On Kara Walker

Douglas Faneuil
Feb 11, 2013 10:27PM

[excerpted from Conservatism and the Art of Victimization]

I attended a media lunch on Tuesday at the Cornell Club, where Professor Janis Whitlock discussed her work on self-injury. It was a fascinating, informal talk about a very new field of study—but a personal story of Janis’ struck me most. She had been caring for a foster child, one who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of a previous guardian. The child, Prof. Whitlock said, had been “stuck” in a narrative of self-blame. Whitlock tried to relieve the child, insisting that “none of this” was her fault, that she wasn’t to blame “for anything.” But this poor girl wouldn’t budge; she seemed determined to blame herself. In a moment of desperation, Janis Whitlock relented—and said something rather shocking: “Okay, I’ll give you ten percent. Maybe ten percent of the time you could’ve done something… else. You could’ve said ‘no’ one more time. You could’ve gone to another adult for help.” It was a breakthrough moment for both of them: the foster child made great strides in the months that followed, and Janis Whitlock came to understand, to use her word, the importance of agency. “In telling my foster child that she was utterly powerless to stop her abuse, I made her feel as though it could happen again. I realized then that what she wanted, more than anything else, was a feeling of agency, of power.” It’s an incredible story of child teaching parent an almost unbearably difficult truth: no matter how we are mistreated, we are never absolutely powerless—and often the process of recovering from such wounds includes forgiving ourselves for being human. What a brave girl, I thought to myself.

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A few months ago, the Whitney Museum held a large-scale retrospective of Kara Waker's work. (She’s 38 years old.) In a review of the show, Holland Cotter, the Times’ art critic, wrote that Kara Walker’s art “is about race first and last.” It’s a difficult conclusion to contend with—just look at her art (more herehere and here). Nevertheless, I’m going to contend with it; Holland Cotter is wrong. Certainly, Kara Walker has much to say about race. It’s her language, her form. She nearly always expresses herself through the lens of American slavery. But her deepest convictions reach beyond race relations, and speak loudly of human suffering, morality, and victimhood in general.

In the presence of her art, you experience an uneasy obliteration of right and wrong, as slaves and masters interact in scenes of orgiastic confusion—all at once playful, seductive, violent and awful. Sometimes, because of the silhouetted forms, you have trouble deciphering the action. Here’s Mia Fineman (a critic from Slate.com) describing a particular work: “Beneath a tree dripping with Spanish moss, a Southern belle leans in for a kiss from her courtly suitor. But something’s wrong: An extra pair of legs mysteriously juts out from under her hoop skirt (who’s hiding under there?), and the young man’s sword grazes the butt of a naked child with nappy braids who strangles a duck at the edge of the bayou… A black girl fellates a young white boy, who raises his hands to the sky in a kind of benediction. A naked figure floats overhead, held aloft by a bloated, balloonlike penis. Below, a slave woman lifts her leg and drops two babies on the ground like turds.” It sounds utterly grotesque and off-putting, like the slasher-porn of the Hostel franchise. But Walker’s technique, with its beauty, fastidiousness and lack of detail, compels us to keep looking. She grosses us out intellectually; she enthralls us visually. 

Fineman continues: “[Kara Walker’s] imagery is voluptuous and shameful; it embarrasses and offends. And it refuses to let anyone—black or white—off the hook.” This total lack of moralizing is the essence of one’s experience in viewing a Kara Walker piece. Here, the artist tells us herself: “A lot of my work has been about the unexpected—kind of wanting to be the heroine and wanting to kill the heroine at the same time. And that kind of dilemma, that push and pull, is the underlying turbulence that I bring to each of the pieces that I make. The silhouette lends itself to avoidance of the subject, not being able to look at it directly.” 

In that final sentence especially, Walker implies that she’s after an avoidance of certainty—that the subject of her work is actually uncertainty. But we’re talking about slavery here, an atrocity that cries out for moral certitude. Is Kara Walker suggesting that whites and blacks were equally to blame for the horrors of slavery? No, of course not. Those who would accuse Walker of moral relativism misunderstand her. Walker isn’t interested in blame; she isn’t interested in historical analysis as a rite of condemnation. She wants to free us from that. She wants us to sit, uncomfortably, in the “underlying turbulence” of our most awful histories, personal and social. In Kara Walker’s nightmare vision, we’re not supposed to point fingers. We’re meant to see ourselves.   

What’s the point? Well, what happens if we, like Walker, begin to see blame and victimhood as an escape from “underlying turbulence?” Then narratives of victimization, and the moral certitude that follows, begin to feel like facile comforts more than hard truths. We begin to see blame and righteousness as selfish conceits, cheap band-aids for our own dissonance, our own fears of complicity. We begin to challenge ourselves. What’s our role? We draw connections between personal, social and even world-historical wrongs. We compare the most complicated moral terrain we know—our own—with the less personal but no less important cultural narratives competing for primacy. What’s our role? If we can live with the dissonance that Kara Walker throws in our face, something very exciting presents itself: agency.  

In a funny way, Kara Walker’s work makes the same demand as Janis Whitlock’s foster child. In its complete repudiation of the victim/victimizer dichotomy, her art forces us to assign power to all individuals—ourselves, our ancestors. And it makes this same demand for the same reason; Kara Walker, too, sees victimhood as an impediment to personal agency, victimization as a narrative of powerlessness. The obvious question is: Who do these narratives serve? Who has an interest in making people feel powerless? Those already in power, of course. For all the Right’s bluster about a vast liberal elite, the true elite—those actually in power—have the greatest interest in propagating the siege mentality. It’s no coincidence that Fox News came to dominance during the Right’s heyday; that it’s owned by one of the richest men in the world; and that it’s the most influential news channel on television. The Right’s propagandists may continue to paint themselves as victims, but they’re laughing all the way to the bank—and the joke’s on us. As Todd Gitlin noted in 2003, “Fox News has a tone. The tone is what it delivers. The tone is urgency, crashing noise.” That tone is its product—and its product is meant for the masses. 

Of course, as Kara Walker might point out, a joke doesn’t work if no one’s listening.

Douglas Faneuil