BY Negar Azimi in Opinion | 23 AUG 16
Featured in
Issue 181

Sorry, I'm Not Sorry

Art and the culture of apology

BY Negar Azimi in Opinion | 23 AUG 16

‘Like lovers on Valentine’s Day, apologies are also now more conspicuous than ever by their absence.’
Marina Warner, ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ (2002)

‘I’m sorry,’ said St Augustine. Or was it Kanye? We live in an era rife with public apology. Philandering celebrities and politicians and celebrity-politicians do it all the time. In May, President Obama stopped millimetres short of an all-out ‘I’m sorry’ while paying a historic visit to Hiroshima, where an American bomb had incinerated an entire city on a cloudless morning some seven decades before. Pope Francis, for his part, seems to issue a fresh apology every few months, most recently to the homosexuals of the world. Tony Blair has apologized, albeit half-heartedly, for ‘intelligence mistakes’ made in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. And, around the world, a flurry of student movements has called upon universities to apologize for their institutions’ historic ties to the slave trade and colonialism. Someone called the activists ‘pampered student emperors’. Someone else grumbled about ‘contrition chic’. 

Of course, it’s not the first time that a wave of apologia has swept the globe. We’ve lived through a plethora of public apologies for the oppressed, colonized, short-changed peoples of the world in Germany, Japan, South Africa and further afield. But we do seem to be swimming in it. So, what is all of the handwringing about? Good manners? The legacy of culture wars and the postcolonial turn bubbling into wider discourse? A surplus of moral imagination? At best, it reflects a willingness to acknowledge inequities past and present. At worst, it’s an extension of the ongoing, nauseating, culture of confession.

And yet, mass apologia comes at great risk. Especially, perhaps, when it plays out in the realm of the arts. At Yale, where a campaign to scrap the name of a slave-holding white supremacist that graced an august college failed, the university offered, in its stead, an exhibition. It’s not the first time the arts have been marshalled in the cause of acknowledging the wronged. Take the vexed show ‘Harlem on My Mind’ held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1969, which, astoundingly, didn’t include the work of a single African-American artist. Or, more recently, all of the exhibitions featuring Iraqi artists that came in the wake of the invasion of that country, many of them funded by the US government. The British, thanks to their far-flung empire, are probably the best at apologizing for their colonial sins, care of the Arts Council. The Australian equivalent extends an olive branch to its Indigenous peoples. To be cynical, and I am, this is art as consolation prize, exhibition as band-aid. To quote Jacques Derrida, who thought a great deal about forgiveness, such gestures are too often ‘hollow, void, attenuated’. 

But don’t we need diversity, you ask? I’m the beneficiary of a lot of old-fashioned diversity due diligence. Probably more than I know. But diversity in the name of better reflecting the societies we live in and diversity as apology are not one and the same. When art is invoked in the name of apology, individual artworks get subsumed by a priggish institutional telos. Fixed in meaning, they don’t stand a chance to strike out on their own. The performance of good politics – emphasis on performance – is a trump card: it sucks up all the air. 

The culture of apology seeps into language, too, courting euphemism and dulling our critical facilities. When exhibitions make nice, their political credentials render them immune to criticism. I like to keep a quote from Liam Gillick close: art is ‘the perfect form for the revelation of paradox’. Art as apology is the opposite: it seeks consensus. ‘Don’t prettify it,’ said V.S. Naipaul to a young writer. The grumpy seer was passionate when it came to meaningless mystification. And he was right. 

But there’s hope. A spate of recent, artist-driven protests points to a new paradigm that turns the institutional handout on its head. Rather than engage the museum as an object of critique, they treat it as a stage to exploit. Many of these activists have emerged from the dregs of the Occupy movement. Like members of the Art Workers’ Coalition decades before them, they’re passionately curious about who funds their museums and, in some cases, who’s running them, too. Unsavoury patrons may be a thing of past, present and future, but there’s a growing awareness of the Kochs and the Murdochs among us. In April, British Petroleum announced that it was ending its 26-year sponsorship of Tate, a decision that may or may not have been related to the work of a stubborn movement called Liberate Tate. Gulf Labor, a movement of artist-activists organizing around the as-yet-unbuilt Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, have brought more attention to the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf than many human-rights groups. If our interconnectedness has created a depressing homogenization in some quarters, this strain of activism may just be one of its prettier consequences. And, what’s more, it’s not interested in, ‘I’m sorry.’

Negar Azimi is a writer and editor-in-chief of Bidoun.