You’ve probably seen the local firestorm, launched when someone provoked outrage on social media through a focused posting of a particular, incendiary corner of student work displayed in the art wing of a building at Allegheny College. (And, no point doing anything other than foregrounding this: I work there, and I am a creative writer, thus an artist, thus interested and invested in moments when art is under attack.) So, look, you know what I’m going to say … the censorship of art is always a sign of the erosion of democracy.

Enter the complications: the people who took to social media, shocked and outraged by this collage, suggest that the art is a hateful invitation of violence toward the men and women of our nation’s police forces, and this is the outrage also expressed later by the local FOP. This strikes me as either a willful determination to ignore the deep complexities of race and violence in American history, or a simple failure to recognize the purpose and intent of art, coupled with a failure to recognize the deeper outrage actually implied by the art.

Let me put it this way: in 1988, people were shocked and outraged when N.W.A. released the single “F*** the Police,” as a protest to the brutality of the war on drugs and the way black men of America endured disproportionate violence and incarceration in the name of “law and order.” I’d say the biggest outrage of our moment, here in 2019, is that thirty years later black men still suffer that same disproportionate violence and incarceration.

The outrage is not that a young artist in 2019 might write the words raising concern from our local hand-wringers, but that a young artist in 2019 lives in a nation where the artist either feels the same anger and fear that N.W.A. rapped about in 1988 or that the young artist in 2019 recognizes that many black Americans live daily in neighborhoods where the realities of systemic racism subvert the intended reality of policing — to protect and serve — into a roulette game of wondering whether or not the inherent racial biases of America will have drastic effect. I could offer the litany here, but I’ll instead just quietly point you to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen

The outrage is that three decades after N.W.A. was vilified for their engagement with the politics of racism, black Americans still suffer in similar if not identical ways.

The outrage is that a person might have very real experiences to fear and hate the authority of America, that art must still reflect a truth that speaks against the notion of peace and justice we want to tell about ourselves as a country, that in fact there are reasons that Americans of color and difference must wonder, constantly, when they will suffer for their background.

The outrage is that Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” publicly in 1939, as a protest to the lynchings of black Americans that, even then, the nation wanted to think about as historical, even though Emmett Till was still to be murdered in 1955, and even though the jury was still to free the murderers quickly, and even though America was still to respond uncharitably and, indeed, violently to the Civil Rights Movement, and even though Martin Luther King Jr. was still to be assassinated for speaking out for justice and equity, and even though fifty years after that … Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Antwon Rose, Tamir Rice, and, yes, I offer only part of the despairing and horrific litany.

The outrage is that we, as a nation, are more upset about art that suggests there are problems that we need to address, that there are patterns of violence that should be solvable and of highest priority, than we are about those problems and patterns.

The outrage is that in the same week that this local “outrage” erupts, we see a GOP-supporter erect an explicitly racist display in the West Virginia state capitol that takes clear and bigoted aim at a member of the U.S. Congress. The outage is that in the same week that this local call to censorship arrives, we see the president of the U.S. take clear and totalitarian aim at the concept of free speech itself. The outrage is that fanners of our local “outrage” have on Facebook invoked Allegheny College’s refusal to allow the racist Confederate Battle Flag at an FOP-sponsored country music concert as a signal of some supposed double-standard.

The outrage is that we’re outraged by art, and not by the ills of our nation the art critiques. The outrage is that we pretend that frustration at violence is the problem instead of the violence itself. The outrage is that we refuse to take action as a nation to create equity and justice for all and, instead, pretend to be outraged or, worse, refuse to think about the depths of our country’s complicated racial culture and, instead, choose to be simply and facilely “outraged.”

By art.

Not by The Wall.

By art.

Not by Islamaphobia, and homophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment, and sexism, and racism.

By art.

One thought on “Art, Politics, and the Provocation of Free Speech

  1. Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincer ignorance and conscientious stupidity.- – MLK. Unfortunately, I’ve found this same kind of thinking extends beyond racism in the community and they are proud of their stance. Righteous! The photo on the local forum was obvious one small portion of a bigger ‘picture’. The piece obvious hit a nerve with a powerful arrow of truth. Personally I’d like to see more of the artist’s work. He/she must be a keen observer of the world around.


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