Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

“Trauma-Feeding”: Why It’s Not Okay to Exploit Trauma in Art


Room, Cité Universitaire, Paris, with Al Ghazali quotation:
“I follow love’s caravan wherever it goes. For love is my religion and my faith.” (2006)

What follows is a guest post by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer & Misty Morrison. It also appears cross-posted at the Cleveland Review of Books.

We want to draw attention to a practice inside contemporary artistic practices and to suggest a set of considerations that could gradually change it, for we take it to be morally dishonest and aesthetically compromised. We call this practice “trauma-feeding.” The expression is our invention. We think trauma-feeding is enmeshed in corrupt conditions in the economy of contemporary art so that to talk about it is to talk inevitably about the institutional framing of artistic practice in an art economy that cultivates practices, habits, and sensibilities that allow artists to hustle their way to success in a neoliberal economy structured by gross inequality of wealth and of capabilities. With trauma-feeding, their mode of hustle is parasitic (from para – alongside – sitos – food) on everyday people’s moral sensibilities. The hinge in our discussion is the relation between trauma-feeding, consumable spectacle, and viability in a neoliberal art economy, predicated off of everyday people’s moral sympathy. After explaining what we mean by “trauma-feeding” and relating it to the social-economic conditions to which we’ve alluded, we will argue that artists and institutions have a moral responsibility to deal with trauma differently, particularly by following through in responding to it. They should stop being morally dishonest and parasitic.

1. Trauma-feeding. By “trauma-feeding,” we refer to a practice of making art about trauma that has the obvious effect of soliciting people’s sympathy and, possibly, stirring up more trauma or trauma-related effects in spectators. In addition, this practice feeds on trauma, using it to generate buzz and interest, often translating into investment or into cultural capital, which amounts to almost the same. The practice feeds trauma (not just “feeds on” trauma), too, because it stirs up a sense of the world as precarious without following though in moral responsibility for what has been stirred up. The key way trauma-feeding does both of these things – feeding on trauma and feeding trauma – is by making trauma into a consumable spectacle that adapts well to a neoliberal art market structured by extreme wealth and capability inequality and by a star culture of artists. At the same time, this consumable is parasitic on everyday moral sympathy.

2. “Open Casket.” A well-known example of trauma-feeding has been before our eyes for the last three years. This is Dana Schutz’s controversial “Open Casket,” shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. This painting depicts the open casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was the victim of a 1955 lynching and whose disfigured body was displayed in an open casket by his mother, Mami Till, sparking outrage that later became known as a source of the civil rights movement in the United States of America. While there have been many subtle and insightful discussions of the painting discussing cultural appropriation and making a spectacle of Black suffering, we want to focus on the painting’s relation to trauma-feeding. In our view, not only the painting, but much of the controversy around it, especially a letter of contempt calling for the burning of the painting and penned by artist and writer Hanna Black, played into trauma-feeding. The power of trauma-feeding can even be seen in the way in which the artist Parker Bright’s intervention against spectacle became one. He stood in front of the painting with “Black Death Spectacle” written across the back of his shirt to insert into the painting’s framing an actual black body marking, as a living museum information card, the inappropriateness of the painting and its installation. Yet his act became part of the image as well.

Dana Schutz’s painting was a form of trauma-feeding because it seized on the sympathy of spectators as someone who was neither working through the trauma exhibited nor as someone who was following through on it. By contrast, when Mamie Till exhibited her son’s corpse, she was doing both. Her display was not a spectacle but a call for action that was to be followed through on, and that call to action was one of the very first and necessary steps in even beginning to work through such a trauma, if it even makes sense to say that it could be “worked through.”

Not so with Schutz’s act. Black criticized Schutz for appropriating the image of Till to increase her cultural capital in the high art world. In fact, much of Black’s criticism of the economics surrounding what Schutz did can be recast in terms of trauma-feeding. What Schutz did was to opportunistically capitalize on historical trauma in order to stand out at the Whitney Biennial. She may not have intended this, but that is what happened. As someone who has made her way in the contemporary art economy, Schutz displayed the instincts cultivated by it. She was able to merely gesture to repair of the historical crime while trying to appear sympathetic and morally engaged. That this gesture backfired on her did not eventually matter, because as someone involved in trauma-feeding, she was caught up in its spectacle even when she failed. Trauma-feeding makes a symbolic crisis that only whips up more spectacle. And it is parasitic on people’s instinctual moral sympathy.

