Reckoning with privilege
Updated: May 2, 2021
An artist I admire recently shared a post where they said that white artists should include the word ‘whiteness’ in their artist statements and it’s something I’ve spent the last several days thinking about. Disclosing that kind of information can feel awkward, particularly when it is related to our personal histories and identities, and especially when those factors do not feel like a significant element worth mentioning. Something I try to remember is that that emotional and creative distance to subjects like gender or race stems from privilege and that while they influence creative processes, it is when they are not a source of oppression that the impact they have is easily overlooked. Similarly, when an artist identifies with a marginalized group or is assumed to, that can impact interpretations and impressions of their art which runs the risk of simplifying or reducing the possible narratives the artist is presenting in favour of projected stereotypes and agendas formulated by those in power.
I do painful and intimate performances using domestic objects and pomegranate juice. I substitute flesh and blood for something sticky and sweet to complicate desire and disgust, collapsing moments of pain and comfort into messes of emotional and sensorial ambivalence. I was born in 1994 and am HIV-negative. I don’t know what it’s like to lose someone to AIDS. Performances poorly echo the ‘80s and ‘90s and remind me that it will always be unfamiliar. They reiterate that I am reliant on substitutions and foreign materials like Polaroid photography, beds that are not my own, and skins made of gauze to bridge those temporal and experiential gaps. I have to feel it because my body will remember.
I’m grateful the juice melts and leaves my fingers numb. It distracts me from the pooling around my body and encourages stillness because even the slightest shift submerges more skin. My affection gets interrupted by shivers. If we don’t have long together I want to take advantage of this moment, to touch while I can. The physical pain will only be temporary so I shouldn’t let go. My body will remember with sudden tears and stiff knuckles when I strip or see the stains but I’m afraid I’ll still forget.
I wrote the above statement while in graduate school and tried to be pretty open about where my ignorance lies in relation to the concepts I was addressing such as my lack of personal experience with HIV and AIDS as someone who is HIV-negative and growing up in an era boasting medications like PrEP that greatly reduce the risk of contracting the virus through sexual contact. Additionally, I’m familiar with treatments available for folks who are positive that can reduce their viral load to a point that they cannot transmit HIV to their partners (U=U). But there were things I didn’t mention in my statement like being white, cisgender, and male. These aren’t topics I’m opposed to discussing because they’re important to acknowledge and expose the potential risks and dangers of making work addressing social issues, especially ones that might relate to your community but only caress you personally as a member without gripping you entirely as someone intimate with it.
Thinking about how I would address those aspects of myself formally in my statements makes me uncomfortable and I imagine that was the purpose. I think specifying that the queer position I am speaking from is white, cis, and male informs the work while simultaneously sounding clunky because it acknowledges something that is clear in the performative documentation but otherwise recenters my body in work that is not. But it mostly feels that way because it’s not something I’m ever asked to talk about and that is the issue.
In longer writing I make attempts to dive into these uncomfortable topics because I value reflecting on them and doing so has been humbling and concerning. It has asked me to consider how I endorse harmful narratives or how performance art focuses the lens on my body, a body that has rarely been denied being centred in the frame historically and continues to dominate spotlights today. However, integrating it into concise writing like statements is hard because space is often limited in most applications and making a point of disclosing your privilege can seem insincere. I think that my fear of sounding disingenuous is rooted in my discomfort bringing privilege up at all but also because it elicits a feeling in my gut that I understand as attempting to signal virtue superficially rather than embodying it authentically. It would be wrong to recognize my privilege in a statement if it’s not an active thought. If I don’t talk about it when speaking about the work generally, regardless of being asked, including it in a statement would only aim to give those reading it a favourable impression of me personally.
