What I’ve learnt from being a brown critic on the Internet (and what i need now from our readers)
This month, I feel like I’ve ruptured a lil bubble I’ve been feeling coated in this year, the past 4 years. More and more, every time we tell the story of how or why we started TWP, I am increasingly baffled by what possibly fucking possessed us to do this. To buy that WIX plan & write a text every single week regardless of who was listening. Was it a dissatisfaction with the way art was written about? Yes. Was it a knowledge that critics don’t look like me, sound like me? Yes. Was it that I had never really engaged with art in a meaningful way, and maybe that wasn’t entirely my fault, but art’s fault? Yes, probably. Was it that I needed a way, a space in which to process this feeling of dread, that the arts might be a space that rejects me like a faulty or mismatched organ? I mean,, yeah. But like… What fucking possessed us? Looking back now, I kinda feel like if I knew what I know now, it would’ve been harder to justify buying that WIX plan, harder to jump into action with the knowledge of what we were jumping into. When it’s the unknown, my god, we flung ourselves in, but if it wasn’t, would we have actually done it? I know now that there was a reason why the critics I could think of at the very visible edge of the game, don’t look like me. It’s not that they weren’t there! It’s not like there aren’t any actual people of colour in the arts! By my own experience over the past 4 years, there are fucking loads of us. I have filled our instagram following limit to the brim trying to keep track of us all, we are a multitude. But there is something, a limit preventing us from crossing over onto a visible edge, and anywhere near any kind of power. And when we do, there is a pervasive ideology that hinders us from bringing real change with us, or convinces us that real change is not in our favour anyway. Bc we’ve made it this far, so the job is done. You can’t be what you can’t see, and now they can all see you. You’re representing so many people with your presence on this visible edge, the job is done. But power is a weird elemental force. Where does it rest, who wields it, what does it look like, feel like? Is it assigned or ascribed to you? Or is it something you grab and run with? Is it possible to look like you have power, and actually be devoid of it, drawing blanks? Is that visible edge of the game actually where power rests, what does it take to get there, and once you’re there, do you actually <have> power?
I want to write this text now, nail it to the door as we’re on our way out for the month; go into our December holiday with this fresh on the table for me to come back to. Last week, when I wrote about opening the window to new critics and their influence on my writing, I couldn’t stop thinking about this rumbling belly that has guided my work. Last year I wrote <the Problem with Diaspora Art>, that then was followed by <the Problem with Representation>. In and around and (tbh in better, more eloquent ways) other writers have been writing about this same problem we’re running up against. I, as a critic, cannot escape the glaring fact that people of colour in the art world are not equipped with the power or autonomy to affect the changes that would grant them equity in the sector they call their home. This fact has leaked into my reviews, of Ima-Abasi Okon @ Chisenhale, Imran Perretta @ Spike Island, Frank Bowling, Hardeep Pandhal. I long for the day when I can write about an artist’s work unaffected by the background noise, knowing that the galleries we show in, work in, visit, are ill-equipped lumpy grounds for us to stand on. By being a writer on the internet, this is what I know, have realised & learnt about identity politics in the arts, and how power functions around that. This is a long-read, an untidy, unfinished, hurried morning poo of a text. I will circle back in 2020, but for now, this is what I got for ya.
I want to start where I left off - <the Problem with Representation> was a hurried text, I wrote it in 3 days & you can tell. I should’ve done more research, because I left the end open, only reiterating the point at which I began. The institution has realised that it must perform the gestures of liberatory or emancipatory politics, to appear to meet the groundswell of our collective demands, but in this performance, it believes we haven’t noticed that nothing has changed. We still experience a sector that demands rigid conformity to its values; which are overwhelmingly that of a centric-liberalism. This politic seeks not to overhaul or rapidly make itself accessible to those on the margins, but to absorb, neutralise or re-consolidate itself off the backs of these criticisms that hit it, by letting in a few exceptions that conform to its systemic philosophy. If this is the case, then any inclusion or ~representation~ we might see is token, as defined by Ash Sarkar, ‘in which people of colour must assimilate to oppressive ideologies in return for representation’. The way we experience the effects of this politic are collective, and our responses must be collective in turn. We do not only experience institutional racism individually; it is a pressure that is felt collectively, with collective affect & collective outcome.
