Crocodile Tears: The Problem of Empathetic Art
There were two things that were inevitable the moment Canadian auteur director Robert Lepage and singer Betty Bonifassi conceptualized SLĀV, the controversial show featuring a mostly white cast singing “slave songs”: First, that it was going to be challenged for its tone-deaf appropriation of racial experience; And second, that Lepage would eventually defend himself on the grounds that, essentially, this is just what art does. Or, to let him speak in his own words:
Since the dawn of time, theatre has been based on a very simple principle, that of playing someone else. Pretending to be someone else. Stepping into the shoes of another person to try to understand them, and in the process, perhaps understand ourselves, better. This ancient ritual requires that we borrow, for the duration of a performance, someone else’s look, voice, accent and at times even gender.
But when we are no longer allowed to step into someone else’s shoes, when it is forbidden to identify with someone else, theatre is denied its very nature, it is prevented from performing its primary function and is thus rendered meaningless.
Setting out to write this piece, I had many misgivings, starting with the question of whether I – as a straight, White, cis male – should seek to make a point at all. So much has been said about this controversy already. And none of this is particularly unique. Rather, Lepage’s ignorant behavior is just one more bullet-point in a long list of poorly considered projects by White artists, which must in turn be met by a barrage of critical think-pieces reciting the laundry-list of privilege, appropriation, White supremacy, White fragility, silencing, and so on. And by referring to it as a laundry-list, I don’t mean to demean or disagree with the analysis, I simply mean to name it what it is for those who are regularly called upon to enact it: a repetitive chore that nevertheless needs to be done. There’s so little difference between SLĀV and, say, Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s coffin, in either execution or specious reasoning for doing so, that you could swap names and dates and a critique of one would work almost as well for the other.
But as much as I agree with the criticism of these works, and the language and ideas employed to make those critiques, I do feel like there’s a tendency to treat such controversies as almost a political event, as a controversy over a work of art rather than an issue intrinsic to common artistic practice itself, the latter position being of concern to me here. Which is not to say these are mutually exclusive critiques – there’s plenty of cross-over – but if we take a step back, and consider what, for example, SLĀV tells us about how art is made and socially understood, rather than just as an example of Robert Lepage doing something gross and offensive, then we find ourselves in even more troubled waters. Because the problem isn’t just that Lepage staged a show in which white artists perform the experience of Black enslaved persons – it’s that there’s a deeply held understanding, even ideology, of how art does work in the world, reinforcing his decision. And if the result of that ideology is SLĀV or Schutz’s “Open Casket,” then it is a troubling and problematic ideology that should be addressed for what it is, because these works are in some sense merely outliers that wear their faulty assumptions so openly in such fraught discourses that they begin to reveal the problem for what it is.
I’m talking about “empathy,” or more specifically the empathetic impulse which underlies much of how we think about art in our culture, which proposes that if artists approach their subjects in a sufficiently empathetic fashion, then the work that results can inspire some form of empathetic response in the spectator. Art mediating our emotional engagement with one another, art as a means of mutual understanding. Whatever the merits of this (quite common) conception of art, as Lepage and Schutz and dozens of others have shown us, it’s an idea that is hopelessly insufficient to our current moment politically, culturally, and socially, and the consequences of that are systemic, far larger than the isolated controversies they occasionally produce.
The reason the controversy over Lepage’s piece struck me so much is because it was familiar. One of the formative experiences I had as a critic and thinker occurred along the exact same lines when I was a sophomore in college at Southern Oregon University. Despite being a very White program at a very White college in a very White state, the program’s big spring show in 1999 was a production of Big River. From what I recall, it was well-intentioned (but then aren’t these things always?): A talented young Black actor had graduated from the program some years before, and his alma mater hired him to return to play the role of Jim – a job, support for his craft, and recognition. With that said, there was, as I recall, only one Black student in our program at the time, so the issue of the “slave chorus” in the musical was to be solved by having other students (mostly White, none Black) perform behind a scrim. Which was challenged by the one Black student in the program (truly, hers was a lonely road – whatever else, the acting students all wanted roles), who justly protested and a chorus of actual people of color from the community were cast.
I had two strong responses to this. One was the realization of the essential fallacy of the entire enterprise. Here was a musical about racism, written by a White guy, composed by a White guy, based on a novel by a White guy, about a friendship between a White kid and a Black man (who had to be hired outside of the program since no Black male was a student), commissioned by a nearly all-White program, directed by a White guy, to be (originally) performed by a nearly all-White cast for a nearly all-White audience. When I saw the chorus of Black performers – mostly grade-schoolers and teenagers from the larger nearby city of Medford – get literally bussed in to play enslaved persons, it became inescapable the degree to which their bodies were being rendered mere props in a White story about how Whites feel about racism. Which is an uncomfortable realization, and one I recognized in many others just a few years ago when Harper Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman, cast Atticus Finch as a revanchist racist, disturbing how (mostly White) people had always interpreted To Kill a Mockingbird, another work by a White person about how White people feel about racism.
But the second thing that occurred to me – or rather, that I was forced to grapple with – was what this meant for making art. To put it bluntly, I found myself – back in 1999 – wondering why, exactly, it was such a bad idea in principle that White kids be asked to perform the experience of Black people?
If at first these two responses seem diametrically opposed – one a glimpse at what it means to live in a White supremacist society, the other an indulgence in that same White supremacy – the link between them, as an artist, was that ridiculous notion of empathy. The failure of Big River, in my analysis at the time, wasn’t because it was a function of a white conversation about race to the exclusion of members of that race, it was because it was failing as a work of art. The problem, as I saw it then, was an insufficient awareness of race, and thus a failure to properly structure the empathetic strategy of the work. The solution wasn’t to realize the failure of the concept, but rather to redouble the effort, to find a way to make this “art of empathy” work. And if this still sounds like the product of living and operating in a White supremacist society, of course it is. At the most basic level, what it reveals about the failure of “art of empathy” is that those who make it are often defining for themselves what empathy constitutes in their process, and therefore in terms of what they expect their audience to take away – which doesn’t actually seem like “empathy” at all. But in a White supremacist society, we shouldn’t be at all surprised that all our attempts at creating empathetic art about race will fail, since of course we’ve already failed at empathy outside the art space.
