There is a lot of interest now in cultural openness: all tunes are sampled, all secrets are leaked, all patents are broken (or should be), and so on. There is something refreshing and important about the will to openness; it embraces abundance at a time when the rhetoric of scarcity is often invoked to police our desires and pleasures, particularly those related to fun, idleness, and irresponsibility. At the same time, we live in a world of power differentials: race, ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on, and cultural openness can both upset and reinforce these differentials, depending on who or what is open to whom. In this exhibit, Evan Roth’s work seems to exhibit both tendencies.
In Roth’s “Ideas Worth Spreading” (the TED installation), for example, the elite forum of TED talks is opened up to gallery visitors, who become experts simply by standing in front of that screen, next to those spot-lit red letters. The piece is as simple and clever as it is powerful. If you were the kind of adolescent who, say, enjoyed recreating the set of the musical Cats in your parents’ basement (as my boyfriend did), you will probably enjoy this piece. It is not simply that gallery visitors become experts, but that media expertise is revealed as little more than a design trick; the point, it seems, is that expertise is both acquired and conferred. In the tradition of media pranksters like RTMark or the Biotic Baking Brigade, Roth’s TED installation makes the serious seem silly—a transformation which highlights the relatively arbitrary nature of standards of cultural capital.
In “Graffiti Analysis” and “Level Cleared,” Roth takes the inverse approach, transforming the low brow and mundane into high art. In focusing on the gestures of the graffiti writer and video game player, Roth’s work aims to elevate these forms. To this end, Roth was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “One of the goals with the Graffiti Research Lab is to try to remove some of the negative connotations that graffiti has. It’s an easier pitch to sell to Mom and Dad than getting arrested every night.” The desire to elevate the downtrodden is understandable though, in my view, conservative insofar as it capitulates to the norms and values of the very same social order whose strictures engender resistance in the first place. To put it another way: what if, rather than removing the negative connotations of graffiti or gaming, we went after Mom and Dad instead? Weren’t they the problem in the first place?
This is made more problematic by Roth’s own social position as a white artist. White artists, scholars, and audiences have long been fascinated by the lives of Black people and those cultural forms understood as expressing Blackness, particularly when these are associated with hegemonic forms of working-class masculinity. While I doubt Roth would articulate his interest in graffiti in this way—nothing turns a white artist or academic “colorblind” more quickly than this accusation—I find it difficult to look at “Graffiti Taxonomy” without thinking of the myriad ways heterosexual middle-class white men have put Black people under a microscope. As bell hooks writes, “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.” The problem is not cultural appropriation per se, but rather the attraction of white people to Black culture, or at least those cultural objects curated as such, and the fantasies of identification played out by white people through talismanic cultural objects—a process, it should be pointed out, that leaves power differentials undisturbed.
Should everything be open? In our era of sampling, WikiLeaks, and Copyleft, the value of cultural openness seems self-evident. For this reason, it is important to question the ways that openness does not simply break with, but also extends regimes of power that have often approached the Other as an object for consumption.
Greg Goldberg is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wesleyan University.