How to make a racist chair

Read J.J. Charlesworth's column, from the March 2014 issue

By J.J. Charlesworth

12 Years a Slave (film still), 2013, dir Steve McQueen. Courtesy Entertainment One.

Spot the difference between the following: in the first case, an artist makes a film that depicts scenes of abuse, rape and torture of black men and women. Everybody thinks the film is fantastic and the artist gets lots of awards.

In the second case, an artist makes a sculpture in the shape of a partly naked black woman on her back, her legs flipped back over her head, with a seat cushion belted to her thighs, bondage-style, to emphasise that she is meant to be treated as a chair. A rich white female collector has her portrait taken sitting on the sculpture. Pretty much everybody gets very angry, declaring the image ‘racist’, and the rich collector has to issue a statement declaring that she is absolutely not a racist and never intended to offend anyone.

The December release, to great acclaim, of artist-turned-film-director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave followed, in January, by the Internet/Twitter storm that greeted the publication of a picture of collector Dasha Zhukova posing on a sculpture by Bjarne Melgaard – now dubbed ‘the racist chair’ – says much about art’s wobbly claim to be an agent of social commentary and critique, while revealing how the topsy-turvy logic of identity politics now closes down any serious discussion about what an artwork might mean.

Much of the controversy over the Zhukova/Melgaard image got stuck on what the artist supposedly ‘intended’ with his artwork. So while New York blog Hyperallergic could conclude that ‘it’s nearly impossible to find any kind of insightful takeaway from Melgaard’s use of the body of a woman of color’, The Guardian’s columnist Jonathan Jones could, conversely, assert that ‘[Melgaard’s] intention is therefore the opposite of racist: it is to question power and representation’. So, was the artist intending racism, or a critique of racism?

The trouble is, in a culture within which the politics of identity has become mainstream, whether an artwork is intended as a ‘critique’ of power and representation matters less than the minority credentials of its proponent. So the issue wasn’t necessarily the chair, but rather that Zhukova is rich and white. She pleaded that the work had been ‘taken out of context’, but the problem is that in the culture of identity politics, context has everything to do with who has the right to make that critique.

Zhukova pleaded that the work had been ‘taken out of context’, but the problem is that in the culture of identity politics, context has everything to do with who has the right to make that critique.

The critical ‘intention’ of a male white artist is trumped by those with a greater claim to the identity at stake – ‘As a black woman, I’m offended’. As it turned out, Melgaard tried playing both the ‘art as critique’ and the identity-politics card in his defence: in a joint statement issued with his dealer Gavin Brown, the artist declared that the sculpture existed ‘to destabilize and unhinge our hardened and crusty notions of race and sex and power.

These sculptures, made by a self professed “homosexual”, expose the latent and residual self hatred in a culture where the inhuman and overpowering presence of violence and catastrophe is imminent.’ In other words: hey, I’m gay – I’m a minority too, I can’t possibly be racist.

The real cultural orthodoxy, though, beyond accusations of racism, lies in Melgaard’s bleak diagnosis of contemporary culture as self-hating and doomed to ‘violence and catastrophe’. In that regard, McQueen’s fatalistic and strangely hollow vision of antebellum American slavery resonated with this very contemporary sense of pessimism. Amid the flood of accolades for McQueen’s film, it was left to the acerbic (black) American film critic Armond White to argue that ‘McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity’. That is, human beings are endlessly, hopelessly awful. Now that really is offensive…

This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue.