Can Abstraction Help Us Understand the Value of Black Lives?

An abandoned house in St. Louis (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
An empty house in St. Louis (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

ST. LOUIS — Several months ago, I made the commitment to be away from New York City, my home and native land, for the duration of this summer. At the time, I had no more sense than usual that these would be the weeks in which the world would start, again, to fall apart. As I’ve been looking at things from a position of more solitude than usual, I’ve also been conducting research for upcoming projects in two major African-American cities with which I’m relatively unfamiliar, New Orleans and St. Louis. In the process, I’ve been struck by the major failures of social relation, resulting in an escalation of violence, that categorize the United States in the current moment. I have been puzzling and suffering through bad news after bad news, and, as a Black American artist, one central question keeps coming into my mind: is abstraction or directness more likely to afford us the understanding we need to move forward?

It feels appropriate to write this from a place of distance. Abstraction is the separation of ideas from objects and, in art, the creation of forms that work against literal depiction; we often see abstraction itself as a form of distance. Historically, we know that it has also been used as a tool: most famously, the CIA co-opted Abstract Expressionism in an attempt to demonstrate our country’s intellectual freedom and project an image of America to the outside world after World War II. I find it keenly interesting that, in the first part of the Cold War period, resistance to interpretation was seen as a trait that set the freewheeling USA ahead of the overly controlling USSR. In contemporary America, where the interpretation of lives is at stake daily, that seems impossible. We are more literal than ever. Political movements without concrete lists of demands are considered juvenile. Resistance to interpretation may no longer be an option. When and why did our valuing of abstraction change?

I’m not prepared to take on the entire complex and beautiful history of abstract art, nor do I intend to list the many virtuous (and virtuosic) Black abstract artists who are representing our times with profound aesthetic acuity. I want, rather, to consider abstraction as a form of thought and language, its role in this time, and how we might choose to either use or discard it. As we, as a nation, consider what truly requires urgency, I believe it’s essential to keep in mind not just what we discuss, but how. We must learn to create messages that cannot be pushed aside.

Two weeks ago, just before the murder of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, I had the privilege to attend a performance by poet Sonia Sanchez at the Ashe Power House Theater in New Orleans. Sanchez delivered her famous poem “Middle Passage,” a hollowing plea that asks its listeners to understand the depths of pain incurred by, and still traumatizing to, Black Americans as a result of the slave trade. What was most striking about Sanchez’s performance was the current of urgency conveyed by the sound of her voice. She howled, whispered, stuttered, and pled for us to consider how we evaluate pain: “It was the crossing that was bad / It was the raping that was bad / It was the landing that was bad.” Before Sanchez read, a number of younger, NOLA-based poets were given a chance to perform. I was amazed by the directness of language, the resistance to metaphor, in each of the poems I heard. Though it might have been due to my relative lack of knowledge about poetry, this surprised me. It seemed to point towards the need not only for direct speech itself, but a space in which to deliver it safely.

In St. Louis, where I am now, every day I walk past an empty house that’s become a monument — not metaphorically but literally, its exterior walls turned into a canvas. I’m interested in the active use of neglected space to make visible narratives that we fear will be forgotten. In an interesting parallel, the central piece currently on view at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis is a series of 38 panels by Mark Bradford tracing the erosion and decay of the words “receive calls on your cell phone from jail.” Through his signature abstraction method, which is almost a form of archeology, Bradford conveys the difficulty of communication between prisoners and the outside. It’s beautiful work, but one whose content and style bring me back to my central worry: is abstraction a luxury? The piece makes apparent how difficult it is to transmit simple but necessary, maybe even life-giving messages. Recently, in the same room as “Receive Calls on Your Cell Phone from Jail” (2013), the Contemporary Art Museum held the sold-out Internet Cat Video Festival. It was a coincidental placement — this was the only room in the museum big enough to host such a screening — but the irony of highly literal, adorable pop culture drowning out the message of the piece on the wall was not lost on me. Of more concern was my realization that I live in a world where such juxtapositions are perfectly normal. No wonder, then, that we feel we must yell.

Cat videos to the front, Black abstraction to the side, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
Cat videos to the front, Black abstraction (by Mark Bradford) to the side, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

As Debra Brehmer chronicled earlier this month in Hyperallergic, Kerry James Marshall stepped away from abstraction and towards figuration as a means of reclamation — he saw it as a way for African American artists to potentially escape the box of the unheard rather than fall deeper in it. Marshall’s figures are a clapback against the accepted prevalence of the white body everywhere. “White figures in pictures representative of ideal beauty and humanity are ubiquitous,” he writes in the catalogue for his show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. “The truth of this reality is almost everywhere taken for granted. And to me that’s unacceptable. I have lots of young nieces and nephews—they should encounter a broader representation of human ideals than the postimperial models I had to work against.” I’m wondering if, by taking a cue from Marshall and understanding the figurative — the direct — as a form of power, we can finally start to understand the phrase “Black Lives Matter” as a plea for human lives rather than an excuse for antagonistic wordplay.