3. Sympathy, sentimentality, and accountability. Now there has to be nothing wrong with really being sympathetic when one encounters another’s trauma. Sympathy is a basic response of common humanity, and without it, we are often lost as a society. Such a response, however, is the core rationalization behind trauma-feeding, masking what it is. In itself, sympathy does not feed on another’s wounds. It cries out with them. The big question arises with what follows after – if anything does at all.

Think about sentimentality. Sentimentality is the feeling of feeling, enjoying the feeling you are having, rather than living through the feeling. Sympathy implies response, and response implies responsibility. An unsentimental sympathy leads to action. But a sentimental sympathy affords people the moment of feeling their feeling of sympathy. It is self-congratulatory, even spectatorial.

For instance, in one project which we helped create, Michael Rakowitz’s A Color Removed, people got to walk into a gallery collecting objects given in sympathy over the killing of Tamir Rice. Some of the objects might have been theirs, or they could see the anonymous donations of others intermixed with deliberately staged objects of the artist or gallery director’s team. Gallery goers could feel their relation to other similarly sympathetic acts, even get to Instagram their emotion – and then walk away to go to dinner. Nothing more was asked of them (we wanted to ask more of ourselves and everyone through the gallery, but that is not how the project staged for the 2018 Cleveland Triennial rolled).

The main thing we kept our eyes on is follow-through. As Vladimir Jankélevitch once wrote, we shouldn’t listen to what they (the artists and institutions) say, but look at what they do. Accountability in the face of trauma primarily distinguishes working through trauma from trauma-feeding. The technical term for follow-through is teleology, or you might think of it as a practical linkage. Being accountable, you line up your purposes in a calculus that leads from a present action to the future you think is needed to achieve the goal. Here is the teleology, and the linkage is the point at the edge of what you’re doing that points and carries onward to the next step you think is needed to accomplish the goal called for by the issue in question.

Say that you are sympathetic to the family of a child killed by the police in a completely unjust way in an unjust situation. You want people to show sympathy together with you. You come up with an idea about how this might work. If your idea were linked to the next step in accountability, to working through the aftermath of the violence in the community, to changing policing, to organizing people to work beyond their moment of affect to effect change, then the initial event could be said to be teleologically ordered – or in simple terms, to have a purpose. Here would be follow-through.

Without follow through, the event is vain. First of all, sympathy for the trauma becomes hollow and sentimental. Instead, it becomes merely empathy – mirroring affect for a moment. Empathy is notoriously amoral. Torturers use it, as do con-artists. This empathy interacts with a spectacle that lacks follow-through. Now you feel the feeling for a long moment, mirroring the trauma. This either inflames it – or you can let it go. If you have suffered trauma, you may even be reactivated. There is no follow-through to engage moral responsibility and to draw down the rising affect.

Second, the event becomes spectacular, rather than transformative. It loses its aesthetic tension and ambiguity, closing down our wondering over and challenging of norms, rather than revealing the anxiety that underlies our society. Spectacles are fundamentally passive and, as Claire Bishop has often noted, the critique of them by participatory art is almost half a century old. But contemporary trauma-feeding, even under the guise of participation, repeats the aesthetic complacency of spectacles in its own way. In failing to follow through on trauma, the – often unjust – normative structure of the social world in which the art work is situated gets to stay in place. Trauma-feeding keeps everything in its place, and covers over this conservative preservation of the status quo by rewarding viewers with spectacular sympathy.

Rather than being conservative, the moral pressure to respond adequately to trauma is active in productive aesthetic disorientation in the context of unjust social contexts. Morality troubles the sense of unjust worlds. Unlike Bishop (for instance, in her lecture, “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?”), we think that a consistent artistic practice around social injustice does not actually challenge moral obligation per se; it reveals the ambiguities of obligation. Some obligations demand follow-through, and this is the case with trauma. When contemporary trauma-feeding artworks co-opt the space of reflective wonder to turn it into a consumable experience, they disconnect it from the implications of the sense of the issues involved, such as trauma. Ironically, this preserves aesthetic complacency. Scholars such as Bishop who equate morality with bourgeois systems miss the aesthetic perturbance produced by moral accountability itself.

So follow-through, we think, begins with actually moral sympathy, not empathy, and moves along the linkage to address the problem. That is the accountability. Follow-through aims to transform trauma and in so doing produces aesthetic disorientation and perturbance.

Michael Rakowitz, Old Retired white ladies who Read the ‘New Jim Crow.’
texto-commentary during site visit for A Color Removed,
Cleveland, Ohio, 2015

4. Constructing a spectacle as cultural capital. When does it make sense to work through trauma in art, and when does working on trauma become a form of trauma-feeding? We first started discussing this question after we realized that the artistic motivation behind A Color Removed seemed off. In a reflection in Public Seminar, one of us noted:

In the end, much of the art was completed in a slap-dash manner resulting in an intellectually sloppy gallery. The artist recycled past work as an ornament of the present, making hasty associations with gun violence that piled trauma on top of trauma. There was a minimally researched showcase with a brief history of toy guns in the U.S., a life-vest from a drowned Syrian refugee, and a video of Israeli military oppression in Palestine. The gallery overloads the viewer with trauma connected everywhere, thereby repeating trauma behavior.

This realization cued us into Rakowitz’s work. It makes crisis alluring. Then, in the middle of the crisis, Rakowitz inserts himself, so that he appears as a focus, a gallant hero who is there to be with people in solidarity and even help heal them. This develops his fame as an artist; it becomes cultural capital.

Consider his withdrawal from this year’s Whitney Biennial in protest of Warren Kanders’s role on its board of trustees. He characterized the situation surrounding Kanders as a “crisis.” But while it did involve a decision (from the Greek, krisis, the root of “crisis), the situation involving Kanders reflects the ongoing corruption of capitalism in its relation to states that manage inequality. The true crisis is at the border, not at the Whitney, however bad a human being Kanders is. The displacement of crisis constructed a spectacle around the art institution, much as Schutz’s painting had done.

Both Rakowitz’s 2018 retrospective at MCA Chicago, Backstroke of the West, and his 2019 Whitechapel retrospective were reviewed in ways that reflected the aesthetic we observed in Cleveland last summer. The Guardian review of the Whitechapel show notes how Rakowitz incites stories out of objects of trauma so that “everything is connected,” whereas the Hyperallergic review of his MCA retrospective points out how his works were arranged “so that their boundaries are murky.”

The latter review also focuses for a moment on “The Ballad of Special Ops Cody,” which is also included in the Whitechapel show. The action figure in the video has an ironic history in the post-war story of Iraq. Most striking is what the reviewer, Clair Voon, notes:

In Rakowitz’s video, Cody, voiced by veteran and artist Gin McGill-Prather, describes the traumas of war to lifeless votive figures and tells them he can free them from their glass prisons. While his speech is pitiful for its powerlessness, the anguish of the statues’s [sic.] shared experience of entrapment is moving.

This is an aesthetic spectacle designed to increase the affect of trauma, to raise anxiety around it under the cover of irony while adopting the rhetoric of common humanity. It’s twisted.

Rakowitz, however, is simply a well-adapted star in the art world. He displays the habits and practices of that world, interpreted through his practice of trauma-feeding. In the project we observed, the art institutions supported and being supported by the artwork also constructed the spectacle, feeding off of the trauma being displayed and stirred up. SPACES Gallery, for instance, used the artwork to elevate itself in the context of the Cleveland Triennial, leveraging future funding in the process with a perfectly orchestrated image of equal parts black and white people sitting around a table with Samaria Rice. Jillian Steinhauer, who reported on the Cleveland project, falsified its history while elevating SPACES which had hosted her as its inaugural writer-in-residence a couple years before. She then received access to a story publishable in the New York Times. A year later, she developed a similar trauma-project as a curator. FRONT triennial used projects like A Color Removed to brand Cleveland as a tourism destination and investment option. The trauma-spectacle was a capitalizable opportunity for all of these institutions in a neoliberal art economy.

