Art and Racism: Evil by Evil?

An exposition has stirred controversy in Chicago. It presents a hyperrealistic reconstruction of the corpse of Michael Brown, who was the victim of a police blunder in 2014. Is this a racist artistic presentation or a tool of denunciation?

“It’s really disturbing, disgusting,” were the recent remarks made by the father of Michael Brown, the young 18-year-old unarmed black man who was shot by a white policeman on Aug. 9, 2014. The source of indignation lies in a “sculpture” on display at the Gallery Guichard in Chicago. The work of art — although some refuse to describe it as such — is a reconstruction of the tragic news story that outraged the United States. Cordoned off with yellow police tape, a mannequin, lying face down on the floor, is strikingly realistic.

How do we comprehend the intention of artist Ti-Rock Moore, when we know that she is white and that the gallery is located in a largely black district in Chicago’s South Side? Though art is always subject to interpretation, one element of response is found in the presence of Michael Brown’s mother at the viewing, although the hyperrealistic depiction of the body had been covered up for her visit. A second clue can be found in the exposition’s title: “Confronting Truths: Wake Up!”

Crudely Denouncing Racism

A black Statue of Liberty and figures wearing pointed Ku Klux Klan hoods can also be seen at the gallery. The creator’s aim would therefore be to crudely denounce the endemic racism that subsists in a country marked by numerous police “blunders” analyzed through the lens of racial tension. In the face of the controversy, the gallery owners have put forth an additional argument that, in retrospect, seems like an attempt for “atonement”: 10 percent of the money collected will be donated to an organization fighting against police violence…

For those criticizing the artwork, who are blowing up this controversial issue, an exhibition as crude as the actual tragedy, devoid of any modesty or refinement of reality, would only be designed to create a buzz. If this is really the case, it must be noted that the controversy, which denounces the artist’s supposed intention, allows what it is denouncing to achieve the same supposed objective. For some, Ti-Rock Moore is “sign[ing] her signature on the body of [the] dead.” For others, art is the mirror that must reflect the ugliest aspects of society to inspire rejection.

‘Human Zoos’

Should we expose “the reality”? The question arose during another controversy a few months back, at the time of the “Exhibit B” performance art piece. At the Gérard Philipe de Saint-Denis French theater, white South African artist Brett Bailey presented “living portraits,” staging black actors in scenes from the colonial era. Spectators found themselves individually confronted with motionless and silent actors who were only “captioned” by a neutral text. Demonstrations unfolded in front of the theater and a petition was circulated, denouncing the artistic presentation as a spectacle of “caged black persons,” a display comparable to the “human zoos” at 19th century fairs — a “happening” void of theatrical dramaturgy and editorial distortion.

Can the clinical reconstruction of an execution or a situation of racist victimization have educational value? Perhaps if the very environment of an unchanged fact changed. The reconstruction of Michael Brown’s body in a museum is not Michael Brown’s body in the street. The colonized person incarnated in the 21st century theater is not the colonized person thrown to the wolves in a 19th century world’s fair — not even visually identical. Yet who will verify the artistic intentions once and for all? And who will condemn the sincere feelings experienced?

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  1. I read somewhere that great art is always rebellious if not revolutionary. An artist with no sense of the ” social lie ” is almost lacking a needed 6th sense. But great art always rises above crude propaganda serving only a fleeting moment in time.
    That is why the ” proletarian literature ” of 1930s -corrupted by the Stalinist school of ” art ” -is almost unreadable today-when the Socialist truth is also an orphan.
    Still the propaganda IMAGE is a powerful weapon in the struggle for human dignity. The mutilated , horrific body of the murdered black boy Emmett Till on display for public mourning helped win the struggle for Civil Rights in America more than 50 years ago.
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