So a local art gallery named Make.Shift has caused a bit of a dust-up.
The source of the controversy is some art that they’re exhibiting for the month of February, called “White Trash Girls From the Small Town in the Middle of my Mind.” The description is as follows, pulled directly from the associated Facebook event:
“Artist: Chris Henry (from Portland, OR)
Description: Once, I was working at a pizza restaurant, and taking an order over the phone. When I asked the customer’s name, she told me “Crystal”. As I hung up the phone, and scribbled the name on the order, I turned to the guy on the ovens and said, “Man, Crystal is such a white trash name”. “I know!” Oven-guy said, “I totally grew up with somebody named Crystal, in Tennessee!” From there, he and I started throwing out names of women we’d known in the small towns …we grew up in, and soon everyone joined in. “Sheila!” “Tonya!” “Misty!” and on and on. As I gleefully scribbled all the names down, Oven-guy said, “You should draw what all these girls look like, dude.” It sounded like a laugh, so I bought a pack of index cards, and a cheap pen, and for the next few weeks went through the list of names, and drew the first thing that came to mind. Some of the girls are based on people I went to school with in Mckinleyville, CA (“Where horses have the right of way!), and some just appeared in my head when I uttered the name, “Margie”, and put pen to paper. I ended up feeling oddly close to them, and they all started telling me little stories about themselves, and where they fit into the small town in the middle of my mind. And here they are, for you. Maybe you’ll recognize someone. Cheers.”
So, the showing is evidently a series of caricatures of poor white women that the artist made up based entirely on their names. The image used for the Facebook event page and for the posters used to advertise the exhibition is… shall we say, unflattering to the subject. The community is up in arms because the show, based on the description, is dehumanizing to the poor, and specifically to poor women.
Now before I go on, I want to say very clearly that I have not seen this show. I also don’t particularly intend to. I would also like to very clearly say that I already have a poor opinion of Make.Shift due to a fire code problem that they failed to address until the city forced them to, and that the resolution to this problem put a minimum of two local business in danger, AND that when they raised funds to address the issue, I don’t believe that they were particularly honest with their supporters.
I’m the last person to say that art should be rejected because people might be offended by it. I think art should make people uncomfortable, should be thought-provoking and evocative. I think art should challenge our existing thoughts, feelings, and perceptions about any given subject. In fact, one of my favorite things to do when I had some pieces hung in a local coffee shop was to sit and listen to people say things about the art on the walls, and every time someone said it made them feel uncomfortable or that they thought it was strange, I wanted to pat myself on the back. So my objection to the show is not that the material that it contains might be offensive.
However, based on the fact that I feel that art should challenge our existing view of the world and make us think, do we really need more dehuminization of the poor and of women? I mean, that’s been the status quo for thousands of years already, so what exactly is this challenging? What is there here that is interesting, or thought-provoking, other than the outrage and discussion that it has sparked in the community? As you can read on Make.Shift’s website (in the About portion), they claim that this is a space for “alternative” artists and musicians:
“Make.Shift Art Space is a DIY art and music venue dedicated to innovative, alternative and unusual art and music. The 8,000-square-foot space includes an art gallery, live all-ages music venue and 18 individual art and music studios. Here we provide a home for painters, printmakers, photographers, sculptors, musicians, and whoever else needs an affordable place to make a mess and show it off.”
So what is this an alternative to, when it seems to play in to the dominant cultural narrative that turns poor people, specifically poor, unempowered women, into an object of fun? And this is not a piercing gaze into the lives of those stricken with poverty in America, as far as I can tell from the art on the marketing pieces and from the description; this is not a thoughtful indictment of our country’s inability to even acknowledge that the working poor exist. It’s funny drawings of “poor white trash” women, based solely on what the artist thinks of their names.
So my primary objection to this exhibition is that it’s boring. It’s not saying anything that hasn’t already been said to poor people and specifically to poor women for generations on generations, whether we choose to acknowledge that cultural message or not. It’s bland, counter-revolutionary, and honestly I don’t even think it’s funny. I’m okay with offensive humor; I certainly think it has its place, and this is a matter of comedic theory, which I’m sure I will talk about more at some point in the future. But for offensive humor to work, it has to accomplish more good than it does bad; it has to be funny enough to justify it’s horribleness. I don’t find this funny, not because it makes me angry, but simply because I am at an age where making fun of the way people look just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Call me jaded.
My secondary objection is more practical and less theoretical. Make.Shift operates as a non-profit. It depends on the community for its money, and as such it is obligated to provide some good to the community that supports it. As a community space, I question Make.Shift’s wisdom in hosting an exhibition that may alienate a large number of their supporters; artists on the whole, with a small number of exceptions, are not fantastically wealthy people, and I don’t know whether women are under- or over-represented in the artistic community, but I think its safe to say that they make up at least a portion of artists, and I know of women who have supported Make.Shift, either through donation or through renting studio space from the gallery itself.
Moreover, since non-profit status confers some benefits from the community at large, Make.Shift is not just beholden to its donors, but to the community in general. Especially as an all-ages music and art venue (a fact also plucked from their website) one would think that they have some kind of obligation to be a space that is accessible and safe to all, including the poor and the female… if for no other reason than to benefit the minds of the young people who may visit.
A private gallery doesn’t suffer from these obligations, and sinks or swims based on how customers and artists perceive it. One of the downsides of depending on money from the community, whether directly or indirectly, is that you are obligated to the community, and accountable to that community for your conduct. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
When Make.Shift received feedback from the community on the show via their Facebook page, the response was to state that they’re willing to discuss the issue at a meeting in their office:
“I’d be happy to talk to you about the choice to run this show. Facebook isn’t the most productive place to do that, but I’m in the office on Tuesdays from noon-2:30 p.m. if you’d like to talk, or we can set up a meeting time elsewhere.”
-Make.Shift Director, as excerpted from a Facebook comment.
Needless to say, a community discussion about the social impact of this exhibition cannot be had at the Make.Shift office; and perhaps they have good reasons for taking the conversation behind closed doors. I don’t know, I can’t think of any, and to me, Facebook seems like a great place for the gallery to respond to its entire community regarding the choice to exhibit this particular show. To not issue an actual response to the many people who are commenting on this issue seems foolish. If the gallery would address the concerns that the community has regarding the potentially elitist and misogynist content of their February show, that would at least seem like an act of good faith.
So, to sum up: I would love to be able to get behind an art exhibition that causes an uproar. Unfortunately, this is not that exhibition; we as a culture spend enough time telling the poor that they’re trashy and worthless, and telling women that their primary value is derived from their looks. This is no different, and as a result is utterly uninteresting. Make.Shift has an obligation to the community that supports it that they do not appear to be meeting, and are unwilling to discuss this in a public way.
I’m not the final arbiter of what is and is not acceptable, and nor would I want to be. I don’t want this artist to be silenced or stifled, but I don’t see the intellectual, social, or even comedic value here. I question Make.Shift’s choice to run a show that could actually be seen as harmful to their community, and all that means is that I’m certainly never donating to them, and I would caution anyone who has thought of doing so to consider what benefit this organization brings to our community.