Events contaminated by censorship related questions keep pilling up. They’re spreading at such a vertiginous rate that it’s difficult to keep up with the debate. I’m not sure where this text is going, but I see it as an attempt to make sense of several things happening in the past few months.
When confinement measures started last year, one thing became very clear for me: that the power “given” to those in power (in its different stances) would escalate very rapidly, as would authoritarian measures. Lack of common sense, tolerance and empathy became ever more clear, accentuating the differences between individuals and communities with different conditions and circumstances.
I’ve been thinking and working on that, particularly on the idea of margem, margin, shore, on the verge of… also about rivers, bridges and landscape in general as a metaphor for what grows despite favourable conditions.
Being a radical and having spent most of my life battling my own condition as a radical, I’m now facing an interesting debate, but forced to make very difficult decisions. The problem I’m referring to here is not the emergence of a new virus, but, instead, the way societies are dealing with it, in particular what’s been happening since the covid certificate became a reality and is now imposed. Several discriminatory measures derive from this, paving the way for a major colapse in societal relations. I’ve felt like a radical and an outsider all my life, but that has been more or less a private matter, mostly made public in my professional life, with my consent. Nowadays, because of certain choices, those conditions have been made public, without my consent. I’m sure lots of people relate to this.
Discrimination can enter one’s life by assorted doors. One might fit into a “category” culturally discriminated by ways of gender, ethnic, finance, health, etc., but intolerance occurs on a daily basis and ideological and intellectual discrimination is growing by the day. Is it a first world problematic? To be treated as an outsider is not a foreign matter for those choosing to question the concept of “normality” and normative behaviours. Furthermore, I find that living outside the norms is often not as a choice, but a condition, something that is somehow inherent, impossible to contradict or change.
I’m reminded of a conversation with a professor I’m very found of, who, in the context of a philosophical debate, asserted that all we can do in life is internal work. I felt very conflicting things about this statement. For once, I agreed with it and felt crushed by it, given my impossibility to overcome certain struggles and focus on that. Also, when I questioned him about real world problems, like poverty, and how could one focus on internal work if basic conditions weren’t met, he said something on the sort of that doesn’t matter. What he meant was that one can only work on oneself and there’s nothing we can do about “the other”, but I disagree. See, I also believe that the individual’s potency works towards the collective growth, but I don’t think one works despite of the other.
Tolerance and empathy are in crisis. Debating with students is something I always tried to do. Introducing contents specific to the curriculum, I try to raise existential questions (regarding the psyche, the individual, history, society, etc.), basicaly trying to focus on human condition. It’s getting more difficult by the year. However, I believe not because younger generations are less interested in a debate about these questions, but rather because they’re growing afraid to speak their mind. Many of the students I come in contact with have acknowledged that they feel they are very different in school from what they are in their lives outside the campus. When I ask why – and although the answers are not very articulate – they point to ideas about preconceived notions about what is expected of them at school. They also admit that often they rather keep silent than be judged and this gives me the shivers. What seems clear to me is that critical thinking is under attack, but why? Is there not enough space to debate complex questions without judgement falling into place? As relations and public discourse grow contaminated by hate speech, more people are choosing to keep quiet and live separate from the sphere of the common. I empathize and understand this, but if frightens me a bit. Making our way thru life without a sense of belonging might dictate a life of suffering. Not participating in certain dimensions of life in common certainly affects our shared reality. I don’t think this is neither bad not good. One of the questions seems to be that this transformation of the notion of shared reality is making it harder to bond and work on human affection.
These transformations are also at the core of a process of me rethinking my role as a teacher in photography, working for institutions. I’m as frail as any of my students, one of the differences being that maybe I, being on average older than them, have more tools do deal with that fragility. In photography, certain aspects are fundamental, namely technical aspects, but also theoretical and aesthetic notions, historical, anthropological, etc. In line with all these, I see no point in teaching if not for promoting growth and critical thinking. My serious, radical and frail personality (pushing for sincere debates makes me very exposed) makes it very challenging to approach any of the curriculum without challenging the status quo. But questions about language keep creeping in, making it ever more difficult to establish productive dialogues. At the end of the day I find myself frequently questioning my role as a teacher and then having anxieties over it. Is it really worth it, I question?
Being sincere and respectful aren’t mutually exclusive qualities, although cultural changes may make us believe so. For once, being sincere does not mean we must speak our mind in every situation. The possibility of living a communal life is dependent on every one’s ability to be respectful of the other. We all know of many circumstances where choosing to omit our point of view is helpful and/or beneficial. This has nothing to do with “political correctness”, which applies to public discourse in general and, as the term itself names, to political rhetorics in particular. If one is not keen to keep up with cultural changes and understand the need to update historical concepts, then is one is bound to become a dinosaur. Being polite is not being dishonest, being sincere is not being authentic and so on and so forth.
