shock without value
on the yeezy show
First, this tweet, which sums it up for me:
Kanye West apparently put on a fashion show in which he sent models down a runway, dressed in black, with the words “White Lives Matter” emblazoned on expensive cotton t-shirts. What does it mean? Don’t bother to ask him: I don’t believe that he knows. Or, at least, I don’t believe his meaning is even the point. The point, I think, is provocation. The point is to posture, to gesture towards something more profound. Look, over here. I’m saying something. And then, invariably, some outrage may come.
See, the artist can then say, They’re angry at me. They don’t get it. They don’t understand. I’m a genius.
(I’ve felt for a long time that the word “genius” has lost much of its significance. As has the word “life.”)
I can’t feel angry, or disappointed, because nothing about this is terribly surprising, and anyway, “Lighten up, it’s just fashion.” But of course, it’s never just fashion. And if there’s any emotion that’s compelling me to write this, it’s not outrage, but more like a stifled exhaustion that needs space to unfurl, to yawn.
I’m really tired of the way we talk about things. I’m really tired of artists who have nothing to say. Social media has created a cultural landscape in which people are comfortable with, perhaps even eager to talk in circles and circle drains. Because everything is so immediate, all cultural discourse takes on a deeply ahistorical bent and statements like “White Lives Matter” are stripped of their context.
That’s what’s so jarring about that t-shirt, specifically on a Black body, specifically in a show curated by West. Those details shape the meaning of the words. Perhaps its presence in a Black billionaire’s Paris fashion show may seem subversive on the surface, but to my mind it is a kind of doubling down - not of the statement itself (of course white lives matter, for fucks sake) but on the reactionary nature of the statement.
That statement is an implicit reaction to and against the mere suggestion that Black people live in a constant state of physical and emotional precarity. The statement has a history too close and immediate and alive to be repurposed or appropriated. The statement is an endorsement, and an endorsement without the understanding of consequence is a dangerous thing.
I believe that West, on some level, is aware of this. Which is part of what makes me so tired. I believe his commitment to free thought is compromised by his inability, at least in recent years, to think critically as a Black artist. I believe he is human, with all that entails. I believe the times we live in are too urgent to privilege ego or uninformed opinions above criticality. I believe I don’t know what else to say about anything, really, anymore.
At some point, we’re going to have to grapple with the fact that we live in a world where no life matters. Indeed, the visceral reactions to political declarations like “Black Lives Matter” and “White Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” is proof of this. All this distraction over the validity or necessity of such statements without true engagement with what it means to live in a world where we must constantly debate, defend, and define the value of human life.
I think that’s what those invested in white supremacy (whether consciously or unconsciously) forget. The fight for Black liberation, Black lives, is ultimately part of a larger, urgent fight for all living things. Cultural individualism and ego obscure this urgency, while the current structures of the world have rendered both “Black Lives Matter” and “White Lives Matter” as statements, as concepts, as ideologies - utterly meaningless. If we can’t agree on the context in which these concepts exist, how can we address the atrocities and emergencies plaguing the entire planet? We’re all dying, and going to die, and we can’t see that because we don’t want to tell the truth. To each other. To ourselves.
Distraction is easier, I know. A t-shirt with a slogan that doesn’t mean what it thinks it means, but is just edgy enough to generate discussion (and, fine, essays like these) feels like the shock we need to find meaning in a world that makes no sense. But, truly: what good is provocation that doesn’t provoke us to tell the truth about the world? And what good is shock without any value?
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