Google “art and empathy” and you’ll receive dozens of links to articles about how reading literature and exposure to art will make us, or our children, or our society, somehow more “empathetic.” In practice it’s mostly trite pablum that would fit in well with Goopers and other capitalist forms of “wellness.” As a result, it’s easy to write it off without dealing with the fact that it’s essential to how much of the art we create and consume is intended to function. For example, we could consider the broad set of practices we might lump under “Method Acting,” or, more generally, structured approaches to producing psychologically realist characters. In her critique of these practices, Method Acting and Its Discontents, Shonni Enelow reveals how a form of popular psychoanalytic theory came to serve as a sort of Rosetta Stone for this empathetic strategy: By accepting psychoanalytic theory’s claim of representing objective truth, these acting practices propose that, through a rigorous approach to the psychological construction of character, the actor can serve as instrument that achieves sufficient verisimilitude in presenting emotional states that the audience will read them as true. Of course, a large portion of the book is given over to exploring how the misogyny inherent in these forms of psychoanalytic theory (principally through the focus on female “hysteria”) leads to the production of sexist caricatures, as well as touching on artists – principally James Baldwin – for whom they were insufficient to the task of his work.
Despite this, these theories and practices remain shockingly common. They remain the bread-and-butter of New York’s and LA’s networks of (often cult-like) acting studios, and they were the baseline approach to acting I was being taught at Southern Oregon University. Which is precisely why I wondered in the abstract why it would it be such a bad idea to have White performers tackle the experience of Black enslaved persons: Everything I had been taught – the essential value of the art of theater I was being offered – proposed that what we did was to find a way to understand our character, and communicate that truth to an audience. As a result, the only problem I could see with a White actor performing a Black character was that it would come off as blackface no matter what you did. Which is to say, it was a problem of effect, an exception to the rule. The essential theory – the idea of being able to empathetically understand and communicate the experience of Black enslaved person – was not actually questioned. A year later, at the University of Oregon, this exception was only slightly more explicitly stated by a professor who suggested there were two experiences that couldn’t be expressed by someone who didn’t share them: That of “African-Americans, because of slavery, and the Holocaust.”
All of which is why I interpreted and responded to the controversy over our production of Big River the way I did. Not seeing the forest for the trees – not understanding the means of producing work I was being taught were being affected by the very forces the work was nominally intended to critique – I essentially proposed to try to do a “better job.” I started writing a one-act play that was explicitly structured (though I wouldn’t quite have put it this way at the time) to allow White artists to perform a play about race without any Black actors. It was a three-hander called “The N Word,” and it wasn’t very original. A White mom attends a meeting with a White principal about her White son, who was in trouble for using the n-word (which, in this highly formalized environment, they awkwardly struggle not to use themselves while talking about it) in conversation with a White friend, in a class which was all White. Having grown up in liberal Portland in liberal public schools in just such circumstances, I was quite convinced it was a searing critique of racial hypocrisy and made a big point of some sort about segregation. Or something. Thankfully I never completed it nor ever tried to produce it.
It would be utterly wrong for me to characterize my thinking at the time as naïve, and not just because the much older and far more well-regarded Robert Lepage is guilty of the same specious reasoning. The reason it’s not naïve is because naivete is a function of a lack of experience or knowledge. The situation here is not one of lack of much of anything, because it’s a function of a White supremacist society to encourage us not to recognize the limits of our knowledge and experience as limits in the first place.
If all of this is starting to sound like a conversation about representation in art – which has a healthy and separate critical language and theory around it – this is partly true. As in the case of Method Acting, empathetic strategies in general are a way to grapple with (or, perhaps, to avoid) the problems of representation. But whereas theory and critical language are typically employed to understand existing work, I think it’s important here to take it a step further and re-engage with the assumptions of artistic production itself, which, by virtue of escaping the close reading of critics, often go unchallenged.
To move away from the narrow medium of theater, let’s consider for a moment the case of Lionel Shriver, a writer best known for her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. Back in 2016, Shriver caused a shitstorm in the books world at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, with a speech on “Fiction and Identity Politics,” in which she responded to criticisms that one of her novels was guilty of racist representations. In response to accusations of “cultural appropriation,” she stated that, “I am hopeful that the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.”
The text of her speech is remarkable and worth reading in its entirety if for no reason other reason than how it manages to encapsulate everything that’s been discussed in so far. She parrots the same argument that “this-is-just-what-art-does” as Lepage, with the help of an anecdote about a controversy over sombreros, saying: “[W]hat does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.” Then, having asserted that art is inherently about attempting to empathetically understand others, she seems to reverse course by stating: “[F]iction is inherently inauthentic. It’s fake. It’s self-confessedly fake; that is the nature of the form, which is about people who don’t exist and events that didn’t happen. The name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality; it’s all about what you can get away with.” Mind you that these two concepts – that the art of fiction is stepping into someone else’s experience, and also completely inventing it – are, in her telling, not remotely incompatible.
But more specifically I incorporated Shriver’s comments here because of what she does with the rest of her piece. By attacking the entire notion of “cultural appropriation,” and blaming it on a left-wing “culture police” guilty of “gotcha hypersensitivity,” Shriver joined a broader movement of liberal commentators assailing the supposed rise of “political correctness,” enforced by what New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait calls the “illiberal left” – supposedly Marxist-inspired (and, implicitly, tenured) radicals and groups of online trolls who seek to control what can and cannot be said according to a set of prescriptions favoring their own beliefs. As such, these controversies are fundamentally an issue of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. And as a “free speech,” issue, it becomes matter of first principles, and the “culture police,” in turn, must be opposed whatever else the validity of their complaint.
