BY Elvia Wilk in Opinion | 03 NOV 17

No More Excuses

Following the Not Surprised letter it’s time to uncouple power from abuse in the art world

BY Elvia Wilk in Opinion | 03 NOV 17

Whose testimony counts? 

For the sake of simplification, let’s say that testimony exists on a spectrum, with gossip at one end and legal witness at the other. Both are powerful kinds of speech: the former can undercut systems of power through secrecy – think of the much-lauded ‘whisper network’ by which women warn each other of nefarious men – and the latter offers the potential for official legitimization followed by, maybe, rectification. Between these theoretical poles are countless forms of testimony with different relations to publicity, everything from the news media and public protest to Twitter and private Google docs.

Both legal testimony and rumour are also faulty and limited. While judicial frameworks are supposed to sort through facts and arbitrate truth, interpretation of law is not objective, access to legal recourse is not equal, and testimony that does not accord with narratives inscribed in existing power structures can just as easily be de-legitimized. On the other side, gossip carries no evidentiary burden. Rumours are hard to vet in real-time, and they mutate as they circulate. While whispers breed solidarity and subtle forms of resistance (don’t underestimate the side-eye), they usually exist in a realm of limited agency when it comes to holding those in power to account.

The slew of takedowns of powerful men in culture and media industries over the past month has resulted from explosive collisions of different forms of testimony. Gossip has become weaponized and the truth value of formerly silenced or de-legitimized narratives reclaimed in the public sphere, the workplace, and likely in court. The first big domino to fall, Harvey Weinstein, was only knocked down when secret testimony (both the whispered kind and the kind that’s hushed up in closed-door settlements) was finally wrenched into the light. The #metoo hashtag that spread amoeba-like over social media in the weeks following the Weinstein revelations has further forced public awareness, creating an instrument and platform by which women can express the magnitude of sexual abuse and its repression.

Jenny Holzer, Untitled, 1982, computer animation / Spectacolor light board, 6.1 x 12.2 m, from the exhibition ‘Messages to the Public’, 1-31 March 1982, Times Square, New York. Courtesy: Jane Dickson, Project Initiator and Animator and Public Art Fund, NY; photograph: John Marchael ​

Given the veritable leaning Pisa of stories that have piled up regarding characters like Weinstein, some women’s stories of abuse seem to be gaining traction. Still, as Jia Tolento wrote in the New Yorker, ‘It would help if we didn’t rely single-handedly on women’s speech to lead us straight to justice’. It should not be the job of minorities to repeatedly insist that abuse is real, and #MENtoo need to come forward with their testimonials of complicity in order to bolster the metaphorical leaning tower with speech from the other side.

More confusing in regards to testimony and its counterpart, accountability, was the ‘Shitty Media Men’ Google doc that circulated in October among women working in media (mainly in New York). The document, which listed well-known men in journalism and their alleged forms of abuse, was collaborative, anonymous, and, for a time, shared – meaning that anyone who was invited was able to edit it without their names attached.

The offenses listed on the doc ranged from ‘creepy’ DMs and ‘weird’ lunches to physical assault and rape. Some of the names were no surprise to people in the know; others seemed shocking. The list was quickly made private. Yet the internet has never been airtight. In an extra-shitty twist, Mike Cernovich, a blogger and outspoken member of the alt-right who has himself been accused of rape, offered a USD$10,000 reward for anyone who would leak him the list. Claiming that he wanted to help rid the liberal media of its scumbags, the anti-feminist Pizzagater attempted to instrumentalize a human rights cause when it happened to match his own agenda. (He got the list but was only able to release two names, of known adversaries, before halting due to legal pressure.)

Witnesses must have the option to stay anonymous so they can safely come forward. But testimony without context and therefore accountability can be dangerous. I don’t mean that some guy’s reputation may be unfairly hurt due to false accusation, I mean that with contextless testimony it becomes easier for those in power to disregard even the most serious claims on the list by ‘lowering’ the whole group to the realm of anonymous slander. If one person on the list is cleared of blame, the rest of the testimony is allowed to be tainted with suspicion.

