Dasha Zhukova and Bjarne Melgaard’s “racist chair”: we all need to be more responsible with our outrage
Progressives with more passion than intelligence provide aid and comfort to conservatives, and as usual, Huffington Post is leading the charge.
Twitter is stupid and Instagram is Twitter for people who can’t read. @OfficialKat
The picture you see here has ignited a firestorm of outrage over the past few days.
In an airy white blouse, art gallery owner Dasha Zhukova poses serenely on a chair, in a photograph taken for a Russian fashion website. The only problem: the chair is fashioned from a contorted lifelike mannequin of a black woman, sparking an internet outcry and allegations of racism.
It did not help matters that the photograph of Zhukova – a Russian socialite and the girlfriend of oligarch Roman Abramovich – was published on Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday in the US.
The photograph accompanied an interview with Zhukova about her art magazine Garage and was published on the Russian website Buro 24/7, a project of fellow Moscow “it girl” Miroslava Duma. The picture was widely condemned by bloggers and internet users, and has since been removed from Duma’s Instagram feed.
Unfortunately, said firestorm has been fueled mainly by people who don’t understand what they’re talking about, and this is bad for everyone who thinks racism and sexism are bad things. It’s important that we oppose prejudice and oppression when we see it, of course. But – and I can’t stress this enough – we have to make sure that what we’re being outraged over is what we think it is.
In this case, that chair isn’t a manifestation of racism. On the contrary, I read it – and I thought it was pretty obviously so – as a critique of racism and sexism. (And probably a lot more – the work is a riff on Allen Jones’s Chair, 1969, and given that context plus what is known about artist Bjarne Melgaard, who created the subject of the current hubbub, this is probably just the tip of the iceberg.)
It isn’t saying let’s get a black bitch on her back where she belongs, it’s saying look how our society treats women of color. If the piece is guilty of anything it’s a lack of subtlety. But, as this whole sorry episode makes clear, you have to be careful about giving your audience credit for too much intelligence here in the age of Twitter, Instagram and Huffington Post – which, by the way, has become your go-to source when you need to find “progressives” embarrassing themselves. Lord, HuffPo’s Julee Wilson was appalled. You’d have thought Hootie Johnson had erected a ten-foot high lawn jockey right next to Martin Luther King’s tomb.
It’s like the incident with Jonathan Swift and his famous satire, “A Modest Proposal.” Some readers failed to understand that the author wasn’t really proposing that the English gentry eat Irish babies – he was mocking the way official policies treated the Irish people. Duh.
Back in the mid-’90s there was this reviewer at a prominent newspaper in the Greater Boulder Metropolitan Area. He went off on, I believe, Cool Runnings, in a ludicrous rant accusing it of all manner of racism, and I responded with a message that I think we all need to keep in mind.
See, he was passionate and fastidiously, conventionally liberal in the way that people in Boulder can be at times. He was certainly well-intentioned – the last thing I’d accuse him of is being unconcerned with social justice. But – and this is key – he wasn’t especially bright. You didn’t have to read much of what he said to figure this out, either.
So here he was, prattling on with his self-involved tailfeathers flying full mast, and in doing so he was, if I might, unwittingly providing aid and comfort to the enemy in our pitched culture war. If you’ve been paying the least bit of attention over the past few decades, you know that cynical conservative media types are constantly looking for anything us evil libruls say that can be used against us. Where would Rush Limbaugh be without the feminazis, right?
The level of sophistication associated with the “racist chair” controversy is probably too complicated for the noise radio crowd, but it’s a useful teaching moment for progressives nonetheless. It’s bad enough that we have to deal with the likes of FOX News, which successfully asserted in court its Constitutional right to make shit up, without kneecapping each other. If I’m Bill O’Reilley, the only thing better than launching an ignorant, dishonest blindside at a work of art that critiques racism and sexism is having brain-dead liberals doing it for me.
Studies have suggested that progressives are, in the aggregate, smarter than conservatives. If true, there’s little proof of it in the Zhukova case. The sad fact is that being progressive doesn’t automatically mean you’re intelligent. Good intentions are great, but you can believe the right things without understanding why, and I’ve said for years that I prefer an intelligent adversary to an idiot ally every day of the week. The outraged doofuses on Twitter and at Huffington Post are sticks that can be used against the causes that matter.
I don’t want to go off on another rant about education, but it’s worth noting that people with rich liberal arts grounding are far less likely to misunderstand what they’re seeing when confronted with a provocation like Melgaard’s now-infamous chair. A bit of critical thinking capacity goes a long way at helping one fathom the complexities of artistic expression and the social meaning behind it.
We have to be intelligent, informed and responsible when we speak out because if we aren’t we quickly become tools for those who don’t share our good intentions. In the end, the HuffPo article tells us so much that we need to know without really meaning to. Since nothing is more important than “joining the conversation,” they conclude with this:
What do you think of Buro 247’s editorial? Is it racist or just art? Tell us in the comments section below.
Please – we need a comment section full of uninformed comments on whether it’s racist or “just art,” because those are the only two choices!
No, Arianna. No Julee. Those aren’t the only two choices, and the issue isn’t that it’s just art. The issue is that art is a way of communicating. It’s a way of expressing ideas and perspectives, of giving voice to complexity and ambivalence and passion and the wisdom of the right brain, which sometimes works better in non-linear, non-verbal/textual formats.
Please, stop embarrassing us. More importantly, stop making life easier for people who actually are racist and sexist.