A rose, is a flag, is a racist: The trouble with Mercy Pictures’ People of Colour

People of Colour are doing the heavylifting. Now the rest of us need to step up, writes Jon Bywater.

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Mercy Pictures’ exhibition People of Colour was offensive and stupid. It doesn’t nuance this much to add that in some sense it knew that it was, that that was plausibly part of its point. It appeared to run something up the flagpole in the belief that there can be something heroic about bad behaviour, in not really knowing quite what you’re doing; and perhaps even that in asking too much of others, you demonstrate some capacity in yourself. (For what, in this case? For risk, maybe; for not shying from dark realities, or fantasies?)

But as soon as they hit send on the invitation, the ‘edgy’ nihilist conceptualism – which had presumably looked great in the mirror – suddenly appeared out-and-out racist, and trite; and worse, in the longer run, the follow-through (from all but one of the main players) has exaggerated the horror show. This is not a review, but we need to talk about Mercy Pictures.

Irony isn’t what it used to be. Somewhere in their Instagram history is a beautifully kitsch work by an artist I like (not naming names, since their past programme is beyond the scope of what I will discuss here) overlaid with an animated gif of the McLuhan line echoed by Warhol: “Art is what you can get away with.” This time, they didn’t. More or less a shitpost in the guise of wall works, the gallery-authored People of Colour was timed as a branding event for their new exhibition space, and to these ends – as the room sheet puts it with careful equivocality – it was “perhaps an incitement, a red flag”. In other words, they were asking for it. But when they got it (an admission of its hurtfulness, basically [“the feelings!” the same text mocked pre-emptively]), they acted as if they hadn’t seen it coming. A miserable non-apology and vicious, less-public retaliations (whether from the gallery or associates emboldened by the scenario) laid bare more insidious, more general attitudes and dynamics.

In one reduction, we get an object lesson in the stark whiteness and middle-classness of our art world. To begin with, and on Mercy Pictures’ side, if you’re white or well-off or generally privileged enough to dedicate your time to running a gallery that aligns itself with the commercial mainstream while ‘shocking the bourgeoisie’ in the grand tradition, then it’s rather too easy to punch down with an ‘incitement’ that taunts other people for their investments in identity; to flash your Insta-mined social capital and new central city lease in front of self-identifying people of colour, holding the term in inverted commas, sort-of-but-not claiming it for yourselves (at the same time it’s only apparent to insiders that you’re not all POC); and to declare that in the logic of seasonal fashion – as the exhibition text concludes – “identity is over”.

In one reduction, we get an object lesson in the stark whiteness and middle-classness of our art world

The gallery’s previous reputation and credibility – that they effectively piled into a heap and set alight – is one banal but significant reason a large part of the art world is complicit in not having protested more forcefully and sooner; that it took the courage and labour of organising in and around a public statement by Quishile Charan, Jasmin Singh and Anevili to bring the issues into full view.1 Already clear but more painfully felt since are the historical exclusions that make people of colour a minority in this field, so responsibilities to their communities are not as widely felt and supported within it. In this way, the whiteness of People of Colour is the whiteness of the legacy of Western modern art that still structures contemporary art, and so it is also my own, as a Pākehā critic and art school academic. It’s good to be clear on what was wrong with the show not because the show is important in any way, but because nothing that happened has really surprised anyone.

As far as the artwork goes, it’s enough to know that the flags presented as small digital prints in the exhibition included a swathe of fascist and neo-Nazi insignia alongside the Tino Rangatiratanga and Te Mana Motuhake o Tūhoe flags, the rainbow flag, and Black Lives Matter and Me Too banners. Circulating hate symbols with no attempt at creating safety? Check. Messing with cultural material not yours to mess with? Check. Blindness to the asymmetries between your ‘interest’ in these things and other people’s lived implication in them? We’ve touched on that. As the Instagram account milktheartist comments on a Mercy Pictures post, “this is fucking basic”. The broader community has already spelt out the offensiveness of what was done, with patience, precision and force. How was this supposed to fly, in the era of Black Lives Matter, on Māori whenua in Aotearoa, after the Christchurch attacks, and so on and so on? What could possibly have been the imagined value in it, and for whom?

One weak line of defence – or charitable reconstruction of a motive – is that it is relevant to reflect on the flourishing of the far right. The prominence of their emblems in the work might just be that it’s “a vast unpolished mirror held up to an equally vast and unpolished world”, as one champion has it. If you count the number of open tabs I’ve accumulated about the 41 flavours of chauvinism that relate to ISIS, Brexit, racist violence and 70 million votes for Trump this year; that examine the appeals of conspiracy theories, the force of filter bubbles and the cognitive biases that help construct them, and so on, then I’d have to agree. Fearful, aggressive, defiant selfishness is topical, and no doubt operates in an important dimension ‘aesthetically’ (Judith Butler’s recent op-ed line on Trump: “a very bad artist”). However, a mirror to things is worse than useless if it is a tasteless repetition of horrors already too insistent. People Of Colour gets stuck at being a symptom.

A mirror to things is worse than useless if it is a tasteless repetition of horrors already too insistent

Rather than reflecting the world, though, the work seems calculated to channel the energy around some art controversies elsewhere. The critical framing that was offered was provocative not just in its explicit wording, but for who they chose to write the exhibition text. The freelance philosopher contracted to spell out that “identity is over” is Nina Power, who has been attacking cancel culture and defending J K Rowling’s transphobia in the same Conservative newspaper Boris Johnson used to write for; which also, for instance, is regularly accused of Islamophobia and doesn't like to agree on the evidence for climate change. Prominent in Power’s recent journey from hip British Marxist feminist to right-wing commentator (and advocate for the benefits of getting outdoors) was her stance on an incident in London in 2017, in which she sided with those backing the rights of the alt-right in response to action against a scenario involving the display of fascist insignia by a Trump-supporting gallerist.2 This toxic baggage wrecks the gallery’s claim to plausible deniability. In other words, they were asking for it.