All forms of abuse should be categorically unacceptable, including types that fall short of illegality. A knee-squeeze at lunch or an offer of a promotion in exchange for sex must be understood as part and parcel of rape culture and must be treated equally seriously as such. In fact, managing to expand the category of ‘abuse’ to cover previously unrecognized forms of harassment has been a major political accomplishment of recent years. But lumping accused gas-lighters in with accused rapists, without seeking further evidence and examining the vast structures that have enabled them, is not a sustainable solution. There is truth in rumour, yet rumour is not necessarily truth, and rumour does not itself constitute punishment. For that we need due process. Better due process.

If testimony is neither personally authenticated via confidence in the source (presumably you wouldn’t lie to your bff) nor officially authenticated by the sanctity of the court (presumably you wouldn’t lie on the stand), how do you figure out how to validate what you hear? What is the role of completely anonymous testimony, enabled by the internet, that lives beyond all institutional/social realms of accountability on either side? More to the point: when will we finally move past sifting through whispers and leaked documents and simply believe witnesses when they speak?

Jenny Holzer, Untitled, 1982, computer animation / Spectacolor light board, 6.1 x 12.2 m, from the exhibition ‘Messages to the Public’, 1-31 March 1982, Times Square, New York. Courtesy: Jane Dickson, Project Initiator and Animator and Public Art Fund, NY; photograph: John Marchael ​

Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise

This week an open letter was signed by close to 9,500 people working in the arts on a website called ‘Not Surprised’ – borrowing a phrase artist Jenny Holzer has repeatedly used in her work: ‘Abuse of power comes as no surprise’. The letter describes the offenses to which non-men are subjected in the art industry, clearly defines sexual harassment, and states that, ‘We will be silenced no longer’. As a form of collaboratively authored testimony, it is articulate and truly impressive in scale and coordination. I hope, as do the authors and signatories of the letter, that this wave of expression will carry us beyond solidarity in speech and get us in formation. I hope we will use this emerging, organizing force to find new ways of making power listen to those who are still not being heard. I hope, as does filmmaker Sarah Polley, ‘that when this moment of noisy sisterhood dissipates, it doesn’t end with a woman in a courtroom, being made to look crazy, as these stories so often do.’ It doesn’t have to.

I doubt there is a higher percentage of shitty men in arts and culture than in, say, the tech industry or US politics. But the hypocrisy is more blatant in industries perceived to be aligned with progressive values, especially when socially liberal politics are espoused directly from the institutions run by those who whisperers know to be serial sexual predators.

For instance, the liberal-leaning media organization Vox ran a great article by Alex Press on exactly this topic, two days before the publication’s editorial director, Lockhart Steele, was dethroned after accusations of sexual misconduct. The same could be said of Artforum, which has long published excellent critical feminist texts while one of its publishers, Knight Landesman, serially harassed employees and industry colleagues, as has been alleged. Our very platforms for speech are riddled with hypocrisy.

Historically, the art world has been particularly plagued by the genius complex and a certain permissiveness when it comes to the bad behaviour of those deemed quirky, gregarious, or exceptional. As the (brilliant) art historian Linda Nochlin, who died this week, explained in her famous 1971 essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ a special ‘golden nugget of artistic genius’ has long been ascribed to male creators and has helped absolve them of other shortcomings. Arty excuses for the abusive behaviour of geniuses often rely on the wacky factor – ‘he’s just socially awkward’ – on the provocative factor – ‘he likes to push boundaries – or on the idea that one’s work and one’s private life are separable – ‘he’s an asshole but he makes great work’.1

Jenny Holzer, Untitled, 1982, computer animation / Spectacolor light board, 6.1 x 12.2 m, from the exhibition ‘Messages to the Public’, 1-31 March 1982, Times Square, New York. Courtesy: Jane Dickson, Project Initiator and Animator and Public Art Fund, NY; photograph: John Marchael ​

It’s that last excuse that most urgently needs to be dismantled. In order to move beyond outcry to action, that statement must become a paradox. He cannot make good work if he is a sexual abuser. If a person is an abuser, the work cannot be good. I don’t just mean that the work is somehow tainted by bad behaviour. I mean the work itself is actually not good. This is a general truism, but it should be particularly salient in art worlds shaped by a lineage of relational aesthetics, in which all production is understood to be socially embedded. In a relational system, the work is the sociality is the work. But regardless of whether you buy the historical specificity of relationality as an added justification: it’s not just that ethical concerns should override aesthetic ones, but that ethics are always already inherent in aesthetic production. If cultural production is not concerned with ethics on the aesthetic level, what is it concerned with?