I think this process is one that I plan to include when I return to teaching because it offers an important opportunity to have a conversation that is easier left unsaid but would deny growth otherwise. It is helpful to think about how intimate your work is with your identity and those related histories, or if it seems completely isolated from them. That isn’t to say there is a problem with distance but I think acknowledging that luxury, the ability to freely pursue concepts untethered to a reality that consistently harms you or having those associations imposed upon you, encourages recognizing the labour that accompanies practices invested in one’s personal identity and its politics.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the space between studio and gallery or wherever the work will be received and the turbulence concepts and intentions go through as they transition from an internal process by the artist to an external one with viewers. My studio has always felt like an extension of myself, a place where vulnerability is welcome and I can explore with less hesitancy while being immersed in materials and research that inform one another. A drawing or book here forms connections to the painting or notes there and vice versa. Nothing is made in isolation and everything begins to share these deep and winding references that are important but often missed in the gallery. It would be unrealistic to hope that was not the case and attempts to share all that knowledge in a short period of time would be futile.
I mention my studio because the work I’m beginning to develop right now is so focused on the formal interactions between simple materials that I cannot help but confront the risks and privilege present there. I’m fetishizing objects rooted in violence and in doing so I tread a thin line separating criticism and endorsement. By taking something like a meat hook and covering it in gold I highlight the excessive value placed upon violence and other dangerous industries but I’m also literally imbuing it with capitalist value. Its simplicity can easily be interpreted as worshipping such structures of power and harm by embracing them wholeheartedly and elevating them further using material desire as its vessel that exhausts the dubious connections violence shares with sex, capitalism, and power. It is an uncomfortable position to occupy as I’m drawn to this work because it’s aesthetically pleasing and it’s riddled with these complex thoughts but I remain wary because intentions are rarely easily contained and mistakes are inevitable.
How privilege is understood and treated as a contemporary subject also contributes to the increasing ambivalence I have about integrating it into formal writing like artist statements. The term ‘privilege’ is utilized in various ways, especially online, and I want to be mindful of the complex relationships people have with it. I think it’s a term that can be mistakenly sympathetic, and I mean that in how Brené Brown defines it in comparison to empathetic, whereby asking someone to acknowledge their privilege we risk dismissing their pain. I don’t see this happen explicitly often but I think people largely interpret the term ‘privilege’ in conversations as doing just that because of its use in phrases like “check your privilege” that are invoked in response to seemingly unnecessary or excessive frustration or despair over small inconveniences. The challenge is then reconsidering how we navigate humbling others, or simply asking them to reflect on the actual severity of the situation, without invalidating their emotions and the experiences that are likely contributing to their response. Privilege is also frequently accompanied by senses of entitlement and a low tolerance for opposition which doesn’t make moving through these scenarios any easier but that sensitivity is something I try to keep in mind regardless.
But how do we acknowledge these nuances in just a couple hundred words? Would asking artists to address their positions of privilege in their statements function to reveal deeper influences we actually want to see or would that simply introduce limitations and elicit eye rolls? When I look at the statements of artists I admire who address identity politics and their experiences as people of colour, women, trans and non-binary folks, queer people, and disabled people it encourages looking at the work in a way that also sees the immense barriers that exist for them to achieve recognition, opportunities, and respect. But pointing out your own privilege doesn’t do the same thing and while it is a humbling process that I highly encourage other artists to deeply consider, the formal implementation of it is rather complicated and the impact the statement has feels rather unsubstantial. A white artist mentioning they’re white without any critical awareness or deeper consideration for how that is impacting the development and presentation of their work doesn’t do much but reiterate the priority whiteness receives in artistic spaces. However, mentioning how colonially undervalued histories, cultures, and people play a role in your artistic expression does do something because it actively engages with the white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, and ableism that continues to saturate the art world.
This is all to say that developing a comfortable and critical relationship with privilege is tough. It prompts questions that don’t have clear answers and showcases the limitations of the English language in articulating emotionally dense subjects. Years ago my artist statement included the word privilege and when I look back at the work that accompanied it there was a conversation happening but it wasn’t that rigorous and I don’t know if it was really effective. At the moment, I’m not sure what a practice that truly addresses personal privilege would look like. My initial worries would be it feels like a plea for forgiveness thereby placing the emotional burden back on marginalized people and thus perpetuating the abusive cycle harming those communities. But it is something I want to work on, at the very least as a person who wants to be more empathetic and empower those around him, and if it manages to seep into my artistic practice in an authentic way that would be nice too.