Future Aesthetics by Jeff Chang

/Future Aesthetics by Jeff Chang

Editor’s Note:

In anticipation of the ArtChangeUS: Bay Area REMAP event at YBCA on April 15-16, 2016, REFRAME is continuing its  spotlight  on works presented at the ArtChangeUS Launch in New York City.  This issue features Jeff Chang, author of Who We Be: The Colorization of America, who commenced The Call and Response session of the Launch by mapping out the cultural and demographic shifts that’s impacting America’s past, present, and future.


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Future Aesthetics

By Jeff Chang


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We are living through a historic moment.

11 months ago, in November 2014, President Obama issued an executive order to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation. Conservatives vowed to fight those actions, one even raised the specter of violence and anarchy in reaction to Obama’s executive action. And sure enough, in Austin, Texas, a gunman expressed his anger at immigrants by attacking the federal courthouse, the police department, firing over 200 rounds before trying to burn down the Mexican Consulate. After he was shot dead he was found to have IEDs, heavy artillery and a book outlining other places of attack.

During the same week, a grand jury decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. Not long afterward the grand jury in Staten Island, New York City, returned a no indictment against Daniel Pantaleo, a police officer who choked to death a Black father of 5 named Eric Garner. Garner’s last words were both a plea and the most tragic kind of poetry. He said, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” And suddenly the Black Lives Matter movement is in the streets. Starting in Ferguson, Missouri, and spreading across the country, massive, mostly nonviolent demonstrations broke out.

So we are living in a historic moment. A once-in-a-generation moment in which we have again reached a crisis point in dealing nationally with crucial issues of race. And we seem doomed to repeat again and again if we do not stand up to the challenge of transforming ourselves.

Right now, more Americans than at any other time since 1992 believe that race relations is one of the most important issues facing the nation. 1992, of course, was the year of the Los Angeles riots. Previous to that, the polling moment at which there was peak national interest in addressing questions of race and race relations was 1965, the year of Selma, the year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the year that the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act were passed, the year that the Watts riots signaled the beginning of the post-civil rights era, an era of backlash and reaction.

Let’s take these points as markers—1965, 1992, right now. 1965 marked the last moment there was a national consensus to move toward racial equality and cultural equity. 1992 did not produce a similar national consensus. And now in 2015, it is difficult to imagine how this Congress could move anything in regards to racial equality and cultural equity.

We can point, for instance, to the issue of climate change. While indigenous communities are having their sovereignty and security challenged right now by both drought and storms and floods that are the result of a warming world, precious little has been done to move us in the right direction. The issue is still defined by “Drill baby drill.”

In his waning years Obama has attempted to move initiatives via executive action. And when he has, we have seen the efforts thwarted by the culture war backlash.

This past summer, Donald Trump and Ben Carson sounded notes of division—using Islamophobia and xenophobia to move to the top of the Republican polls. And together the Republicans offered immigration proposals that each seemed more insane than the last.

Let me summarize a few:

  • All the candidates support extending the Great Wall of Mexico. Scott Walker topped that with a proposal to build a Great Wall of Canada. To be fair some Canadians thought this was a great idea.
  • Chris Christie suggested we should track immigrants like Fed Ex packages. Barcode, scanner, immigrant.
  • One day Jeb Bush started going off on anchor babies. And so now the Republicans are talking about ending birthright citizenship, a constitutional right that affirmed 120 years ago in the case of Wong Kim Ark vs. U.S. In their haste to win political points with a shrinking minority of voters, they are threatening to undo the entire 14th Amendment.

In all of these proposals they dehumanize the migrant. To them, the migrant is only someone who is capable of fulfilling a transaction—of providing hard labor or dropping an anchor baby. Migrants are transactions, not humans.

The Republican Party is playing, more than ever, to white anxiety, to what Barbara Ehrenreich named in the 1980s as “the fear of falling.”

Now we know economic dislocation is real. We see an economic non-recovery in which everyone has taken a beating but the burden has fallen hardest on people of color. After the peak of the market in the mid-2000s White household median net worth dropped by 16%. But it dropped by 53% for Blacks, 54% for Asian Americans, and 66% for Latinos.

The larger context, then, is all about inequality. It is about the rewidening of racial gaps in income and wealth, incarceration and education, and about the reality of resegregation.