The theory being pushed by such commentators is pretty risible, and not just because the fundamental principle of free speech (at least as commonly understood) is hardly under threat under these circumstances. For one thing, the complaint of people like Shriver (and Lepage – read the rest of his statement linked to above; he’s “free-speeching” it, too) attempts to shift the debate from the concrete – a given work, specific decisions and choices – to abstract principles – free speech. It’s a fantastic bait-and-switch argument that allows the criticized to avoid the question of what their choices actually do in order to talk about whether they should get to make the choices at all.
(In this, Shriver’s piece is truly remarkable in that it also incorporates this third notion, saying, “After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.” An incredible series of claims: Writing is about understanding others, and also not, because they’re completely made up and only serve the author’s purpose; and if under those circumstances “failure” is even possible, then that’s fine, too, because that’s an inalienable right. All this just because she received a negative book review.)
But for all the sophistry of the bait-and-switch argument, these critics of so-called “political correctness” perceive a kernel of truth in their otherwise misguided analysis. The problem, at a basic level, is one of exceptions: To write fictional characters is fine, unless… It’s okay for a White actor to portray anyone else onstage, unless… What Shriver has started to uncover, but fails to understand, is that the very notion of how she writes novels contains an impossible contradiction. She presumes that the process of representation, through an empathetic strategy, should be permissible. Yet confronted with an issue like race – just as my University of Oregon professor explicitly called out, offering no attempt to make sense of its exceptional nature – the rule suddenly doesn’t seem to apply. And so Shriver, like Lepage, and like so many others, turns to the abstract principle, making broad accusations of bad-faith against her critics, asserting all along that the fundamental principle of representation through empathy can work. At best, apparently, failure in execution could be an option, much I saw Big River as a failure in execution that could be rectified by going further down the same path.
Risk “trying to fail better,” Shriver closes with, pace Beckett.
All this, mind you, to avoid grappling with the simple notion that a Black reader – or spectator, or audience member – is saying that, actually, you, the artist, haven’t accurately represented their experience at all, and that there’s a reason for that.
In her essay, Shriver lists a host of novels she proposes could not have been written had the same supposed prohibitions been in place as now. Interestingly, she leaves off the list a rather obvious book, one which – in terms of the scope of both its accomplishments and failures – likely constitutes the ne plus ultra of empathetic art (perhaps she wished not to propose counterarguments to her point?): Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 activist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Seen narrowly from the (albeit important) role it played in the Abolitionist struggle, there can surely be few works which more effectively employed the empathetic strategy toward progressive ends. Both an early best-seller and the basis for a widely produced stage play, Uncle Tom’s Cabin played a not insignificant role in changing social attitudes towards slavery. At the same time, its representation of its central character as a servile innocent suffering Job-like was so condescending that his name remains an epithet to this day. This representation did as much to reinforce deeply held racist ideas about Blacks as it did to argue against the cruelty of slavery. As the historian Ibram X. Kendi notes in his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America:
In one novel, Stowe ingeniously achieved what [William Lloyd] Garrison had been trying to do for roughly two decades in article after article in The Liberator. For the cosmic shift to antislavery, Stowe did not ask Americans to change their deep-seated beliefs. She asked only for them to alter the implications, the meaning of their deep-seated beliefs. Stowe met Americans where they were: in the concreteness of racist ideas. She accepted the nationally accepted premise of the enslaver. Naturally docile and intellectually inferior Black people were disposed to their enslavement to White people – and, Stowe crucially tacked on – to God. Stowe inverted Cotton Mather and all those preachers after him who had spent years trying to convince planters that Christianity made Blacks better slaves. She claimed that since docile Blacks made the best slaves, they made the best Christians. Since domineering Whites made the worst slaves, they made the worst Christians. Stowe offered Christian salvation to White America through antislavery. In order to become better Christians, White people must constrain their domineering temperament and end the evil outgrowth of that temperament: slavery.
Again, we find that we if we follow arguments like Shriver’s – or Lepage’s – to their logical ends, all their arguments for doing what they’ve done come to seem like compelling arguments absolutely not to do so. Shriver’s elision of “stepping into someone else’s shoes” while at the same time inventing them entirely comes together through the example of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work in which an empathetic strategy – a claim of “wearing someone else’s hat” as an experience of both writer and reader – achieved its ends to a nearly unprecedented degree, impacting a national conversation that would be resolved only through the Civil War. At the same time, we can see just how “made-up” its representations were in the first place. What could more perfectly encapsulate my original point that the problem of empathy in art is that this false empathy is an entirely solipsistic process, quite the opposite of what we presume empathy means in the first place?
(I’d add one last thing: Uncle Tom’s Cabin also tidily rebuts Shriver’s high-minded assertion of a free speech right to fail. It’s clear that when she conceptualizes what “failure” constitutes in this context, it’s nothing more significant than fucking up a soufflé – easily discarded, an innocent mistake that impacts no one. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on the other hand, makes clear that, while unlikely, it’s nevertheless possible to write a character that “sucks” so hard that 160-odd years later, his name will remain a commonly understood insult among millions, many of whom are unlikely to have even read the novel.)
Of course, now we’re talking about a novel from the mid-nineteenth century, one which really no one considers to be a good representation of much of anything anymore except the racist mindset common even among Abolitionists. We’ve become far more sophisticated as readers, it’s true, much as artists have come up with more sophisticated strategies for creating art. But despite the appearance of aesthetic sophistication, by relying on that same old empathetic strategy, they fail just as surely as did Stowe.
