“No need for silence:” Art as Collective Address

8.3 / Art can’t do anything if we don’t.

“No need for silence:” Art as Collective Address

By Deena Chalabi March 23, 2017

Before I entered the world of the visual arts, I thought mostly about words. I documented what art—broadly defined to include literature, theater and film—could do in societies all around the world where free expression was threatened.

Today I work at the intersection of contemporary art and the world beyond it, asking questions about the meaning and impact of art in public life. I consider art-making as both an imaginative practice and as a form of speech. In the current political climate, I spend even more time than usual mulling over the relationship between these two roles, wondering what art can do as public speech, and what role it can play in fostering our individual and collective imaginations. Yet, despite having the word “public” in my title, I am not always sure where my duty as a citizen of the world, and my role as a curator, intersect. On the one hand, I want to agree with those who think art shouldn’t have to be a tool for action; that art shouldn’t have to answer to anyone. On the other hand, I consider that position a luxury of those who can afford it. I need to believe art can do something.

Early last month, I went to see Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, about the work of one of my heroes, James Baldwin. The film is powerful in its entirety, both historically interesting and politically timely, but the footage of one speech struck me in particular: Baldwin is standing in a jacket and tie, surrounded by seated young white people, almost exclusively men, who listen to him politely as he delivers an eloquent and searing indictment of white supremacist thinking. Later, I scoured YouTube until I found the source: a debate from 1965 at the Cambridge Union in England with William F. Buckley, on the question: Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro? “[One’s] response or reaction to that question has to depend, in effect, on where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality, or system of reality is,” begins Baldwin. “That is, it depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply so as to be scarcely aware of them. A white South African, or Mississippi sharecropper, or a French exile from Algeria, all have, at bottom, a system of reality… [in which] one civilization has the right to overtake and subjugate another."1

Over the next half an hour, Baldwin dissects with great precision the ways in which racialized thinking—the belief that groups and individuals should be treated differently based on perceived physical attributes— support these systems of reality, and the ways in which these systems in turn govern possibilities for representation, and for a full and dignified life. He describes the American sense of reality as corrupted “by the plague called color.” It places constraints upon imaginations, he argues, based on one’s place in society, which leads to a lack of empathy among those with power, and arguably, to a diminished sense of ethical responsibility.

Stereotypes, as a natural result of these imaginative constraints, create certain kinds of invisibility for those who are not part of a dominant class. The visions conjured by those in power are based on an inability to imagine those considered “other” as fully human, and instead to create imaginary foes that are dangerously reductive. This profoundly affects one’s sense of self. “It comes as a great shock to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance along with everybody else has not pledged allegiance to you… It comes as a great shock [to discover] that that which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you."2

James Baldwin in I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO, a Magnolia Pictures release. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Photo: © Bob Adelman, all rights reserved.

Baldwin delivered these words at an incredibly charged political moment that, despite its acute challenges, led to several tangible improvements for civil rights. Today we face the daily prospect of the erosion of these and many other achievements. One of the most troubling aspects of the current moment in the United States, of the volatility and the fury, is the degradation of public speech itself. The fabric of the political and cultural conversation is shredded each time there is a statement that willfully denies social reality. This process comes in many forms: the endless repetition of untruths; flagrant contradictions; an eradication of a sense of process, of expertise, or of how things have come to be; a disregard for history. We are continuously witnessing speech and actions designed to reduce complexity to stereotype, thus removing whole groups of people from view. All this leads to a deadening of discourse, the erosion of public trust and an ongoing sense of closure: one conceptual door slamming after another.

As a multi-ethnic woman educated in predominantly white spaces on two continents, the value of free speech and engagement with diverse, sometime opposing views is something I have long recognized and consider vital to preserve a civic society.  I am well aware that none of the current assaults on inclusive public discourse are new at their core--I have studied and thought about the ways political rhetoric can damage social movements and the ways in which humanist thought has been the privilege of the few over the last two decades. Still, I, like many people, was shocked by the ease with which a politics of grievance has moved back into the mainstream, mobilizing difference as such an overt weapon. The current ubiquity of such speech and its elevation into the highest levels of government is jarring and extremely worrying. Proponents of dark social visions willfully ignore the lessons the rest of us have learned from the last few hundred years of history about the cost of that kind of thinking. Instead, they peddle a pervasive fiction that politics has to be a zero-sum game.

Before this is a civic investigation, it might need to be a spiritual one.

I have heard often that what we really need now is political and moral imagination; that more than new policy positions, in order to heal the country we need to be able to imagine other ways of being and perceiving. But if, as Baldwin asserts, our sense of reality is based on where we are in the world, then perhaps first we each need to hold ourselves accountable. I need to interrogate my own history, and my origins. I need to question everything, to wonder about my core values and why I hold them. Before this is a civic investigation, it might need to be a spiritual one.

