Angela Davis’ Two Lessons

Angela Davis’ visit at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm last week generated harsh criticism, but it is worth recalling what Davis actually talked about in her lecture.

Angela Davis. Foto: Karl Lydén.
Angela Davis at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm. Photo: Karl Lydén.

The Royal Institute of Art seems to have gotten more than they bargained for when they invited the legendary philosopher and activist Angela Davis to give a public lecture last week. The lecture was organized within the framework of The Domain of the Great Bear, an open lecture series meant to discuss art in a broader context and attract a wider audience to the school. It was precisely this wider audience that proved to be a problem as the Royal Institute was unable to anticipate and manage the strong interest in Angela Davis amongst the Swedish anti-racist activists and intellectuals.

The queue began to grow outside of the entrance on Skeppsholmen as early as noon: 1500 pre-registered guests hoped to get one of the 175 places in the lecture hall, or to at least get a place in the nearby hall where the lecture would be live-streamed (the school estimate that 850 people took part in the Davis lecture altogether).  At the afternoon press conference, one of the invited academics criticized the Royal Institute for not even responding to African-Swedish representatives who had suggested that the lecture should be moved to a larger venue.  Since then the criticism has been implacable: the first barb was published even before the lecture took place, and in the daily paper Expressen Valerie Kyeyune Backström described the event as «a spectacle where Davis is utilized to render invisible how race works and happens here, in Sweden: here, at the Royal Institute of Art. How even one of history’s most radical voices can be used to silence criticism at home in a sophisticated PR machine.»

David  Hammons ,In the Hood, 1993.
David Hammons, In the Hood, 1993.

The actual lecture seemed to take place in a partially parallel universe.  The applause rang out even when small groups got past the guards and barriers to join the eager crowd, and the jubilation knew no bounds when Angela Davis herself finally entered the hall. After thanking the crowd for the warm welcome, she began by enthusiastically explaining her perspective on art’s political significance. A certain reticence was palpable in the hall when she asked how many members of the audience were art students. A few timid hands were raised bashfully in the giggling crowd. «Teachers at school or practicing artists?» continued Davis and received a few more raised arms.  «Feminists?» Deafening cheers, followed by a dramatic pause: «Anti-racists…», the cheers drowned the last words «…and anti-capitalists?»

In her lecture Davis wanted to link together philosophy, art and politics, and started with an introduction to the Frankfurt School’s negative dialectic and critical theory («in the Marxist tradition»). Both art and critical theory have, namely, a specific ability to negate, confront, or, in a radical way, criticize and reshape the existing conditions of subordination, Davis stressed.  To analyze this, she continued, we need to consider philosophical aesthetics and its history: «Some of you might not be that interested, but I’ll do it anyway.»  Against the founder of modern aesthetics, Alexander Baumgarten, and his hierarchical distinction between sensuous and reason-based knowledge, Davis juxtaposed Kant’s Critique of Judgment.  For Kant, aesthetic judgment mediates between reason and morality, and Davis showed (in what seems to have been an abridged run-through of Kant’s aesthetics) how the ability to be touched by a work of art points to the possibility of using imagination in a way that is not limited by our ordinary cognitive practices: here we glimpse an otherwise elusive freedom, and the possibility to produce a new knowledge that is necessary to change the world, she insisted.

Angela Davis interviewed by Bosse Holmström in the 70's. Image taken from the film The Black Power Mix Tapes, 2011. Photo: Story.
Angela Davis interviewed by Swedish journalist Bosse Holmström in the 70’s. Image taken from the film The Black Power Mix Tapes, 2011. Photo: Story.

