Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a member today »

It’s no longer a surprise to see casual violence on the internet and TV, in newspapers and artworks. But what happens when violence is stripped of its political reality and reduced to a purely aesthetic form? Who has the privilege to make that choice?

These are the topics that arose at a screening of Jordan Wolfson’s work last week at the New Museum. The artist, whose videos and sculptures are mostly known for a spooky combination of violence and entertainment, showed three video works, followed by a conversation with Rhizome’s assistant curator of net art and digital culture, Aria Dean. When asked by Dean about white violence, Wolfson said simply, “It’s hard for me to talk about white violence, being a white person.” Audience members quickly challenged the statement during the Q&A session, and the night turned into a thought-provoking debate.

The three videos that Wolfson screened all incorporate images easily associated with current political trends and topics, but seemingly only for decorative purposes. In “Animation, masks” (2012), a clichéd caricature of an Orthodox Jewish man mouths a conversation between two lovers about their relationship. Despite Wolfson’s Jewish heritage, he always insists that his art is not autobiographical. For “Animation, masks,” he claims to have animated an “evil Jewish” image found on Google.

“Raspberry Poser” (2012) features CGI-animated bouncing HIV viruses, heart-filled condoms, a redhead cartoon boy repeatedly cutting himself up, and other random imagery. Wolfson manages to maintain a visual continuity, but it’s not to be confused with a greater political statement. As he admitted in a previous interview, Wolfson finds it most challenging and exciting to create formal consistencies. When talking about a previous piece, “Con Leche” (2009), he remarked that his work “isn’t about specific content.” Unfortunately, deprived of any real subject, “Raspberry Poser” comes off as somewhat superficial.

#jordanwolfson Riverboat Song #monologue #sadiecoles #gallery #contemporaryart #cgi #animation

A post shared by Elaine (@hahaelaine) on

The third work, “Riverboat Song” (2017), is more sophisticated in its communication of a subject, but still not fully cooked. It starts with a short-haired protagonist dancing in high heels and voicing a narcissistic monologue. I’d like you to understand that I’m not responsible for my rage, but it is instead a response to your correctable defects,” the character says. As the speech goes on, the protagonist is replaced by a crocodile, punk rats, and horses. Each iteration of the character seems to be an arbitrary choice. The video ends with screenshots of YouTube clips, including real footage of a white man beating a black youth.

After the screening, Wolfson sat down with Dean, who didn’t take long to ask him about his recent VR piece “Real Violence” (2017), shown at this year’s Whitney Biennial. In the controversial work, the viewer puts on a headset and sees a character — portrayed by the artist himself — bashing in another white man’s head, to the point where you cannot tell if the victim is alive. Meanwhile, Hanukkah blessings are heard at the beginning and the end of the 360-degree video. Dean pointed out that it wasn’t just the violence of the work that people found surprising, but also the race of the characters: white-on-white violence is rarely featured in the media.

Jordan Wolfson’s “Real Violence” (2017) on display at the 2017 Whitney Biennial (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

She then asked Wolfson for his thoughts on white violence, but he refused to respond directly, instead stating that everything in his work is solely an artistic choice. “I’ve never really thought of specifically white-on-white violence. I’ve thought in terms of making the artwork, and I’ve thought of including what I thought was important in the artwork.” He continued: “If I made the decision that a white guy beating a black guy, or if it was a black guy beating a white guy, suddenly the information in the artwork would be carried and transmitted, and then hypothetically would take the work to another type of narrative path that wasn’t part of my intention.”

This suggests that Wolfson tried to neutralize any political connotations in “Real Violence” (and his other work) by eliminating potential racial, age, and gender differences between the two characters. But if violence as a political issue is not his concern, then what is his intention?

“What I was interested in is the mundane violence we see,” Wolfson said. “The witnessing of one subject losing their consciousness … the desire to see someone die … there’s something almost pornographic about it.” His focus appears to be the act of watching violence itself, and the mixed feeling of horror and fascination that brings.

A black man in the audience acutely pointed out the problem of Wolfson’s refusal to discuss violence and challenged him during the Q&A.

“Do you think about violence as a horizontal plane or hierarchy?” the man asked.

Wolfson hesitated. “Do you want me to answer how I think about it personally or artistically?”

“What’s the difference?”

After some evasion, Wolfson finally said, “I’m not my art. I let the world pass through me, and then it takes a shape.”

When Wolfson failed to fully answer the original question, a few other audience members started to confront him as well. Was it not his white male privilege that allowed him to separate his artistic life from his personal, if not political, life? The artist first asked, “what privilege?” and then admitted, “I don’t think of it as a privilege.”

But to many people, including myself as a woman of color, it is a privilege to not have to think about privilege. It is a privilege to make violence into art without being threatened by real violence. It is a privilege to imagine white men as neutral characters that could supposedly avoid political interpretations.

