During the podcast I recorded for NLS last week, I touched upon a subject that I have been considering while conducting research into responses to the death of Ana Mendieta. Whose wounds belong to who, and who has the right to mourn, and in what way?
Such questions came to the fore in the fall-out following the exhibition of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial. The work depicts the dead body of African-American boy Emmett Till, who was murdered in 1955 for the spurious claim of flirting with a white woman. The story reached international attention when an open letter, written by the artist Hannah Black, was circulated around the press, asking that the painting be removed and destroyed. As Black wrote:
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.
At first, Black’s letter was treated with caution. Arts publications, predominantly edited, owned and staffed by white people, were presumably wary of publishing a rebuttal as their official editorial stance, for fear of finding themselves on the wrong side of a race debate. (In my mind, the make-up of the managerial side of the contemporary art industry ought to be the prime target for conversations regarding problems of representation.)
Criticism of Black’s open letter eventually came, when Cuban-American curator and writer Coco Fusco warned that in calling for censorship, Black was placing herself on “the wrong side of history”, and criticised her for relying “on problematic notions of cultural property and [imputing] malicious intent in a totalizing manner to cultural producers and consumers on the basis of race.”
Calling for the destruction of the work inevitably drew comparisons with fascism, and ensured Black’s letter hit the big time. The debate reached peak exposure when Whoopi Goldberg stepped in, turning to the camera on her talkshow The View and berating Black: “If you’re an artist, young lady, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
But the question at the heart of the debacle is one worth paying attention to, and which is much harder to shut down. Where do we locate the morality, in seeking catharsis in images of victims whose experiences of subjecthood lie beyond our own? And who gets to define where the boundaries of subjecthood lie in the first place?
Wounds, more often than not, are not comparable, and neither are the experiences of different marginalised groups. But they are linked by a shared experience of existing, in some manner, outside of the dominant position of privilege and power. We may end up petitioning, say, to be represented on particular boards, for our identity categories to be added onto official documentation, for legal and physical protection, for our histories to be discussed in schools, or for instances of oppression to be recognised and atoned for.
So it was that I found the conversation on woundedness similar to conversations I have been having with friends on the subject of queer identity, and the question of who and what that category can contain. For those of us who live openly and sexually queer lives, the recent explosion of interest in queerness is both exciting and uncomfortable. I was reminded of this, when I was introduced to an essay by Andre Bagoo in Arc Magazine, titled ‘We Are All Queer – On Caribbean Queer Visualities and Beyond Homophobia’. In an attempt to overcome homophobia in the Caribbean, Bagoo seeks out the affinities between people who may otherwise be separated by the monikers of sexuality. “We all experience life differently”, he writes, “and, therefore, can all imagine an experience that is peculiar to each individual; that does not perfectly correspond to some system or pattern. Whether we admit it or not, we are all queer.”
Bagoo’s position is egalitarian, and admirably so. And yet my immediate response was to attend to my wounds. Does everyone experience life through eyes and desires that are formed outside of the encoded heterosexual dynamics that govern almost every interaction, from speaking to shopkeepers, doctors and teachers, to friends, colleagues and family? Does everyone have to consider whether their sexual orientation will put them in danger, or contravene the law? In short, I found myself asking the question, are we really all queer?, and feeling, very much, that the answer is no.
In asking myself these questions, I began to consider how my relationship to the minority identity to which I belong is premised on a combination of pride and pain, qualities that have become intimately entwined. Pride develops out of resistance and perseverance, and in the location of points of difference. I become attached to my wounds, not so much out of masochism, but because they are inseparable from positive aspects of self-identification. If woundedness plays a major role in defining the borders of marginalised identity, the question of who gets to cross that border, or who gets to redraw the boundaries, is unavoidably fraught.
A day after reading Bagoo’s essay, I began to feel the stirrings of a change of heart. First of all, I asked myself, how much does my experience of queerness and identity as a British citizen relate to queerness and identity in the Caribbean? The notion that identity groups are universal, and that they should be subjected to US-European definitions, comes with a whole host of problems, not least the territorial aspect of identity rearing its imperial head. Secondly, I asked myself whether opening up queerness to everybody is a practical and useful tool in ridding queerness of its stigma. Could it be a positive step towards moving away from the dominance of hetero-normative values – the very values that continue to be the cause of oppression?
I do not know the answer to these questions. But just as attempts at empathy across identity boundaries should not be easily dismissed, nor should the significance of those boundaries to the people who have lived and continue to live within them.
One possible way to move forward, useful to all: learning how to separate solidarity from over-identification.
Image: Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s Open Casket.
SCOTT W. H. YOUNG (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER