Can White People Ever Be Radical?
Ey, you ever read something and think it’s saying one thing, but then go back to it later on, and find out that it was on about something else entirely? I do it all the fucking time.
Back when I was in art school, we used to have to go to these little seminars where we’d sit and talk about theory. We’d have to read some little essay or extract from some dense French philosopher, and then sit about and chat out our thoughts around it - talk our way into understanding. The only one that stuck with me was a session on Hal Foster’s essay: ~the Artist as Ethnographer~. I remember reading it, n thinking ‘wow, what a good point!’ and then going to the session and saying ‘Hal Foster points out that white people literally cannot be radical’. 2 white girls sat in front of me turned round to gave me the stink eye, and I had no idea why. Years later, I was reading through it again, trying to see if I could shoehorn this into a text, to back up a point I was making (specifically, for our review of Caroline Calloway’s existence). I scanned it, rescanned it, confused & baffled. That just wasn’t what Hal Foster was saying. This was a text about social practice; about the artist’s role as an agent of the bourgeoisie. It talks through this way that artists are deployed out, to marginal spaces and marginalised communities, to condition both space and community, n render them as an object primed for circulation & transaction under a capitalist art market. 19 year old ZM had magicked up an entirely different conversation that just wasn’t there in the text. I had read it hopefully, manifesting this conversation that was actually just pure fiction by me, the hopeful & lazy reader.
I am gonna try and write the text I thought I was reading:
Art is this special and weird political substance. It has the ability to simultaneously criticise and affirm the capitalist system it exists within. This ability exists because art itself is like this split thing: both ~autonomous~, free wild cut loose from the capitalist shackles that hold it, a useless dead end object that doesn’t align with the primary function of capitalist institutions; and also just like deeply dependent on the machinery of capitalism, exclusionary, audience purpose and self are bourgeois, and it is, functionally speaking, a commodity that the rich can trade for inflated speculative prices on an open unregulated market. Art: cowboy & banker, at the same time.
This duality, this bizarre split pull is directly caused by the fact that art is not actually the object itself, but the process of transformation the object has undergone. Art: the practice of transformation. What kind of transformation specifically, is kind of up in the air. Maybe this is a political transformation, physical, aesthetic, spatial, or conceptual, or oooo maybe it’s social. It’s up to you, idc; each maker just ~does a transformation~, and then stands back to figure out what has happened. The kind of transformation depends on the positionality of the maker; what they are capable of and how powerful their specific kind of wizardry is.
Culture is not a singular entity; there are many different kinds of culture. There’s dominant culture, residual culture, emergent culture (i hadn’t read Raymond Williams at the time, but I had heard the strapline: ~DOMINANT RESIDUAL EMERGING~). A Maker’s position in society, their experience identity and proximity to power; these things all have affect, afterburn that leaks out onto the things they make. I am dancing around it; white people cannot be radical because radicality is productive.
Whiteness exists in a congealed powerful centre, where dominant culture is produced; the dominant culture of the centre is about sustaining power as it currently exists. Dominant culture is a byproduct of power and the maintenance of its location in that centre; it’s about sustaining, and reproduction. It is static, not productive or generative.
Radicality is the production of new or alternative emergent cultural forms. It is generative, rather than static; it is produced at the margins, away from dominant power. It is defined by the fact that it stands oppositionally, in a direct stance against dominant culture, because its productive power comes from its ability to subvert dominant culture. It is unstable because it is unable to access power, but that instability is an active component in its productive or transformative power. From there, everything that is new or different or alternative emerges; it is a point of creation and generation. The margins are a productive, transformative space; marginality can condition things, render them palpably changed. Not by fact of location, but by pure fact of how it relates to dominant culture: oppositionally.
Do you see where I am going with this?
Whiteness: static, sustaining, reproductive.
Radicality: unstable, productive, new.
White artists cannot be radical. Their identity precludes them from that position, the instability that is required for radicality to be possible, by fact of the power that they are in possession of or in proximity to. If they make, it is the reproduction of power. If they transform, it is the transformation and conditioning of things into something in the service of power. They are blocked from the transformative power of production, because they are stuck by their own access to power; constantly trapped in a cycle of reconditioning things that are only ever reproductions, never unstable and so never radical.
That’s what I thought Hal Foster was saying.
But what if he was saying that? Like, what then? How does this effect the way we critically assess the weight and value of little bits of culture? If this was theoretical fact, how should it inform our evaluation of art?
I’m now gonna talk about Beeple.
If you don’t know: here are the highlights. Beeple is the artist stage name of Mike Winkelmann, a digital artist who makes little Things. He sold an NFT (a special kind of rare digital artwork that you’ve got to burn an entire oil rig to produce - somehow that’s an entirely necessary part of the whole process, don’t ask me how) for $69 million at a Christie’s auction. The artwork itself is called ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’, and the idea is that every day since 2007, for 5000 days, this guy has sat down and made a little drawing on his computer. Its produced a bundle of 5000 little squares of like… the worst white boy edgelord reddit crap. 3d CGI Mike Pence the size of an action movie giant, looming over the US Congress building dressed as a gladiator, surrounded by enormous flies, and everything is on fire. Donald Trump with the body of that massive twitter baby is sat on Abraham Lincoln’s knee, Lincoln’s hand is raised to spank the Trump baby’s pink arse cheek. Just like, absolute bottom of the barrel crud; here’s an artnet article that breaks down the contents. And Christie’s have been doing heavy PR trying to frame these little bits of shite as a ~new form~: an ‘everyday’, like Duchamp had his Readymades, and Beeple is next in line with his Everydays, art history is being made etc. Groundbreaking stuff. And naturally, people have been losing their minds over several parts of this: the pricetag, the sexist racist homophobic transphobic & antisemitic jumpscare content, the pricetag, the fact that it doesn’t really exist bc computer goes bleep bloop, the very real environmental damage, the PRICETAG. I’m aware that the world doesn’t need any more hot takes about Beeple, the $69 million auction price, or NFTs. I do not care about NFTs, and I do not understand them, because I am a hot girl with hobbies and friends. What I am interested in, is what Beeple’s literal image-making means under this new lamp of my imagined fictional theory.
Because Beeple, right? He’s been making. And making and making and making. And not once has he produced anything. Not one single thing on one of those 5000 days. Every single day he sat down to make something and it was a reproduction of dominant power, the violence of that power, the image of that violence, the image of that power, the image of dominance, a reproduction of how powerful the violence of that dominant power’s image is. It makes me laugh, honestly. It also makes me feel a bit sad for him. Imagine involving yourself in such a colossal waste of your own time, from this, the one and only life you have - astaghfirullah.
More than being valuable for art history and the canon, Beeple’s artwork is useful. Because I have known white male artists like Beeple. I went to art school with white male artists who fell deeply and madly in love with the images they made; the power that they could just reproduce within the container of an image, how they could fashion and mould it into a shape, how it was a perfect encapsulation, or a stunning likeness. I can find you hundreds of these guys in our DM requests on instagram, point them out at the art fairs, I can nail down their current aesthetic signifiers, I can do the takedown. But as power shifts its centre, so will they. Soon it won’t be about NFTs and images of fake ironic Donald Trump with massive tits, but everything is on fire, and it looks soupy. They have always existed, and wallah they always will.
My genuine question is: even in my galaxybrain theory and imagined fiction, was I right? Beeple feels like the ultimate illustration of ‘White artists cannot be radical because they are perpetually blocked, trapped in a cycle of reproducing the image of power’. No criticality, no subversion or evasion or reconditioning of that power, nothing new; just straight undiluted power, reproduced into a combination that is neither interesting, valuable, or even truly shocking. Was I right? Is whiteness a prohibitive state in and of itself, regardless of how you cut it? Name one white man that has actually produced something. Tell me, look me in the eye. Can white people ever be radical?