The scary question at the heart of the genius debate is: whether we would agree to miss out on the oeuvre of a talented person if it meant preventing one person from being abused. If this is a compromise everyone is willing to make – and I’m not sure everyone is – the course of action is clear for those who posses even a modicum of power. Assuming there is no acceptable legal recourse: don’t employ a known sexual predator as long as he is active and unpunished. Don’t promote his work, don’t invite him to lecture, don’t pay him. The goal being that in some distant future there will be no abusers left in the industry and we won’t have to make such a choice. And in the immediate future, think of all the great work by underrepresented folks we could see more of, if they were given a first chance in place of an abuser’s second or third.

Across all industries, allowing successful people to abuse others perpetuates the belief that to be successful entitles one to abuse power, and implies that to have power necessarily means to abuse it. The only way that will change is by uncoupling success and abuse. If we can agree that abusive worker = bad work, it follows that an acceptable form of social retribution in response to verified testimony – pending litigation – is to injure the careers of those workers. As we are now witnessing, social and political upheaval can actually happen when abusers are punished with the halting of their careers. An open question remains as to what verification looks like when political power structures can’t be trusted to do it. We shouldn’t forget that investigative journalists have a very good track record there. (Again, I err on the side of believing witnesses by default. Most available statistics show not only that false reporting is low, but that in the rare case of a fabricated report, the accused is very unlikely to receive undue punishment.)

Jenny Holzer, Untitled, 1982, computer animation / Spectacolor light board, 6.1 x 12.2 m, from the exhibition ‘Messages to the Public’, 1-31 March 1982, Times Square, New York. Courtesy: Jane Dickson, Project Initiator and Animator and Public Art Fund, NY; photograph: John Marchael ​

Refusal from below

In most media reports on the ‘Not Surprised’ open letter, two thing stands out: the signatories are referred to as ‘women’ or ‘female’ although there are lots of gender-nonconforming and non-binary people (and some men) in there too; and the names of signatories’ flagged are some of the most famous of the lot, e.g. Cindy Sherman, Barbara Gladstone, Lynn Nottage, Laurie Anderson. It takes famous figures to draw attention to what is intended as an intersectional movement, and it is to their credit that they lend their notoriety to the cause, but as they too know, abuse of power also comes as no surprise to the youngest, the least famous, the most vulnerable, on the list. Many of Weinstein’s high-profile accusers, not to mention Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda, have highlighted the fact that the story only broke when a critical mass of powerful white women came forward. If even their testimony has been repressed for so long, one can only imagine how many nonpowerful nonwhite women were and are still violently unheard.

In the current context, the ‘don’t work with abusers’ mantra only applies if you can afford to say no. The reality is that those who are lower on the power scale typically have no choice but to agree. And unfortunately, powerful white women can’t always be relied upon to remove powerful white men from their well-paying jobs. It bears repeating that structural change can only happen intersectionally. Any movement that rests even very lightly on existing hierarchies – and it's hard to imagine one that doesn't – will have to work extra hard not to reproduce them.

Assuming we don’t want to work with serial sexual abusers but we can’t all afford to say no, how can we remove them? Is refusal ‘from below’ possible? Yes, through collective action. In order to both claim rights as witnesses and remove abusers from power, the most marginalized also need the ability to hit ‘him’ where it hurts – the wallet. So exactly how might the disempowered hold their abusers to account en masse, within a mainly unstructured and vastly underregulated economy of cultural production? How might the power of testimony be more evenly distributed? That remains to be seen. But it might look a lot like a union.

1  When I use ‘he’ and ‘she’ I mean them as signifiers for the directionalities of power. They are (insufficient) stand-ins for ‘the person benefitting from structural inequality’ and ‘the person suffering from it’ and apply to all other axes of discrimination such as race, class, gender identity, and sexuality. ‘She’ can certainly abuse ‘him’ too – but that mistreatment is not produced and corroborated by historical oppression. Alternately: ‘he’ stands in for the person more likely to be believed if ‘she’ testifies to his abuse. 

Main image: Jenny Holzer, Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise (detail), 2017. Courtesy: © Jenny Holzer, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London

Elvia Wilk is the author of Oval (2019) and Death by Landscape, a collection of essays forthcoming this July from Soft Skull Press.