Those who believe in infinite progress ultimately realise that the most fearsome thing ever is the infinite. Technologies they believe might assist them towards the realisation of humanity turn out to usher in a process of dehumanisation, or to result in nothing more than the realisation of an anthill. However, modernity didn’t end in 1919. World War II was yet to come, actualising the anxiety of the modern through the outbreak of one of the most miserable disasters in history, from which Europe more than 70 years later has not yet fully recovered. At that same time in East Asia, this anxiety was expressed in the explicit outcry of the Kyoto school philosophers, whose slogan of ‘overcoming modernity’ is now often associated with the philosophers’ engagement with ‘total war’, imperialism, nationalism and fascism. 

While it is not possible to exhaust the complexity of the concept of modernity, the episodes above allow us to appreciate a certain discomfort with the term ‘modern’; and it is in this respect that we may understand the title of Bruno Latour’s book We Have Never Been Modern. And yet, modernity remains with us. Decades of efforts to disprove the assumption that modernity is a monopoly of the West, there have arisen ideas of a Chinese modernity, a Japanese modernity, an East Asian Modernity and so on. In 2014, the exhibition ‘Modernités plurielles de 1905 à 1970’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris showed more than a thousand works from almost four hundred artists. It was a large-scale attempt to demonstrate that the discourse of modernity should be extended beyond Europe. 

But what is meant by modernity? And what does it signify, besides a certain pretention to cultural diversity and equality, to emphasise that there have been plural modernities? Is it not more urgent, in view of global technological acceleration, to consider the non-modern? I understand the non-modern not as that which is not yet, and will become, modern, but rather as that which resists becoming modern, and probably won’t ever be.

I got my start in the arts in theater, and also got into arts writing through reviews of theater, dance, and performance art. But I largely left the field about a decade ago. My disenchantment with houses full of older white audiences and artistic directors focused on catering to the tastes they believed those audiences carry was not unique to me: many in the field have found these things tiresome. Then came the double-whammy: publications, including major and regional newspapers, no longer offered consistent coverage of theater, and the advent of demand-driven ticketing for major shows famously saw prices for the musical Hamilton soar to nearly $1,000 per ticket. This all contributed to theater losing some of its credibility as a contemporary art form that people could access, or even easily maintain a general awareness of.

Artists have been leaving the field for some time now. To give one small example, of the 11 playwrights with whom I participated in the WP Theater Playwrights Lab back in 2008–2010, the majority have taken on television and film work since that time and two have published novels. I have spoken with countless other writers and performers who started off in theater and have since taken a step back or dramatically altered how they think about and engage in live performance over the past 10 years.

Yet while the context is unique, the pressures on theater are not wildly different from the pressures on other art forms today. Most require enormous resources and labor to reach audiences, particularly if the goal is to reach large audiences. The state of affairs in theater may seem bleaker than in other fields, but I don’t know a single area that isn’t struggling with this core challenge, especially when placed within a capitalist frame — i.e., what resources are required to make a thing and what are the chances of profiting from presenting or distributing this thing?

It all started with a misunderstanding.

A Black theater student at Coastal Carolina University told a visiting drama teacher she wanted to connect with nonwhite students, so the teacher drew up a list of names on a whiteboard, then forgot to erase it when they left the studio.

When several other students walked in, they saw the list and were left with the suspicion that those on it had been singled out with racist intent.

A committee of professors investigated and promptly sent out a departmentwide email clarifying what had happened that September day. Seeking to calm students, the professors wrote that the explanation “in no way undermines the feelings that any of you feel about the incident” and that the faculty was “deeply sorry.”

The visiting teacher also wrote an apology: “No matter the good intention. … I still want you to know I’m an idiot and I am sorry.”

Things might have ended there. But at a time when college campuses have become center stage for the polarizing issues of race, identity and what constitutes harm, the theater department was primed for conflict. 

Enter Steve Earnest.

“Sorry but I don’t think it’s a big deal,” the 62-year-old drama professor, who is white, wrote in a “reply all” email. “Im just sad people get their feelings hurt so easily. And they are going into Theatre?”

