Speech: New Rules for Black Art in the New Media Age

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This is the transcript of a speech I gave on August  6, 2017 as a keynote speaker for the close of the first-ever Columbus International Black Film Festival created by Cristyn Steward.

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Thank you for having me. I want to thank Cristyn for inviting me to speak today, but as I do so I’d like to mention that I have put on large events like this many times, and so I also want to take a moment to thank every volunteer and person who staffed this event in any capacity. Without you, whoever you are, this doesn’t work. So thank you.

The charge of a festival like this is immense. It asks something of its artists, their art, and its audiences. It seeks to wedge open space in a world that somehow makes a way for even the least efforts of its normative culture, but struggles to allow entry for everyone who does not blindly subscribe to same. Events like this are important, potentially life-changing. It is one thing to make a film; it is another to know that your film exists in not just a continuity of art, but a community of people. When you consider that your work may find itself in places where your people may never go, it should add weight to your motivations, which should in turn affect your art. The creative process is often a lonely one but no one ever presents their art in a vacuum.

One of the reasons why events like this must exist is because the problem of black art isn’t simply that we can’t get a seat at the tables of power and influence. The problem is that it rarely occurs to us to build our own tables, make our own chairs. We serve supper just fine, but always in an attempt to win the largesse of a culture – professional and social – that could care less if we eat. We give our efforts away to get inside, to prove a point, to join the ranks of the elite and successful as defined by the culture with its bellies stuffed on 400 years of black misery.

Ever since the culmination of whatever whiteness is, black people – the propped-up antithesis to whiteness – has been engaged in a series of wars. Some of these wars are literal engagements of violence: the Civil War, mass incarceration, police abuse – while some of these wars are engagements of political violence: poverty, the school to prison pipeline, political erasure, gentrification. All of these wars are present. All of these wars are being engaged as we live and breath, as we go to work, as we create. And collectively, all of these wars serve to show us what we’re really fighting over. All of us are engaged in a culture war, in a battle for survival, not of our bodies, but of our values. I mentioned the Civil War. I mentioned it in the same breath as a living thing alongside mass incarceration and police abuse, as if it were still happening. Consider that HBO currently plans to launch a series entitled Confederate, depicting modern life in an alternate history where the South did not lose the war. Now consider all of the problems black people still face since the end of the Civil War. Then try to convince yourself that the South did not, in fact, win the war. The idea of the South, the values of the South, the people of the South. You will go mad first.

For myself, believe that to fight a machine as well-oiled and steeped in America definition as racism you have to focus on the local level. The disease of racism is so insidious that you can throw almost any effort into any corner and find that effort necessary, such is the pervasiveness of racism. So I have spent much of my adult life railing against how it infects the city in which I live, in Columbus, Ohio. It is a city with almost 900,000 people and it develops like nobody’s business. Well, depending on what end of the bulldozer you’re on, it’s development. On the business end of all that development, it’s gentrification. See the Short North, see the construction of 71 North, see Olde Town East, see Franklinton Arts District, see Italian Village, see Campus Partners, see Linden in about 5-10 years, see the King-Lincoln district in 8 years, see Parsons Avenue now, see see see.

Last year I was getting tired of going on and on about gentrification, specifically pointing out how it destroys culture, while my detractors were allowed to feign ignorance and pretend to not be able to put a finger on what that culture was. Was there such a thing as black Columbus culture, and if there was, how was it manifesting in our lives? How was it defined? How and why was it being destroyed? Was there anything to destroy?

To this end, I want to draw your attention to a few recent pieces of work that attempt to unpack that question, if not provide full-on answers. Each of these presents a key principle that black artists and organizers should consider infusing into their mission if it does not already exist. The three principles are WILL, VALUES and HISTORY.

1) Holler: 31 Days of Columbus Black Art, curated by Scott Woods (2017)

In March of this year I put on a series of events entitled Holler. It was 31 days of shows presented in unrelenting fashion, back to back with no days off, in various venues spread across multiple artistic disciplines. Over 70 black artists were featured during that month. All were given free reign to present themselves unapologetically. All were paid. I came up with the idea after giving a speech not unlike this one, wherein I go in on the city of Columbus at some length as it attempts to erase black art from the map, while considering the resilience and audacity of its many authors. During the course of that speech, after raking a few choice institutions over the coals, I mentioned that if one were so inclined they could book a month of top-level black talent in this city with no repeats, such was the depth of our creativity. The line nagged at me for months until I finally pulled the trigger on the idea in the fall and took three months of my life making it happen this year. While I eventually got a grant for it, the event was largely done out of pocket as it happened. I didn’t even take any days off work from my full-time job to put on the shows. I didn’t get to create as an artist until the end of the month. I suffered physically throughout Holler and for a couple of months after it. I did most of the work for it by design because it was important to me that people recognize that it doesn’t take huge budgets or advertising campaigns or squads or crews to realize a good idea whose time has come. A good idea takes on a life of its own. People sacrifice their time and money and energy in the interest of a good idea whose time has come.