Davis also pointed towards the points in common between critical theory and the black radical tradition, where art, a philosophical perspective and politics have almost always been intertwined, and where freedom has always been the concrete goal. She stressed that the fight against the white universalism that institutionalized slavery and racism is at stake in the American Black Lives Matter movement, in the same way that it was at stake during the revolution in Haiti two hundred years ago. Davis emphasized that it is not by chance that Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, is a performance artist who is conscious of the importance of challenging universal tyranny (a work that remains to be done in Sweden, she emphasized). Nor is the non-hierarchical structure of Black Lives Matter accidental; it is a result of the wealth of feminist knowledge within the black radical movement and its break with the tradition of charismatic male leaders – here instead the organizational experience of black women serves as the model, Davis emphasized.

Immanuel Kant.
Immanuel Kant.

Next Davis coupled contemporary black political movements to arts specific ability and potential to express what cannot be formulated conceptually: Davis mentioned the great performance-like occupation of highways («I don’t know if you do that much here in Sweden? Or if that is too disorderly?»), which was carried out after the decisions not to indict the officers behind incidents of deadly police violence in Ferguson and New York.  She also address Stanley Whitney’s color-based abstractions that are now on display at the Studio Museum in Harlem, as an example of a practice where form portrays a political content, as well as David Hammon’s uncanny prediction of the murdered Trayvon Martin’s choice of clothing in the work In the Hood (1993), consisting of a decapitated hoodie.

Finally, Davis brought up her own recent theoretical work and collective organizing against prisons. In Are Prisons Obsolete (2003) and in the book of interviews Abolition Democracy  (2005), Davis develops the concept «Prison Industrial Complex» in analogy with «Military Industrial Complex», and traces the prison system’s racist roots in the southern plantations of slavery. She describes prison punishment as a standard solution to social problems, and analyzes prison as an economic catalyst through privatization and the exploitation of prisoners as nearly free labor-power. It is thus based on a solid foundation of theoretical work and organization that Angela Davis rejects the liberal idea of reformation of the prison system. Instead, the demand must be to demilitarize and disarm the police, and to abolish prison. This requires radical change: «We don’t want reform, we want abolition. And such abolition requires us to reorganize society in a revolutionary way», she concluded the lecture.

Cheers, questions, cheers – and a certain feeling of being dazed. It is not easy to encapsulate a lecture, and I make no claim to review a 45-minute oral presentation by someone who has made herself world-famous for her political activism since the 1960s.  Angela Davis is not only a symbol for the black liberation struggle, but she has helped to reshape this struggle herself by linking feminism, Marxist theory and communism with broader anti-racism, queer struggles and transgender rights.

Free Angela-pin.
Free Angela-pin.

And it is precisely the composite of this politics that the Royal Institute failed to take into account. The struggle that Davis has fought for decades is now represented in Sweden by people with experience of Swedish racism, which is a connection that cannot be overlooked. It is therefore a serious problem when the public that will inevitably be attracted to the Royal Institute for the event instead feels left out of an exclusive arrangement, and when non-white people – a part of the public poorly represented within the school – are snorted at in English by people in the queue to an open lecture.   It is a pity that the problem could not have been solved in advance with a larger lecture hall or an extra seminar.

After all, who could actually be more appropriate to invite to the Royal Institute for a public lecture than Angela Davis?  Who could be more appropriate than the activist who studied under Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse and taught at art schools, but who has also written Women, Race & Class (1983), in which she highlights the neglected women in the black liberation and workers’ movements, shows historical conflicts between the different movements, and stresses the importance of joint struggle while maintaining an understanding for specificities and differences?

Everyone, of course, is free to choose whatever they want to learn from Angela Davis’ lecture, but the fact is that she gave two lessons. The first was a feminist and anti-racist lesson about how a broad, multifaceted front must contest the universalism that conceals the existence of racist, sexist and economic categories, and that the task ahead is the current refugee issue. The second lesson is about art and critical theory’s power to, in both a non-conceptual and conceptual way, examine, debate and negate the essence of these categories.

Stanley Whitney
Stanley Whitney, Other Colors I Forget, installation view from team (gallery, inc.), New York, 2013.