Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

What “Slave Play” Can Teach Us About Art and Ourselves

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What follows is a guest post by Nicholas Whittaker (CUNY Graduate Center). It is based on ideas found in the article “Blackening Aesthetic Experience” in the Fall 2021 issue of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

I. 

Let’s start with something we can all agree on: there are things in the world we call artworks. Songs and plays, memes and movies, novels and dances and even perfumes. And of course, these things don’t just exist; we engage with them, we experience them! 

End of story, right? I’m not being glib. It really does seem like this picture is just basically right: we, human beings, experience artworks that exist in the world. I think it is basically right. You’re not about to get some arch “Well, how do we know Bach’s Aggripina or Real Housewives of Atlanta aren’t just figments of our imagination?” argument here. 

Instead, this post is about a way of talking about that basic picture—a way of talking that sneakily adds elements to it, and strips others away. This is a way of talking that seems so basic that it can be taken for granted as the only possibility. In taking it for granted, we don’t ask what it adds and what it takes away. We don’t even think to ask if it actually is basic. But we should.

Let’s call this way of talking, this set of presumptions, the subject-object model. This model will seem incredibly intuitive. In this event that we call the experience of art, there are two participants. There is the artwork, called the object. And there is the person experiencing the object, called the subject. This sounds obviously right! It seems like it perfectly mirrors the actual experience I describe above.

But I (and certain other philosophers, often underexamined by mainstream academic philosophy) think that there’s something wrong with this way of talking. Namely, it separates the artwork from the viewer, the subject from the object. The subject-object model makes it sound like the best way to talk about these two things is as distinct and removed from each other. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a problem; it sounds, again, obviously correct. Of course the best way to talk about two things physically removed from each other is as separate, as distinct entities. What other way of talking is there?

But there is, in fact, an alternative. It’s one blooming in the corner of academia called black studies, and it’s an alternative I see powerfully sketched in the work of the artist-cum-philosopher Adrian Piper. Following Piper, I’m calling it catalysis, or the catalytic model. We’ll get into the weeds of what that model looks like in a moment. For now, we can understand it by opposing it to the subject-object model. If the subject-object model talks about art experience as comprised of two distinct entities, then the catalytic model (as I read it) pushes back on the separation of the subject from the object, the artwork from the experiencer. It’s a way of talking that collapses the two into each other.

This is a tough, radical idea to understand, let alone accept! And it doesn’t seem clear how we could even begin to incorporate it into our daily lives and conversations about art. In my recent paper on the subject, I try to sketch a way of understanding the catalytic model. For the dry and belabored academic approach, head there. However, it’s more fruitful (and fun!) to look at an example: Jeremy O. Harris’ fantastic and controversial recent Broadway debut Slave Play, which beautifully illustrates the collapse of the boundary between artwork and art experience. The key to understanding this “work of art” is, I think, catalysis. Or, more precisely, the key to understanding this “work of art” lies in giving up the very idea of the “work of art” as removable from its audience. 

II. 

(Mild Slave Play spoilers ahead!)

In the play, eight characters (black, white, and of color, straight and queer, men and women) simulate erotic interracial encounters on an antebellum plantation. These encounters—and the desires, neuroses, and histories of their performers—are then deeply analyzed, dredging up the vast complexities of love and lust: inter- and intraracial, complexly gendered, sexual, romantic, and emotional. These complexities—in all their disgusting, offensive, and terrible beauty—are not sanitized, or even resolved. They are merely handed to us (the audience) as they are, and we are left in the wreckage.

The play debuted on Broadway in the fall of 2019, where it was met with both immediate acclaim and widespread shock and dismay. Multiple petitions arose to have the play shut down (some even before it reached Broadway). Certain critics (but certainly not all) bemoaned the show as itself an exercise in antiblack racism. And audience members (often nonblack ones) frequently expressed discomfort and frustration, often at a fever pitch. 

One particular event serves as the perfect example of these jarred receptions. Months into the show’s run, at the conclusion of a public discussion following that night’s performance, a white woman interrupted the proceedings to let Harris know (with a great deal of rage and expletives) that the play was anti-white, and to lambast him for creating such a hateful work.

