Arts/Literature

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!

[sigh]

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.

10 replies »

  1. “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.”

    Beautifully said. I think one of the things that we often forget, especially now that we have every opportunity to bombard people with words (via comments sections, texts, Tweets, Facebook statuses, etc.), is that art makes arguments-in fact, most everything that we create makes an argument. And we’re forgetting how to see those arguments that aren’t written in all caps, this or that language.

    • You’re right to point out there aren’t only the two. There are almost never only two choices. And the phrase “just art” has no meaning to me. Everything’s an argument. It’s funny that you are saying this here, and I made the statement elsewhere today, in online print, that there is a social aspect to writing, and to other forms of art, that is not emphasized enough.

      I agree with the post, especially the “aid and comfort” part – I had to go and look at some of the links before I decided, but I knew this post was worthy even before I looked. I have never been a HuffPo fan. – they are Alan Colmes writ large as far as I am concerned. Back when I was really paying attention to the liberal blogs, FDL had better content and Corrente had better attitude.

      The more I read S&R, the more tempted I am to get back into political blogging. I might just strap on the armor and step back into the ring before we’re done with this trip we are on.

  2. i would not consider myself smart by any means. did graduate as an me and went into the mba program got divorced and after 8 years was pretty sick of the schooling system. did not finish the mba program (got divorced and droped out) and after i got my bs i did not feel any smarter. i believe i had learning difficulties, i am left handed so i guess i use my right side of the brain more. i seem to have to picture things in my mind to understand them. it seemed i had to study harder then most. i also found i should listen to everyone because no matter what their education it seems i can learn some thing from everyone. whether i agree or disagree i try to keep an open mind. politics, well i would probably be a liberal, but with one platform in the party i vote conservative. i pretty much hate most politicians, and that has been a project in learning throughout my life. there are some good ones, they are just hard to find in either party. i am not very good with the english language, so please excuse my writing.

    i only saw the girl sitting in the chair, and what she was sitting on, it took my quite awhile to see the figure under the seat. i guess what we need to do is put a replica of a white male, with maybe an old time motorcycle seat that is slightly raised in the center. heck, maybe we could hinge the center raised portion so it could be flipped up to keep any one in the chair from sliding out of it. i am sure even that would upset someone. you can not win them all.

  3. Herr Smith: Assuming the artwork was a likeness of an oppressed person, in this case a black woman, why would Dasha, the blue-eyed and fabulously rich wife of of a billionaire sit on it? Was she illustrating the message by using her self as the oppressor? Was she just tired and sat on the most convenient “chair’ to pose for the photographer? Was she telling the world her station in life permitted her the privilege of using an expensive artwork to rest her two sumptuously appointed gluteus maximus or, more succinctly, was she “thumbing her nose” at the world by simply resting her ass? Considering this photo was for the Russian art market, was it a statement that she is now a successful gallery owner and the chair in question was simply a prop for said purpose? Condemning racism needs to be addressed to the racists but first know who is acting with malice. Wishing you the very best in your practice of proper mental hygiene and a gluten-free America.

  4. It’s entirely possible that this chair is a clever commentary on the subservient role of women and people of color in society.

    However, it’s equally possible that whoever built it/bought it thought it was funny or something. Eastern Europe has a long and well established track record of bigotry.

    I’d say on balance that you imputing good intentions is at least as specious as the Twitterazis imputing bad intentions.

    Yes, people are on average, dumb, and a sizable percentage will misunderstand anything, no matter how straightforward. However, if you’re going to make a positive point but it’s so oblique that even intelligent people aren’t sure what you’re getting at, then probably you should explain it carefully as you’re doing it.

    My personal guess is that the dumb people were right this time. She put that picture out there because she didn’t even recognize what she was sitting on. It was just furniture.

    Oh well, this an oligarch. Right now the photographer is dying his hair blond in a hotel sink and trying to sneak onto the night train for Turkey.

    • You’re right about E Europe in general. But the person in question isn’t a random Russian – she’s an art gallery owner. That’s a pretty well-known social context and it isn’t one that has much room for racism. You’re right that I’m making some assumptions, and you’re right that I could be wrong. But we make assumptions based on contexts. If you’re betting on whether someone in the art world is racist, the smart thing to do is go all-in on “not.”

  5. I replied to Bruce Sterling and Jon Lebkowsky’s State of the World address this New Year’s on Jon’s request, and this is the gist of things. I was surprised that art had not come up on their radar this year except for 3D printing, but on the other hand, I wasn’t. If half the stuff I have been seeing in the mainstream art world, like Jeff Koons, Marina Abramovic, and other A-listers horizontal monopolizing with Jay-Z, Kanye, and Lady Gaga, then the upper echelon of art is simply, as Baudrillard put it best, “An empty gesture toward status” where the stratospheric 1% is celebrating their obscene success and secretly throwing up in the bathroom over “bubble anxiety”. Therefore, art, for the most part is not about the discourse, it has become about the GESTURE alluding to the dicourse. It isn’t about questioning racism, it is about using the taxonomy to make a piece that talks about questioning racial inequality – first order simulacrum. Neat, tidy, and sterile, while giving the collector the ability to feign social awareness while they polish their Bugatti.

    In the street in New Detroit, net-hipsters are making “performance GIFs” where they squeeze their lactating tits into the camera and dream of Bronies,rainbows, and unicorns while the performance artist outside lays down a chalk line on the street depicting the “new beach” created by the waterline rising well into Chelsea in the coming decades.

    I have some hope for things like Augmented Reality, where databases of really incendiary stuff can be put in restricted areas, and the police can’t do a damned thing about it.

    As a polemic, I’d like to say it isn’t art unless it’s moved you, made you cry, or made you want to bust the nose of the artist or want to put them in Jail. Maybe I’m channeling the First Wave Avant-Garde, but I think the art world today is about as vapid and facile as they come with a few exceptions. I have hope that those people, like Hasan Elahi, Joseph DeLappe and the Overpass Light Brigade will remind us that art is not comfortable or safe, nor should it be. Zhukova and Melgaard? Warmed-over Moloko Milk Bar furniture from Clockwork orange, only black.

    • If your assessment of Zhukova is accurate – and it might well be, although I don’t know her, so it’s hard to say – then there’s an intriguing irony in here. In that scenario, you have a wealthy art tourist, one with perhaps a not-perfectly-tuned ear, using real capital to purchase cultural capital and gin up some personal cred out of the shadow of her boyfriend’s billions. Then, that tone-deafness leads her into this dust-up, where she is blindsided by yet another set of semi-enlightened folks – plugged in enough to watch, not smart enough to understand, but with Twitter and a cultural context that asserts the equality and validity of every opinion.

      How very postmodern.

      • I suppose there’s the possibility that her critics could inadvertently be right about her insensitivity, although if they are it’s a case of being right without understanding why. In my book you get no credit for that. You need to show your work so I’ll know if you’re smart or just got lucky.

        Or Zhukova may be bright as hell. I know nothing abut her past this story, and if she weren’t the girlfriend of the owner of my favorite football side (Go Chelsea) I’d probably never had heard about any of this. That’s pretty pomo, too, I suppose.

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