I sat down to write a short story on this painting by Montréal’s Sylvie Adams. A sickness followed me as I sat down and I knew that the words would come through forced. The sickness started with a reading of The Atlantic, and spread wings with a speech by a politician about how uncomfortable he felt when he did not understand something. It was embarrassing to watch – like the magic of Parks and Recreation – and yet it was a sickness because the politician was not kidding: he tried to cover the confession by saying the things he did not understand were wrong – with pauses, for emphasis – because that was not the way things had worked before.
I realize now that Adams’ painting and this discomfort are connected: how many people walk into a gallery expecting cartoons, are faced with art that requires interpretation, and say, my kid could do that. North Americans do not like to feel out of touch. We do not like to feel vulnerable. We need to understand everything, or at least know enough scrapes to put together something to say that might deflect our vulnerability. The leaders of our political parties are particularly vocal about their discomfort.
I just wrote, it’s okay not to know what’s going on with something, and yet I know that I hate tennis because I do not understand how it works. I am sure I’ve ripped on science because I did not understand how it worked, and I was lucky to not have had a world audience which may have given me the confidence to deliver a speech on how science should be scrapped from schools because I wasn’t good at it and how tennis wasn’t a real sport because it was so dumb. It’s a bit scary to think that this whole opinion on science is shared by the current Prime Minister of Canada.
The funny thing about stoicism is that it is something that has never worked and yet the past hundred years of Europeans arriving to North America have continued to fetishize it. Our cars that rattle before death do not inspire the same admiration. We pay someone to fix the car. We do not pull over to admire the dedication of the rust.
I am alluding to a fetish for the ‘good old days’ when people used classrooms as the glue to bind the violence going on outside the doors: you need hearts and minds to be complicit, or at least oblivious, in order for violence to continue in their country. Just ask Chomsky.
Two social psychologists penned an article emphasizing that moving the classroom away from this place of support for violence was something to be feared. They allude that mental health problems with students is in part due to new accountability processes for classrooms to question instead of support violence. They fear that students ‘seem fragile’ which suggests that students in the past felt comfortable; that pressing wounds of students in the past was a good way of teaching, and that the classroom is in fact a place students attend in order to be reminded of the daily violence against them, as though an incredibly expensive substitute for therapy.
Here’s a middle-class white example from a white guy for my fellow white guys masturbating to their rights for ‘freedom of speech:’ let’s say every now and then your professor reminded you of your dog who just died. When you tell the professor it seems a bit unnecessary, the answer is that change takes too much time, so stop being so sensitive – not everyone here has seen a dog die. That talking about your dead dog is in fact justified because it adds dramatic value to the conversation.
This is what must be going through the heads of writers who insert a rape scene instead of doing the hard work of learning how to write. This is what must be going through the heads of the psychologists – and, unfortunately, a President – when they attempt to outline a fear of changes that are occurring in order to preserve a type of violence that they understand.
Part of me wants to blame Hemingway and his beautiful and walking characterizations of stoicism. Part of me wants to remind these uncomfortable leaders that Hemingway shot himself in the face.
Part of me wants to remind all our ‘second amendment’ fighters that the constitution was not found on the ocean floor. Part of me wants to tell these ‘freedom of speech’ advocates that laws are, in fact, created by human beings, for specific human beings.
Freedom of speech is not the freedom to silence people who are telling you that you are hurting them. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to justify daily acts of violence because it is what you fetishize. Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owner, once said, “All men are created equal.” In Canada, a Charter of Rights and Freedoms was created in a meeting while a genocide continued outdoors.
The Editors at The Atlantic confuse me. I can understand, for example, that a liberal president would try to rally some of the more conservative voters, who have been indoctrinated with this fetish for old violence, in order to help the next democratic nominee. For a magazine to align itself with a furious discomfort in new accountability while at the same time supporting the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates is baffling. If the same person, perhaps the Editor publishes Coates to lighten their own guilt, in being one of the fetishists for old violence themselves. I hope their publishing of these yearnings for old violence is instead to gut the backlash by giving it too much space to speak, and yet I still fear of the consequences these articles have on socializing the reader, when associating the words with the authority of the magazine.
I do not completely understand everything that is happening in the abstract art I look at. I am not always able to deliver the most insightful comment about a painting. A lot of the time, I say, I like the lines. Small words. And that is fine. The worst thing I could do would be to stand in front of the exhibit and say, this is not art because I don’t understand it – burn it! The worst thing I could do would be to insert myself in a conversation where I felt uncomfortable for the sole purpose of lightening my own feelings of being out of touch, imperfect.
word by Liam Lachance
colour by Sylvie Adams