That’s why they will never win.