Let’s talk resegregation for a second. Now that wealth and whites are moving back into the cities, there is a lot of talk about gentrification. But what becomes of those—the poor and the people of color who are displaced? They are forced out of the cities into the decaying suburbs. These old suburbs are already proving to be the new flashpoints. We shouldn’t only be speaking of gentrification—because gentrification is only the visible urban picture of the much larger trend, which is resegregation. Resegregation is the reason that this decade’s new flashpoints include not just divided cities like Baltimore, but Sanford, a suburb of Orlando, and Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis.

Trump succeeds as a cultural figure because he masks the truth of economic dislocation. Carson succeeds because he diverts us from the question of resegregation. They instead manufacture spectres where none exist.

Trump’s arguments have been particularly revealing. During a period in which immigration has dropped precipitously he conjures hordes of “illegals” stealing U.S. jobs and tax dollars. Recently he tried to tie undocumented immigrants to the uprising in Ferguson, projecting the time-tested image of violent youths of color marauding through the streets. It’s like truth doesn’t even matter.

In Ferguson the activists and artists and organizers there tell us the truth: the violence there is mainly a product of the state. The same state that killed Mike Brown, Vonderrit Myers, Kajieme Powell, and Kimberlee Randall-King, that overpolices poor people of color in order to fund their municipal budgets, that segregates people of color into a small handful of towns in the County, and that sends the same heavy artillery to police people in the streets of Ferguson as they do to police the border.

I am citing all of this to say that, like climate change, it seems that the culture wars have become a permanent feature of our daily lives. Demographobia—a word which my friend Samy Alim coined to describe “the irrational fear of changing demographics”—rules everything around us. Up against the fact of demographic change, Trump and the Republicans project a world of their ghostly imaginings. What I am saying is that there are real stakes to the work that we do.

It seems so long ago that Obama was elected as a symbol of reconciliation. But now four in 10 Americans believe that racial divisions have gotten worse during the Obama years. We seem to be caught in a bad loop of history. So even in this time of same-sex marriages and Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Malia and Sasha and Rachel Dolezal and Michael Derrick Hudson the question of identity is as troubled as ever.

Perhaps now, in this moment when politics has broken down, in this moment of change and confusion and fear, in this moment of powerful feeling and equally powerful inertia, perhaps now is the time when we need the arts to help us see through the fog to clearly apprehend what our new realities are. And perhaps even more, the arts and the culture may be the only place for us to start to make change. It may be the moment for culture to lead.

And so artists must continue to help us all to be able to see each other in our full humanity. In this regard, we inherit the struggles of the multiculturalists to undo the invisibility that Ralph Ellison spoke of when he wrote in 1952, “I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

In the 1970s, when radical people of color and feminist of color collectives began to name themselves multiculturalists, they believed that by making and circulating images, songs, and stories of the marginalized, they might be able to end erasure and invisibility and that in doing so, enable bonds of empathy to be built.

But at a moment when diversity is of great value to big business, to the military, to the state, when our images depict us as one happy rainbow nation, and yet the structures of power, including the national culture complex—both the culture industry and the non-profit arts world—is still overwhelmingly white, we begin to recognize that we have not yet achieved cultural equity. Instead the status quo is to figure out how to accommodate underrepresentation and appropriation.

By contrast, cultural equity is about ensuring that the marginalized can make and circulate their images, songs, and stories, and that these can be seen, heard, read, and experienced by everyone—at minimum, it is about equal access to creativity and distribution.

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But we also know that in a moment when the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us how Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, even Antonio Zambrano-Montes were not seen in all their humanity—remember Ellison said, “people refuse to see me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”—we know this is not enough.

Being able to see each other must also be matched by ways in which we share and build together. Yes, transformation literally requires work. Here the late, great, and deeply missed centenarian visionary Grace Lee Boggs has helped so much to expand our understanding of how change really happens.

We used to understand revolution, she wrote, as “being tough as nails, committed to agitating and mobilizing angry and oppressed masses to overthrow the government and seize state power by any means necessary in order to reconstruct society from the top down.”

But now we understand how to make change differently, thanks to feminism, environmental justice, indigenous, and racial justice movements. Grace called for us to understand the importance of Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for a “revolution of values” that would help us face down the three related evils of the world—racism, militarism, and materialism.

And so we need to center different values. And this is exactly what Roberta did in building a cohort with Future Aesthetics over the course of more than a decade—centering the values of excellence, mutuality, and generosity. In turn, this cohort help build ecosystems that are still transforming the non-profit arts world.

We want to continue to be about building sustainable creative ecosystems. These ecosystems are not the ends in themselves. We want to build them because we want to build our communities into cauldrons of sustainable and protean creativity, into spaces that recognize that diverse encounters are the key to growth, security, and transformation. Because if we are able to strengthen our communities, we are then changing society from the bottom upward.