Consider another (admittedly quite fraught) example: The poet Kenneth Goldsmith. The progenitor of the Conceptual poetry movement and practitioner of so-called “uncreative writing,” Goldsmith might be best known today for a poetry performance at Brown University in March 2015, where he performed a “re-mixed” and edited version of the autopsy report of Michael Brown. As Goldsmith has argued, his performance – entitled “The Body of Michael Brown,” which featured him reading below a projection of Brown’s graduation photo – was intended as an activist social provocation. He told the New Yorker that, “He believed he had demonstrated that conceptual poetry could handle inflammatory material and provoke outrage in the service of a social cause.” Responding to the controversy a couple days later (including charges specifically about the changes he made to the text, which I’ll get to in a moment), he wrote on Facebook:
I always massage dry texts to transform them into literature, for that it [sic] what they are when I read them. That said, I didn’t add or alter a single word or sentiment that did not preexist in the original text, for to do so would be go against my nearly three decades’ practice of conceptual writing, one that states that a writer need not write any new texts but rather reframe those that already exist in the world to greater effect than any subjective interpretation could lend.
The reason I referred to this as a fraught example is that many critics would essentially argue that Goldsmith’s explanations have been made in bad faith, given that he (and many of his fellow Conceptual poets) are self-conscious provocateurs. Regardless of the dubious sincerity of his self-defense (indeed, because of it), it can be examined in its own right and still reveal the failures of its logic, grounded as it is in the same old tired empathetic strategies.
As I said previously, both our discussion of issues of representation in art and the process of making art itself have grown more sophisticated – or perhaps just more rarified – since Stowe’s time. Much as concepts like “cultural appropriation” have come into currency as mode of examining artistic products, so too have artists adapted and incorporated these newer forms of language and critique into their practices, forming a symbiotic relationship in which artistic practice evolves ever newer ways to grapple with those pesky “exceptions” to the predominant idea that empathetic identification is an essential function of art. One of the most common tactics, which takes myriad forms in application, is a sort of “distancing” or the self-conscious establishment of the relationship between maker and subject material.
For Goldsmith, this takes the form of using pre-existing texts, such as Brown’s autopsy report, and finding different ways to present them such that meanings contained within them begin to emerge. This also seems to be a clever way to avoid the charges leveled against, say, Lionel Shriver in creating a Black character: The representational bias in Goldsmith’s case would be wholly a function of the source text’s creator(s), who were of course representatives of the same criminal justice system that carried out and later condoned Brown’s murder. Goldsmith, by performing the text rather than publishing it, and creating whatever minimal scenography he did, furthermore places himself in physical relation to his subject: A White performer staging the absence of the Black body (much as I myself once thought to do with my misguided one-act play). Finally, in editing or “remixing” the text as an artist, his changes were intended to reveal the source text’s biases and place them in a discursive relationship with the broader culture. (Placing things in “discourse,” which renders their meaning relational, can often serve as a distancing tactic; it’s a way of saying something while pretending not to.) This is a potential explanation (though not one I’m aware of Goldsmith actually making for himself) for one of the most controversial aspects of the performance, in which he ended the piece with an out-of-context note regarding Brown’s genitalia. While grossly inappropriate and hurtful, one can potentially imagine how this individual artist – concerned primarily with himself and his practice, while convincing himself of the deep “empathy” of his project – could imagine this placement making a deep, searing statement about how Brown’s death could be read in terms of the larger and widely discussed White obsession with – and emasculation of – Black male sexuality. All of this in an attempt to force us to confront the scale of violence carried out against a Black male body.
Again, I fully appreciate that many of Goldsmith’s critics would find this analysis far too charitable. But if we take him at his word, and try to consider the logic being proposed, what we can begin to see is how these justifications are not all that different from many other, less vile but no less problematic, works. Everything here is also applicable to Lepage’s SLĀV, of course. When at the beginning I argued that it was important to consider these controversies as a function of artistic practice, one of the things rolling around in the back of my mind was the question, “Do people think the solution was just have Black performers do Lepage’s piece?”
Lepage, I’m fairly certain, did not give much thought to casting this piece with Black performers. Not only was it apparently an outgrowth of Bonifassi’s work in general – she had previously released an album of the songs – but it seems quite clearly structured as a work about white artists considering the legacy of slavery. (In fact, it was apparently intended to help consider raise the issue of slavery on Canadian soil, which is apparently less recognized today than slavery in the US.) And while I’m sure many readers might have recoiled at my wondering about why it would be wrong to have White actors consider playing Black characters, that form of cultural appropriation – all but verboten in US theater, except for the most conservative of opera-makers – is remarkably common in popular music. The British-born Adele has become one of the best-selling artists in world by adopting the style and technique of American soul singers. Eric Clapton’s signature song, his cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” goes further and does exactly what Lepage and Bonifassi have done, and features a White artist performing a Black artist’s song that – once stripped of White mythologizing – is explicitly about the Black experience of racial violence in America.
While we’re generally culturally aware of the notion that Elvis, for instance, became successful by being a White artist performing “race music,” and enjoyed profits denied the creators of those styles (and, occasionally, the songs themselves), we nevertheless continue to accept it with relatively little cognitive dissonance. Partly this is due to the fact that artists of different races coming together to create music – through a shared, skilled vocabulary – lets us buy into the notion that, somehow, this is all evidence of a sort of healthful cultural miscegenation. Relatively fewer people maintain the sharper distinction Ike Turner has drawn. Turner’s band recorded the 1951 single “Rocket 88,” a song which featured what’s widely regarded as the first recording of intentionally distorted electric guitar, the quintessential element of rock music, and is thus contested as perhaps the first example of rock ‘n’ roll:
…Anyway, we recorded “Rocket 88” and you know that’s why they say “Rocket 88” was the first rock ‘n’ roll song (well, they use the language “It’s been said about “Rocket 88”), but the truth of the matter is, I don’t think that “Rocket 88” is rock ‘n’ roll. I think that “Rocket 88” is R&B, but I think “Rocket 88” is the cause of rock and roll existing … Sam Phillips got Dewey Phillips to play “Rocket 88” on his program – and this is like the first black record to be played on a white radio station – and, man, all the white kids broke out to the record shops to buy it. So that’s when Sam Phillips got the idea, “Well, man, if I get me a white boy to sound like a black boy, then I got me a gold mine”, which is the truth. So, that’s when he got Elvis and he got Jerry Lee Lewis and a bunch of other guys and so they named it rock and roll rather than R&B and so this is the reason I think rock and roll exists – not that “Rocket 88” was the first one, but that was what caused the first one.