Kerry James Marshall, "Untitled" (2009), Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund and a gift from Jacqueline L. Bradley, BA 1979 (courtesy Yale University Art Gallery)
Kerry James Marshall, “Untitled” (2009), Yale University Art Gallery, purchased with the Janet and Simeon Braguin Fund and a gift from Jacqueline L. Bradley, BA 1979 (courtesy Yale University Art Gallery)

This begs the question: is metaphor a privilege we get only when we have certain knowledge of being heard in the first place? In considering what it takes to make someone else value a life, I have been thinking about personal pleas. It seems to me that there’s value in extending the bounds of the personal. (George Yancy eloquently describes it as “placing no limits on who we call our neighbors.”) But this kind of thought extension requires some delicate critical thinking — not just empathy, which is getting a bad rap in certain circles these days, but a form of engaged abstraction that allows for concrete response. More and more, empathy seems to test the shaky limits of liberal exhaustion while not constituting any actual work. Expressing sadness for the pain of others from a place of mismatched understanding is no more helpful than my saying that simply being Black and visiting St. Louis makes me an activist.

I spoke with my friend (and Hyperallergic contributor) Mollie Eisenberg about this the other day, and she alleged that our complete inability to act in service of marginalized lives is “related to the way in which we devalue humanities — without that kind of abstract and figurative thinking it’s hard to have a grasp on the reality of being afraid of a system of power that’s intangible.” In other words, critical-thinking skills — already at an all-time low in terms of the priorities of the American educational system — are not just the missing link for the political, but also for the personal. If I, from my position in the world, have no reason to fear a system in place, it’s outside of my imaginative potential to see why you, in your position, ever could. I think this failure of understanding has best been encapsulated, in the past weeks, by Corey Menafee’s smashing of the racist stained-glass window at Yale: a direct response to an ongoing problem that’s represented by both the figurative window and the more abstract racial violence perpetuated by the school.

The answer, perhaps, is an abstraction that serves as the product of shared core values among a social group, rather than as a form of dehumanization. Considering murdered individuals as abstract bodies is never going to help us. Race is no longer “just a construct” when it informs daily interactions that result in death, not to mention the ways in which we egregiously misapply our supposedly fair and equal judicial system to protect those who already have power. It is unacceptable to be afraid of another human being as an idea, rather than a reality. (See the continued defense: “I felt unsafe.”) However, allowing for the meaningful potential of experiences other than our own would do some good. As Taylor Renee Aldridge said in her excellent recent piece in ARTnews, we must consider Black subjectivity instead of merely black bodies. The understanding of subjectivity is inherently abstract — a puzzle we piece together through observation, research, criticism, and, yes, sympathy. Aldridge suggests that subjectivity is key because it cannot be co-opted; I want to push even further: that through the understanding of subjectivity we may have lit on a form of abstraction that embraces rather than distances.

Black squares on Facebook (screenshot via
Black squares on Facebook (screenshot via

Consider the abstract “space” of the internet itself, the sense of connection it provides, which can be both tremendously meaningful and completely artificial (thanks, algorithms!). Although it often appears as a constant barrage of news, the internet actually makes time move incredibly slowly. I can lose days scrolling through my newsfeed, checking each post as different media outlets release facts one at a time and different friends respond to and interpret those articles. But there are benefits, too. In his recent post on MoMA’s blog — and somewhat in contrast to the three excellent pieces of figurative work by Black artists that he seeks to discuss — curator Thomas Lax references the repetition of the monochrome black square in place of our faces on Facebook as a common form of demonstrating solidarity. I remember noticing this for the first time after Trayvon Martin’s death (although what I noticed more at that time was #millionhoodies, in which I participated). One service of abstraction may be the creation of an image that’s easily seen and remembered. A sea of black squares on Facebook has the potential to be striking in the same way that redacted portions of censored government documents often stand out more than the text that remains: as an act of refusal that represents a kind of power. Such a gesture, while it doesn’t shift policy, has affective worth: it offers a visual representation of who we stand with and a recognition of who stands with us. To say that we resist interpretation is not to imply a lack of urgency or connection.

In the end, what matters most to me is that which brings us closer together. What will it take to convince us that our own individual experiences do not — cannot — represent the whole? I, for one, will do whatever I can to take us there, including advocating for a directness of language (clear message) and an abstraction of listening (broad application). To quote some recent powerful words from Adrienne Maree Brown, “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil.” This message is not abstract. The skills we need to understand it are.

comments (0)