Watching Whiteness Shift to Blue Via Nationalist Aesthetics

Whiteness has changed. It is becoming blue. The white-to-blue shift moves the axis of personal and political identity from ancestry to affiliation with law enforcement. To be “white” is now to accept and endorse the absolute necropolitical (the power to administer death) authority of police. To be “blue” is to bring together all the tangled desires and frustrations connoted by whiteness into a spatialized subjugation to police authority. The resulting form of identification is a new form of nationalism. It has flags; it demands violence; and it exults in its own presumed superiority. This shift was visibly evident in the performance of the presidential election campaign by Trump’s followers, with their trucks, flags, guns, and banners.

Since the challenge to segregation in the 1950s, policing has presented itself as a “thin blue line” against disorder — a dog-whistle connecting the Civil Rights Movement to the mobility of Black people and white fears about the loss of a permanent, racialized social hierarchy. The repeated descriptions of US cities where protests were organized against police violence as “anarchist” this summer and autumn followed that logic. Unspoken but understood is that the areas which the blue line protects are white spaces: the largely segregated regions where white people mostly live.

What has happened with the white-to-blue shift is that the thin line has expanded to take over the entire space. It’s not a coherent geographic space but rather what George Lipschitz calls the “white spatial imaginary,” or the psychogeography of whiteness. In 2016, this imaginary went MAGA with the substitution of a wall for the line. And now, rather than there being one single divider, marking both geographical and racialized borders, the entire spatial imaginary has gone blue. The resulting white-to-blue space articulates white supremacy to those domains of the state most directly involved in the war on Black lives, as well as with immigration enforcement, border patrol, and the apparatus of mass incarceration.

“Back the Blue” rally at Trump Tower, New York (photos via Setauket Patriots Facebook page; no photographer attributed)

White-to-blue space fills the entire psychic and physical domain for full personhood in the eyes of the state, presently known as whiteness, with this allegiance to the police and related agencies. Black Lives Matter is exactly the right slogan because white-to-blue space is imagined as that in which only lives designated fully “white” rightfully exist, let alone matter. Trump was only the figurehead for this articulation of white supremacy in partnership with police and vice versa, whose slogan is now “Back the Blue,” not MAGA.

The Back the Blue flag that has become highly visible this year has its origins in the white resistance to the 2014-16 Black Lives Matter movement and the slogan that resistance generated: “Blue Lives Matter.” It reproduces the US flag in black and white with one blue line across it. For its designer Andrew Jacob, the black space below the blue represents “criminals.” That is to say, it spatializes in visual form the “color line” between Black and white that W. E. B. Du Bois identified as the great American “problem” and claims that “blue” is what prevents chaos. Above the line is now the white-to-blue space. As a segregationist emblem, Back the Blue has become the flag of the imaginary neo-Confederacy, a gated community with aspirations to become a nation.

It makes sense, then, that the Back the Blue flag appeared at Charlottesville in 2017. After the George Floyd uprising this year it became visible almost everywhere, attracting mainstream media coverage since June. When an outsized version was flown in place of the Stars and Stripes at an October Trump rally in Wisconsin, many saw this as a way to make an unspoken allusion to his desire to be a leader of those who want white supremacy.

White-to-blue space is formed and claimed by its own set of public performances outside the COVID-19-limited Trump rallies. Most prominent are the “Trump caravans,” formed by long lines of F-150 trucks, SUVs, and other cars taking over the roadways. These caravans first began appearing during the resistance to COVID-19 shutdowns in April. Over the summer, participants also put together boat caravans on the coasts and lakes in pro-Trump districts. But it was mostly cars and trucks, with the most expensive at the front and rear to conceal the humbler sedans in between. The caravans are meant to convey wealth and power, not the status or state of affairs of the middle class evoked by these smaller cars.

Driving slowly, like biker gangs, the caravans filled all lanes of traffic on several converging roads so that it was hard to avoid them. The caravans traversed a psychogeography of the far-right. In October, for example, the Setauket Patriots on Long Island, NY, organized a caravan that set off from a parking lot where there is an inconspicuous 9/11 memorial, traveling via the site of a Revolutionary war battle, to a pizzeria that Trump had tweeted about because it flew his banners.

Trump train convoy caravan, Long Island (photos via Setauket Patriots Facebook page; no photographer attributed)

In addition to Back the Blue flags and Trump banners — mass-produced paraphernalia preferred to home-made — vehicles flew “Fuck Your Feelings” banners. This slogan is a condensation of the conservative influencer Ben Shapiro’s slogan, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” Like 2016’s “Balls Matter” (conflating “finally a president with balls” with “white lives matter”) the slogan is both vague and forceful at once. It shifts the generic pronoun in Shapiro’s remark to a direct attack on “you.” The “you” here would be anyone who had feelings but especially anyone whose feeling is that Black or other non-white lives matter. There were even Trump inflatable dolls, a mocking of the mockery others would make of him.

Social media announced these events and amplified them, bringing supporters out to photograph the caravans and post the pictures. The caravans and flags intersected with a plethora of low-production-values TV attack ads, featuring cops denouncing Democratic candidates as radicals. “Defund the police” was the negative punchline, whether the candidate had said it themselves or not. Because the police are now the primary form of white-to-blue identification, the move to defund state or city agencies was felt as personal violence by those so identifying.

Combining toxic masculinity with the prosperity gospel, and NASCAR-style fandom, the caravans perform a seemingly paradoxical aesthetic that is pro-wealth, anti-elite, commercial and NSFW at once. But as Stuart Hall observed in a different context, white-to-blue identity “articulates into a configuration different subjects, different identities, different projects, different aspirations. It does not reflect, it constructs a ‘unity’ out of difference.” The resulting white-to-blue movement won more white votes for Trump in 2020 than in 2016. As a result, Republicans held the Senate, gained seats in the House and defended Republican hegemony at state level.

The blue in the new white-to-blue identification stands for more than just police. It evokes the “blues” worn by prisoners in California’s prison system. In her remarkable book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Nicole Fleetwood writes elegiacally of this blue in her description of Sable Elyse Smith’s exhibition Blue Is Ubiquitous and Forbidden (2015) as “carceral blue.” She suggests that the use of this color by Smith and other artists is a resistant means of “expressing the blues in relation to Black unfreedom and subjugation.” Blue is a clothing color forbidden to prison visitors but one that may render people subject to arrest for gang membership. I think, too, of the relation of black, blue, and beauty evoked in Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight. Or I think of the blue of the sky when the Vendôme Column fell during the Paris Commune in 1871 that André Breton said he saw in all of Courbet’s paintings. To claim these blues for whiteness is a violent effort to erase such possibilities.

Sable Elyse Smith, “Landscape V” (2020) (image courtesy MoMA PS1; photo by Kris Graves)

In the midst of the violence of white-to-blue identification there is nonetheless the glimmer of possibility to undo its nationalism. If white can become blue, maybe it is possible for white to return to being just a color rather than a marker of an ontological hierarchy of being, or at least an icon that no longer has sociopolitical force?

The fall of the racist Confederate statues has prefigured that possibility. White-to-blue’s operating system asserts that not all those who are light-skinned are “white” in the sense of affiliating to white supremacy. While some of those identified as white have refused white supremacy, in the wake of the George Floyd uprising it appeared, briefly, to be the majority.  The end of monolithic whiteness is a precondition for the abolition of the carceral state that upholds white supremacy. It is not a condition of the image but of the imaginary, that moment when what Christina Sharpe calls an “ethics of seeing” would be in effect. Imagine that.

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Suspended Blossoms and Patchwork Characters Imagine a Pastel Universe of Overabundance

“T. A. U. B. I. S.” (2020). All images © Tau Lewis, courtesy of Cooper Cole, shared with permission

Considering the possibilities of non-gendered motherhood, Toronto-born artist Tau Lewis stitches together oversized characters and floral tendrils that occupy a lavish fictional world. Textured swatches of fabric transform stark gallery space into pastel gardens and the idyllic universe of the “T. A. U. B. I. S.,” or the bulging-eyed creature with a protruding tongue shown above. Teeming with themes of compassion, joy, and freedom, the sprawling works evoke birth and the warmth of a womb filled with light.

Part of the collection titled Triumphant Alliance of the Ubiquitous Blossoms of Incarnate Souls—which closed last week at Toronto’s Cooper Cole—Lewis’s installations imagine an environment centered around abundance, which she explains:

Mutable and devoid of gender, they transmute into blossoms. Every blossom embodies a soul who is alive and listening. T.A.U.B.I.S. blossoms grow year-round, uni-wide, even in most harsh weather and on most hostile planets. The T.A.U.B.I.S communicate and collect intel through these blossoms.