Art might help with this. It is at its core about imagination. It doesn’t provide cogent economic analysis, feed people en masse, erase inequality, or reinstitute rights that have been denied, although it has at times gestured towards all of these things. But it does imagine the world anew, with an openness to questioning and a nuance that we sorely need. We need to consider the role of the imagination in our own ethical deliberation, and once we understand what has shaped our views, to act based on a vision that is inclusive, wide-ranging and embracing of contradiction.

Art in all its forms allows the world in.

Art offers alternatives to ideas and images pre-packaged for us by politicians or corporations (rarely are we encouraged to imagine new things, as a society). Art in all its forms allows the world in, and largely acts as a counter-argument to essentialist thinking. Art has a tendency to remind us that everyone is complex and multilayered, and wants to be seen as an agent and subject of history. There are always limitations to the power of art, considered on its own as a social tool for action, and yet there is a rich history of its being interwoven into larger struggles and forms of activism. Throughout history and around the world, artists have responded to social and political turmoil in myriad ways.

In general, many of us in the arts who work as producers of one kind or another perform a constant dance between the search for ways to engage politically, and the retreat necessary for psychic survival. The reception of art is both a private experience, an interior one that has depth and meaning as the work of the artist is felt and understood by each individual viewer, reader or audience member, and also a public experience, by virtue of the imaginative work done by the artist to establish commonality between unshared lives. In her book Citizen, the poet Claudia Rankine addresses the reader throughout using the second person, opening up spaces of questioning and provocation, and drawing attention to the language used in the imaginary fight against the ‘Other.’ Quoting philosopher Judith Butler on what makes language hurtful Rankine writes, “Our very being exposes us to the address of another… We suffer from the condition of being addressable."3 Visual and performing artists address multiple viewers at once, inasmuch as their work most often experienced in physical space with others. Whatever the mode, the power of the collective address lays a foundation for moral understanding, and this is something that can evolve over time.

Hank Willis Thomas. Black Righteous Space, 2012; multimedia, 01:57; dimensions variable. Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

After Baldwin, while reflecting on the value of looking back to look forward, to see with fresh eyes, I wanted to be reminded of how identity can be asserted as an act of strength, not just ascribed in a process of domination. I went to the Oakland Museum of California to be present for the last few hours of the recent exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50. I walked around for a couple of hours, soaking in the work on view and watching visitor’s reactions. A wall text read: “How we choose to remember the past shapes the world.”

I stopped first at William Cordova’s photographs that document his extensive research into Black Panther sites across the country, sites that today remain neglected and invisible. Cordova has restored a place in the collective consciousness through his work, but it is a fragile one. As Sarah Burke noted in the introduction to her piece about the exhibition in the East Bay Express, there is no monument to the Black Panthers even in Oakland, where they were formed.4 And yet their cultural impact is still widely felt, not least as I looked around the powerful presentation into the faces of visitors who had found something resonant around every corner.

The exhibition explored in depth the relationship of radical politics to art, by providing visitors with factual context in the form of historical objects that brought home the social and historical realities the movement faced, interspersed with historic artwork that supported and reflected its circumstances and ideals, as well as contemporary pieces. Among the latter group were two works by Hank Willis Thomas, whose work has been inspired by James Baldwin’s discussions of race and invisibility in America. The installation Black Righteous Space dominated the back room: patterns derived from the confederate flag in the Black Panther Party colors of red, black and green fall apart and reconstitute themselves over again as a backdrop for a stage area with a microphone, for visitors to have their voices amplified. While I was there, children ran about in the projection while older people took photographs of each other standing at the mic as if poised to speak. But no one took the opportunity to tell the rest of us what was on his or her mind. I would have loved to know.

Stills from Question Bridge: Black Males in America (Aperture/Campaign for Black Male Achievement, 2015) © QuestionBridge

Thomas’s work often quietly insists on personhood. The video project Question Bridge: Black Males (2012), on which Thomas collaborated with Chris Johnson, Kamal Sinclair, Bayeté Ross Smith and many others, asks questions of its subjects that establish permissive spaces for listening and for speaking. Johnson, who originally devised Question Bridge as a project format in 1996,5 talked to me last fall about the inherent generosity in simply asking questions, which reminded me of Leslie Jamison’s definition of empathy. “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to,” writes Jamison. “Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see...Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges."6

If one of the reasons that I’m interested in art is because as an imaginative practice it can both engage critically and inspire empathy, then I am particularly interested in work that renders people visible, according them respect and dignity while exploring the aftermath of trauma. I need open-ended responses to the stories we tell ourselves about society, connecting facts to imagination with the hope of effecting change. I have been re-reading John Berger’s writing on migrant workers, and Susan Sontag on Virginia Woolf about victims of war. While there are often differing views on just how sympathetic or possibly exploitative an artist might be in depicting a marginalized or vulnerable group or individual through images, there is at least an understanding of ambiguity and contradiction, a legitimate conversation about who is considered human, and how that process takes place.

