In “Visual and Spacial Politics” taught by Victoria Hattam, me and fellow students (coming from Law, Urban studies, Design theory and Anthropology), were challenged to consider the visual and spacial aspects of politics. Basically the aesthetic dynamics shaping political realities and events – things that cannot easily be put into words, but that nevertheless exercise a very real influence connected to issues such as race and class, migration and borders, and political economy. Reading assignments were drawn from across the social sciences, humanities, and visual arts.
For our midterm, I decided to exercise my Transdisciplinary Design imagination, by using two of our readings to help me lay down the ground work for an exhibit centered around the iconic photograph of Emmett Till, displayed as a header to this post.
I will include the beginning few paragraphs of my essay below, and you are very welcome to download the entire paper by clicking the link at the bottom of this page.
RE-IMAGINING THE POLITICAL & THE AESTHETIC: Transdisciplinary exhibition design through the lens of Emmett Till and the civic view
How might the perceived opposition between the political and the aesthetic realm be transcended within an exhibition context? What professional roles would need to be redefined? What strategies could be crafted to negotiate new relationships between form and content? How might this re-negotiation change our understanding of past and current political realities and our response to them?
Through the lenses of Ariella Azoulay´s essay “Getting Rid of the Distinction between the Aesthetic and the Political” as well as Martin A. Berger´s “Seeing through race: Civil Rights Photography”, I will examine the themes above. I will do so in an imagined case study of an exhibition design displaying the iconic photograph of Emmett Till – 14-year old African American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman – a photograph that has been credited as “the beginning of the civil rights movement” (Berger, 125).
In Azoulay´s essay, we are introduced to the concept of the civic view, or the civic imagination, as a call for, and an invitation to, a way of seeing photographic works that includes the plurality of the context of the photograph. It is described as “an effort to link the photographs to the situation in which they were taken” (241) and a way of moving beyond what the author perceives as the common opposition between the “aesthetic” and the “political”. Azoulay describes in her essay a tendency within contemporary art discourse, to condemn artistic works as either “too political” or “too aesthetic”, expressing “the affinity of the speaker towards one of these two opposing poles” (234).
I strongly sympathize with Azoulay´s questioning of this distinction, as I, like her, believe in the value of lifting the aesthetics of all politics, and the political potential of all aesthetics. I also sympathize with her desire for the viewer to truly connect with the photographed subjects, as part of a larger context of spacial/political/relational dynamics. By not quite leaving the purely intellectual realm, the essay however leaves many unanswered questions as to what the idea of the civic view could potentially mean in practice. As a Transdisciplinary Designer, this bridge between theory and practice is of great interest of me. What might be strategies that could potentially translate “the civic view” from an intellectual concept to a living breathing reality of political/aesthetic encounters and action?
By using the image of Emmett Till – clearly politically charged and with far reaching political implications – I aim to bring about a more substantial discussion around the potentialities of the idea of the civic view. In doing so, I will take into account the multiple gazes connected to it – Black and Northern and Southern White – as well as the agency of Emmett´s mother and the specific contexts in which it was presented. The space in which I situate this imaginary exhibition is a cross-disciplinary platform spanning art and political and social thought and action.
Download the entire paper here.
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