The sunday we published <the Problem with Representation>, Jemma Desai [a programmer, a writer, and a friend] sent us a link to a text she’d written that ran parallel to it. In her text <The Arts are in The Sunken Place - How do we Get Out>, Jemma refers back and forth between several sources, across a range and a spectrum, and pulls it all back to what she can immediately affect within her grasp. She outlines; ‘I’ve got a feeling something is off […]. A feeling that despite everything my colleagues, twitter feed and the newsletters landing in my inbox tell me, we are not in a moment of radical change in the arts sector. The sector is not in fact in a moment of self inquiry and redress but actually performing a monumental act of dissonance, upholding the same power structures it always has, whilst performing a liberal set of behaviours that have become valuable, not because of their meaning, but because of their cultural and marketable capital.’ These opening words, as salve and balm, reaffirm something I know to be true. Everyone’s pointing to ~Now~ as a moment where things have never been better for us, we’ve never been more represented!! We’ve never been the focus of such desire for inclusion in program or as subject, yet somehow material conditions are the same. People of colour in the art world’s system are never allowed the autonomy to dictate the longevity of or the terms of this engagement. I mentioned this in <the Problem with Diaspora Art>; ‘Because that sustenance is dependent on too many variables that aren’t self-determined by being in our own hands. It’s dependent on white/institutional appetite for Diversity & Inclusion talk, for diversity being hot on the lips and minds of all those concerned and well-intentioned enough to care, and important enough to influence opinion.’ Jemma also reiterates this, in quoting Madani Younis: ‘Institutions that have historically not given a shit are saying ‘we’re going to start caring’, that’s really great but not only have those ideas [the equitable inclusion of marginalised voices in the arts] been co-opted, the pace of change is being determined by those institutions.’
I guess this is what fucking dissonance means, but; while describing this dissonance, Jemma goes on to cite Sara Ahmed’s analysis of this as something entirely deliberate, and meant only to obfuscate change by diverting attention from the real root causes; ‘perception is the problem. According to this logic, people have the wrong perception when they see the organisation as white, elite, male, old-fashioned. In other words, behind the shock is a belief that the organisation does not have these [the perceived] qualities: that whiteness is in the image rather than in the organisation. Diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organisations. Changing perceptions of whiteness can be how an institution can reproduce whiteness, as that which exists but is no longer perceived.’ This extract almost perfectly describes the painful, violent appearance of change that never actually at any fucking point has materialised. I was recently, jarringly, reminded of Rasheed Araeen’s letters to the Arts Council. They could’ve been written today, it is fucking appalling that they are still relevant, contemporary in their concerns & demands. The arts are always ~heading~, working towards being more open, it is always a point on the near (or sometimes distant) horizon. It is never a place that we are actively working within. Wallah, this is deliberate. Jemma, in her text, refers back to Morgan Quaintance’s 2017 text, <The New Conservatism: Complicity and the UK Art World’s Performance of Progression>, in which he rly eloquently puts it, ‘[there’s] a tendency within the UK art world in which institutions and individuals who may present or think of themselves as agents of change and progression are actually agents of stasis.’ Referring back to Sara Ahmed’s analysis, this is absolutely a purposeful presentation and a purposeful actuality.
So if that’s what things are; if change is only ever an image, an appearance and a point of perception, what I next wana nail down is fucken HOW. Revisiting Morgan’s text, 2 years on, I wish I was cleverer back in 2017 so I could’ve absorbed his words then. I was a bit less worn down by it all, I hadn’t seen the inside as clearly, hadn’t seen the cycles through which this activity moves in the clarity I needed. Re-reading it with my brain now is like feeling a cold hand on my back. He details how the art world has been hyper-professionalised through a slow, at times imperceptible, process of enculturation that has transferred power up to the top. As this hyper-professionalisation happened, power has shifted away from grassroots organisations & community groups; they have simultaneously seen themselves relinquish funding, authority and power to established organisations and registered charities. This top-heavy structure acts as a watertight system, hoovering up anything that could strengthen it, building a monopoly. It is able to ensure that any threats to the stability of power within its system are easily neutralised, absorbed, or used to re-consolidate the system of power itself. Where the smaller organisations could be responsive, useful in a hyper-local, flexible and nimble way; larger organisations only ever scratch the visible surface, suffer a gestural extension, & then take it upon themselves to start from the beginning. Morgan really beautifully pins this all the way back to Thatcher & her government’s policy of slow & steady deregulation; something that feels like a warm hand to my back instead, when I think back to my text on <the Problem with Representation>. It might have had holes, but I was fucking RIGHT when I called it a problem symptomatic of neoliberalism; Thatcher was very much the beginning of liberal deregulation n governmental policy, and to which we’ve seen no significant end since (Jeremy Corbyn for PM, Vote Labour on the 12th December UwU). The way this all leaks into the arts; Morgan calls <the new conservatism>, ‘these organisations gradually expropriated the language of engagement, strategies of outreach, and educational initiatives and essentially, took over the community arts sector’s participatory territory.’ He goes on, ‘Whereas organisations like the Keskidee [here an example of a community arts group] were run by marginalised community members and sought to train, empower, support and hand over the reigns to that same citizenry, Create and Open School East [here, examples of organisations that are New Conservative] do things differently. Theirs is a kind of ostensible social enterprise that uses the same citizenry to do two things: to secure and elicit public and private funding for projects that use East London’s low income populace as either their medium, material or target […] or to fund their own operations.’ If that is not neoliberalism; opening up new markets for unregulated harvesting of value & extraction of capital, idk what is. Within the text, he provides v clear examples & receipts, which I’ve left out for the sake of brevity. I encourage you to read the text in full, or at least look at the examples bc they’re bang on. This is why attempts at engagement in galleries feels so fucking shallow; because it’s consistently being redeployed as a tool for the securing of more private/public funds (so the institution can maintain itself & its existence), the stability of itself in a political climate that is ~aware~ of power imbalances but ~inert~ when faced with the prospect of mobilising to any significant action, all the while never training up or opening accessibility to those that could pose a legitimate threat to the internal stability they seek to protect at all costs. It underpins this by ensuring self-preservation, (in Morgan’s words) ‘it operates as an ideological filter that contributes to and ensures sector homogeneity: those who are happy to embrace its logic progress; those who are not seldom do.’
In his text, Morgan identifies the 3 things New Conservatism seeks to ensure as outcomes: the capitulation to private finance, cultivating homogeneity in the art world, working in the service of state power. He also provides an escape button: we can withdraw our labour and place it back into the building of a new system that works more equitably, by serving more than its constituent parts. The urgency of this is absolutely not to be undermined, as I write this, it has only been like,,, 2 weeks since Madani Younis had to walk away from his role as Creative Director of the Southbank Centre after only 10 months in the position. Tobi Kyeremateng (@bobimono on twitter) summed this up more eloquently than I could in a thread; ‘Madani walking away from the Southbank is why representation politics is bullshit. pulling in Black and Brown faces in seemingly 'positions of power' without the emotional infrastructure to support radical work that isn't about maintaining power and upholding outdated structures. What's the point of 'encouraging' Black and Brown people into these positions when as a sector we aren't willing to dismantle what leadership looks like under the gaze of whiteness. orgs want to appoint Black and Brown faces as long as they are willing to uphold these structures. HOW MANY TIMES have we been told change is "more Black & Brown people in positions of power!”* (*must uphold whiteness, must not debate whiteness, must not act radically against whiteness, must battle whiteness at all levels of the org, must be a ventriloquist and not an activist.) i obviously cannot speak for Madani on the reasons he left, but what is clear as day is this sector runs on face-value representation politics without actually doing the work of dismantling white supremacist ideologies our society, and therefore our sectors, have been built upon.’ This ideology, of <no change, only language of change> is creating actively hostile environments for the people of colour within our sector that truly want to overhaul the approach both we & the spaces we inhabit take towards identity & its following politic. Good people are being pushed out, hindered from action, embargoed as they try & do their jobs. This is not only appalling as a scathing indictment of the current situation, it’s also a massive loss for the sector. If we’re not allowing people to be flexible or nimble in their approach, outside of the institution’s own parameters for how we’re supposed to operate; I will tell you now, wallahi nothing will change, we all lose.
We need a whole ass fucking reset of the balance of power, and we need it NOW. We as art workers are in a prime position to do that, as this system relies on our presence, participation & output to survive. We don’t actually need to compromise, bridge the gaps or build understanding with people that fund fascists, or make money dealing arms, or building illegal settlements in the West Bank & Gaza. Maria Balshaw wrote a text for the Art Newspaper in March of this year, called <Art in Sensitive Times>. In it she makes a pawing, pathetic case for us to ~hear both sides~, be universal in our approach, moderated in our expectations, and mild in our outcomes. I want to burn it. It elicits such a furious rage inside me. We don’t need to do this, this that the system believes is necessary. It isn’t. All it does is hold us back. ~We~ are not part of the one universal conglomerate that Maria says she wants to represent. The institution that Maria represents, think beyond Tate and more towards the New Conservatism, as an ideological institution that grips the directors of literally almost every NPO across the country, is the same idealogical filter that prevents or hinders any legitimate challenge from presenting itself. Maybe I was being generous when I said, at the beginning of this text, that there is a pervasive ideology that hinders us from bringing real change with us, or convinces us that real change is not in our favour anyway. Because maybe no one who desires real change is ever allowed within 20 feet of power in any circumstances.