Seen from this perspective, it’s perhaps the case that the problem with SLĀV is how nakedly it states its purpose; rather than simply appropriating without second thought, its expressed intention to use this music in a socially valuable way, by “just doing what music does,” caused people to question why it should be that White artists are the ones called upon to do so. All those “sophisticated” distancing effects – informing the dramaturgy and casting, in the execution of an empathetic strategy of understanding Black experience by White artists performing their songs – collapsed in on themselves. But it was anything but a casting oversight. SLĀV was (and is – it’s still going forward) a show about White people trying to understand the Black experience through empathetic identification. That’s why it’s called “SLĀV.” The modern word “slave” has origins in “Slav,” as in the Slavic peoples, who were a major source of slaves in the medieval period. Through the use of a diacritical mark to maintain the long “A” sound, the show’s creators were able to reclaim the word’s origins in European – and therefore, in our contemporary imagination, “White” – experience.
See, we’re all not so different after all.
Interestingly, for some, it was opposite situation – the not-providing of sufficient context – that was Goldsmith’s problem with “The Body of Michael Brown.” In the long New Yorker article referenced above, the artist Rin Johnson – who is Black, and who confronted Goldsmith following the performance – nevertheless told the magazine that “[i]f he had ‘prefaced the work calling it a piece of protest poetry (or something) I am pretty certain the work would have been considered a triumph.’” In response, Goldsmith apparently explained “that he had not made any prefatory remarks because he believed that his sympathies were plain, and because he felt that art should not depend for its effect on explanations.”
Let’s consider, for a moment, if he had “properly” prefaced it. Let’s imagine that my own quite generous exposition of his logic was offered up front. Let’s imagine that before he read the last line of his re-ordering of the text that he stopped, and implored the audience: “This wasn’t the last line of the autopsy report, but I’m going to end with it because it was hidden otherwise, an offhand remark here in an official autopsy document, written by the supposedly objective investigators who are letting his murderers go free. I’m ending with it because it relates to something very old. I’m ending with it because, well, how many Black men were lynched because of White fear of Black male sexuality? How many photos have you seen of their castrated bodies hanging in front of adoring, happy crowd of White people? Well, it’s still here – right here in this autopsy report.”
Would that have really made a difference? Perhaps. If some form of empathetic engagement was the only intention, then probably. A little. But not much, and in no way would it change the fundamental issue with the enterprise. All it would change, of course, is everything Goldsmith believes about the efficacy of his art. Which is why he didn’t do it.
Partly in response Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown,” the poet Cathy Park Hong wrote a widely read essay, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” originally published in the journal Lana Turner. It’s an important piece (I read it at the time and must credit it with influencing my own thinking in this piece), and though it focuses on poetry, it’s broadly applicable throughout the arts, and gets to a part of the issue we face when considering the many failures of empathetic art:
James Baldwin wrote that “to be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter conditions forged in history … it is clearly at least equally difficult to surmount the delusion of whiteness.” The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the specious belief that renouncing subject and voice is anti-authoritarian, when in fact such wholesale pronouncements are clueless that the disenfranchised need such bourgeois niceties like voice to alter conditions forged in history. The avant-garde’s “delusion of whiteness” is the luxurious opinion that anyone can be “post-identity” and can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are. But perhaps that is why historically the minority poets’ entrance into the avant-garde’s arcane little clubs has so often been occluded. We can never laugh it off, take it all in as one sick joke, and truly escape the taint of subjectivity and history. But even in their best efforts in erasure, in complete transcription, in total paratactic scrambling, there is always a subject—and beyond that, the specter of the author’s visage—and that specter is never, no matter how vigorous the erasure, raceless.
While Cathy Park Hong is focused on how the presumption of White objectivity in the world of experimental poetry allows White poets to accept a false and ahistorical assumption of neutralized identity, we can extend this critique both beyond the world of avant-garde poetry and consider more broadly the role such an assumption plays in the development of empathetic strategies in art-making. As previously mentioned, one of the essential problems of this mode of engagement is that “empathy” winds up being something primarily defined by the artist/maker themselves, to the exclusion of the Other, and thus informs the empathetic “ask” imposed on the consumer of the art. A refusal by artists to recognize this false consciousness is what permits for the ongoing development of ever more elaborate and sophisticated – yet nevertheless failing – strategies to grapple with the exceptions to the paradigm of empathetic engagement. It treats the Other – the person into whose shoes we’re metaphorically stepping – as an historical and subjective artifact, which can be empathetically “understood,” while assuming that our own identity is somehow immune to, or that our practice mitigates, these social and historical forces. And this in turn inspires the rather tedious conflicts over whether “framing” would somehow alleviate the issue – the blatant statement of intent switches the focus to the artistic gesture itself, preserving the privileged sense of Self even as the need to explain suggests the false premise of the art in the first place.
I find the most honest part of Goldsmith’s response to be his principled opposition to more clearly explaining his purpose, since this surely violates the essential project of his work. The most dishonest part, of course, is his refusal to accept the evidence of the complete failure of his project.
