This blog post is primarily written by Daniel Abrahams, a PhD student specializing in aesthetics at University of Leeds, and supplemented by Shen-yi Liao (in brackets), a Marie Curie fellow at University of Leeds. Liao was a co-organizer of the conference and Abrahams was a conference assistant. However, we would like to stress that these are just our own perspectives rather than any “official” account. Photos are by Shen-yi Liao and Sara Protasi.
Race & Aesthetics: A British Society of Aesthetics Connections Conference ran the 19th and 20th of May, at the Leeds Art Gallery. Fourteen speakers and several dozen more participants gathered to share thoughts on any of the points of intersection between the philosophies of race and aesthetics. Topics ranged from sexual attraction to humour to Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B. In what follows, I’ll try to present short but effective summaries of each of the conference talks.
While the talks could be chunked into five or six thematic topics, constant throughout was pushing the limits of the aesthetic well beyond art and into as many spheres of experience as possible. Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman and A.W. Eaton focus on sexuality – beauty, desire, and the bodily aesthetic. Sherri Irvin, Alia Al-Saji, and Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng discuss how context shapes racialized images and archetypes. Ron Mallon and Charles Mills examine the functioning and functions of humour. Kristie Dotson and James Camien McGuiggan focus the most heavily on their first-personal experiences of specific art works and artists, and on how art may both articulate and confront, with special attention to the different responses by audiences who are differently racialized.
There are two talks that do not easily fit in to the above categories. The conference’s final talk, by Katharine Jenkins and Jennifer Saul, provides a practical capstone to the previous discussion, starting to answer the question that Coleman opened the conference with: how to start decolonializing the curriculum. The other talk, by Paul Taylor, does not readily fit any categories because it effectively covers them all. He asks the broad question, “what is the Black aesthetic?”
Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman / A.W. Eaton / Sherri Irvin
Day 1 Talk 1: Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, “‘I Am a Sexual Racist'”
The talk followed two main tracks. The first was to look at whiteness, whiteliness, and shame. Quoting Samantha Vice, whiteness is a global hegemonic norm that merits shame in persons racialized as white. This is because shame is morally appropriate in the case where there is a gap between what a person is and what a person wants to be. Global white supremacy means that persons racialized as white are benefited in such a way that their welfare derives from harm done unto others. Since this harm is unjust, shame is appropriate.
This analysis of shame is drawn into an analysis of shamelessness, specifically on the part of Jesse Matheson who argued that he was a “sexual racist” and that there was nothing wrong with that. Coleman then followed this into an analysis of racialized sexual desire, and how to desire against the pressures of white supremacy. The conclusion he advocates is “metonymic sexual desire:” mutually arousing objectification.
Day 1 Talk 2: A.W. Eaton, “What Makes you Beautiful: On the Racialization of Bodily Taste”
As the title of the talk suggests, Eaton’s focus is racialized ideals of beauty. Her central point is that standards of beauty are not simply symptoms of white power, as commonly argued, but are rather important constituents. Beauty standards’ buttressing effects on white power are twofold. The first is that it prescribes a way for people to shape themselves, what features they ought to display. The second, deriving from the first, is that it provides a hierarchized standard of beauty. Accordingly, it is not just that considered-standardly-white features are beautiful, but that they are more beautiful than other features. As a case study of both these points, Eaton takes up how “white hair” is a largely artificial construction.
To work against the white supremacist bodily aesthetic, Eaton argues that we have to not just change the principles we recognize, but work to shape our affective character. This is because there is necessarily a sentimental dimension to bodily taste. Accordingly, it is not enough to simply recognize that the way one feels is shaped by white supremacy, but one must work to undo the way one’s affect has been so determined. An immediate way this can be done is by working against stereotypes, refusing to shape one’s one image in the mold of white supremacy.
[Readers can also read more about Eaton’s thoughts on this topic at Philosop-her.]
