Generalized Trauma and the Responsibilities of the Artistic Monument

There are people whom we do not fully know, and yet they live in a warm place within us, and when they are plundered, 

when they lose their bodies and the dark energy disperses, that place becomes a wound.

- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

 

I remember the first time I saw documentation of performance artist Ana Mendieta’s “Untitled (Rape Scene)” for which I was completely unprepared. I was sitting in a studio at the San Francisco Art Institute as a prominent Art Historian from UC Berkeley sat in on our small reading group and told me what a brilliant artist this was. In this particular performance piece, Mendieta tied her naked body over her kitchen table and invited her friends over. The purpose was to get her unknowing friends to viscerally react to this monstrous act of rape that had seemingly happened. Being shocked and appalled by this make-believe-rape and the sense that she desperately craved to feel female victimhood, I adamantly opposed this art historian’s claim. Her only response to me was, “Would you rather she actually had been raped?” Being shocked and traumatized, and belittled as a young scholar, I did not respond. But I wish I could have been able to articulate to her at the time how repulsive it was to me that this woman wanted to feel community support for a horrific trauma she did not possibly understand. And that artistic expression has responsibilities to the communities and to the bodies it represents.

As a straight-cis-female, I do not have the same connections to Pulse as many of my colleagues do. The sets of fears we have and the ways in which we move through the world are very different. Yet we all feel the need to connect, to empathize, and to support each other in our grief. But what responsibilities do artists and musicians have to the victims? The survivors? The community? What are the responsible aesthetics of such a tribute?

Sia recently released the song “The Greatest” as a tribute to Pulse. Without the video, the song itself sounds no different than many of her other recent power songs. The bass pounds in a heartbeat-reminiscent rhythm, there are many dynamic swells that add to a listener’s sense of forward movement, and yet the repetitive lyrics mention nothing of the tragedy itself:

“Don’t give up, I won’t give up”

“I transform with pressure”    

“I’m free to be the greatest here tonight”[1]

It would seem that dedicating this song to Pulse was an afterthought. This song could literally be about any other trauma to overcome; in fact, Sia also used the song to claim that Hillary Clinton had “stamina” after Trump’s remarks in the first presidential debate. In the video, we see dancers lifeless on the floor as light shines through the bullet holes left in the wall behind them. This image took me back to Mendieta’s “powerless” body and the implications of violence through meaningless visual representations of such violence. Ultimately, what are the intentions of works such as these? Solidarity? Healing? Capital? And to what standards should we hold art and music that claims to be a tribute to violence and trauma? Art such as this should seek to mend, and not merely reopen or exploit the wounds left by lost bodies.

"The Greatest," by Sia

 

Notes

[1] Sia Furler ft. Kendrick Lamar. “The Greatest,” This is Acting. 2016.

 

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