Thursday, September 4, 2014

On Reading Radicalism

I just read In the Break: The Aesthetics of Black Radical Tradition by Fred Moten. It was assigned reading for my Graduate Seminar here at VCUarts. It. Is. Dense. There were moments when I actually threw the book down in frustration because I felt like I had no idea what Moten was talking about. I was reading slowly and deliberately with a dictionary by my side and still finding it really hard to understand exactly what he was getting at. This was the first book I had to read for grad school and I wanted to NAIL IT. Then a wise acquaintance suggested that I read the book as if I was searching for the parts I was interested in and understood. When I found those sections that's when I could slow down and absorb. 

It worked. I approached this book as if I was excavating for a sentence, paragraph, page, that I could relate to, attach to. I found them. I read most non-fiction through the lens of an artist. I automatically put what I read in relation to what I do. How are Moten's words related to my painting practice? How can I utilize the language I use most to understand the foreign language (of black radicalism) that is before me?

While keeping this in mind, it was helpful to watch Amiri Baraka, who is mentioned in the text frequently, perform Somebody Blew Up America as well as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron. I started to read the text as if it were a performance in it's own right...I read the words with the cadence and intensity of a spoken word piece.

With these newly established guidelines I began to make some connections. Below are a selection of passages that I underlined and revisited most:

The words Marx puts into the commodity's mouth are these: "our use value...does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value," where value equals exchange value. Marx has the commodity go on to assert that commodities only related to one another as exchange-values, that this is proven by the necessarily social intercourse in which commodities might be said to discover themselves. Therefore, the commodity discovers herself, comes to know herself, only as a function of having been exchanged, having been embedded in  a mode of sociality that is shaped by exchange. (Page 9)

It is not the metal in the coin that determines its value.  (Page 13)

What I've been specifically interested in here is how the idea of a black avant-garde exists, as it were, oxymoronically - as if black, on the one hand, and avant-garde, on the other hand, each depends for its coherence upon the exclusion of the other. (Page 32)

If something is to happen, you have to come unprepared, unarmed; but you don't come with nothing. You've got to bring something that adorns you even if it doesn't arm you. Just a very small phrase...(Page 75)

...this implies the possibility of a direct correspondence between the visual and the verbal that empowers one simply to write what one sees; it also implies that one has easy access to a language that adequately represents what one sees...(Page 110)

I didn't want to be absorbed as a collaborator, because that would mean having my own consciousness co-opted and modified by that of others; It would mean allowing my consciousness to be influenced by their perceptions of art, and exposing my perceptions of art to their consciousness, and I didn't want that. (From Adrian Piper "metaperformance", page 239)

You don't have to privilege the ethical over the aesthetic in art if the aesthetic remains the condition of possibility of the ethical in art. (Page 249)

In a book filled with information that I am just beginning to understand, these are some of the lines that I was able to relate to most. I was able to make a connection to them either in the way I live my life, the questions I ask myself, or the themes I explore in my painting. I felt like I read this book in a vacuum and I am really looking forward to a class discussion about it, to understand it deeper.

A few thoughts and questions:

I am very aware that I am a white person saying I don't understand this book about "blackness." I feel naive and a little exposed.

Reading this book while following the events in Ferguson and the shooting of Michael Brown has made my desire to understand that much greater. I can not believe this is still happening. We need radicalism, we need people to rise up and to question what is happening around us. 

I am not radical in my approach to painting. Do I need to be? When there is violence, poverty, racism and war happening all around me, in my world, in what way is my work in the studio significant? How am I contributing to the betterment of the world? 

How does a white person in the confines of an academic institution write about the black radical tradition?

Thanks for reading this...I know it's a bit different from what you're used to. 

Love as always,

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