Researching this essay, and reading so many lengthy feature articles on the artists in question (curiously, the New Yorker always seems to release one shortly after one of these controversies; I expect we’ll have our Lepage treatment this winter), one of the things I kept coming across was how isolated these artists seem to make themselves. Curiously, the art of empathy reads in action like a highly solipsistic endeavor, the product of creators who isolate themselves either alone or into small, tightly-knit communities of fellow travelers who reflect rather than challenge their problematic decisions. And nowhere was this more in evidence than the case of Dana Schutz, whose “Open Casket” – an impressionistic painting of Emmett Till in his coffin – I referenced at the beginning.
In Calvin Tompkins’ telling in April of last year, Schutz was always sort of outside the grain, even in her MFA program at Columbia. This, of course, is what set her apart in the Art World. Schutz’s career was launched back in 2001 with a series of three “Sneeze” paintings, expressionistic depictions of a girl explosively sneezing. “I wanted to paint what it feels like to sneeze,” she told Tompkins, and the paintings are about as good at doing just that as one can imagine. It’s a lovely effect, and, framed thusly, a perfectly simple example of an empathetic strategy in art. Indeed, Schutz’s imagistic, emotive depiction of experience is one of the simplest and most blunt artistic practices we encounter in this essay, and that, in turn, is what makes “Open Casket” so problematic.
In execution, Schutz’s painting is rather inoffensive. Certainly it doesn’t approach the explicit violence of Goldsmith’s performance with its appropriation of Till’s body. In fact it’s so abstract that without the wall placard explaining it’s based on a photo of Till in his coffin, a spectator likely wouldn’t put that together. Large swaths of black for the suit, a large triangle of white for the shirt with a couple rough brush marks for buttons, and a bed of swirling yellow and pastels for the silk-lined coffin and pillow. In the bottom corner, there’s a bright red flower.
The violence, such as it is, is all in the face. No attempt at representing what Till actually looked like is made. Rather, what Schutz seeks to capture is the scale and impact of the violence of his killing. A large oval-shaped mess of paint (according to the New Yorker, “a couple inches thick in the area Till’s mouth would be”), his face is all swirls of brown and black, tinged with red and orange in some places, particularly the mouth, which pops with bright white teeth emerging from the morass. The final layer seems to be touches of green – bruising – atop the cheekbones.
When “Open Casket” was presented at the Whitney Biennial last year, it was the site of numerous protests. Many arguments were made. One of the more impactful came from Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye, who, in an essay in the New Republic, pointed out how problematic it was for a White female artist to produce a piece about looking at Emmett Till:
Emmett Till died because a white woman lied about their brief interaction. He died because his side of the story did not mean anything to the two white men who killed him, just as it meant nothing to the jury that acquitted them. For a white woman to paint Emmett Till’s mutilated face communicates not only a tone-deafness toward the history of his murder, but an ignorance of the history of white women’s speech in that murder – the way it cancelled out Till’s own expression, with lethal effect.
Of course, Schutz herself is guilty of the same thing – cancelling out Till’s expression. “Open Casket” isn’t really about Till. Looking at a picture of Till, all Schutz can see is the violence, and so that’s all she paints. Till doesn’t really matter much at all, apparently; according to the New Yorker, it was the references to Till in relation to the killings of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, among others, that inspired the painting. And when she sought to defend herself, to explain and frame and justify her actions, what did Schutz say? That it was an act of empathetic understanding – but not with Till himself (how could it be?). It was with his mother, as she told the Times:
“I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother. Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son. The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension. Their pain is your pain. My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.” She added: “Art can be a space for empathy, a vehicle for connection. I don’t believe that people can ever really know what it is like to be someone else (I will never know the fear that black parents may have) but neither are we all completely unknowable.”
This process, so simple and bluntly put, is instantly recognizable to any acting student – it’s a strategy of empathetic art, to identify yourself in another and to use your practice to communicate the truth you’ve identified. Mamie Till-Mobley’s decision to present Emmett Till’s body in an open casket was a courageous act, a demand that others – those who bore responsibility by their privileged roles in the commonwealth – look on and see what they did to her son. Dana Schutz looked, and she painted what she saw, and revealed that when she looked all that she saw was what they did. And the use of the third-person there is no mistake. Schutz’s empathetic strategy allows her to align herself with the victims, and separate herself from the victimizers, despite the fact that in the rest of her existence she surely enjoys the racial benefits denied Emmett and his mother. And Michael Brown, and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and so on and on and on. This is one of the “delusions of whiteness” Cathy Park Hong identified, that artists “can casually slip in and out of identities like a video game avatar, when there are those who are consistently harassed, surveilled, profiled, or deported for whom they are.”
In the process, whatever her gifts as a maker and whatever else “Open Casket” does, Schutz has produced a work of erasure. She’s taken Till’s body and Till himself be damned. Schutz seems not so different from the very forces of White power claiming Black victims. Surely this is the artistic form of one of Ta-Nahisi Coates’s central themes in Between the World and Me: That Emmett Till, by virtue of being Black in America, could never claim control over his own body, that his body was to be controlled, used, and destroyed by the whims of Whites.
Looking at Schutz’s “Open Casket,” I find myself thinking about another, more effective, work: Alan Schechner’s “Self-Portrait at Buchenwald: It’s the Real Thing” (1991-1993). Using one of Margaret Bourke-White’s famous photographs from the liberation of Buchenwald, Schechner Photoshops himself into the picture at center. He renders himself in black-and-white, to match the photo’s aesthetic, but in his hand, he holds a can of Diet Coke in color, with a red glinting flash-flare radiating from it.