Mercy Pictures maintain that they stand by their own work because they “are passionate about the freedom of artists”, which is precisely the impasse reached by Power and others by insisting on the abstract principle of ‘free speech’ in the face of conditions that mean its exercise comes at others’ expense. As artist and writer Hannah Black puts it: “I find it hard to believe that there’s so much faith in the idea of some Habermasian public sphere, where everyone gets to speak freely. It’s obviously not real.” The route to Power’s conclusion is a rejection of the identity politics whose terms I’m using here to describe the work’s effects; but I am not expecting or attempting to persuade Power or even the defiant portion of Mercy Pictures. They are welcome to stew in their conviction that idpol is uncool. (They may need to rethink the way they bring back these terms as a defence, though: We’re not racist etc. because “Mercy Pictures and the wider Mercy Pictures family is predominantly made up of queer people and people of colour” [cf. “But some of my best friends are Māori!”])

Power’s light-hearted ‘proof’ that identity is over is to facetiously make some identities. She sums up her commentary with a string of false equivalences that echoes the formal strategy in the work: “a flag is a flag is a flag”. This is something with resonance in art terms: abstraction. A still weaker attempted defence – and perhaps part of the collective delusion that produced the work – lies in the fact that what we’re looking at when we look at contemporary art in the Western modern tradition is always formal in some respect. In this way, flags resemble the canonical modernism of geometric abstraction or text works. (It makes sense that it’s Gertrude Stein she alludes to.) Making them into little canvases cutely brings this out. Whether it’s Plato’s complaint about the poets or Magritte’s pipe joke, the old line is: “But they’re not real flags!” What we’re really admiring here is formal; the colours could be just colour.

You don’t get special permission to insist that your connoisseurship of form or abstract ideas gives you a pass

The thing to be blunt about is that hanging on to this vestige of the modernist ideal of art’s autonomy, its not-real status, is untenably nostalgic in a world that has had to face the fact that what things are made of, who made them, where they are being presented, who’s paying and so on – the real-world context – can not be excluded from an understanding of what they mean. The same increasing connectedness that brought traditions into question and gave rise to modernism in art undoes art’s self-image as removed in this way. You can’t just hope that your audience will self-select so that everyone’s only mildly excited by your daring. You need to accept that making it public makes it public, and that you don’t get special permission to insist that your connoisseurship of form or abstract ideas gives you a pass.

Power’s piece begins by abstracting flags from “a scientific standpoint” to their physical materials. Another strand of the art legacy is the debunked illusion that not taking a position and standing back while charged material (and your audience) does all the work makes it ’objective’. Only certain people get to generalise and to see this as ‘scientific’ and nothing to do with who they are and where they’re coming from. Only certain people can imagine that their sense of aesthetic rightness is well beyond self-expression, and is rather playing with what Power’s text quaintly refers to in the style of 1970s postmodernism as “floating signifiers”.

It was people of colour and other minorities who bore the brunt of it, and who then did the work to lead the activism around it

Western modern art also feeds a particular mythos of the artist as rebel. The idea has older, wider cultural resonances, but in parallel with the emergence of the art dealer system figures like Courbet and Rimbaud give coordinates for a long and extensive tradition of the artist rewarded for being a self-excepting rule-breaker. When transgression stops being against the repressive standards of entrenched privilege and starts being against the achievements of anti-discrimination, the belief that rubbing people up the wrong way is a sign you’re at the cutting edge has led you to play yourself. Obviously, you will still get attention – for better and worse, here I am offering it – but if all it does is take people to the exact same unpleasant place that everyday life and oceans of internet junk will take them, the nicely painted walls and opening drinks are a hollow celebration. If art is interested in finding a path other than to demonstrate its irrelevance, that’s what it needs to avoid: the same strategies that come from the banal evils of trolling, to the same ends.

The explicit framing – the title and the exhibition text – asked us to see as equivalent and equally “silly” symbols of solidarity against violence and oppression, and those who seek to oppress. Mercy Pictures’ statement says their intention was “to explore the dangers of … tribal identities”. Trivially, there is positive tribalism and sad, horrid tribalism, and so it’s anything but tribalism per se that’s the problem. Indeed, the kind of style-centred social signalling that the show itself represents is perfectly tribal. It was art doing what art has always tried to do, in this respect. Usual suspects sided with the anti-idpol part of this, and everyone else was incredulous. It was not bad because it was narcissistic and self-promotional, it was bad because it was bad. In the same online environment that a show like this was interested in bringing into consideration, prejudices will domino after this: fuck Auckland, fuck art school, fuck people with financial support. The show, as has been noted, is one giant flag. It was people of colour and other minorities who bore the brunt of it, and who then did the work to lead the activism around it. Now more of the rest of us need to front up to our responsibilities.

1 Criticisms were in the air, for example people attended the opening in whiteface to troll the trolls, but things escalated to a tipping point after the circulation of “Open letter in regards to the Mercy Pictures exhibition”.

2 Another incident alluded to by Mercy Pictures was ‘metamodernist’ and occasional flag artist Luke Turner’s withdrawal from the 2018 Athens Biennale, for example. For the tenor of the exchanges about alt-right references and connections see Pablo Larios, Ben Eastham, Daniel Keller and Casper Jade Heinemann, “Survey: Culture Wars,” in Frieze

Editorial note: The previous version of this article stated incorrectly in a footnote that there was a "spat" between Luke Turner and Daniel Keller. We have amended the article accordingly