5. A hypothesis about formal causality. The artists who boycotted the Whitney Biennial did so because of a particularly odious board member. What they did not boycott was an institution that is structured by inequality, from its funding sources to its elitism, and which is party to a society where wealth and capability inequality is largely ignored as a fact of life. The Whitney Museum is part of an institutional structure of high art that requires both spectacle and displacement – alluring on the outside while hiding underlying contradictions. The institutions and the artists benefit each other and are complicit in an elaborate form of cultural displacement.

The name for this relationship is “formal causality.” Formal causality was one of Aristotle’s four forms of causality. For instance, when we ask what has caused a ship to be built, part of it is the form of the ship – its blueprint. Similarly, when we ask what has caused this mountain formation, part of it is the geological form of tectonic interactions.

Formal cause became important in critical theory through Marx’s use of Aristotle. In the 20th century, Walter Benjamin was possibly the most subtle in his use of it, and in contemporary aesthetics, Sianne Ngai continues in this tradition. The idea behind using formal cause critically is to examine how the forms of life in a capitalist economy bear the formal impress of what adapts to and works within capitalism.

We think that trauma-feeding is shaped formally by its adaptive role in a neoliberal art economy. Consumable spectacle invites attention, capturing spectatorship, gallery foot-traffic, gallery product purchase, media attention, and direct investment of various forms. Trauma-feeding also keeps the system just as it is, since it does not challenge the boundaries of the installation in any fundamental way. Come, spectate, and go home – feeling your moral feeling, too! Nothing more is required of you to change the system that has caused the trauma – or so the enclosed art experience relays in its framing. Finally, trauma-feeding sets up its artist and institutional practitioners as sympathetic people in their own right, capturing the appearance of moral authority and credibility. This both incites investment and keeps the system just as it is, while setting up a star system of artists who are parasitic on everyday moral sensibilities.

The point we want to make here is that high art is currently institutionalized in a system that has reason to be spectacular and which remains bound up with, reinforcing, gross wealth and capability inequality in a capitalist economy. The artists who thrive in this system share many of its contradictions, system and artist developing each other in like fashion. Trauma is good for spectacle and even for pity. So it can become powerful, sentimental self-congratulation. But there mustn’t be a consistent critique of its sources, nor a followed-through response to its wounds, or the institutions – and the livelihoods of its artists – would come undone.

6. Part of an answer. What distinguishes trauma-feeding from working through trauma? The answer points for us to the difference between an opportunistic exploitation of trauma and a responsible, thoughtful, and committed recognition of its presence in everyday life. As we’ve said, the answer is follow-through. Follow-through, in turn, isn’t spectacular. We want to spell out what we think this should mean.

To begin, there’s a major consideration. We think that the sine qua non for working through trauma is that it should work to “transform pain, rather than transmitting it” (an expression from Richard Rohr). Part of what is difficult with trauma-feeding art is that it initially seems to work pain into creative expression, practice, or sociality. But as we’ve said, this can be deceiving. In being sentimental, artists and arts institutions do not transform pain, but displace it. In displacing it, they defer accountability while profiting from it through cultural capital, funding, and investment. This redoubles the pain by undermining the moral demand to redress it. Those who should be responding to pain are using it, misleading a community that comes to have only a sentimental response itself. Such art twists pain.

Against this, there are four areas of artistic practice and institutional structure that we think should change when responding to trauma. First, when appropriate to the trauma, those involved in the art project (artists, institutions, and participants) should transform sympathy into policy. By “policy,” we mean norms that shape a polity in a given area. By asking whether policy-change is appropriate at all, we mean to signal that some traumas may not be socially caused; they could be tragedies pure and simple. Yet the social injustice used as the focus of contemporary art involves areas where just or better policies are needed to address patterns of trauma. These areas are socially caused. If artists want to follow through on sympathy, then, they had better link their project, space, and practice – link the participants – up with policy change. This should not be a cavalier gesture, but something substantial and pragmatic. More should be asked of everyone in such projects, and the projects should be constructed – even “installed” – to do so and to follow through on it.