With that in mind, I’ll reiterate what Morgan presents as a solution: we must withdraw, we must seek to rebuild elsewhere. I want to leave you with something solid to chew on, while I now prepare to fuck off for a month. Jemma states that ‘the cultural sector is also instrumentalizing critical attention on a cultural moment, but by leaving the context [causes, affects, radical examination of the exact way this system of power works] unexamined, is often simply creating tokenistic activity.’ I want you to think about what context means to you, what is the context of the work you’re doing? As a curator, an artist, a cultural worker; how can you help to actively examine the context of the problems you’re (hopefully!) trying to grapple with. Jemma offers a partial solution from Madani Younis saying ‘a way to speed up change would be to directly link public funding to demographics.’ Already, according to GDLP (a trusted source), Majority of lottery funding originates from outside of London, in the North, yet somehow majority of the lottery funds are spent in London. When you look at the demographics, Jemma writes, ‘So in a place like London, BAME workers make up only 18% of the city’s creative industries, but represent 45% of the population.’ I don’t know if there are accurate statistics about a demographic breakdown of where funding (public or private) is allocated, but I can’t imagine it would rupture any of what I’ve said above. Imagine if the Arts Council allocated their public funding representatively according to demographics; just imagine. Beyond race, this would require a real forced introspective moment within these galleries, for them to really rigorously consider what representative or diversity meant to them; in a local sense. I remember being in a closed-door meeting at MIMA, with Miguel Amado; and he said that MIMA has to look to their local population, their constituents, for a definition of what the diversity that they as an institution should be looking to implement. Middlesborough as a place that had been a current dispersal area for refugees, as well as one of the North’s many post-industrial towns hit hard by Thatcher, as traditionally working class & affected greatly by the breaking of heavy industry under her government. Imagine if every gallery cared enough about their constituents & defining what locality & constituent meant to them in their context. Imagine if the Arts Council was a body that could push for change in the realm of what is publicly funded (at the very least) instead of focusing on forging Public Private Partnerships (please read Morgan’s text again). These are all small parts of solutions, that could, if implemented sincerely with a will to actually change the way things are, make huge differences to the current material conditions we all currently face.
Individually, we need to get better at identifying when ~inclusive moments~ are performative, be more wary of where we engage ourselves, where we pour our labour into. If we do it anyway, we must be creative about strategies to disrupt the attempted co-option of our words & identities for these institutions’ motives; there are ways that we can secure the bag & not let them hail their interactions with us as ~good inclusive moments~. We can be critical when we go in, but we must also be cognisant of our own privileges. I am not precarious, as a person, as a cultural worker, and I cannot excuse myself from failing to withdraw my labour from damaging systems by citing a precarity. I am privileged enough to have streams of income outside the art world, and this allows me to say no when Frieze come knocking to ask us to do a panel talk. It might be worth us all looking at ways in which we can allow ourselves to be able to say no to things; if we are freelance, I understand it might not be as simple for you as it is for me! This cannot be an overnight boycott, withdrawal will tek time. I am only asking that we all ~think~ about ways that we can implement turning the distribution of our labour towards more ethical places. But fundamentally, me asking this is like asking us all to stop using plastic straws to save the oceans and stop climate change. This single handedly isn’t going to affect any kind of change, because fundamentally the system works on a collective scale, not an individual one. We must organise, we must mobilise so we can present a legitimate threat to some of the largest institutions that act as proponents of this sinister operational philosophy. We must seek to rebuild, or build a system where our labour can be diverted to, as it turns away from these institutions. We must speak to each other, consider our positions and what we are capable of, and all pitch in to make a movement stronger than any one of us alone.
I am convinced more than ever, that a move towards unionised action is the only possible solution to plug all the gaps at once and affect a lasting, sincere change, and implementing a system which functions equitably. I have faith, inshallah, that one day I will see a better working system in my lifetime. I look forward to December. I hope I come back in January to you all raring for lasting change, hammer & sickle in hand, ready to tear down these monuments. Inshallah inshallah, we will see change.