My UW Madison Talk: Must Be Love On The Brain?: How can feminists reconcile our love of artworks with our disgust at the misogynist artists who made them?

On Friday November 30th I’ll be speaking at the music department at UW Madison. Here’s the text of my talk. I’ve copied the introduction below.

“Artistic success in the contemporary Euroethnic art world is perceived by all as the payoff of a zero-sum game, in which one player’s win is another player’s loss” (Adrian Piper, “The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists”)

Is it morally permissible–or even possible at all–to enjoy artworks by artists whose beliefs and actions are racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive? This is not a new question. For example, Norma Coates wrote in 1997 that “The Rolling Stones trouble me. As much as I love their music, it periodically grates against my sensibilities and produces spasms of feminist guilt.” As #MeToo activism has revealed cascades of famous and influential men to be serial sexual harassers and rapists, “what to do with the abusers whose art we like?” has received renewed interest and urgency. As of this mid-2018 writing, the New York Times has published at least three pieces on exactly this question in the last 10 months.

This paper analyzes contemporary discussions of this question in both popular and academic feminism. Using Christina Beltran’s observation that post-racial discourse substitutes aesthetic judgments about beautiful diversity for moral and political analyses of racial justice, I show how most contemporary feminist responses to this question substitute individual judgments of disgust for analyses of gender (and race) politics. Treating individual feelings of disgust as evidence of one’s own commitments to gender justice while obscuring the ways that patriarchy and white supremacy function as structuring logics of artworks, this approach evinces neoliberal feminism’s definitive logic, which uses superficial reform on the individual level to obscure intensified patriarchal and white supremacist domination at the systematic and institutional level. To be clear: I am not arguing that we shouldn’t be disgusted by sexual assault and harassment. My point is that disgust isn’t enough, but a lot of feminists act like it is, and they do so because it’s part of a broader neoliberal logic for managing white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchal domination. This logic, I argue, is a version of the “zero-sum” calculus Adrian Piper identifies in the epigraph because it assumes that feelings of pleasure and disgust are exclusive of one another and that righteous disgust at flawed individuals is sufficient to fix systemic sexism that persists in norms about aesthetic pleasure themselves.

There are better responses to this question, and analyzing them can help us understand what kinds of things a response to the question must do in order to adequately address both those forms of structural domination and individual feelings of dis/pleasure. Drawing on the work of Angela Davis and Katherine McKittrick, I argue that black women’s vocal performance traditions offer a different and more complicated model for dealing with white supremacist patriarchal harms from both artists and aesthetic conventions. These aesthetic practices–variously called “heartbreak” or “emulation”— create new forms of relation that make different sorts of pleasures possible. And whereas both the “yes” and “no” responses to “should we separate the artist from the art?” assume pleasure and displeasure are mutually exclusive, heartbreak and emulation understand them as necessarily intertwined; they are only separable on the (incorrect) assumption that artistic and aesthetic conventions regarding pleasure and beauty aren’t themselves structured by white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy. I pay special attention to Rihanna’s vocal performance on her single “Love On The Brain,” which is about domestic abuse. Her performance choices both highlight the fact that pop music conventions make women’s suffering aesthetically pleasurable and reworks the gender politics of such conventions so that the aesthetic pleasure is no longer exclusively tied to patriarchal violence.