This #100hardtruths was shared with me by the photo critic and curator, Danielle Jackson, the co-founder of the Bronx Documentary Center and Founder and Principal,Culture Culture.
“The commercialization of radical ideas and social movements is hardly new. Since this election cycle, attempts at revolutionary image-making seem to have appeared with greater force and ubiquity—and to be coopted in greater measure. Equality is sometimes perceived as the freedom to pursue fame, the pleasure of being socially accepted, the right to spend money, and the right to chase it. Unfortunately, whatever lasting political potential that some images might have held are often deflated upon arrival. The process by which subversive concepts are trivialized, defanged, and repurposed by the mainstream into friendly, socially acceptable forms–what the Situationists International called recuperation–is being abetted in part by a scramble toward cultural significance and economic opportunity. The threat of fake news may wane, but a shore of confusing images undermine liberal capacity to take stock and wage an honest resistance.
Consider the image of DeRay McKesson, a young civil rights activist, in January’s issue of Vogue. His expression is sober; his style of dress–white oxford shirt, thin necktie–recalls the leaders of the Southern Freedom movement. His fist is raised in a Black Power salute befitting a 1970s radical. The photograph is flanked by the caption, ‘DeRay McKesson wears a Theory shirt and Tom Ford pants.’
Consider the Assata Box, a package of products from women-owned businesses designed to ‘celebrate the life and legacy of Assata Shakur.’ Priced at $60, the set includes a t-shirt, a Black Lives Matter pin, and a custom print with the slogan, ‘We Must Fight.’ It also includes a container of shea butter bearing the name, ‘The Revolution Will Be Moisturized.’
Consider Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance of ‘Formation,’ a beret and leather-clad spectacle collapsing symbols from the sometimes competing ideologies of the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, and the Black Power movement into one anti-establishment mashup. The song and the music video–which had been widely interpreted through the lens of radical and separatist politics–was performed again at a rally for Hillary Clinton at the close of her campaign. The dancers donned blue pantsuits in homage to this most establishment of candidates.
Consider the discourse after Walmart removed a t-shirt inscribed with the term bulletproof (a slogan associated with Black Lives Matter) from their website at the request of the nation’s largest police union. Some activist corners of the Internet decried the shirt’s removal as evidence of corporate repression; in the ensuing backlash, few seemed to consider whether such a motto even should be commodified. Consumerism has become so unremarkably intertwined with the notion of resistance that it can supplant a carefully considered strategy. The garments in question were produced by Old Glory, an apparel company run by Glenn Morelli, a graduate of the Wharton School who lives in Connecticut and has frequently shared memes from the Facebook groups Hillary for Prison, Donald Trump Memes, and Police Lives Matter. ‘It wasn’t a big seller at all. The Blue Lives Matter sells more than the Black Lives Matter or bulletproof shirts combined,’ said Morelli, whose catalog includes 500,000 kinds of shirts. Walmart, frequently criticized for labor abuses, does a brisk business in activist merchandise. ‘Like other online retailers, we have a marketplace with millions of items offered by third parties that includes Blue Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter merchandise,’ according to a Walmart spokesperson.
Consider the male cast of Moonlight in states of undress, modeling on billboards for Calvin Klein underwear.
Consider ‘Ooouuu,’ the self-released music video by Young M.A, a ‘stud lesbian’ which has been viewed 203 million times on YouTube. The subversive possibilities of a young, openly gay, gender non-conforming rapper is quickly diminished by the video’s depiction of a socially commonplace brand of masculinity–one imbued with misogyny, flashy materialism, and the suggestion of violence. Some say the song exemplifies a growing nihilism–those who believe liberation will come from the margins might have to think again.
Consider #RefreshTheTalk, a hashtag launched by Absolut Vodka to promote the company’s first new flavor in four years. The campaign, which targeted millennials new to alcohol, asked followers to vote through Twitter their most pressing social issue–the winner to be discussed on the Grammy’s red carpet. A few of the topics: ‘LGBT in Hip Hop,’ ‘The Wage Gap,’ and ‘Arts Exploitation.’ According to Adweek, ‘A thirst for flavored spirits plateaued in 2014, so Absolut needed to find a fresh way to encourage consumers to try this new flavor of vodka.’
‘The Lime for Change is Now,’ reads one ad.
And consider Pepsi, who, in their recent commercial, may have believed they had created a version of ‘Hilltop,’ Coca-Cola’s legendary 1971 utopian TV ad linking soda to social harmony. Pepsi’s ill-considered demonstration of cooptation was easier to see. Furor arose at the image of Kendall Jenner–wealthy, white, and a notorious social climber–confronting police officers with a soda bottle. The commercial bears a resemblance to Jonathan Bachman’s photograph of Ieshia Evans, the African American woman who was arrested by enormous armor-clad troopers as her dress blew gently away from her petite frame. Few people these days seem to recall that Bachman’s image echoes one made fifty years earlier by Marc Riboud, of a girl approaching a rifleman with a single daisy at a protest against the Vietnam war.
In simpler times and certain circles I’ve heard Jan Rose Kasmir, the subject of this image, criticized for seeking recognition; by contrast Ieshia Evans was immediately approached by news outlets including BBC and CBS News within days of being photographed. As her name and her telegenic image went viral she became a readymade symbol, a counterpoint to the violent videos in circulation. Like Kasmir, Evans wasn’t especially political before being immortalized in protest. I have a lot to read up on now that I’m in this position, was her sentiment as she spoke to an audience at conference hosted by Reuters in December, 2016. This is bigger than me. It has been Evans’s desire to talk about injustice, but like any star she is asked to play her greatest hits by recounting the transformative experience of being photographed. In this way, long before the Pepsi ad, her recuperation had been made complete. In an interview in Time magazine, Kasmir offered Evans advice on managing sudden fame, and thus, a cycle was renewed.
Visibility today is presumed to be a virtue. It seems like no one wants to be an outsider these days; nearly everyone has forgotten (or never learned) Alice Walker’s poem:
Be nobody’s darling;/Be an outcast./Qualified to live/Among your dead.
The hard truth is, where activist iconography dovetails with the lure of easy money, political expedience, and social capital, we must resist the lure of recuperation. We must not confuse the shadow with the substance. Where the images and stories are too facile we should look deeper. We have much to gain by searching for the real, real thing.”
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