  • This piece about photography and ethics in The Believer by Adalena Kavanagh is very interesting (though the Sinna Nasseri story is not as clean-cut as she seems to think, and frankly is odd in that it takes the photographer’s word at face value — as if he’s some vessel of objectivity and not actually part of a whole industry that circulates images of Palestinian pain and anger in a framework of bothsiderism — and makes the opponents a faceless mob, which is rather orientalizing). Worth a read nonetheless:

looking woman walked toward me, and I raised my camera to my eye. She swatted at my camera and shouted in an unfamiliar-to-me Chinese dialect; I jumped away and she continued walking. I was shaken but also exhilarated by the encounter. I had been working on a novel about a photographer, and this was the real-life experience I craved. It also underscored my misgivings about photographing in public in general, and in Chinatown specifically, and taught me the risks and responsibilities of street photography. I would return, but my approach and intent would evolve. 

I am loath to declare any subject off-limits for artists, even if they do not share identity markers with their subjects, because an artist should be free to create, just as an audience is free to critique—in theory, that’s the balance. I run a photography club at a public high school in Brooklyn, and I teach students to avoid clichés, stereotypes, and exploitation, because good art also avoids those things. We also discuss ethics and personal safety. By law, photographers are allowed to photograph strangers in public, without consent, if it’s not for commercial purposes (art and photojournalism are exempted). Street photography ethics are looser than those for photojournalists, and are policed by the community, if they are enforced at all. 

  • I appreciate Declan McGonagle’s response to Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones’s piece on the Array Collective, a group that scored the Turner Prize this year. And I do want to say that Jones’s description of the Collective’s pub installation as “saggy and diffuse” could easily be applied to his writing, but hey, I digress (I’m clearly in a snarky mood 🤭). Here’s the kicker to the response and it’s great to see artists engaging with criticism:

Jones doesn’t seem to get this inheritance, nor that the shared practice of Array is a social as well as an aesthetic proposition. He fails to recognise the turn that is taking place in the art process generally, towards a societal momentum and another aesthetic altogether. This constitutes a refusal to engage with the metrics that a longer reading of art history and of participatory art practice requires, and would sustain aesthetics as a sort of walled garden in which art’s exchange value is privileged over its use value.

  • A good essay about the origins and battle over secular Arab modernity and its associated movements. Written by Ussama Makdisi for Aeon, it’s worth a look:

For Arab Jews, the question of Zionism was not so simple. The feminist journalist Esther Azharī Moyal and her husband, the journalist Shim‘on Moyal, as well as Nissim Malul, another journalist, struggled with the relationship between Arabism and Zionism. Unlike the European Zionists, they spoke Arabic and valued Arab culture. Like many of their Arab Jewish compatriots in Syria and Egypt, Malul and the Moyals saw in, or convinced themselves that, Zionism was a cultural and national expression that could coexist with the multireligious reality of Ottoman Palestine. To honour their commitment to a shared world, the Moyals even named their first-born son after their friend Abdullah Nadim, a childless Egyptian nationalist writer. For them, reconciliation between Arabism and Zionism did not appear to be merely a diversionary gambit to mollify increasing Arab concern, as it was for leading European Zionists. The latter included Nahum Sokolow, who visited Beirut and Damascus in 1914 to meet prominent Arab intellectuals and public figures, and Victor Jacobson, who as a manager of the Zionist Anglo-Palestine Bank in Istanbul, sought to convince a young Arab journalist As‘ad Daghir of the possibility of cooperation between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Jews’.

Malul, for example, wrote in 1913 that ‘in the role of the Semitic nation we must base our nationalism in Semitism and not blur with European culture, and through Arabic we can found a real Hebrew culture. But if we bring into our culture European foundations then we will simply be committing suicide.’ And yet Malul committed himself to working for a European-dominated Zionism. He joined the Zionist Office in Jaffa in 1911, at the same time as he was a correspondent for the Arabic Cairo-based newspaper Al-Muqattam. Together with the Moyals, he consistently sought to rebut anti-Zionism in the Arabic press and to reassure Arab readers that Zionism was indeed compatible with Arab national aspirations. On the eve of the First World War, however, revivified Hebrew, not Arabic or Turkish, was rapidly being made the dominant language of the multilingual Jewish community in Palestine that was itself rapidly coalescing around a Jewish national identity that clearly excluded Palestinians.

Required Reading is published every Thursday afternoon, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.