Second, those involved in the art project should create the conditions to transform trauma through social labor. We use “labor” rather than “work,” so that we are not taken to indicate only formalized social work. Social labor can be wider. It may involve religious groups, consciousness-raising and support groups, peer mentoring, conversation groups, and more. When trauma begins to register emotionally, there must be a way to process it communally. One of us noted this in the Public Seminar piece:

Compassion appears when people can understand suffering together, make hardship life-size, maintain contact with one another; and where mutual presence can be made human. These things take time, talk, reflection, and being-with among many other things. They take personal accountability too. Community discussion – not artistic spectacle or aesthetic gesture – helps with them all. A discussion is not a message aimed at people. It grows with people as accountable equals squared up to one other in relationship.

Artists and art-institutions are irresponsible if they merely gesture to communal processing. Social labor must be built into the project throughout.

Third, in order to actually transform pain, the follow-through should stretch out. This is one area where Rakowitz’s work is promising and where the limitations of Schutz’s tradition of figurative painting are clear. Some social practice art stretches out for over a decade. Working through trauma isn’t something that can begin with an exhibit one month and end a month or two later, as if it were on an exhibition time-clock. The exhibition can bring trauma up. Now it should be worked through. To do that takes time, often years.

This particular condition on responsible artistry and institutions implies a change in the way both conceive of projects. You won’t get a room filled with multiple traumas still unresolved and feeding off of each other with such a criterion. You won’t get a summer show. You won’t be able to operate in your standard biennial. Even curation (from the Latin curare, “to take care of”) will be different. Only an enduring process of laboring socially to deal with the trauma will actually show care, and this process will extend across the various linkages between the art work and its wider social context. It will not exactly be “open ended,” because the point is to resolve the patterns and issues of giving rise to and comprising the trauma. But the process will be extensive.

Finally, the project should involve self-awareness for those involved in it, participants included. Without self-awareness, there can’t be accountability. But what’s primarily needed around trauma is the accountability to follow through in our response to it, appropriate to our capabilities, however we come upon it. Accountability isn’t easy. It can’t be discharged by grand gestures and grandstanding letters. It requires work in close with people and work out far with policies, changing society’s norms. Along the way, it’s easy to lose oneself and to avoid oneself too. But all the art in the world is no substitute for self-understanding.

7. A plain art of living. We imagine art involving a plain art of living. Art taken philosophically involves living accountably as part of the work done in art. We think that this ancient amendment to artistic practice is part of the “aesthetic regime,” because it troubles and keeps open the tension between artistic practice and other realms of living, including our own daily lives. Our amendment is important, historically and socially, because it helps everyone involved in art practices become autonomous, authentic and equal in making sense out of life together. These things are interrupted when sentimentalism and even cynicism settle into the practices and sensibilities surrounding art and when parasitism on moral sympathy becomes a modus operandi. We think that it’s important to reconceptualize, retrain and re-institutionalize artistic practices now. Artists must learn new habits, starting by eschewing trauma-feeding. In this neoliberal economy that showers attention on trauma-feeding, we should understand ourselves and our situations as calling for an art that is more adequate to living and, by being so, more troubling of the aesthetic complacency of contemporary high art spectacle.

Cleveland, Ohio, July-September 2019

Notes on the Contributors
Jeremy Bendik-Keymer was trained in academic philosophy. Misty Morrison was trained in printmaking and figurative painting. They previously wrote “The River” for CRB Beta.

Edited by Alex King


  1. How about I’ll make whatever art I want and you can take your moral guardian bullshit elsewhere?

    • I’m not in control of your life, dude, but you are missing the point. Those artists were sell-outs. All “moral” is is caring and good relationships: straight up honesty, support of what people need, social justice. All of that. You got it all wrong, brother.

  2. You’d have an easier time convincing consumers not to indulge in “trauma-feeding” art, than arguing for artists to stop producing it.

    Trying to put reins on the cultural and artistic zeitgeist is very ambitious of you both, but I think it’s an affront to art itself.

    I appreciate that your hearts are in the right place.

    • No, it’s not. It’s good art. Misty and I weren’t trying to rein anything in. We were reflecting on a super compromised thing that betrayed its original intentions and its community as a result. Good art is well through through and has a ton of integrity. What angered both Misty and myself was how much the art world neoliberal pressures poached social justice and people’s hearts for status and financial gain. That’s just wrong.

  3. Pingback: Concept: Ideas & Creative Development – Lee Martin-Evans

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