When “Self-Portrait at Buchenwald” was shown at the Jewish Museum as part of Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art in 2002, it too was highly controversial. Many felt it made light of the Holocaust, and in particular called out the perceived callousness of juxtaposing a “diet” soft drink with the emaciated prisoners. However, I interpreted it quite differently. What this image present sis a simple gesture of empathetic engagement with experience, not all that different from how Schutz also used a historically significant photo to paint her way into engagement with the subjects. Schechner has aesthetically inserted himself into this image and thereby into the experience of victims of the Holocaust. The Diet Coke can, however, prevents the collapse of the exercise – it pulls Schechner back out of the gesture, anchoring him to the seemingly separate world where we can comfortably walk down to the corner market a buy a can of Coke, which seems to exist in a completely separate reality from the Holocaust.
Of course, it is the same world – Coca Cola was widely available in Nazi Germany until the war. But conceptually, these experiences seem irreconcilable, reflected in the coloration of the can itself, which seems to escape the aesthetic strategy of the empathetic gesture. Thus “Self-Portrait at Buchenwald” employs the empathetic strategy of art in order to reveal the inability to fully empathize, reflected in the polysemy of the subtitle, which appropriates Coke’s 1971 ad slogan. Probably best known today for its use at the end of the AMC show Mad Men, not only is it itself a claim of authenticity the image is actively rejecting, but the subtitle ties it back to Coke’s treacly TV ad that introduced the slogan, with a multicultural group of people representing seemingly every global culture coming together in unison to sing about their love of Coke. It’s a ridiculous kumbaya moment, a sentiment every bit as fake as Aspertame, the sweetener in Diet Coke.
It’s relevant to point out that Schechner is himself Jewish. Interestingly, when artists engage with existing media tied to their own racial or ethnic experience, their response is often to problematize or reject the possibility of full empathetic identification with that experience. I think this surely stems from an awareness of the forces that have sought to erase these experiences. It’s generally (though certainly not exclusively) the purview of White (or non-Jewish, as the case may be) artists to assume that their empathetic strategies can let them “step into the shoes” of the Other.
In the world of theater and performance, two of the more powerful pieces I’ve seen in the past several years follow strategies very similar to Schechner’s. One was a musical performance by the Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq. Originally commissioned by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012, Tagaq collaborated with composers and musicians to create a new live score to the 1922 “ethnographic film” Nanook of the North. While important in film history and no doubt inspired by the “best of intentions,” Robert Flaherty’s film claimed to present an authentic document of Inuit life; in practice, much of it was staged, including a number of racist caricatures. Still, as a work – however imperfect – it exists as one of few documents of an experience and way of life that was erased by White colonialism. It occupies a sort of liminal space – it both erases First Nations experience through the White gaze, at the same time it nevertheless captures and therefore preserves some glimpse of it. Tagaq’s powerful vocal performance (I saw it at the 2016 Public Theater Under the Radar Festival) performs these complex interactions, as much revealing the erasures as reclaiming the experience. As she told the CBC of her intentions in a 2014 interview:
There are moments in the movie where … my ancestors, they’re so amazing. They lived on the land and I just still can’t believe that. Growing up in Nunavut and just the harshness of the environment itself, the ability for people to be able to survive with no vegetation, and just the harshest of environments, it’s just incredible to me. I’m very proud of my ancestors. So that’s one facet of it, but I’m a natural presenter, like I went to arts school, so I watched it and I was just like, “They put a bunch of bullshit happy Eskimo stereotypes,” you know what I mean? So I can respond to that as well, with finding some hardcore punk, kind of that feel, kind of put that sound all over it to make it clear. It’s really nice because I can take my frustrations of stereotypes all over the world and take that energy and put it in sonically. I reclaim the film. Even though I have no doubt in my mind that Robert Flaherty had a definite love for Inuit and the land, it’s through 1922 goggles. It’s just nice to be a modern woman, well modern Inuk woman, taking it back.
In a similar vein, last year the Wooster Group presented The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons”. The performance, by Eric Berryman, Jasper McGruder, and Philip Moore, who are all Black, takes the form of a record listening party. After introductory remarks by Berryman explaining the background, they play the 1965 LP Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, a collection of songs recorded in segregated Texas prisons in 1964 by folklorist and scholar Bruce Jackson. As the record plays from beginning to end, Berryman uses a mixing board to bring in and out elements of the recording and to permit himself, McGruder and Moore to join into the harmonies and solo vocals. It presents a mediated engagement with a document that itself is mediating their own experience other Black Americans who have otherwise been erased through various forms of racial violence.
When I first read about Lepage and Bonifassi’s SLĀV, it was The B-Side that I found myself immediately comparing it to. Here were two projects using the same materials – performance of historically documented songs expressing parts of the Black experience – yet employed in such dramatically different ways. Berryman and his collaborators seemed to accept that their ability to fully empathize with this experience was limited; the singers on the record are separated from them by the violence of White supremacist society, and therefore their performance documents this violence, the loss and separation and erasure. In contrast, the White LePage and Bonifassi never really seem to question their ability to access these experiences through the music they employ. Lepage and Bonifassi assumed they could get it right; Berryman understood that something had been taken which could not be fully recovered, and made a piece to try to show that to us.
In closing, I feel like I have to make a couple points. First and foremost, while this piece begins with a big claim about the “failure of empathetic art,” I am not a theorist and I don’t intend this to be a theory piece. Rather, I’m a critic. I look, listen, read, and respond. The inspiration for this piece was that as I witnessed these various controversies unfold, I consistently saw artists justifying their actions by recourse to the assertion that “this is just how art works.” Offered in the face of substantial criticism and controversy, I believed these assertions were primarily read as weak excuses for bad behavior. My point in writing this has been to take them seriously. I do believe these artists when they say they believe this; I also believe that by considering the work they’ve produced, the failure of this entire mode can be revealed in its own terms, and should be. Also, the counterexamples of Schechner, Tagaq, and Berryman are not intended as a theory of the “right way to create art.” I merely reference them as evidence of artists dealing with similar material in a completely different fashion, belying the initial claim that “this is just what art does.”