Last week, a curious event arose in the realm of the arts in Portugal, allowing for a debate around notions of racism, but also about subjectivity in the arts. I’m saying there’s a debate going on, but I’m not sure there is. There’s news here and there about the subject, but most of the debate is happening online, in social media. I’ll try to sum up the mess:
As part of the process of the country’s representation in the Venice Biennale, DgArtes elected three people (one artist, one curator, one art historian, all female), who, in their turn, chose five curators who were then asked to present proposals. Those proposals (four, for one of the curators chosen declined to present a project), were then evaluated by a jury again nominated by DgArtes. When the final choice was made public, a particular question arose, namely the fact that a member of that nominated jury had scored one of the projects very differently from the remaining jury, and that score was decisive in that particular project not being the one selected. However, the problem seems not to be the score itself, but the arguments put forth by that member of the jury, curator Nuno Crespo. Maybe that’s not even the fulcral question, but we’ll get there.
So, the project in question was presented by curator Bruno Leitão. It’s called The Wound, by artist Grada Kilomba and presents an artwork born out of reflections about racism and colonialism, as has been known to be the fuel to artist Grada Kilomba’s artistic expression. Nuno Crespo, the only male in the jury, scored it a 10, while the other members scored it 19 and 20. In the arguments presented by curator Nuno Crespo, he states the following (an excerpt, my translation):
This proposal, despite having a team of recognized merit and with work of great national and international recognition, does not seem to build a sufficiently relevant artistic approach. The exhibition project is based on the articulation of two references – the wound (which gives the project its name) and a speech by Martin Luther King from 1964 – undoubtedly important, but whose development in a creative, plastic and theoretical-reflective scope is not enough, in my point of view. From the outset, the fact that there is no relationship, distinction, etc., between the different modalities of racism and decolonization depending on geography, language, among others. Furthermore, the idea of racism as an open wound has already been the subject of countless other approaches; in that sense, the proposal presented does make clear how in an exhibition it will be able to revise, criticize or extend this idea, which has already been discussed and even exhibited in multiple ways.
Grada Kilomba is a brilliant writer and thinker, and her skills in terms of the famous “oral narrative” are undeniable, however as an exhibition proposal, the presented project does not have the artistic scope that, in my view, this representation must have.
To put it into context, I find it useful to add at lest one of the arguments presented by another member of the jury, which scored the same project a 20. The jury in question is Sofia Isidoro, who works for DgArtes (google translation):
The theme addressed by the proposal arises from the continuity of the work developed by the artist Grada Kilomba, in a critical and activist thought on the issues of white preponderance and arrogance, in what is assumed to be a collective wound that remains to be healed. The project concept has full framing in the theme of the biennale, in a reference to the normality of the European body to the detriment of others, not “normative”, and in the transversality of implications that this hegemony imprints on the relationship between humans and their relationship with the natural environment, namely with regard to to climatic imbalances, so the relevance and pertinence of this approach today is indisputable. In this context, the artistic project skillfully reflects, through the creation of an opera-performance, a narrative that intends to launch an idea of the future.
To support this performance, a parallel program of artistic activities and theoretical reflections was structured, perfectly aligned with the main project and contributing to a critical thinking that is never too much to present publicly. In this context, the important international relationship that is intended to be established between the Bienal’s pavilions (PT and USA) deserves to be highlighted.
The team has great disciplinary diversity and unquestionable ability to implement the ambitious project they are proposing, including the integration of an environmental management company, which will guide the development of the project from a perspective of social, environmental and economic sustainability.
From this, two questions arose: one that questioned Nuno Crespo’s score and arguments, quick to qualify his evaluation as mysoginist and racist; other that questioned the very scope of art evaluation.
Bruno Leitão, curator responsible for the proposal in question, appealed the decision, but the review that followed had the same outcome. Leitão questioned Crespo’s arguments, in particular, but also the seriousness (and legality) of the process and the way the evaluation was equated. DgArtes responded to Leitão’s appeal, stating that “one doesn’t understand to what extent the analysis, individual and non-coincident within the scores attributed by each of the members of the Committee, can be regarded as strange and much less illegal, since this analysis has an underlying margin of free appreciation“, to with DgArtes added that “the individual analysis carried out by each of the members to the proposals, based on the defined criteria, although unfavorable, cannot be called derogatory if it recognizes the value of a proposal, although not the expected one”. The full scope of the appeal and response is public and can be accessed here.
