Monthly Archives: May 2013

On Appropriation and Art

I’ll probably have more to say on this topic with time–something about Picasso’s use of African imagery to fuel his own creative processes, the Japonisme style in France, Duchamp’s readymades, etc–but for now I just want to draw your attention to a very singular case:
See here photographer Arne Svenson’s photograph series The Neighbors.  On the presumption that maybe this has been taken down, as it should be, you should know that the content is a number of photographs–quite artistic-looking, for sure–of various neighbors taken through their windows without their knowledge or consent.  (For reasons that should be or become obvious, I will not replicate these photos here.)  The lives of others are appropriated all the time in the creative process, as our own lives and experiences are inextricably linked to others.  Writers do a better or worse job of disguising their real-world inspiration, and this often leads to questionable ethical situations–such as when the real-life Kramer drew flak for actor Michael Richards’ racist outburst.  But in this case, the ethics doesn’t seem very questionable to me.  Photography has long been acknowledged as a complex but threatening gesture, and Svenson’s photographs in and of themselves are threateningly voyeuristic, particularly those directed at people who have the curtains or screen drawn but are still partially visible: they have made a clear gesture toward privacy that should be respected.  But on top of that you have his practice surrounding the photographs–not consulting the ‘subjects’ for ex post facto consent, taking these to a gallery, displaying them, and asking for money.

The intersections of privacy, art, and business have always been muddied in a country whose moral foundations are set against each other, but it seems clear to me that the rule we should follow here is the same one we follow with other ethical gray areas: consent.  What we have here is not only a lack of consent but a celebration of the invasive gaze, that sees people when they are feeling week or trying to remain hidden.  Although in itself very creepy, the act of photographing could at least have been mitigated by getting the consent of the people involved, but that is the exact opposite path from the one Svenson took.  The appropriation and exploitation of the lives of others may be an important part of art history, but it should remain in the past.

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Filed under The Ethics of Immanent Creation

You Are Privileged

Let’s get something straight, because I’m tired of hearing a lot of people talking a lot of bullshit about the issue of privilege.

You are privileged.

I don’t care who you are, you are privileged in some way.  Not all privilege is equal, not all privilege is the same.  You may be privileged for age, body type, physical ability, location of birth, race, gender, gender expression, sexuality, sex, political beliefs, class, religion, or a host of other things, but I can pretty much guarantee that there is no one on this planet who does not benefit from some type of privilege, however small.

Corollary to that, you are also, in some ways, probably losing out to privilege.  There is something that others have over you.  You may be a rich, white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, Methodist, male graduate of Yale and Harvard who just happens to have been president for two terms, but people are always going to make certain presumptions about you on the basis of that accent and your speech difficulties.

But just because George W Bush is himself lacking in a couple privileges does not make his situation equivalent to that of a poor, black, transgender lesbian Muslim.  There are different degrees of privilege, and it’s important to recognize, when you’re discussing privilege, that the obstacles you face may not be nearly as difficult as the obstacles others face.

You may say: “But I just don’t get it.  Isn’t bringing up all this stuff creating more division when we should be working together as a community for human rights of all sorts?”

No.  I know that thought is tempting, because to you it seems like there was a unified community, and then it was broken up when half the members started raising complaints.  But you were just living under the misconception that the community was unified.  The community was already divided, and half the members knew this and were experiencing the negativity of this, but you were expecting them to carry extra weight without realizing it.  And the ability to not realize is a major part of privilege.  In fact, we could almost define privilege as all the benefits you get and give without realizing that’s what you’re doing (unless you’re just a straight-up bigoted asshole).  This is what the phrase, “check your privilege,” means.  It’s not saying that you need to shut up, as I’ve heard white cis males saying.  It’s just meant as a reminder that you don’t know what’s going on here, that the person talking to you is coming from an experience you’ve never had and you need to stop before you continue making presumptions about their life.  Why is it, a lot of people ask, that marginalized figures are so sensitive?  It must be because they’re all whiny, right?  Or is it because they come from a place that you don’t know?  Is it because you’ve never experienced year after year of cumulative putdowns and limitations, of little things that can ruin a perfectly good day because they all just serve as a constant reminder of how much the world that now exists is set against you?  Perhaps you think that you can imagine what it’s like, but you’re probably wrong, especially if you’re trying to calculate from your own experiences rather than letting them tell you what it’s like.

And that’s the final, most obnoxious element of privilege: the insistence that the privileged person gets it.  If someone confronts you, saying that you’re talking from privilege, the best thing you can do is let them explain.  You probably don’t know what they’re going to say, and chances are they know what you’re going to say.  They’ve probably heard it a lot.

For some extra context, here’s some examples.  The purpose of a privilege checklist is to bring to your attention all the things you benefit from without knowing, since privilege is so often steeped in an ignorance of one’s own advantages.  Corollary to that is the fact the the moral obligation is on the privileged folks–not the marginalized folks–to spread awareness of these things, even though the marginalized folks often end up having to take up the task.
White Privilege Checklist
Straight Privilege Checklist
Male Privilege Checklist
Able-Bodied Privilege Checklist (this one switches to being a checklist of lack of privilege halfway through but it’s still just as useful)
Cis Privilege Checklist
Thin Privilege Checklist
Class Privilege
Christian Privilege (looks like it’s pretty much in America / predominantly Christian countries, but it can also give you an idea of what sorts of privilege any dominant religious group gets)
Black Male Privilege Checklist
Muslim Male Privilege Checklist
“Gamer” Privilege Checklist (it actually seems to be more about defining gamers as a privileged group, i.e. only the privileged are gamers, but that’s a discussion for another day)
Male Programmer Checklist

I would say all of these lists are worth your time to read.

So, from these lists there’s a couple things we can see. First of all, intersectionality (meaning the multiple power networks affecting a single person) is particularly apparent in some of these, and must be kept into account at all time, since most people are laboring under several categories of marginalization–the ability to avoid which is in itself, as the Black Male Privilege Checklist points out, a privilege.

Another thing I noticed is that most forms of privilege tend to fall into a few specific categories:
-the world is made for you
-there are positive media representations of you
-people generally know about the characteristics of your identity
-you don’t have to worry about your identity in conversations/business/relationships
-you can get the things you need
-you are subject to less violence
-you are unaware of some or all of this

I’ve probably missed a bunch, but it seems to me that a lot of the privileges are predicated on being unaware of or unwilling to respond to them.  We have to remember that every time we benefit from a privilege, we do so at the expense of marginalized folks.  As a white American living in a pretty ‘liberal’ but vanillocentric town, I’m used to seeing people aware that their world is founded on violence, but these same people do not as much acknowledge that they are perpetuating that violence, and will continue to as long as they fail to respond to and attempt to ameliorate their privileges.  Awareness of your own privilege should not be the end of the conversation, it should be the starting point of a new conversation about what you can do to make things better.

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Filed under Philosophy, Politics