Lauryn Hill has just been sentenced to three months in jail for tax evasion. Two months earlier, the youngest Baldwin brother, Stephen, was given probation for the same offense. President Obama, like his predecessors Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, asked his assigned Marine guard to hold an umbrella over his head when it started to rain during a press conference; however, in Obama’s case, conservative pundits have raised the specter of impeachment, citing the umbrella (non)incident as further proof of his inability to lead and protect those serving under him as the Commander-in-Chief. Jack Johnson, O.J. Simpson, Michael Vick, Janet Jackson, Chris Brown, Wesley Snipes, Tiger Woods: There are countless examples of high-profile African-Americans, most of them male, being held to a higher moral standard when accused of some transgression, whether major, minor, or invented.
Certainly these cases are evidence of the pervasiveness of de facto racism and its interdependence on de jure racism, but they reflect something far more insidious and often omitted from mainstream conversations about race relations in the United States: moral psychology and its impact on political systems. Seeing that the judicial system and public policies consistently fail to account for the moral tensions at the core of these scandals, it may be time to look to contemporary art for answers. Few artists have adequately explored the relationship between moral psychology and social inequities, but those that have done so have successfully teased out the moral tensions and disparities circulating through our political and legal systems.
Conceptual artist and philosopher Adrian Piper first comes to mind for her early durational performances that attempt to expose the racist underpinnings of Kantian moral philosophy, which is the foundation of contemporary political philosophy. Her most noteworthy performance is “Mythic Being”(1972–1975), for which she masqueraded in public as the basest black male stereotype, preying on the presumed fears of whites she encountered. Dressed in an Afro, mustache, and dark sunglasses, Piper behaved antisocially in public spaces and attacked white people, albeit her friends performing as strangers. The complementary piece of the performance is a series of photographs of the Mythic Being that Piper placed as “advertisements” in the Village Voice. The “punctum” of these photographs are thought bubbles above the Mythic Being’s head, in which one reads the disturbing thoughts reflecting the white supremacist ideology (s)he internalized. There is no quantitative or qualitative data that offers insight into the impact of Piper’s performance; however, knowing that New York City in the 1970s was a hotbed of racial tension where black men were the faces of violent street crime, the Mythic Being’s weekly message in the liberal newspaper undoubtedly challenged the commitment to social and judicial equality to which its white liberal readers paid lip service.
One might also turn to Dutch artist Renzo Martens, whose 2008 documentary Episode III: Enjoy Poverty interrogates the paradox of the Western news media’s relationship with Africa. The film depicts Martens traveling through the Democratic Republic of Congo to persuade its citizens that poverty and atrocities are some of their most valuable commodities, as evidenced by the Western press’ dogged—and lucrative—pursuit of both for predominately white Western consumption. The most damning scene is a sales meeting between a European publication and professional Congolese photographers attempting to sell their photographs of atrocities occurring in their villages. The publication declines to purchase the images, at first claiming ethical reasons (which only seem to apply when dealing with African photographers), but later, upon Martens’s insistence, claiming the photographs are sub-standard. Although deeply disturbing, Enjoy Poverty reveals that morality is always up for grabs when it comes to preserving the racial hierarchy and white privilege, even for artists who co-opt Africa and other parts of the “third world” for artistic pursuits without critical distance from their sociopolitical privilege.
However, the illustration closest to the current scandals comes courtesy of comedic absurdist performance artist Dave Chappelle, who in his 2004 skit “Tron Carter’s Law & Order,” inverts expectations to demonstrate how the mechanisms ofde jure racism and a corrupt moral psychology operate disparately in the lives of a black drug dealer and a white CEO. In Chapelle’s parody, the latter enjoys the privileges typically granted to white-collar criminals, while the former suffers police brutality at every turn. Chappelle’s message is clear, and poignant. Only in an alternate universe would the authorities allow a suspect like Tron Carter to schedule an interrogation at his convenience and favorably negotiate the terms of his punishment. In the current paradigm, forgiveness and second chances are reserved for the authors and signatories of the social and racial contracts, men like Immanuel Kant, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Charlie Sheen, George Zimmerman, and George W. Bush.1 In the current paradigm, the only transgressions that matter are committed by those who, by virtue of society’s founding principals, will always fail to measure up to its ever-shifting, culturally-relative moral center.
1. For more information on the Racial Contract and its base document, the Social Contract, see Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1999).
ContributorCrystal AM Nelson
crystal am nelson is an artist, writer, and curator who works between California and the East Coast. Her writing has also appeared in Art Practical and Identity Theory, among other places.