on restorative justice and dana schutz’s painting of emmett till

dana schutz’s painting of emmett till at the 2017 whitney biennial is the 2017 version of kelley walker’s paintings at the contemporary art museum of st louis is the 2016 version of kenneth goldsmith reading mike brown’s autopsy report is the 2015 version of joe scanlan’s performance as a fictional black woman donelle woolford in the 2014 whitney biennial. in other words, it is yet another white artist’s appropriation of a black body and black death, under the justification of white free speech.

the conversations around schutz’s painting are disappointingly familiar. in some regards, i truly feel i can add no more to the conversation about white free speech versus black death. (hint: white free speech is never the answer. here are some reads.) and then art historian melinda guillen posted this curious question: would intersectional woman of color feminism call for the destruction of the artwork? or, rephrased, how do we approach this offense by considering restorative, instead of punitive, justice? if that proposition makes people on both sides of the debate want to throw up, please bear with me as i navigate through the nausea.

as someone who has experienced sexual assault, who has both experienced and perpetrated domestic violence, and who believes deeply in a non-carceral future, i have spent a few years sitting with the question of restorative justice. i often still find myself at the uneasy crossroad between anger, accountability, and forgiveness. when stanford rapist brock turner was sentenced to a mere 6 months in prison and his supporters were calling the reduced sentence restorative justice, i wanted to throw up without knowing if i had the right to throw up. it was in that moment that this piece of writing clarified my understanding of restorative justice.

in sum, restorative justice is about the centering of the victim(s)’ suffering, creating shifts in elements of the victim(s)’ community that enabled the offense, and determining restitution for the perpetrator based on centering the victim(s). none of that happened when brock turner was sentenced to a trivial 6 months. indeed, the centering of turner and his feelings of hurt, shame, and remorse, is frightening similar to the centering of schutz’s good intentions and right to free speech.

when whiteness transgresses us, which is apparently still every single day, the path to resolution cannot center whiteness, the great transgressor. but it is also not enough to identify the guilty party and rest. non-carceral does not mean non-accountable; rather, it means looking for accountability on a systemic level. we must acknowledge our various roles in the system and use this moment to shift the bigger issues in our community that have led up to this point.

for example:

  • how could two asian-american curators make this anti-black oversight, which debuted the same month that a korean storeowner assaulted a black woman? (by the way, my offer to come collect asian nonsense still stands, as long as i am provided with a direct connection to the source of the nonsense)
  • how are we still defending white free speech in 2017, after the election of a billionaire who used his “free speech” to encourage white supremacist violence against women, immigrants, and people of color?
  • why are art schools, art classes, art books, art galleries, art shows, art funding, art markets, art fairs, art museums, art nonprofits, art spaces, everything related to art pretty much, still disproportionately white?

schutz’s painting is representation of violence—just not the violence she intends to portray. it is a representation of the violence that black and people of color encounter daily as cultural workers. undoing that violence may include destroying the painting, but the call for transformative change also goes much, much deeper.

photo credit: Parker Bright protesting Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, SCOTT W. H. YOUNG (@HEISCOTT)/VIA TWITTER

the politics of amplification

what i’ve noticed about living between places/modalities (texan, angelena) is that people have very, very twisted views of the other. i want to flip over a table every time i hear the new york times extolling topochico or the hip art galleries in boyle heights, as i witness deeply the pain and politics of gentrification that accompanies the discovery of “cool” in your place of residence (dear non-texan world, please don’t ever talk to me about south by southwest).

it’s this crisis in amplification and miscommunication that leads me to have conversations with community organizers in in the chicanx neighborhood of barrio logan, san diego, who are puzzled as to why “they’re protesting nonprofits in boyle heights, los angeles”. angelena organizers on the ground will be very quick to explain to you why, but nevertheless, the miscommunication has already happened.

likewise, dallas experiences a significant crisis in amplification in which white-led nonprofits who shall not be named gain national attention and significant funding for their work that is, on the ground, exploitative of the labor and struggles of communities of color. but through channels such as slick powerpoints, annual reports, or perhaps the new york times, organizations like this rise to the top of the national consciousness.

amplification then, is a double edged sword. i have seen amplification be critical in bringing the controversy around the kelley walker exhibition at the contemporary art museum of st. louis to the national stage, ultimately resulting in the departure of curator jeffrey uslip. but i’ve also seen amplification come at the expense of unsung hometown heroes who may never see their day in the sun.

i would argue that particularly in the age of social media, what we amplify and the ways in which we amplify are highly political choices. i hear the calls of others to bear witness, and occasionally i call out too, for example, begging that my pain as someone in a deeply policed neighborhood not be swept away in the national narrative of the dallas police shootings. i make this call to amplify while recognizing that, when you’re on the outside looking in, it is crucial to be conscientious about what you see.

when i see a slick powerpoint or a hip artist enclave, often times i don’t see it as a representation of accomplishment; i see it as a representation of capital*. i think about the immense amount of start up capital that someone or some organization must have in order to present themselves according to the norms of corporate media, and how different communities have different forms of access to capital. if you’re flat broke, you will not be able to afford a shiny website. but conversely, if you’re flat broke and still making a difference in your community, then perhaps that practice is more worthwhile of amplification, even if your website is kind of shitty.

since moving away from los angeles, i’ve made my choices about what to amplify based on listening to people on the ground whom i trust implicitly due to our personal history and our ethical alignment. and in terms of ethical alignment, i mean aligned in an understanding of justice that looks beyond attractive surface representations to uplift labor, gender, and racial equity in practice, not just in name.

whenever i see a practice or initiative, i often ask, what is the critical take on this? whose voices are missing, and what are people saying**? it’s not just because i love myself some chisme, but because the politics of place are so complex that a critical perspective is the only way to begin to acknowledge all of the contradictions and power relationships inevitably at play. my bias will always be towards asking questions geared towards liberation, rather than suppressing them. i think this is the only way to ethically address the task of amplification.

*on an unrelated aside, i’ve been thinking about people who use the refrain “what about class?” in discussions of marginalization. i am concluding that what they are pointing to is less about class difference as a category of analysis, but about capital as a form of violence that enforces class/race/gender difference. this is why class might be seen by some as the ultimate differentiating identity category; however, usually when it is invoked this way, it conflates the function of capital with the function of class. 

**my practice will always be indebted to the work of the school of echoes, who taught me how to listen.