This article original appeared in Censorship News Issue 130.
As a criminal defense attorney, and a mother, I am used to not being liked occasionally, and as necessary. Did you like me more when I said I was a mother? Why? Does it make me less cruel? More? As a lawyer, I know the proper response is, “it depends.” Just as, as an artist, I know that context contextualizes a work. Context includes everything from the signal sent by a heavy gold frame versus pale birch one—the classical and contemporary—but also the fact of the frame, which tells me to stop and look at dried paint on a wall. Texts now are as images, scanned, then read. And images, texts, read for meaning beyond their scanned surface. Both depend on their reception, just as the painting depends on its audience, and its audience depends on a moment in history. Put another way, what we hated in 1913, we know to love in 2019.
In 2015, part of my Gone With the Wind By Vanessa Place project became a contextual problem, apparently to be socially resolved. The project, begun in 2009, involved my stealing, in various ways and formats, Gone With the Wind; the project was designed to elicit suit by the Margaret Mitchell estate for copyright infringement, which would be the final art piece. One of my thefts consisted of tweeting the entirety of the book in daily installments. My Twitter account had an avatar image of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy and a banner image taken from 1899 sheet music, featuring a cartoon caricature of a Mammy, one uncannily mirrored in the film’s staging. This was my only defense: that stereotypes and clichés cannot be copywritten, and Mitchell’s ventriloquism of the racist imaginary deserved no more legal protection than my appropriation. We were equally guilty.
The project was denounced as racist, or if not racist, racially insensitive, because it was hurtful. It was hurtful, in ways both intended and unintended, which is perhaps beside the point. There were calls to stop the Twitter project; I refused. My ethical position remains that an artist’s first duty is to the work, not to its reception. Too, no good lawyer goes proper. I was quickly uninvited from various events and positions; I am still something of a persona non grata. The question becomes what to do: apologize, shut up, withdraw out of shame, explain, or conveniently disappear behind a series of closing doors? Again, it depends.
While much of the attention paid to my work has been preoccupied with its violence, I am more concerned with its contexts, as they display various technique of power, its dispositifs, particularly the law. The law determines what is guilty and what is free, meaning both at liberty and at what cost. Social media is never free. We pay with ourselves, performing an authenticity and responding to the crowd’s approval. We have access, but not authority, and our access depends on when, where, and who you happen to be, for that is the law of social media. The crowd cheers equally at triumph and execution, but our speech must be share-worthy. It can be worthy by being banal or laudable, or hateful, depending on your crowd. Someone I knew once tweeted, “why is free speech always hate speech?” And I responded, “because we already like the other kind.” But hate betrays its faith. Or, with hate, we demonstrate another faith. Our faith now is our refusal to see that history is not contemporary, but contingent, and its contingency depends, not on our moral acquiescence, but our stubborn ethics. We have an ethical opportunity to reject an ideology that punishes speech and ignores the greater crime: our gluttony for crowd approval and size, for frictionless advertising that is too terribly convenient and our purchases too terribly easy, for self-portraits pre-filtered and framed to make us look better to our digital fellows, for politics played out in quips, for a world devoid of detractors, a gluttony that is already forgiven because it is guilt-free. But, as Dante knew, the devil is a logician, and absolution given before commission forgives nothing. I have no faith in a momentary morality, any more than I do in any other verdict subject to review, or any other precedent that may be overturned on appeal. Part of the point of erecting a public monument is to be able to later tear it down.
If speech is to be free, it must be guilty. Guilty of its freedom, its anarchism, which is less a matter of being dead-set against and more a matter of being against being dead-set. Against being framed as if context is not itself a dispositif, a system of laws and reception, against being made either public monument or moral lesson. I don’t regret my experience of ex-communication because it was an ex-communication. And it is good to be among the faithless because the faithless are free. I don’t know if we all want to be free, but this is also perhaps beside the point. For we are now branded servants to and of our liking, and that is the way speech will not be free—publicly and privately. Because if we are to be, we must be completely.
Vanessa Place is a conceptual artist, poet and criminal defense attorney.
“A Cheering, Chanting, Dizzy Crowd” hymn by Thomas H. Troeger, 1985