Opinions, Column

Being a Blind Art Dealer

You have to go see Get Out. As you’ve probably heard, what makes the movie so great is that it’s simultaneously a great horror film and a powerful piece of relevant and poignant social commentary.

The central thesis of the movie is that the Obama-era myth of a post-racial America is a lie. Jordan Peele, the film’s director and writer, expertly shows how well-intentioned, liberal white families often still contribute to white supremacy, even if they voted for a black president, or went on a cultural immersion trip to Africa.

For the uninitiated, Get Out‘s protagonist is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a black photographer who goes on a weekend trip to meet his white girlfriend’s family that takes a few unexpected turns. Starting with microaggressions, like his girlfriend Rose’s (Allison Williams) dad repeatedly calling Chris “my man,” and ending with Rose’s mom hypnotizing Chris in order to auction him off at their annual family picnic-turned-slave auction, Get Out spares no one.

That is, it spares no one who is white. Even though Rose’s family and their friends appear benign at first (if a little misguided with their comments), the film clearly shows by its end that so-called colorblind liberals can be just as dangerously racist as Confederate flag-waving conservatives.

This concept of white liberals being inherently racist is relatively old news to any millennial who has taken a Sociology 101 course, or been radicalized by Twitter. I consider myself a #woke millennial, as I try to educate myself on issues of race as much as I can. I constantly read social media posts from Shaun King, listen to “conscious” hip-hop from Kendrick Lamar, and read the necessary literature, like Ta-Nahisi Coates.

Get Out, however, made me feel deeply uncomfortable, like there was something about race and my place in relation to white supremacy that I hadn’t yet realized. The realization came slowly. Good art instills its deepest wisdom as seeds that bloom with time. My mind kept coming back to Jim (Stephen Root), the one character in the film that appeared to understand Chris the most.

Jim is a blind art dealer who has bought Chris’ photography before. He raves about how beautiful Chris’ photography is, saying that Chris has an eye for capturing reality in all its gritty detail. The scene is touching and seems to be a respite from the oppressive whiteness of Rose’s household, a nod to the age-old trope of a blind man seeing what others cannot. Or perhaps the more important trope: two outsiders bonding over a truth that only they can understand.

Appearances deceive, however, as it’s revealed that Jim won Chris at Rose’s family’s auction so that he can put his brain into Chris’ body and have Chris’ sight. Even though the other white characters in the film are blatantly racist, it’s the character that appears to sympathize with Chris the most that ends up being the most complicit in his exploitation and oppression.  

Suddenly, the contradiction of a blind art dealer comes into focus: Jim only knows about the art he’s buying through what other people tell him. He deals only in the hype surrounding the art, not the reality of the art itself. His biggest desire is to see the world through Chris’ eyes, to truly consume his black experience. Seen through this lens, Jim becomes scarily familiar, as if I’ve felt the same thing before.

Then it hits me.

Peele is using the very hype surrounding his socially conscious movie that attracts supposedly #woke people like me to turn our leering gaze back on ourselves, exposing the racism inherent in our incessant quest to appear not racist by endlessly consuming black media.

Get Out‘s harshest critique isn’t for liberals who naïvely believe in colorblind politics. It’s for white leftists who consume and appropriate the black experience, who see black suffering as some sort of sadistic wisdom that can be exploited for personal enlightenment, i.e. white leftists like me. The majority of the time, my relationship with art, especially black-produced art, is through its hype and not its actual content. I listen to Kendrick’s new album because of its critical acclaim. I read Coates because it’s the current fad. And most ironically, I saw Get Out because of the hype.

On one hand, our society is so oversaturated with media of all types that excitement and critical acclaim are some of the only ways to cut through the noise. Yet, so often in our Internet Age, we let the hype become all that matters. We let art’s beauty be determined by what the consensus of our online peers says about it.

This is most often true in relation to black-produced art, as progressive circles are quick to turn into a white hive mind, commodifying and fetishizing the black experience. In other words, they become a community of blind art dealers, relaying what they’ve heard to each other. They let the hype build, without realizing that they are muffling the original truth intended by the artist.

When I left the theater, I couldn’t shake my uneasiness. Peele made me realize that my gratuitous consumption of #woke media isn’t necessarily woke at all, but that it can actually perpetuate the systems of racism that art is meant to dismantle. It’s not that reading Coates or listening to Kendrick is inherently racist. Far from it. It’s that our culture takes these pieces of truth and whitewashes them. Blind-art-dealer hype scrubs the original reality from a piece of art, as its meaning is distilled to what your friend told you about it, or what the most recent Pitchfork article said.

More importantly, listening only to the hype replaces the artist’s agency for a critic’s, often replacing the original black voice with a white one. When us white leftists think we can become black (or perhaps simply when we want to become black) through consuming black art is when we fall prey to white supremacy, turning black bodies and minds into commodities for our own selfish endeavors. Consumption of art isn’t the problem: It’s the mindset around the consumption that matters.

Perhaps this column is adding to the unnecessary din of white commentators spewing truisms about racism that don’t add to the conversation, and just add to the useless hype. I hope not. In the end, I’ll never really know, because I’m just a blind art dealer. At least Peele helped me to see that, though.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor

March 22, 2017

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