The response of the member of the jury Nuno Crespo to Bruno Leitão’s appeal made the controversy escalate. The member of the jury adopted an aggressive and arrogate tone to assert his point of view. In his statement, Crespo says the evaluation is subjective, as all made in the field of arts are, adding that biographical factors should not be considered relevant when appreciating an artistic proposal. Next a paragraph I find particularly relevant (google translation):
The statement [refering to Leitão’s appeal] continues and adds: “Nuno Crespo devalued the issues of “racism” and “decolonization”, matters in which he is not specialized.” This is not what appears in the assessment made. What is stated is that the approach to this theme (as well as to the theme of sustainability and militarization) in the context of an exhibition in a visual arts biennial in the way it is done does not materialize, in artistic terms, distinctive factors, approaches. innovative, to themes so crucial in contemporary society and exhaustively worked by so many artists from different geographies. Unlike the pronunciation, I will not carry out comparative exercises with other national and international artists, nor with the other exhibition projects presented to this appraisal committee.
As for the lack of specialization of this committee member, it is worth remembering that what is at stake is the competence needed to be part of a committee for the appreciation of exhibition projects in the visual arts, and it is this specialization that should be required of the members that make up this committee and not other. It is strange that this lack of specialization in questions of decolonialism is not raised regarding other members on the same committee.
On the public arena, those committed to the debate about racism and colonialism have mobilized to attack Nuno Crespo for his arguments (not the valuation itself concerning its artistic value, for they are mostly unaware or uninterested in those specific subjects). The question is, therefore, mostly about language and Crespo has nowhere to hide, though I’m sure he couldn’t give a shit about all this. His speech is obviously arrogant, misogynist and racist, and, in several aspects, it becomes symbolic and gains further relevance, for it sort of mimics the discourse of the colonialist. I’m reminded of something another male art critic said about Grada Kilomba: failing to make a relevant critique about her artwork he said she was photogenic and looked fake. At least he choose to say “photogenic” instead of pretty. Get the point?
On the other hand, what I see here is an opportunity to discuss several other things, even though that is far from happening. Making the discussion all about racism prevents us from discussing the arguments that have to do with artistic qualities. For instances, I’m pretty sure in most circumstances I won’t be allowed to say why Kilomba’s artwork is of little interest to me without being called a racist and that is, in itself, very problematic. Questions about racism and colonialism are very relevant in this country and maybe we’re seeing that academia and the arts are the most prepared for this debate, so it is where it is being welcomed and promoted. That’s understandable, but should it suppress the space given to other artists and artworks? Should artistic value be put to sleep for a while in order to promote art that is socially committed?
Finally addressing what I find most relevant here: questions about artistic value and who judges it. Let me start by saying that the sort of arguments presented in evaluations concerning DgArtes are full of problems like these. There are a lot of minorities and a long debate could be held regarding precisely how DgArtes structure of assessment keeps reinforcing exclusion, not inclusion. Furthermore, people invited to be part of these sort of juries often present arguments that lack coherence (and are therefore contested) because they are full of rhetorics whose only goal is to justify other project winning the support. I know very little people who, having presented proposals to DgArtes, have not been witness to this, me included. That now, because of Grada Kilomba’s visibility and the contemporary relevance of the debate about racism and colonialism, this question may come to light is but a good thing, though, once again, that discussion may be crushed precisely by the very event that gave it more visibility.
It’s also worth mentioning one article published in the newspapper here soon after the jury’s score was made public. Ana Teixeira Pinto, an art critic, questioned the jury decision, meaning she thinks the winning project is unworthy of such choice, although all four members of the jury valueded it very highly. She never mentions the winning project, only that The Wound is more worthy of representing the country in the Biennale. She does say the following: “Grada Kilomba would be, objectively, the better option.” This goes on to promote Kilomba’s notoriety, but if she is establishing a comparison (better than…) wouldn’t it be mandatory that she went on to make arguments for such a comparison? Isn’t there such a thing as intelectual honesty? She then ventures into an idiotic thesis, saying that “questions of taste or sensibility are not subjective”, arguing that all our aesthetic preferences and choices “express the way in which systems of valuation, or devaluation, are internalized: when we talk about artistic issues, racism is expressed in a subtle way, through the hierarchization of plastic conventions who tend to see a certain type of artistic expression as sophisticated and complex, devaluing other types as simplistic, naive, or reductive”. She begins her own critic by saying that she was not surprised but chocked by the Nuno Crespo’s assertion of the proposal, so let me say that I’m also chocked that someone who is a researcher and author in cultural theory fails to understand that 1) all aesthetic experience is subjective and 2) fortunately, we don’t all share the same conventions, thus “sophisticated” and “complex” is not better than raw or “naive”, as she calls it, equating it with simplistic and reductive. It’s mind-blowing.