One of the critical skills a historian of art, or indeed historian of anything, acquires is the ability to think cumulatively. This means assessing media and sources for their quotidian ongoing drip-feed effect, which, from the amnesiac day-to-day perspective of a precariously-employed member of the public pre-occupied with performance and meeting targets, comes to appear furniture-like, ‘given’ and unremarkable. Only when viewed from a considerable historical or critical distance is it possible to see that what has been normalised, regularised, and routinised within a given period in the name of ‘representation’ is very far from being a true presentation of its social content.
Thus it is that the representation of the Irish during the early 19th century, Ashkenazi Jews during the late 19th century, Jews more generally in the early 20th century, West Indians during the mid 20th century, etc., appear appallingly racist to us today. These representations in fact were appallingly racist and remain so, but when originally published within a cumulative context, as a quotidian and ongoing build up of slurs and offences, each of which it is possible to brush off as individual quirks, eccentricities or oddments of a specific micro-history or personality — in short when living face-to-face in historical time alongside them — then it is much harder to assess their cumulative impact upon wider culture. Throughout modern and contemporary history, many targets of racialised representation were not presented (or made present) by their representation but silenced and overdetermined by the imagery and ideology of the dominant social classes and their ownership of the media. To those alert to the insult and offence in the imagery, be they the targets who would feel it as a palpable sting in their bodies, or the racists who derived enjoyment from it, it worked much as a dogwhistle. But since there is often no tangible central object in an accumulated, generalized and quotidian form, assembled slowly day by day in a widespread distribution, there always exists both deniability for the racist perpetrators and few means to talk back and seek redress for the victims.
It becomes necessary, then, to speak of the exigency or demand of the voiceless eventually finding expression through the collection and exhibition of the very means used to silence and misrepresent. Giorgio Agamben describes a variety of responses to exigency in his Homo Sacer project, particularly in Remnants of Auschwitz. Agamben, like Walter Benjamin and Aby Warburg, see some emancipatory value in the aesthetic function of the collection. A collection or exhibition serves to compress day-to-day historical time and express the emotionally-charged visual tropes of a period, something Warburg called its pathosformel.
From the point of view of a critic of art, it is possible to regard the most powerful works as those which, from within a period, manage to exhibit — and even to begin to criticise — its structures of feeling and tropes. This involves ironic distance, an ability to quote or cite without reinforcement, an ability to mention rather than use those tropes, and thus, in a sense, showcase them separated from both their quotidian, furniture-like context and the ideological intentions of their creators.
While I count myself neither as artist or critic, it is clear to me that a radical potential exists in the compression and exhibition of the everyday. Benjamin and Agamben after him both speak of regarding the everyday from the standpoint of the future, in an act of imagination by which we might see ourselves as future historians looking back upon our own time, and able to see with clearer vision what we are at present pressed up against every day and therefore unable to see properly. To avoid the Owl of Minerva problem, a historian of the present has to adopt a peculiar position: that of the future perfect, or the futur antérieur.
I wonder here at the power of collage and at all similar forms of visual assemblage, montage and co-extensional presentation, and at why we haven’t today an artistic movement fully exploiting these techniques. It is not hard to imagine, for example, a contemporary artist printing out such assemblages as the following, which were found handily put together by users of twitter and, in the third case, by google search:
From Benjamin and Agamben’s standpoint in the futur antérieur, it is quite easy to imagine that some future historical Museum of Racism, in order to say something of the early 21st century, will have found it sufficient to simply place an example of a news-stand. Thus collated, the little death-shudders of a dying media (corporate-owned print journalism) gasping in impotence, will have been immortalised for what they were.
More immediately, it is equally easy to imagine how a present-day artist might make quilt covers, bedding and duvets out of these prints, and, for political impact, make a statement out of publicly gifting them to Paul Dacre, Tony Gallagher and Gary Jones. These editors should, after all, sleep in the bed they have made.