WOMAN: I don’t want to hear that white people are the fucking problem… [Something garbled, something like “I have experienced”] rape, false arrest, having fucking children taken away, and being told that as a single woman I’m not good enough to fucking raise them.

Given all this suffering, how can Harris say that she is anything like the white woman and men seen in the play, with their barely concealed desire for black domination? Or that she belongs in entire ensemble of whiteness implied in the antebellum Plantation itself?

HARRIS: This play is about eight specific people. And if you don’t see yourself up there, that’s great. You aren’t one of them.

Why does she insist on reading herself into this work of art? Why does she insist on sucking herself into it, on getting entangled in what exists on the other side of the frame? 

WOMAN: (leaving the building) I’ve spent my whole life, every day of it—
(She exits the theater, her words now indecipherable.)

HARRIS: I think you’ve given us another really amazing play. Thank you. And that was the Slave Play Part 2.

END OF PLAY (?)

There’s a sense of insecurity or instability to this event, to this woman. In saying this, I do not mean to suggest she has “mental instability”, or some “pathological insecurity.” In fact, I find her response eminently reasonable (if deeply sad). Instead, what I mean is that, in this exchange, the boundary between the woman and the play is unstable, unsure: We can’t tell where the play ends and she begins.

In expressing frustration with the play, the woman immediately begins to talk about herself. It isn’t narcissism; rather, it just seems impossible for her to communicate what’s wrong with the play without moving from talking about the play to talking about herself. Harris immediately picks up on this and questions it. Surely, he asks (I think he already knows the answer), we can talk about the play without talking about you. The two exist independently. It is the object, you are the subject, and surely we can disentangle you from it. And yet she resists this; she can’t draw that dividing line. And so, recognizing this, Harris steps back and sees this encounter for what it is: Slave Play Part 2. 

With that last quip, Harris actually, odd as it is to say, joins this woman. He expresses a fundamental and profound agreement with her, albeit a messy and frayed one: they agree to give up the distinction between audience and artwork. What I think Harris and the woman are doing here—the philosophical work they, perhaps quite paradoxically, have decided to do together—is abandoning an old way of talking about art and embracing something new. They’ve agreed to surrender the subject-object distinction, to abolish the frame. They have agreed to exist in catalysis, whatever else they disagree on. They’ve agreed that there is no difference, no distinction, no distance, between them and the artwork. 

III. 

This is an experience Adrian Piper spends a great deal of time and artistic energy exploring. In fact, this kind of experience—catalysis—is the key to understanding her artistic and philosophical work. Frequently, Piper attempts to predict her audience’s reactions to her works and directly include them in the works. In Four Intruders plus Alarm Systems and It’s Just Art, for example, writings or recordings of possible audience reactions play as the audience gazes. In doing this, Piper attempts to do more than just prompt an emotional reaction about the work itself through emotional or abrasive content (content like that of Slave Play, for example!). She attempts to force the audience to see those reactions as part of the artwork.

This sounds like a relatively standard art experience, especially in the contemporary art world. In that world, we often are asked to ‘pay attention to ourselves’ when gazing at a work of art. This, as Michael Fried argues, is a standard element of 20th century art (and beyond). To understand that experience, imagine a musician who decides to listen to themselves perform via a recording, and who tries to appreciate the performance as a work of art. This musician is paying attention to themselves, to their own creative actions. Indeed, musicians often do this while they’re playing: they keep an eye on their volume, their rhythm, and their speed by listening to the music they create. And sometimes they even listen to themselves playing, in the moment, with an ear aimed at pleasure, at the beauty of the music, rather than with a professional ear aimed at judging or regulating their creative activity. Is that what I’m suggesting is happening in Piper’s work, and in the Slave Play incident, and in catalysis more generally?

In a sense, but it’s missing something. This way of talking still imagines a distinction between two objects. Although the musician is listening to their own creation, they’re still experiencing it as something distinct from them; the listener and that which one listens to are experienced as different things. But the catalytic way of talking insists that it’s not that the musician’s music, or the audience reactions in Piper’s work, or the exchange between the white woman and Harris, is being paid attention to as an object. It’s not that the art appreciator is “stepping back” from themselves in order to create distance between themselves and their reactions, which are then subsumed ‘into’ the art object. If that’s what was happening, then there would be no reason to turn away from the subject-object way of talking! So why am I so convinced that such a reason exists?

