Our Literal Speed
by Matthew Jesse Jackson
Our Literal Speed
3 October 2014
Two actors sit in gray folding chairs in the center of a room filled with people. It is a symposium on public art. The actors begin to speak.
Abbey Shaine Dubin: I mean, what I’m trying to say is everybody’s got Martin Luther King wrong, okay? Everybody treats him like this sacred, you know, political figure, this cultural icon, or, I mean, if you’re some cracker dumbfuck from, I don’t know, Alabama or something, maybe he’s a demon. Doesn’t matter. Point is, no matter what, he’s somebody you can’t touch. Somebody you can’t understand unless he’s a plastic action hero. I mean, the whole Civil Rights thing, all that stuff, it’s totally off-limits unless you want to heroize everything in this mechanical, already obvious way.
Marilyn Volkman [hesitantly]: Okay. Maybe I’m following.
ASD: What I’m talking about is history, okay? Think about it, the way any statue from 5,000 BC looks like it’s art. It doesn’t matter if some maniac emperor beheaded six thousand people at the base of that statue. Today, it’s going to be meaningful primarily as art, not as an executioner’s block. Form outlives content. Form outlives content. I’m talking two hundred, three hundred years from now, you see? All the things MLK was organizing and doing: the marches, the sit-ins, all the mass action, all of it’s gonna be understood as these amazing examples of collective altruism unleashed in the public sphere.
MV: Okay, so you’re saying the Civil Rights Movement is really this last big explosion of modern art?
ASD [with emphatic voice]: Like, just think about MLK and Civil Rights from this angle: they’re making modern art…
MV [cuts in]: You’re talking about the people marching in Selma or the Greensboro sit-in…that kinda…
ASD [cuts in]: Yeah, the marchers, the guys doing the sit-in, the bus boycotters, they got the basic paradox down: if you’re doing modern art…
MV [cuts in]: You’re talking about Picasso or some Dada poet…
ASD: Right. If you’re doing modern art, then you know you have to lose if you want to win. You want to save painting? Make your paintings incomprehensible. You want to save poetry? Make your poems a mutant jumble of sounds. And if you’re black and you’re living in Selma, Alabama or Greensboro, North Carolina in the 1960s, want to save your life?
MV: Make your life unlivable.
ASD: Exactly. See? Martin Luther King’s not just a political martyr and the Civil Rights Movement is not just some political phenomenon. Nope. Instead: Ta-dah! [gestures broadly with arms] Martin Luther King’s the Greatest Artist of the Twentieth Century and the Civil Rights Movement is the greatest exhibition of performance art ever made. Think about it: you got the Montgomery bus boycott piece, the Greensboro lunch counter piece, the Selma March piece…
MV [cutting her off, rising slightly in her seat]: Hold it. Hold it. All the stuff you’re saying here might be true. Maybe so, you know, but I don’t want to say that the 1965 March in Selma is an artwork, or that the Greensboro sit-in is [throws up scare quotes, rolling eyes] “a durational Modernist performance piece that channels an Adornian dialectic,” or whatever you want to call it. When you start saying stuff like that, you’re trivializing all of these people and what they did, and, besides that, you know what else you’re doing, you’re aestheticizing politics. You’re doing exactly what Walter Benjamin says the Nazis do. Ever think of that? Ever read “The Work of Art in the Age of…”
ASD [cuts in, crosstalk]: “Its Technical Reproducibility.” Nobody says “mechanical reproduction” anymore.
MV [ignoring her]: Look, I know what you’re saying and I think, I think, well, uh, I think it’s reductive…
ASD [cuts in, crosstalk]: It’s not reductive. It’s the future. Do you really think the art of today will be the art of the future?
MV [crosstalk]: No, I don’t. It’s just…
ASD [crosstalk]: Don’t you get it? Hey: Are we living in a period of global environmental crisis?
MV [reluctantly]: Obviously, yes.
ASD [excitedly]: Okay, just think, think about the future: Artists won’t make public art out of wood or stone or poly-whatever whatever, or by getting crowds of people to show up in some place. They won’t want to blow all the energy or waste all the materials required to make those gestures.
MV: Yeah. Right. It’s crazy wasteful.
ASD: Crazy wasteful. And you think all those clean energy millionaires, billionaires, public art’s new patron class, driving their electric cars with their yoga mats in the back seat, you think they’re gonna want the art of today?
MV: Yeah, got it. It’s environmentally insane…
ASD [cuts in]: Blasting our carbon footprint sky fucking high. For what? For art? [WTF face, then pauses] In the future if you’re really making responsible art for the public, you know what you’ll do?
MV: No. Tell me.
ASD [looks out at audience]: You’ll re-think something that already exists and that new thought [eyebrows rise, gestures with hands] — that will be your art. Re-thinking will be the art version of recycling. It’s the future of public art.
MV [skeptical, but not overly so]: That’ll be the future of public art: Re-thinking?
ASD: It’s elegant. Re-thinking. Art will be shared collective re-thinking in the public sphere. No more new stuff. You make people think about something they already know, but in a different way. See? [gestures with hands] Zero-environmental impact. Zero-carbon footprint. Anybody can make it anywhere. You move from art that reproduces the world that you see to art that re-thinks the world you think you already know. And you know what? I even know what we’ll call this new public art.
ASD: Instead of The Readymade, it’ll be The Nevermade.
MV [pauses]: …So you’re saying that our [throws up scare quotes] “work of public art,” the art that we’re [throws up scare quotes] “making” right now, is that we’re re-thinking Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. That’s our art?
ASD: That’s our art.
Actors remain seated and gaze out at the audience.
Piece crossposted with Critical Inquiry