A self-taught artist based in Brooklyn, Lewis hand-dyes vintage curtains, bed sheets, blankets, towels, and clothing that she sews into quilts and looming sculptural figures. Her body of work generally explores multiple facets of trauma and the ways manual labor can provide healing. From the textiles gathered throughout Toronto, New York, and her family’s home in Negril, Jamaica, Lewis patches together representations of community members and ancestors. “The transformative act of repurposing these materials recalls practices of resourcefulness in diasporic contexts; upcycling is a recuperative act that reclaims both agency and memory,” she says in a statement.

Follow Lewis’s delicate works on Instagram, and head to Cooper Cole’s site to view her recent artist talk.  (via Contemporary Art Daily)

 

“Symphony” (2020)

“T. A. U. B. I. S.” (2020)

“Delight” (2020)

“Delight” (2020)

“Symphony” (2020)

“Delight” (2020)

“Delight” (2020)

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30 Years of the Guerrilla Girls’ Art and Advocacy

Tales of women having to fight tooth and nail for recognition — let alone equal representation — are as old as patriarchy, especially in the arts. The Guerrilla Girls are an anonymous group of feminist activist artists who have, since 1985, taken to the streets to broadcast clever and scathing informational campaigns about discrimination and dysfunction in the art world. The group counts their official membership, past and present, at 60 individuals over the course of 3 decades, all of whom work on behalf of the collective by taking the name of a dead woman artist as a pseudonym.

Initially, they focused on revealing the extraordinary sexism and racial bias toward women and artists of color in the New York art world. As Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly demonstrates, their work quickly evolved. The text catalogs their tireless advocacy around issues like homelessness, unequal pay, reproductive control, education, national healthcare, abortion, rape, sexual harassment, political hypocrisy, and environmentalism — each of which the Guerrilla Girls see as inextricable from the precarity of women artists and those of color.

“After being described as whiny and negative, we decided it was time to help women look on the positive side of their situation. We turned the disadvantages of being a woman artist into advantages. Workers in physics, veterinary medicine, cartooning, music, even mortuary science — as well as a male columnist for the New York Times — wrote us that this poster was the story of their lives, too. An artist sent us money to run it as an ad in Artforum.” Guerrilla Girls, poster (1987–88)

As the self-proclaimed “conscience of the art world,” it’s notable how much of the Guerrilla Girls oeuvre essentially constitutes information design (though it has expanded over time to include performance art, museum shows, demonstrations, and books). Their earliest campaigns, deployed as wheat-paste posters across downtown New York City, are indictments of male fellow artists and their galleries, as well as museums, critics, and even the New York Times for their dismal numbers in terms of fair art world representation. But the masked activists did (and continue to do) more than simply highlight gender and racial biases among art world institutions and their darlings; some of their most famous works are cheeky, irony-laced missives on the lived experiences of women in the art world. Take for example, “Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” (1987); the work lists, among its benefits: “working without the pressure of success, knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty,” and, of course, “getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.”

This last quip refers to one of the group’s signature motifs: Planet of the Apes-style gorilla masks that maintain the anonymity of members when they appear at protests and art world events. In addition to being the instantly-recognizable visual signifier of Guerrilla Girl culture, the masks embody the group’s characteristic wit and hard-hitting messages — delivered with goofy humor. Theirs are guerrilla tactics in the art wars, executed by sister soldiers dressed as gorillas. As the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ’em, put on a Halloween mask and publicly indict their terrible record of human rights infractions.”

In another (better) universe, this accounting of three decades of advocacy would close on a discussion of how the art world — confronted by cold, hard facts about its inequity, revelations of insider trading among institutional boards and collectors, and mass disenfranchisement of wage workers — rose to the call and did better. But alas, the numbers remain incredibly skewed in the direction of cis white males. This isn’t a problem of the book’s making, of course; it’s a problem of the art world — one that can only be changed by greater demands upon institutions to be more accountable to those they employ, represent, and serve (or by eating the rich, but you didn’t hear that from me).

The Art of Behaving Badly engagingly summarizes the exhaustive organizing and advocacy work undertaken by the Guerilla Girls — in addition, presumably, to their individual art practices, the recognition of which was the initial motivator for their political actions. “30 years and still counting,” they proclaim; decades on, they Guerrilla Girls haven’t quit. As the book’s press release frames it, “This isn’t a monograph — it’s a call to arms.” If there was any doubt to whom that call is directed, the back cover insert provides a cutout cardboard gorilla mask, inviting you to join the movement.

Wealth and Power has traveled all over the world, from Miami to Bangkok.

Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly, by the Guerrilla Girls (2020, Chronicle Books) is now available on Bookshop.

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