Let’s get back to the Slave Play Part 2 incident. I characterized it and its participants as “insecure” and “unstable.” It’s not as though this woman and Harris walked in agreeing to stage a scene for the audience, and it’s not as though, when Harris inaugurates “Slave Play Part 2,” he and his partner bow to the audience. When Harris challenged her for being unable to separate herself from the art, she didn’t respond, carefully and clearly, “Yes, because I am taking my reaction as part of the work.” 

No, that would be too clean. This incident was messy. The exchange didn’t create a new art object. The exchange was a result of a chaotic disruption, without a subsequent reconstruction of “art object” as a category. This disruption destabilized, rather than stabilized, Slave Play (now Slave Play Part 2) and its audience. Return to the woman’s reaction, not merely her frustration or her rage but her discomfort. She’s insecure. She can’t tell the difference between the artwork and herself, and soon neither can Harris. In other words, in ‘agreeing’—not through some explicit and intentional contract, but through a chaotic, imprecise, unintentional negotiation—to participate in Slave Play Part 2, Harris and the woman aren’t creating something new; they’re abolishing something old. Slave Play Part 2 isn’t an art object, stable and secure, at all. It’s an event, a messy, fragmented happening. In other words, the incorporation of the subject into the object, the audience into the artwork, is not a smooth addition. It breaks the artwork apart. We really, truly cannot tell where to draw the line. In fact, my use of “Slave Play Part 2” as a label at all is somewhat misleading. It is an insufficient naming, one that reveals the insufficiency of our typical linguistic practices when it comes to describing catalysis. Using it without a touch of ambiguity or irony implies that we can indeed locate this moment as a new art object, clean and distinct from the other. This, as I’ve said, misses the point. Instead “Slave Play Part 2” must be understood as a gesture towards, rather than a perfect capturing of, the reality of catalysis, one that acknowledges the difficulty in so capturing this reality in language. 

Slave Play Part 2 is what catalysis looks like: not the creation of a new subject-object relationship, but its abolition, and thus the abolition of the artwork itself as a stable and isolated entity. And what I want to suggest is that maybe all art experiences can, should, or maybe even do look like that; we just cover them up with a different way of talking. 

IV. 

Recently, writers in black studies have begun to criticize philosophy for its obsession with distinctions. As the argument goes, philosophers are focused (often quite myopically) on carving up the world into easily discernible parts, each removed, in some fundamental way beyond just, say, physical distinction, from each other. The subject-object model is a prime example of this obsession. Philosophy may not be intrinsically misguided whenever it’s thus obsessed. But when this general orientation, this way of talking about the world as distinguishable, starts to cover up things that are not so easily surgically dissected, then it seems like it’s going wrong. We need a different way to talk about elements of human life defined not by difference and distinction but by the messiness of entanglement, by the (always incomplete, always ongoing) abolition of difference and distinction. 

What I and others are suggesting is that art experience might be one such casualty of philosophical thought, and that catalysis helps us see how that is. If my characterization of Slave Play Part 2 is correct, then the standard way of talking, the surgical excision of subject and object from the entangled mess of art experience, is losing something. We’re letting a distinction that looks obvious cover up the infinitely messier, more troubling, and more thrilling truth.

At the end of the encounter, Harris pauses and turns to the audience. “All I can say is thank you so much for joining us.” In the wake of catalysis, these words take on a deliciously sinister bent. Joined in an event of eternal abolition, in art, we agree to try to unmake something together. “You” becomes “us”; art and art lover become not one, but riffing off of the black theorist Fred Moten both more+less than one: unstable, unsure, and beautiful.

Editorial note: The author prefers to leave “black” uncapitalized, in order to resist the notion that ‘blackness’ is a coherent, discrete, and sovereign Identity.


Nicholas Whittaker (@nwhittaker10) is a PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate Center. They work primarily at the intersection between continental phenomenology, philosophy of art, and black studies. Their publications, released and forthcoming, include essays on black horror film, philosophical duplicity, digital blackface, H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, abolitionism in popular culture, and, of course, catalysis.      

One Comment

  1. The most minor of points, but Agrippina is Handel, not Bach

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