Working at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I am privileged to be able to use the galleries on a daily basis as a respite and a resource: to reorder my thoughts, to strengthen my emotional capacity, and to foster patience with what I cannot know. I gravitate towards work that hints at the mutability of history and makes connections between apparently disparate ideas. Since the beginning of the year, as I’ve felt the world has stopped making sense, I have spent time each week in silent communion with William Kentridge.

William Kentridge. The Refusal of Time, 2012; jointly owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (purchase, by exchange, through an anonymous gift and the K. Hart Smith Trust); © 2012 William Kentridge, all rights reserved. Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Refusal of Time (2012) is a five-channel video installation on a 30-minute loop, with a ‘soundscape’ and a kinetic sculpture that is an homage to the complexities of the human imagination in its many forms: from the artistic to the scientific. I find it delightful and bewildering, in both its aesthetic richness and its intellectual complexity. Sometimes I notice my pulse quicken as my gaze skips from one projection to the next, as it as new ideas are continuously sparked and I inhale sharply: a visceral reaction to being inspired. Sometimes I focus on the ‘breathing machine’ in the installation, a contraption that reminds viewers about the most basic and necessary of physiological functions through its movement; also known as ‘the elephant,’ it simultaneously evokes ideas about the mysterious process of memory creation and retention. Sometimes I simply watch the faces of others as they take in these elements; more often than not they are both curious and utterly mesmerized.

Kentridge has described his animated films as “a demonstration of how we make sense of the world, rather than an instruction about what the world means.” The artist’s ability to unpack the process of thinking, the ways that we all construct meaning from the fragments that we receive and collect, seems especially important at this moment. The central theme of time sets up an exploration of countless other concepts, all of which are informed by the colonialism at the root of the South African experience. Questions of representation loom large: other than Kentridge, the rest of the actors in the films are black. They portray a wide array of figures in a variety of contexts, from resolute workers marching across a landscape to lovers and musicians in domestic spaces to exploratory scientists full of wonder.

William Kentridge. The Refusal of Time (still), 2012; jointly owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (purchase, by exchange, through an anonymous gift and the K. Hart Smith Trust); © 2012 William Kentridge, all rights reserved.

And yet while Baldwin mentioned the white South African imagination as a rhetorical device in his argument about a monolithic racist construct, Kentridge, as a white South African himself, but also an artist, presents a completely different perspective from the narrow and reductive legacy of apartheid from which he emerged. His work, like Baldwin’s, is infused with love: of ideas and of the multifarious humans who produce them. Aware of the tremendous value in exploring the ambiguity and contradiction in human affairs, Kentridge has noted that the “category of political uncertainty, philosophical uncertainty, uncertainty of images is much closer to how the world is.” He comments on the desperation and defensiveness inherent in many people’s modes of speech when they are certain of their views: “their voice gets louder, more authoritarian and authoritative and to defend themselves they will bring an army..."7

As we face the terrible trouble we find ourselves in today, it is the violence inherent in the essentialist visions of the world that we need to fight against. I know there is an urgent need to establish a meaningful dialogue among all those who are not effectively represented, to foster a shared imaginative space that looks ahead. But at least for now, all I can do is absorb and reflect. I am looking for wisdom everywhere, scouring my own mental map of influences. I take solace in the ways that writers inspire artists, and vice versa, and so on. The layering of associations and relationships over generations create a rich cultural fabric that sustains many of us in difficult times. I recall the Toni Morrison quote that has been widely circulated online since the last election: "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”8 The same day, a colorful mural on the corner of Telegraph and 42nd Street in Oakland catches my eye: “Trust Your Struggle.”


  1. James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley (1965), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFeoS41xe7w.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Claudia Rankine, Citizen (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014), 49.
  4. Sarah Burke, “The Oakland Museum of California’s Homage to the Black Panther Party,” East Bay Express (October 16, 2016), http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/the-oakland-museum-of-californias-homage-to-the-black-panther-party/Content?oid=5004805.
  5. For an introduction to Question Bridge, see: http://www.chrisjohnsonphotographer.com/qbintro.html.
  6. Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014), 17.
  7. William Kentridge, Making Sense of the World, Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (2014), http://channel.louisiana.dk/video/william-kentridge-how-we-make-sense-world.
  8. Toni Morrison, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” The Nation (March 23, 2015), https://www.thenation.com/article/no-place-self-pity-no-room-fear/.

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