This is the PG part #jordanwolfson

A post shared by Jack Nelson (@jgnelson3d) on

When asked again about his opinion on white violence, Wolfson reiterated his working method, which is to reflect the world as he sees it and supposedly strip any meaning in the process. “This is my artwork. This isn’t my opinion. The artwork doesn’t have a message. The artwork has a form. If the artwork takes a message, that’s based on the person looking at it.”

What at first seems like an innocent statement becomes naive, even terrifying, when said by someone who constantly uses violence as artistic material. Not only does Wolfson’s reluctance to discuss white violence enhance a public dismissal of the problem, but his formalist approach indulges our culture’s fascination with gore and death while ignoring its causes and consequences in the real world, from the workplace to the Middle East. Intentionally deprived of meaning, Wolfson’s seemingly political artworks ring hollow, and the characters, dialogue, and music — including all the Jewish references — appear as nothing more than an attention-grabbing ploy.

The Q&A unsurprisingly turned into two audience members arguing with each other about whether it’s the artist’s responsibility to make a political statement with their art. It’s true that we shouldn’t stake too much on one artist’s opinion or approach, but we ought to also be mindful that violence for violence’s sake contributes to the daily brutality we witness. Too frequently, oppression is justified by fear of an imagined threat. Talking about social threats when the speaker does not have to face them himself is a privilege, all the more so when he lacks awareness of this fact. As long as privilege remains invisible to the privileged, violence will continue to be more than a formal proposition to most people.

First Look: Jordan Wolfson” took place at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) on June 15, 7pm.

Support Hyperallergic

As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever. 

Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.

Become a Member

Mengna Da

Mengna Da is a freelance writer, amateur artist, and 24/7 sleepwalker based in Brooklyn. Her current interests involve moving image, surveillance, and politics behind what is (constructed to be) seen....

13 replies on “Jordan Wolfson Evades the Politics of His Violent Images”

  1. Is there a line crossed when an essay about one artist’s work reads more like a hit piece than a review? Really, there was no attempt to go beyond your own objections to his work.

    I say this even though I agree with your perspective on his use of violence as artistic material.

  2. The Great thing about having a smart phone is that you can
    watch Jordan, everyday, hang out with his dog, using his computer
    in huge studios, dieting, hopping from new apartment to new apartment etc.. etc..

    His opulent lifestyle screams violence (or that he might have came across
    violence once from an unwashed ant on a NY subway)

    I would make violent work as well if I was handed down everything in life.
    My detachment from humanity would be so grandiose, I would
    need to get off on something = why not Violence!!

    To put it simply the imagery is good/fun, but nothing is going on here.

    Just another child with a magnifying glass burning ants, not
    paying attention to anything around him **bliss**

    *if thats what you want

  3. Shouldn’t curators be asking these questions of him BEFORE they turn him into a star?

  4. This article is more superficial than Jordan Wolfson’s videos. The author gets to punish or reward artists’ proficiency to comodify and spoon-feed “political substance”. The author is basically a pro-sumer (producer+consumer) of politics-as-social-network who finds in art a flattering, upwardly mobile vehicle to co-opt what she positively perceives as “political” and therefore, as desirable. A system where consumers of “political themes” are gatekeepers to an artworld which discriminates and rewards based on criterias of thoughtfulness and ethical responsibility is basically a neo-liberal, deregulated academia. Now, Wolfson’s inability to articulate his own latent shame in public was a golden opportunity for the author to disguise resentment as consciousness and neo-liberalism as critique.

  5. “But what happens when violence is stripped of its political reality and reduced to a purely aesthetic form?”
    In the very first paragraph is revealed the subterfuge. There is no philosophical or physical way of separating violence from its political reality. If you think you can, that in itself is a political act of disenfranchisement. FUCK YOU! Don’t take that personally because according to you there is always the possibility of separating personal from political, so fuck you! How does that feel? like art?! Maybe? I don’t know what you think art is but apparently it includes the ability to wear criticism. OK. FUCK YOU. How does that FEEL? A little bit stripped?

  6. This is very well written piece, and it’s absolutely fine that this is only really focusing on the political qualities or politics potentially involved in this piece. This work was exhibited in the Whitney Biennial, an incredibly public event, the artist is certainly aware of this. If he did not want to be the subject of potential political critique when he’s making reference in conversation to people like Tarantino, then he could have turned down the opportunity. It’s perfectly fine for work involving historically controversial subject matter to be politically critiqued, especially when it is being displayed in such a prominent institution/event. Great read.

  7. The opportunity of reducing violence to aesthetic form is widely shared and acted upon, and its various outcomes widely consumed. The opportunity of exhibiting in an administered cultural space like the Whitney or the New Museum is, due to its rarity and transformative legitimating effect, a kind of privilege. So this example raises questions as pressing for the gatekeepers (curators) as the entrant (artist).

    1. Yes, I’m very curious about that question myself. A detailed examination of the artist’s life, including especially financial matters and political-economic relations, might be highly relevant to understanding his works and their presentation, even though apparently the artist is unconscious of these facts or the framework they exist within.

Comments are closed.