You simply have to have the WILL.

2) The Black Creatives’ Manifesto by Marshall L. Shorts Jr. (March 2017)

One of the things that came out this year was a manifesto created by artist, designer and co-founder of Creative Control Fest Marshall L. Shorts, Jr., called the Black Creatives Manifesto. It’s a .com if you want to look it up, and you should. In it he lays out 12 principles for black artists to consider as they navigate not only the world of their craft, but the world of their reality. It contains resolutions like being unapologetic, self-determination, resistance, and more. A lot of it you probably already do. Some of it we could all stand to consider more often. Check it out and if you see how it can be applied to your art and life, sign its pledge. It’s a powerful tool to use when you need to be reminded of why you’re in this game.

You simply need apply its VALUES.

3) The Long Street Bridge (Unveiled July 2014)

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Photo: Scott Woods

A must begin this one with a confession: I have given this structure no small amount of grief since it opened just west of what we are now obligated to call the King-Lincoln district. Despite the criticism by myself and many others, the powerful record of what the wall offers as it stands cannot be denied. While many of the people on the wall can no longer be accessed directly, some of their work lives on. And the work that does not may still be found and nursed back out of memory and into now in an attempt to learn and grow from it. It is a testimony that we were here, creating and building a world, a people. It is not what some of us want it to be, but no one can deny that it is a great start. What studies or ideas the wall may instill remain to be seen. It may very well end up more tombstone than guide. But without it, we tread water on where to begin.

We must always consider what has come before. We must always consider how what we create falls in HISTORY.

WILL, VALUES and HISTORY.

You can create art without them, but you can create great art with purpose that can literally save lives with them.

In closing, I’d like to offer a few rules for moving forward. It’s 2017 and we need some new rules to go with all of this passion we possess. These are rules for navigating the choppy waters of New Media, primarily where your art intersects with social media. There are three rules and I promise to keep them brief.

Three New Rules for Black Artists in Media Arenas:

1) You don’t have to be respectable.

This, admittedly, sets the bar pretty low, but it keeps as many of us in the game as honestly as possible, and when it comes to the media, there is strength in numbers. I may not like your art, but I must ensure there is room for you to make your art because your art is you, just as you must make room for mine and me. Before we all clasp hands in a rousing kumbaya moment, allow me to fly in rule number two.

2) Art is propaganda, so what are you selling, and to whom?

Art (as propaganda) is bait. See gentrification. See how it is sold as the culture of an area, how hip a city is, how cool. I say this as someone who has been on a billboard. Art is tourism. Ask New Orleans.

When you understand that art is propaganda, you then need to acknowledge that it is never without purpose. Even when an artist is inconsiderate of purpose – “I do what I want” or “This painting isn’t about anything” or “It’s just silly fun” – the very dissemination of the art – how it enters the world – becomes purposeful.

Mind you, the very act of me laying out the work generated by black Columbus artists in the interest of defining their cultural values is an example of a community literally defining, refining and building a definitive culture. Not a theoretical culture that can be widely referenced but never specifically saved. That is me using the art of my words as propaganda on your art as propaganda to help me save something.

3) Criticism is part of the process.

This is a big rule. This rule breaks up relationships. This rule cost me a lifelong friend in an argument about the first season of black-ish. Part of putting anything into the world is allowing it to interact with the world. To suggest that the world has no say in what you have put before it is not only naïve, but wrong. I am not suggesting artists seek out such criticism, particularly if it is of the withering kind. I have been known to stop people from creating their art with criticism, so I recognize its power. But there is a difference between not caring what others think about your art and you demanding that no one should have an opinion on your art. The first is usually lasts as long as it takes for an artist to encounter a bad review, and the second is ridiculous.

An addendum to this rule comes from a quote by seminal writer and critic Harlan Ellison, paraphrased: everyone isn’t entitled to their own opinion. Everyone is entitled to their informed opinion. Contrary to the political scheme of the day, all criticism is not created equal. Take that criticism with a grain of salt or better, weigh it. See if it has merit.

In closing:

We are a valuable people. Sure, all lives matter, but you can hear the import placed on the things we create every day. They love our music, our art, our fashion, our language, our bodies, our abilities.  At the same time they fear our presence, our knowing looks, our potential, our language, our bodies, our abilities.

Beware the ally who loves what you do but spends no money or time on it. Beware the patron who does and then makes demands, Beware the sponsor asking for changes. Beware how planning to have strings tied to your hands ensures that someone will pull at them.

I thank you for your time.

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