Second, while this essay has been primarily concerned with controversies surrounding White artists dealing with Black experience, the problem of empathetic art isn’t limited to that. What these controversies reveal, among other things, is that this notion is highly imperfect and any artist – regardless of identity – should be skeptical of operating under such claims. This is why I referenced contemporary critics of “political correctness,” who intuit somehow that the pushback received seems based on “exceptions” to a rule. The rule is what they’re making their stand on, and it is not a good rule – its claim to truth is suspect. But it’s also problematic to accept the validity of these exceptions without questioning the rule they’re exceptions from. This can also be a form of silencing or a rejection of critical engagement, a “go-with-the-woke-flow” attitude that embodies the false consciousness that critics of “political correctness” presume is the norm.
Third, I’d point out that while the focus of this piece has largely been on the decisions artists have made in creating work, the empathetic strategy is inherently also about the spectator or consumer of the work. What’s truly odd to me is that so many artists – confronted by audiences rejecting their empathetic representations – suddenly become skeptics not of their own practice, but of their audiences. But of course this is just the problem of the ideological aspect of empathetic art: Like most ideologues, confronted with the failure of their project, they double-down, accepting on faith what cannot be demonstrated in the world.
For my part, I generally accept Jacques Rancière’s argument in The Emancipated Spectator that, whatever else, none of the major theories of theatrical production in the modern era can justify their essential claim of determining the effect of the work on the audience. Psychological realism, Brechtian agitprop, Artaudian happening – no matter how you go about it, you cannot completely control or ensure what your audience will take away. Rather, the production of theater (and relatedly, other arts) is the production of an event or spectacle which mediates, in complex ways, the interchange between the makers and the consumers. The work is merely the place where they meet, not a pre-determined effect provided from one to the other. Making art is not a simple 2 + 2 = 4 proposition, and it would be a mistake to approach it as such.
Further, it’s worth pointing out that no matter how sophisticated or arcane the approach, the empathetic strategy in art is essentially a realist one; it holds that the Other being approached empathetically is a static, fixed identity and experience which can be understood. (This is part of Cathy Park Hong’s argument.) Put that way, it shouldn’t be shocking that attempts by White artists to represent Black experiences are challenged – since the Black experience is shaped by a racist society, the representation of Black experience is necessarily a reflection of a social reality that is to be challenged and changed. On the other hand, for another example of how unquestioning acceptance of the exception to the rule is problematic, consider the issue that often arises in the case of “race-blind” casting, which consciously tries to ignore racial identity entirely and is thus, itself, a form of silencing and erasure of experience.
Rather than maintaining a debased form of social realism, reinforcing the inequalities of the very society we seek to critique, I would offer – by way of proposing the direction I think art should be going – one of the arguments the critic Jill Dolan has made, in her book Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theatre. Examining a variety of different approaches and modes of performance making, which offer different forms of engagement to the spectator, she argues that the performance space can be laboratory for imagining a better, different world – a series of proposed utopian visions which can serve as models for social engagement and progress. She writes:
The aesthetics of these performances lead to both affective and effective feelings and expressions of hope and love not just for a partner, as the domestic scripts of realism so often emphasize, but for other people, for a more abstracted notion of “community,” or for an even more intangible idea of “humankind.” From the particular slant offered by theater and performance as practices of social life, this book addresses the cynicism of progressive commentators who believe the Left, especially, has given up on the possibility of a politics of transformation. Leftist academic pundit Russell Jacoby, for example, suggests, “Today, socialists and leftists do not dream of a future qualitatively different from the present. To put it differently, radicalism no longer believes in itself.” Utopia in Performance answers this claim with my own set of beliefs in the possibility of a better future, one that can be captured and claimed in performance.
This brings me to my final point. For all the criticism of “empathy” as a mode of art-making, I’m not actually arguing that empathy should somehow be removed from art. Far from it. As Dolan makes clear, empathy must be part of the mix; but it’s an imperfect and insufficient goal in and of itself, and one prone to resulting in a false consciousness of empathy. Rather, our project should be taking the imaginative leap of trying to imagine a better, more equal world.
And if that sounds hopelessly vague as guidance in art-making, well, you try to come up with a clear, simple way of fixing the world. If it seems easier to criticize than to do, that’s because it’s easier to judge the impact of actions after they’re taken, since we can evaluate whether they’ve accomplished what they set out to do. And if we return to the example of racism in American society, it seems pretty clear that no strategy yet employed by artists has been able to solve that one. It remains hard work to be done, a process of moving forward. What I would like readers to take away, then, is a series of lessons of what does not work, since if we can’t learn from failure, how can we possibly be progressing? In the case of empathy, as I said up front, it seems hopelessly insufficient to our current moment.
As I write this comfortably ensconced in blue state, liberal New York City, the country seems hopelessly divided. Forty percent of voters continue to support Donald Trump, leading to no shortage of hand-wringing among his opponents as to why. Some read reports from newspapers that airlift journalists into Trump-country – as though it were a completely alien society, rather than Ohio – and report back that the White working class on the losing side of twenty or thirty years of federal policy are demanding a change. Most others suffice to look at survey data showing substantial amounts of White resentment and polls showing Republican support for cruel family separations at the Mexican border, and assume that the forty percent of the country that seems to solidly support Trump can be written off as hopeless racists. For my part, I have no trouble accepting the truth of both positions – for instance, people deserve decent healthcare and a certain quality of life regardless of whether they blame their misfortune on their inability to violently suppress the nominal social and economic gains of their Black neighbors. In any event, as far as empathy is concerned, we seem to be facing a national crisis of it, making it a pretty shitty basis for a politics forward, let alone for making art.
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