In the 1960s, the rhetoric of “freedom” permeated American leftist culture: “Free your mind,” “Free the land,” “Free South Africa,” the Freedom Riders, and the Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi.
Since at least George W. Bush’s time as President, right-wingers have arrogated it to themselves: freedom fries, Operation Enduring Freedom, the Religious Freedom Act, the Freedom Caucus, and “Freedom’s never free.”
Today on the right, freedom as an ideal seems in retreat under the influence of Donald Trump. During his campaign in 2016, Trump supporters coined neologistic terms of despotic endearment such as the imaginative “Trump the Allfather,” the rather dull, “Trump the Patriarch,” “Trump the King,” “Trump the Godfather,” and the fascistic and terrifying “God-Emperor Trump.”
“Can you think of a more depleted, imprecise, or weaponized word?” writes Maggie Nelson in her new book, On Freedom. Despite its weaponization and the threat to its existence from anti-democratic forces, Nelson says it is not her way to diagnose “a crisis of freedom” and propose solutions. The intellectual method of this poet, essayist, critic, and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, is to focus her attention where the thicket of our inherited ideas is its thorniest, where mutually antagonistic concepts, practices, and values are knotted. This is where her subtle and nuanced thinking is at its best. In On Freedom, she “bears down on the felt complexities of the freedom drive in four distinct realms—sex, art, drugs, and climate—wherein the coexistence of freedom, care, and constraint” seems most acutely tangled and wherein you find “marbled experiences of compulsion, discipline, possibility, and surrender,” and which commingle “sometimes ecstatically, sometimes catastrophically.”
Nelson is our day’s ur-thinker for nuance, our own private Susan Sontag. She calls her method “thinking out loud with others,” for she quotes liberally from other writers. It makes her text a rich palimpsest, dense with significance. A phrase is introduced—for example, “freedom and fun,” from the founder of the Proud Boys description of the group’s mission—and then the phrase is re-used in multiple contexts serving to connect those contexts—like an ideational version of T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative.”
Other examples include: “insubordinate conviviality,” from Manolo Callahan, “will to power,” from Friedrich Nietzsche, “a big koan” from Pema Chödrön, and “practices of freedom” from Michel Foucault. With this ever-growing technical vocabulary, by the end of the book, she can brick together paragraphs of extraordinary profundity and reach.
Consider the art world. A handful of presumptions about what is and is not ethical have congealed there in recent years: “Depicting violence in art, or certain kinds of violence in art, harms others; there exists some kind of ethical imperative for the artist to acknowledge [this] harm, even if she does not agree with the premises… ‘not caring’ about, not responding to, or not agreeing with one’s critic’s, including not making or doing or saying what those critics would prefer you make or do or say, is ethically negligent; treasuring the freedom to make the art you feel most driven to make correlates to the generalized claim ‘to do as one pleases’,” with the latter’s off-putting connotations.
The 2017 Whitney Biennial exhibited a quasi-abstract oil painting of Emmett Till in his coffin, titled Open Casket by Dana Schutz, who is white. A furor resulted, the intense wrathfulness of which will shock those who do not share in the indignation. Among the many people outraged was Hannah Black, who wrote in an open letter to the Whitney Museum that the painting should be removed and destroyed. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.”
Also in 2017, artist Sam Durant, who is white, exhibited—at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, located on the former homeland of the Dakota people—a large outdoor sculpture that replicated parts of seven historical gallows, including one in which thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in 1862.
“These works led many to feel as though white artists (and institutions) could use a little (or a lot) more insight and accountability, and less unthinking, uncaring freedom, especially as the latter coincides all too well with the logic of white supremacy, with all its ignorance, impunity, and carelessness,” Nelson writes.
Nelson approaches these two cases in the most nuanced way, amounting to an intervention on an orthogonal—or perhaps higher—plane than those weighing in on one side or another, in one frame or another, from one ideological perspective or another, from one kind of moral-emotional eruption or another.
It seems to Nelson (and she convinced me) that the works of art by Schutz and Durant summoned—without artistically preventing re-enforcement of—the legacy of an all-too-well known homicidal construction of freedom. The art works re-presented the acts of violence perpetrated against Black and Indigenous people and failed to prevent causing “enforcement of a vicious construction of freedom.”
Nelson says we can judge the works as harmful and are free to judge that they should be suppressed or destroyed, but we can also judge them as harmful without concluding they should be suppressed or destroyed.
One engages more seriously with the above issues, Nelson argues, when one does not turn toward questions of the freedom of artists and curators. Her work teaching at an art school serves as an example of which direction to turn to when you turn away from attempting to curtail an artist’s freedom. The permissive policy for exhibitions of art at California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) has “ended up featuring in other universities’ sexual harassment training.” But “because we weren’t there to shut each other down, we had to learn how to communicate our pleasures and displeasures differently,” she writes. “The amount of time I’ve spent politely workshopping hyperviolent work steeped in unexamined misogyny can seem like wasted hours of a life…. But I value its lesson that, without suppression, shaming, or ejection as go-to options, we learn to fellowship differently.”
David J. Frost is a writer and professor whose essays have appeared in Philosophy Today and As it Ought to Be Magazine. A philosophical, self-help manuscript in the genre of autotheory is tentatively titled How to Live Life as a Robot, chapters of which have been published at The Smart Set and Slab Literary Magazine. He lives with his partner Kelly and their dogs Fritz and Lou Salomé, on the Oregon coast, 3000 miles from Brooklyn. More essays available at http://davidjfrost.substack.com.
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