What’s the Use of an Art Critic in a City on Fire?

by Michael Anthony Farley on April 28, 2015 · 2 comments Opinion


For the past twenty-four hours or so, I’ve been struggling to write about the situation here in Baltimore. I’ve tried doing my job—reviewing art shows—but even attempting to view politically informed projects in Baltimore through the lens of recent events felt strangely inappropriate. Like many bewildered Baltimoreans, any coherent thoughts I’ve attempted to compile have been quickly drowned out and scattered by the sounds of sirens and countless low-flying helicopters.

This is one of the only aspects of the events since Freddie Gray’s death that I find truly shocking. After all, I’m accustomed to going about my day with the spectre of conflict peripherally omnipresent. Had I not had one eye on my social media feeds—and later, reluctantly, on CNN’s aerial footage of West Baltimore burning—I might not have noticed one more searchlight or plume of smoke on the horizon than I am used to seeing. The shame of this realization is something I’m struggling to come to terms with.

As a white Baltimorean who primarily works online, I find myself embarrassed at how little my city’s dysfunctions affect me—just as I’m embarrassed by my own inability to affect them. We’ve had anti-police brutality demonstrations and vigils here for years, especially since the 2013 death of Tyrone West in the custody of police officers. And no one listened. Baltimore has always felt like a city under siege—our police force dictates who has the right to inhabit which public spaces, flashing surveillance cameras dot the streetscape, and massive prison complexes frame the skyline. Now, that policy is codified through transit closures, curfews, and armored vehicles rumbling through the streets. From the safety of my white male body, I have always tried my best to empathize with my black and brown friends, neighbors, and loved ones. But honestly, I can’t. Because I haven’t had to fear grievous harm at the hands of the state or imprisonment every time I leave the house. Like many white Baltimoreans, I’m finding the events of the past week to be a long-overdue eyeopener as to just how little ownership the civilian population has over the public realm of our city.

Truthfully, I’ve wanted to cry for black Baltimore, but I don’t feel like I’m entitled to those tears. And deep down, I know that many people agree with me.

I think I haven’t been able to get words in writing because I’ve been unsure of the validity of my feelings over the past few days. Hell, I’m unsure of the validity of any of the facts I’ve heard in the past few days. It’s been an emotional roller coaster. On Saturday, I’ll admit that it felt gleefully cathartic to watch demonstrators smash the windows of police cars and corporate retail on the bottom floors of downtown’s luxury apartment towers. By Monday afternoon, I was irritated and confused by the emptiness of the streets and inconvenience of shuttered grocery stores and bars. Why was the media covering isolated incidents of vandalism in Northwest Baltimore while thousands of people peacefully demonstrated for Freddie Gray elsewhere?

By nightfall, that coverage had expanded to show large swaths of the city in chaos. My social media feeds were full of images of my friends and colleagues on the frontlines of violent clashes and burning storefronts. No one seemed to have a complete picture of what was going on. Who threw the first stone? The open windows of my second-floor apartment filled with the sounds of sirens getting closer and the faint smell of smoke getting stronger. When my apartment building’s Facebook page notified us that the looting had spread to the corner of our street, my boyfriend and I decided to go out the back door, get in his car, and head for our friend’s house in one of the few parts of the city we knew for certain wasn’t on fire. About an hour later, my roommate texted me that she too had left our place after she heard gunfire in the streets. A different neighbor kept me updated on exploding cars in the surround blocks. It felt like watching a movie about someone else’s life.

At my friend’s house—in a relatively removed block near the art museum—we spent the night with other friends who had been stranded by police blockades or volatile standoffs. Well into the morning, we sat huddled around a police radio scanner and tried to figure out what was going on. In typical Baltimore spirits, we tried to keep a sense of humor about exasperated police officers describing the dark glamour of wig stores being looted and Taco Bells overrun with hungry rioters.

And today, the city is still here. We woke up, went to an open, intact coffee shop, and drove down calm—albeit eerily calm—streets back to our apartment building. It’s still here. Along the way, we passed some debris and smashed windows. It struck me how precisely not-incongruous they seemed with the city’s usual appearance. I couldn’t help but think of the old “broken windows” adage—that maintaining urban environments helps curb crime—and its justification of urban America’s disastrous “zero-tolerance” police tactics in the first place. If we’re going to define the destruction and redistribution of property in the riots as violence, how do we define the prolonged demolition-by-neglect and impoverishment that late capitalism and the compliant state have inflicted upon this city?

The visual of freshly boarded-up windows next to long-boarded-up windows is a striking image, especially in the context of these questions. It’s one of many powerful images created, distributed, and received in the past few days. As these images become a part of our collective visual narrative, how do we interpret them?

Maybe I’m ready to go back to being an art critic.

{ 1 comment }

Danielle April 29, 2015 at 1:58 pm

I would recommend listening to the people demonstrating. If you are truly interested in moving past your own discomfort, I say go to Penn North, go to Mondawmin Mall, go to west Baltimore and simply ask people how are they feeling. Ask people why they are demonstrating. Ask people how many times they have been affected by police brutality. Ask people how many abandoned rowhouses are on their block. Ask people what kind of art programs exist in their schools.

Because you can wring your hands here, you can feel the need to cry, and you can feel guilty about the extent of your complicity and the privileges you carry as a white man in Baltimore, but a truly powerful gesture would be to go to where people are demonstrating and cleaning and handing out lunch to school kids and listen.

The mark of a great artist (and art critic) is sensitivity to experiences outside of one’s own. Being open to others’ experiences will only inform your practice that much more. Your tears are fine, but they’re not really needed. What is needed is a willingness to examine your own privileges, examine your friends’ and colleagues’ privileges, and to simply listen to people you said no one listens to. I look forward to reading an essay about what you heard.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: