Privilege is one of those words that says everything and nothing at all. It also sends those who are claimed to have privilege into a tizzy of explanations on how they didn’t create the system and how they can’t be blamed for society’s ills at large (FYI – it ain’t about you – more on that later!). It’s loaded- as it should be, but it’s also a reality that doesn’t always go down easy (and yet easier than not having it for no good reason). Depending on context, it slides and slithers, but most often is blatant and loudly presented.
First, I want to break this down
noun, verb, -leged, -leg·ing.
A right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.
The principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities.
1. Privilege, prerogative refers to a special advantage or right possessed by an individual or group. A privilege is a right or advantage gained by birth, social position, effort, or concession. It can have either legal or personal sanction: the privilege of paying half fare; the privilege of calling whenever one wishes. Prerogative refers to an exclusive right claimed and granted, often officially or legally, on the basis of social status, heritage, sex, etc.: the prerogatives of a king; the prerogatives of management. 4. License, freedom, liberty.
“Having privilege means that you receive particular unearned social benefits that attach to your social status and identity.” – Aristotle’s Crab
Having privilege means that more often than not, you don’t have to acknowledge it.
I have privilege. Why I have it, what the implications mean – for others and for society as a whole – is a grab bag of constraints, most often a reminder of the powers of the past and the ongoing powers of the present.
“White skin is the flip side of discrimination. While discrimination is negative and overt, white skin privilege is negative but passive. It’s a great blind spot more than a painful boil, but in a subtle way far more destructive “¦ I say to you who are young, take this issue and find a way of making it yours” – Bill Bradley
Confronting it is a process – I think we, as people often want to individualize everything into our own narrative, often forgetting there is a much, much larger experience out there. But just acknowledging it still isn’t all – using it as a way to dismantle and reject the status quo, bit by bit, sending out the message that the way it’s set up, isn’t okay. You have to eventually bite the hand that feeds you. If you’re not getting fed, you have probably been biting the hand that slaps you.
It’s a process. And day by day it gets clearer on the work that needs to be done. There is a lot of work to be done.
Privilege in art is what I want to talk about – from the privileges on making art and imagery to the art world at large. I think about this often, quite simply because to be an artist is to be involved in a system that is rife with privilege, even when I am wary and often hesitant of that same system. I do think it’s getting better – I have met people and been to institutions that renew my faith that the art world is expanding and evolving into something more interesting, more diverse and all together better. But it is also a case of two steps forward, one back. I remember when I was working in an art gallery- a relatively well-known and respectable art gallery with a great group of diverse artists. It’s initially what attracted me to the gallery and yet, over time, I was exposed to certain ways that gender and racial identity were often talked about. Being that it was a small space, I was present for a good number of discussions about what type of artist they were going to bring in next. Often these discussions ended up focusing on the artists’ “tokenisms”, aka; “We need a black lesbian artist,” or “What about a Trans-Asian? I don’t think the other galleries have any Trans-Asians,” or “Well, that’s great that he is gay, but is that it? We already have a gay artist, doesn’t he have anything else?” and, “No, no, that’s feminist work – no one wants to buy feminist work unless the artist is pretty and naked.” It became not about the identity of an artist and how it influenced their work and vice versa, but about what sounded different enough to attract collectors under the guise of the unknown.
Diversity in the art world is crucial, as it is in every other context – there should be more. The idea of reducing artists down to their sound bite identities still plays into the same way of thinking that one’s work is less important because of those same qualities – one is marginalized to the wayside because of one’s essence and one is regulated like an animal in a zoo to be viewed because of one’s essence. Identity can be distorted to fit within a ghetto in art – the recognition of the most obvious point without noting the nuances, categorizes too easily without addressing the actuality of the issues the artist is speaking about. Identity, especially the one we create for ourselves as we grow within the world, is the only one we can end up controlling. Identity, when fetishized and exoticized, becomes just another token example of “the other,” instead of being valued for bringing potential viewpoints and art to the table. This idea of “the other” is one that most artists wrestle with, myself included. Usually it has been experienced through some sort of fetishizing – look at Gaugain, Ingres, and Delacroix. Otherness often implied something outside the world of whiteness or masculinity – otherness was okay to be looked at, studied, but not accepted beyond that.
I don’t think otherness should be a topic relegated away from conversation and art. Art is a form of otherness. So many fantastic artists have made amazing work about otherness – their own and societal – David Hammons, Iona Rozeal Brown, Catherine Opie, Oreet Ashery – it’s amazing ammo for making art. But otherness is a result from denial of one’s actual presence – otherness becomes condensed into reductive separateness and exotic misrepresentations. There is a certain privilege one must have to be able to make these sorts of value judgments, to deem otherness; especially within current Western art history. What I fear further propagating, by being involved with certain sectors of the art world, is a continued colonizing on otherness, instead of otherness being the ammo that artists use to work against cultural and social ideas that have deemed it so. It then becomes another value judgment based on notions of privilege. It reinforces the often impenetrability of the art world, the notion that it’s predominantly white, male artists making art for white, wealthy, male collectors to hang in museums hanging work by a predominant amount of dead, white, male artists.
I often wonder about the reason I was privy to that conversation, though it’s always blatantly obvious. The fact that I was just like everyone in the room, that I was young and maybe wouldn’t care or wasn’t paying attention, or the fact that they didn’t understand the nature of how they were seeing artists ““ people, or maybe that they just didn’t care. To be frank, I didn’t understand the true impact of it until a few years later. The fact is, I was deemed similar and therefore privileged to hear something that might not have been said otherwise if it weren’t for the way I look. I do not want to work in that world, yet am also part of the same set of privilege that I rail against. The action needed now is to be able to use that privilege to undo what is still so firmly in place. To use otherness not as window into the unknown, but as a way to show that otherness isn’t really so much so – we are just used to being told it is.
We can’t expect all artists to make art based on the narrative of the self, identity and their relation to the world, but there is a certain amount of social protest that artists can contribute by making work that deals with one’s own identity. Identity politics, while imperfect, are the ammo we have to create conversation of the normalcy of identity- whatever the one you are born with or the one you evolve into as your grow into personhood.
To be an artist – to have the sources to make art, even if you are struggling to do so, is in itself a privilege. This is so easily forgettable, but again, that is indebted into the very definition of privilege. But to assume that we as artists all have the same amount of privilege is asinine. It is a catch – we as artists are often hungry – so hungry to be recognized. We are simple really, we want to make stuff and have people look at stuff and tell us they like our stuff. Often times, this hunger gets in the way of us slipping into a something that is not often questioned or reflected on. This is how things stay the same. As an artist and as a person, I don’t want things to stay the same.
She is distracted by the superficial, by the morphological sameness of things, and feels the ground sliding from under her. Twice removed from the social landscape, she marks time with her counting and classifying and cataloging, until life begins. The woman who filled up the world because she didn’t know how to exist in it discovered Otherness is the world itself “¦ Her struggle for self-recognition is sometimes clumsy and mechanical, and always far from complete; but she perseveres. Within the regime of the dominant cultural institutions that inscribe her, she is, indeed, a prisoner of language. That language, however, is the only one at her disposal. – Jan Avgikos (The Woman Who Filled Up the World Because She Didn’t Know How to Exist In It: An Essay on Lorna Simpson)