Day 1 Talk 3: Sherri Irvin, “Icons of False Hope? The Role of Images in Thinking About Racial Justice”
The main focus of Irvin’s talk was the recent idea that making police officers wear video cameras would work to reduce police violence. Her argument was that the videos alone would not be enough without changing how people approach these videos. To make her case, she drew upon several existing videos of such violence, and showed how they worked to provide justification for police action: the videos are examined with the attitude that the viewer is looking for any even slightly plausible justification for police violence, and any justification, no matter how small, is taken as justification for anything and everything the officer does. In one particular poignant example, Irvin shows a video of Ursula Orr being thrown to the ground by the police. Because of how Orr landed, her one leg being up and visible above the hood of the car, she was charged with aggravated assault.
This analysis is tied with an analysis of the titular “icons of false hope.” Using the example of 12-year-old Devonte Hart hugging officer Bret Barnum, Irvin argues that the image is taken as an “icon of hope” because it shows black passivity. Both still and moving images reaffirm that “there is a standard of compliant non-violence that is applied there [to people of colour] and not elsewhere.” Accordingly, images that are held up as hopeful icons are done so because they promise to a white audience that people of colour will return to their place within white supremacy.
Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng
Day 1 Talk 4: Nils-Hennes Stear & Robin Zheng, “Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, What’s Wrong with Blacking Up?”
Stear and Zheng start their talk by way of discussion of the “value interaction debate” – how and in what way do ethical qualities come to bear on aesthetic evaluations? Some works of art may invite participants to adopt or export pernicious views. These arguments may be applied so that mere imaginings, separate from works of art, may also be so evaluated.
Playing upon J.L. Austin’s speech act theory, Stear and Zheng argue that imaginings may be analogously understood: not only is there the content (locution) of the imagining and the causal upshot (perlocution) of the imagining, but there is the act of imagining itself (illocution). This allows them to say that immoral imaginings may be substantively disrespectful acts, even if they are without consequence. The way this works is that the imagination-illocution itself is something that may be shaped by social-political context.
Ron Mallon / Charles W. Mills
Day 1 Talk 5: Ron Mallon, “Humour, Automaticity, and Automata”
The goal of Mallon’s talk was to look at how different dominant theories of humour deal with humour that takes race as its subject. The first half of the talk was picking through the existing theories of humour to move towards a more biological theory of mirth experienced as an epistemic emotion. The goal of humour, then, is to trigger this mirth reaction. Mallon uses Hurley, Dennett, and Adams’ model where the primary mechanism for which mirth is used, and the mechanism that gave rise to humour, is the sorting out of incompatible committed beliefs.
Moving away from broad theories of humour (and mirth), Mallon looks at particular sorts of jokes. First considered are category jokes, where the humour lies in some characteristic of the category defied. With respect to racial jokes, these trade on some person displaying some feature that is considered contrary to their racial category. Implicit in racial category humour, importantly, is some considered-essential feature that the mirth-triggering feature is defying. Similarly, mechanical humour also trades upon the assumption of essential racialized characteristics in the butt of the joke.
Day 1 Talk 6: Charles W. Mills, “White Lies / Black Humour”
Capping off day 1, there was Mills on humour within the philosophy of race. Looking at the three canon theories of humour – superiority, relief, and incongruity – he showed how Black humour used elements of all three to carve out space within white supremacy. Against the supremacy of white supremacy, Black humour can carve out space simply by asserting equality and upending the white supremacist hierarchy. The relief theory of humour is shown in how humour was used to create an escape from the tensions of colonialism. And the incongruity theory was put to use in showing the moral and intellectual hollowness of white supremacy.
Paul C. Taylor
Day 2 Talk 1: Paul C. Taylor, “Turning Aside at the Beginning”
Taylor started the second day by sharing some of the foundational work for his upcoming book. The title of the talk comes from W.E.B. Du Bois – “in the struggle to be human, how can we turn aside to talk about art?”
The aesthetic is that which is engaged immediately, that is felt directly. Aesthetic experience, following Dewey, begins with every day experience. Race, in turn, is about the material advantages and ideas that shape everyday life. Accordingly, the aesthetic is one way in which the effects of race are felt and engaged daily.