In this regard, diversity is not chaos to be managed—which is the way that many institutions approach the question right now, with a view looking from the top down. Instead diversity is the very well of creativity. We dig deep to make the well, we use the water to build the ecosystem, and we do everything we can to keep the well pure and replenished. Diversity is not the end in itself, it is the means to attaining equity.

This means rethinking the institutions to open them up to all—it is necessary but not enough to include more voices from different backgrounds. We need to move institutions away from being mere containers for culture that people are herded into, and to transform them into catalysts for creativity that people feel ownership of and responsibility for.

Grace wrote, “We are beginning to understand that the world is always being made and is never finished; that activism can be the journey rather than the arrival; that struggle doesn’t always have to be confrontational but can take the form of reaching out to find common ground with the many ‘others’ in our society who are also seeking ways out from alienation, isolation, privatization, and dehumanization by corporate globalization.”

I was in Las Vegas yesterday. There is something about Vegas that makes it the happiest place on earth for lots of people, including my own parents, who are part of the huge numbers of people who come up from Hawai’i to Vegas every day.

So I flew in on the first flight from SF and got on the rental car bus and there was an older Pacific Islander woman sitting across me with her husband who is wearing a Vietnam Vet hat, also Polynesian looking. She’s in this warm pink sweater, he’s got a thick jacket on. I could tell they were from Hawai’i because they get all bundled up for morning weather, when the temperature drops below the mid 70s. And the Niecy song “Let’s hear it for the boy” comes on the bus speakers and she starts nodding her head. It’s like she has gone back 30 years in time. She’s singing, “My baby may not be rich he’s watching every dime, but he loves me loves me loves me we always have a real good time.” Like, we’re gonna get our rental car and we’re gonna have so much fuuuun. Let’s hear it for the boy! She was just anticipating the vacation and there was so much delight in her eyes.

I admire Vegas for the completeness of its Vision. I mean it is a strange place. You have New York City, Paris, Egypt, Venice, and Rome literally sprouting out of the desert.

But on any given day on Fremont Street or The Strip, one can experience the most diversity per square mile of any place in America. It’s all around you—the babble of languages and foods (on Fremont Street at any time of the day in the semi-anonymous food court you can get a fairly decent Taiwanese beef noodle soup or a bowl of menudo—I’m talking comfort food, hangover food), the workers, the families and their kids, rich and poor all jostling and moving through a finely articulated version of the American Dream—the one in which the promise of instant wealth, comfort, entertainment, and excitement is always right there in front of you.

It’s part of Vegas’s mythology that it was built on stolen land with stolen money—a town of gangsters out to build the New New Frontier in the desert, a tabula rasa on which to erect a vision of the future. Inclusion was not a part of that vision—restrictive housing covenants and segregationist policies shaped the geography of Vegas. But now diversity is very much a reality, because sometimes the color of money helps some people begin to see of other colors in the rainbow. Diversity is very much a reality. And yet inequity is still real.

Vegas is also disquieting. Artificial waterfalls and nightly water shows on the Strip waste thousands of gallons of water while Lake Mead is at a record low. From Fremont Street to the Strip, Vegas not only may have the most diversity per square mile of anywhere in the US, it probably has the most ATM machines and check cashing businesses, and pawn shops per square mile. And due to financial systems designed on casino values, the suburbs that spread across the desert floor are still underwater. There are still dozens of neighborhoods where, for a decade, land has been cleared and hills have been graded for homes that may never be built. Inequality is climbing in Vegas at a much faster rate than other major metropolitan areas. This is not a sustainable vision of a local, an American, or a global future.

Here’s where Grace Lee Boggs calls us to “rebuild, redefine, and respirit” from the ground up. Our opportunity is not just to say No to the systems that are harming us but to remake ourselves and our communities in the process. And so I end my part of this call with a tribute to Grace’s method, a respiriting of Grace’s method, which is really an artist’s method, Grace’s art was in moving people toward sustainable futures—and that is by moving away from posing answers to posing questions, and trusting in the process of community to find the way…

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And so we ask:

What does art and culture concerned with the question of freedom look like now? What kind of freedom movement do we want for the 21st century?

How can we together dream of new futures that are sustainable and that center radical diversity again?

And how can we make this dream delightful and irresistible to all?


Jeff Chang is the author of Who We Be: The Colorization of America and is the executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University.