Introduction to An Unending Theft of OpportunityDecember 16, 2015
It was scholar, architecture professor, and cultural historian Mabel O. Wilson who introduced us to the phrase from which we take this issue’s title: "An unending theft of opportunity." She was referring to the entrenched oppression of people of color in the U.S. that manifests through systemic exclusions and economic violence. We are acutely aware these days of the ways in which oppression erupts as physical violence, particularly through police brutality, but it is economic inequity that endures and decimates societies. In her August 19, 2015, interview, the performance artist Coco Fusco describes how insidious and sanctioned this form of violence is:
We’re obsessed with police beating people, but there are more people in Ferguson, Missouri, being rendered penniless because of being excessively fined for their parking tickets than there are people getting beaten. We obsess about physical violence, which is bad, but it is the tip of the iceberg compared to the way that poverty is reproduced and expanded.1
Artists interpret culture. They report on the social condition. They perform, document, and represent our human experience. This thematic issue draws from the archives of Art Practical, Daily Serving, East of Borneo, Lenny, and Art21 to chronicle artists’ responses to the deeply intertwined realities of racism and economic inequity. It also underscores the limited participation with institutionally sanctioned art that people of color experience as producers and viewers. This is the first time that a thematic issue in this publication draws extensively on archives besides its own. Our intention is to demonstrate the prevailing concern artists and writers across the U.S. (and beyond) have for the effects of economic violence, how it shapes the representation and reception of culture, and where the boundaries of accessibility are drawn.
The included articles are presented for the reader to juxtapose, compare, contrast, and critique the work featured. The artists highlighted are of different races and ethnicities. They employ a multitude of techniques and methodologies, and they possess individual agendas. What they have in common is their exposition of the unending theft of opportunity and the subsequent poverty—financial and cultural—that is created. Their projects bring into focus questions about who is creating representations of racial identities and how those representative bodies shape the reception of race. One set of answers can be found in Calder Yates’s review of the late Noah Davis’s Imitation of Wealth, which underscores both the exclusions from high culture that institutions innately produce and the artist’s own uneasiness of representing a racial identity within the museum walls. Juxtaposed against this self-aware analysis is the more distanced one found in Amelia Rina’s review of Doug Rickard’s portfolio, A New American Picture, in which the writer points out, “Rickard’s actions reveal poverty, but through their aesthetic detachment, demonstrate no effort to truly understand.”
Many artists struggle with the complicity created through the act of witnessing and/or enacting the economic violence that people of color experience. Genevieve Quick’s column, “Mechanized Bodies,” locates the things that remain in the wake of unemployment. Concurrent with this issue is Forrest McGarvey’s review of Paul Graham’s solo exhibition, The Whiteness of the Whale; McGarvey points out the discomfort a viewer might feel in Graham’s aestheticizing the “empty plasticity of wealth and the transient non-places of poverty.” Yet being complicit also means being cognizant, and with cognizance comes the ability to affect change. Some of the artists covered in this issue complicate rather than clarify these questions of representation, most notably Kara Walker and Joe Scanlan. Anuradha Vikram, writing on each, describes not only the unease and ambivalence that surrounds the reception of their work, but the “entanglement of race, gender, class, labor, capital, and representation operating within [each work] and [their] conditions for being.”
In late 2013, Berkeley, California, became a center for protest despite its histories of radical student movements and progressive politics, not because of them. The violence that arose there emanated from the fact that Berkeley, like Baltimore or Ferguson, is a city delineated by significant economic inequity. The city is dominated and geographically divided by the University of California, Berkeley (Cal) campus. Immediately to the west is Berkeley High School, which is among the most racially and socioeconomically diverse high schools in the country. Its demographics are aligned with those of California’s; 22% are African American and 16% are Latino. The same cannot be said for Cal, the highest-ranked public university in the country. Its population is significantly skewed: only 2.8% of incoming freshmen in 2013 were African American and only 8.4% were Mexican American. Overlooked in the Berkeley protests against police brutality were those that immediately preceded them: the protests against tuition hikes in the University of California system. We must tie one to the other. The violence that begins with systemic exclusions from educational and economic opportunities ends with weaponized force.
Online, through news and social media, the dominant images representing racial violence are those of the police decked out in military-surplus riot gear, helmeted, black-clad, faces obscured by smooth, reflective shields, impenetrable in their solid walls of bodies blocking our paths forward. They are anonymous, interchangeable players in a rehearsed drama that reinforces the state of oppression in which we are living and the violence that brought that awareness to the fore. The images that depict our protests against them are also violent; they fixate on the moments of confrontation, the points of extreme tension. In every one, the police form a defensive line against attack, as if they are not the instigators. If these images have not incited more violence, they have at least raised the expectations for it.
We can offer no precise answers or simple conclusions with this thematic issue. What it does reveal, though, is this: Alongside our desire to effect change and our persistence in demanding accountability for the violence we witness or endure is the need to expand the images that we are broadcasting to the world. The artists included here undertake the hard work of conjuring the violence that is sometimes only perceptible as absence or void. It is therefore all the more important to make room for it.