Taylor said that his Black aesthetic is “a conjunction, a network of cultural spaces… attended in the context of Black life.” He then laid out six themes that run throughout Black aesthetics: invisibility; authenticity; appropriation; existence and affect; art-ethics relation; and somatic aesthetics.
Alia Al-Saji / James Camien McGuiggan / Kristie Dotson
Day 2 Talk 2: Alia Al-Saji, “Waiting in Racialized Time: A Phenomenology of Racialization through Image and Film”
The focus of Al-Saji’s talk is the experience of racialization in art, with a specific focus on art that seeks to criticize images by reproducing them. She picks up from Fanon in Black Skin/White Masks, where he writes about waiting for himself while watching a film. Examples of “waiting for oneself” would be something like waiting for the Black bellhop or the Muslim terrorist – the tokened stereotypical image.
Racism importantly functions by protecting the power of the in group. Even when particular borders of power may shift, the othering mechanism that defends the in group persists. This makes it difficult to subvert images by tokening them – despite context they nevertheless present the white supremacist dichotomy. A better strategy is focusing on presenting counter-stereotypes, such that those that speak to the diversity of experience.
Day 2 Talk 3: James Camien McGuiggan, “Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B: A Case Study in Ethics and Art”
[McGuiggan focused his talk on Brett Bailey’s controversial work, Exhibit B, which puts on display men and women racialized as black as they would have been in 19th Century European human zoos. McGuiggan made a conscious decision to not show any photographs from the work. Instead, he gave an elaborate description of the work as a whole, which in his view includes the gazes of the typical racialized-as-white spectator, such as his own.
McGuiggan argues that Exhibit B forces an immoral response from the typical racialized-as-white spectator – the racist gaze – in order to, ideally, produce a moral outcome – by making them confront their own current racist attitudes. It is thus an especially interesting case for philosophers who are interested in ethical dimensions of art, and where ethics and aesthetics intersect. In the end, McGuiggan argues that it does not make sense to answer the question “Is Exhibit B good or bad?” because its goodness and badness are inextricably bound together.]
Day 2 Talk 4: Kristie Dotson, “Negative Space: Black Feminist Thought and Racialized Aestheticization”
Dotson spoke on the unknowability problem, which is the difficulty people have in centering the lives and experiences of Black women. She began her talk by noting that over seven hours of question and answer periods following talks she had given, she had been given exactly one question specifically on Black women. Normally, despite her speaking about Black women, she is instead only asked about Black men.
The unknowability problem has Black women being forced to occupy “negative epistemic space.” To talk about this, Doston used Kara Walker’s silhouettes. Here, silhouettes of men and women are projected onto a white canvas. This creates the effect where “the people who live in negative space start taking up space.”
Day 2 Talk 5: Katharine Jenkins and Jennifer Saul, “The Pragmatics of Inclusivity: Visual and Linguistic Cues to Group Membership”
The last talk of the conference was practically oriented: what is the best way to create an inclusive syllabus. Philosophy has more than a bit of a problem of both the current faculty and acknowledged canon being overwhelmingly white and male. The first two possibilities surveyed focused on just drawing attention to the race or gender of the philosopher being read or considered. These options were considered inadequate because they leave the implication of that person’s identity open, and in a racist/sexist society the way most people unpack the implication will be in part directed by racist/sexist implicit biases. What Saul and Jenkins put forward as the superior option is to confront the issue of discrimination and bias head-on, and to open class with a direct discussion on the subject.
[One thing we were especially pleased about is the diversity of the conference participants. In addition to aestheticians and other philosophers, the conference attracted academics from Sociology, English, and Education. Moreover, the conference also attracted museum professionals, artists and curators, and other members of the public.
We were also grateful to Jude Woods of Leeds Art Gallery, who took some philosophers on an impromptu tour of the museum’s more racially-tinged artworks, which has generated much reflection, including this blog post on Edward Armitage’s Retribution (1858) by Nils-Hennes Stear. Finally, we are most grateful to British Society of Aesthetics for providing the majority of the financial support for this conference.
Readers can get other perspectives on the conference by looking over tweets with the hashtag #RaceAesthetics2015.]