Thinking on thoughtlessness: Why are there so many dicks in VAPA?
Drew Lucia '18
A few days ago at dinner in the Townhouse, I brought up this article––something I’ve been thinking about and working on since September. We talked about men making work in our classes. We talked about the lack of care brought into these spaces. About how, time and time again, whether it be in critiques, writing workshops, music performances, or whatever else, an artist/author/maker does not see or does not care to acknowledge how that work engages with other people’s experiences or how it makes anyone else feel.
The specific instance that inspired this article and prior chain of thought was one in which a peer of mine presented a work in critique that, while not being explicit, felt seriously sexually violent and was blatantly racist. He apparently had no idea of any of that, or of how that was an issue. He just thought his work was funny, a joke that only he was laughing at. I began to wonder why this bothered me so much: I understood my anger at the offensive content, but why did my frustration focus even more on his reaction in the critique? That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out.
Please don’t pose your work as something that is here for critical engagement when you haven’t critically engaged with it yourself. Art doesn’t need to be constantly intellectualized or analyzed. Yes, it can exist without explanation. It can be personal, it can be private. But I will argue with anyone who insists it lives in a vacuum. That is a blatantly selfish, solipsistic untruth. One of my professors told our class around midterm that if you’re not thinking about context, you’re not making interesting art. Whether or not you agree with that, I think it’s a really valuable sentiment. In writing this, I find it useful parsing out what I actually mean and want to say by identifying my qualms with the specific artwork in the critique I mentioned. The artist in question did not think about the sexually violent or racially insensitive content of his work, because he wasn’t thinking about the context he was making art in and the identity that he inhabits.
In the kitchen at around 1am last night, a friend told me about a time last term that she brought work into one of her classes that was really personal and hard for her to make. Her (male) professor critiqued her work as being ‘dramatic’. Why does suddenly, when anything having to do with female identity or pain is brought in to be shared, it is scoffed at, laughed at, or invalidated, but when a dude brings in work about his penis he is praised as the next Donald Judd? And sometimes it isn’t even the offense of it that makes the work so unbearable - sometimes it’s boredom. As another friend said, “Not only do I not want to see the patriarchy reinforced, I don’t want to be bored.” A piece was shown in her class that was offensive but also strangely devoid of content. The artist who made it gave a preface that was basically demanding emotional labor from the audience, his classmates, and then presented something that took no consideration for anyone except himself. If you haven’t spent the time and done the work, I don’t want to either. Essentially: The most offensive part is not even the content itself. I’m offended that you think this is worth our time.
Often times I find that teachers are hesitant to be anything but diplomatic in these conversations. They let the students do the talking and the calling out. This, I understand in a lot of ways. In the best of worlds, they’re here because they want to help us develop our critical thinking skills and to learn how to articulate ourselves, how to find our own voice. But I don’t think faculty should be excused from their duty, as a PERSON IN THE ROOM, to comment when something demands attention, especially when no one else is bringing it up. If a student makes sexist, racist, ableist work, then a professor should be held accountable to speak up just like any other human being in the room. I hear a lot of people talk about Bennington with the language of addressing it as a less real place than anywhere else. It’s true, Bennington is unique and insular and doesn’t engage in certain ways with many of the realities a lot of the world faces, but it’s real in the way that what happens here affects people’s lives and when people hurt and get hurt the pain is still felt. I think it’s dangerous to use the illusion that this is some whimsical, Not Real place to deflect responsibility for the way we act and make work.
Having these kinds of conversations at the dinner table, after class, or in each other's rooms is empowering and inspiring, but it is also exhausting. I am proud of my anger, and the only thing I would ever trade it for is a reality in which it isn’t necessary. Anger takes a toll and we are all so tired; so many are more tired than me.
This is normally how it goes: I get angry, I get so fucking angry, and every friend I run into, I go off about this stupid crit to, and it’s exhausting and annoying and very much a giant WASTE of my time. Because the boy in the crit who made the work that was generally horrendous for many reasons, that maybe wouldn’t have been as horrendous was there some sort of explanation or thought behind it, isn’t gonna think about that critique when he leaves. He’s not angry, he hasn’t even noticed. And it’s true, maybe he didn’t have bad intentions, maybe he’s not a horrible person, he just wasn’t thinking. He just wasn’t thinking. Well, that’s the whole point. He wasn’t thinking, and now this is all I can think about, his incredible LACK of thought. I can’t help but shake the idea that there is something far more insidious about thoughtlessness and carelessness than malicious intent. When conversations are conducted in a way that allows people to walk away from their offensive, horrible work without being questioned or called out, it makes waves. The truth is, I’m not just talking about the phenomena of consistent, boring, phallic imagery in art, but the metaphorical dick that is the way cis-men, often straight, white ones, take up space in the art world and in the classroom. The argument at its core is not even about the art you make, but the time, care, and thought you put into it.
Another friend at the dinner table brought up a phone call she’d had recently, one in which a male friend of her’s spoke about how incredible it was going camping alone. At hearing her response being, “I could never do that,” he was incredulous. Why couldn’t she enjoy such a wonderful, free experience? Well, because it is too dangerous. “I need light,” she said, and in the least metaphoric of ways. She needs a flashlight in the dark because she can’t feel/be safe without her sense of sight. How does this kind of real danger relate to the classroom setting I’m talking about? There is the reality of being in class with predators and others who are a danger to your safety, which is horrific, and there is the less urgent but still ubiquitous threat that I’m talking about: the one that lurks in the way work is often made and spoken about at this institution and in the world at large. Artists are not held accountable and often times they are excused or rewarded on the basis of formal choices and technical talent, of perceived creativity and boldness -- the latter of which is made possible by fearlessness, which isn’t a result of courage, but a consequence of thoughtlessness.
In a way, talking about visual art is just the easiest means for me to address a much larger issue that reaches across disciplines. I am more familiar with VAPA than I am with writing workshops, with science labs, with Jennings rehearsals, dance, etc, but everything I’ve written I’ve listened to be reiterated by my peers in other areas of study. This doesn’t come as a surprise.
A good portion of writing this has been catharsis, but most of all I want this to be an invitation. There is so much to be said that I left out, so much I have either not had the time or energy to say, or am ignorant of or neglected to mention. I could not address thoughtfully or in depth so many parts of this conversation. In writing and revising this piece, I felt so afraid to say I was talking about men specifically, about how people would react to that. I felt so afraid to say anything at all. I was pushed and pushed by my friends to not be stopped by this kind of hesitance, that there is no denying the honest observations we’ve all endured. I’m sick of having to justify my anger and frustration, even to myself. I’m sick of feeling like I’m yelling into the void and I don’t want my friends and peers to feel that way either.