When we speak today of initiating dialogue, what we achieve more than not is diatribe. Entrenched speakers compete against another without genuine exchange of thought. Yet it’s diversity of thought that makes us human, not solipsism. Sincere communication is obtained by accepting those we perceive as the Other. We cannot engage with complex and diverse thought without the views of those who see and experience the world as different from our own. Our culture is far too engaged with apathy for that reason. For dialogue to occur, we must not shout over each other, or for that matter merely listen as we wait for rebuttal. We ought to listen and extend ourselves into the minds of difference. To do so, is empathy.
I’ve spent the entirety of my life trying to empathize with those who hate. As a thirty-three year old gay man, I grew up in the 1990s at the height of the culture wars. Life in central New York was far from the metropolitan grandeur I craved, farther still from anything hinting at queerness. My family life felt quite normal, inasmuch as most leather-clad Harley biker families are. I spent most weekends with smells of exhaust and stale beer, thundering engines and raucous tattooed men who always had time to play a game with the quiet pipsqueak running about their feet. Not surprisingly there was also a fair amount of intolerant speech growing up. These were men protecting their masculinity in ways they saw fit, ways that were counter to my own sense of masculinity. Too early in the zeitgeist to come out to family and peers in my teens, I instead learned how to listen. I learned how to comprehend complexity. For a gay kid growing up in a family that loved him, but didn’t understand the inequity of their speech, resentment grew only fruitless benefits. Throughout college, I sat silently in the company of many straight men in power who expressed severe discomfort with sexual difference. I did this not out of self-hatred, but to gain a deeper understanding of humanity, about privilege, and my role within it. While I didn’t have the privilege to speak, I could think. Thinking as Plato and Aristotle describe—being in silent dialogue between me and myself. The dialogue of utter silence.
Having empathy toward the offensive and intolerant has many attributes. I’m fully aware that while I speak of empathy and understanding through dialogue, I will never persuade the minds of demagogues like former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos or his followers. Direct activism is not my strength. I am an educator and my art practice reflects that position. My passion lies with philosophical activism: presenting ideas and challenging clichés, in order for you to determine your own mind.
We also hear a lot about safe spaces today, especially on college campuses. In 2016 after the presidential election, there were a number of attempts at liberal solidarity. One particular gesture provoked me the most, that of the safety pin. Situated as a political statement, the goal was to visibly show support towards marginalized groups by wearing the most innocuous of objects, a safety pin. The wearer in doing so proclaimed a willingness to confront injustices and not become a silent witness. While the motivations are perfectly valid, I found for the most part, they became empty gestures to assuage despondency and guilt. The following year I started the Panzi Project in conversation with this phenomenon. Making use of a previous pattern from several sculptures of manhole covers, the cross icon was cast in aluminum and transformed into a lapel pin. Referencing WWI remembrance poppies, the cross was turned on its side to form an X and summon the genocidal histories of LGBT people. The sale of each pin acts as a complete donation to the Canadian charity The Rainbow Railroad, whose mission is to liberate LGBT people from countries with state-enabled violence, murder and persecution. The alternate intention is to expose the gesture of silence as feel- good activism. The participants are presented with a choice of action or inaction, apathy or empathy. The double-edged sword of a good deed done at one point in time, and the follow through of continued action.
The most crucial question of dialogue is who speaks and who is spoken to. The privilege of speech dictates both a voice and absence of voice. While the direction of authority determines the exchange as either one or two-way communication. The difficulty of dialogue is whether we engage in cooperative or competitive arguments, where minds can come together or emotions flare. The most treacherous is the echo chamber, that cacophony of compliant speech where people form words but never speak to one another. We have shifted from exploring nuance into defending talking points and safeguarding sameness, comfortable in the fragile narcissistic tribes we have constructed for ourselves.
This type of sectarianism is quite ominous for our society. It shields us from discussions of difference, particularly when contrasting ideas occur within the same community. Inability to resonate with the echo chamber can be grounds for expulsion from the tribe. Unanimity of opinion quickly fabricates a level of fanaticism and eliminates those who dissent. While the gay community in public discourse is often seen as persecuted and oppressed, the struggle of inclusivity has many facets. I’m here to say that insularly, the community has many pitfalls with racism, exclusion, and agenda. Dissenters from the prescribed culture are not always made welcome, with some quite dangerous effects.
Researching the Panzi Project, I came across the paradoxical phenomenon of gay fascists. The Alt-Right author Jack Donovan illustrated this case in 2006 writing (under a pseudonym) his manifesto Androphilia. He writes: “Androphilia is an effort to reclaim this rich male heritage for men who love men. It dismisses those who want to confine homosexual males to a clichéd effeminate stereotype.” Far from isolated company, many other instances came to light. Milo Yiannopoulos the aforementioned Brietbart contributor, actively proclaims his associations with white supremacists, and in 2016 proudly attacked a trans student while speaking at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Yiannopoulos is also an out gay man with a black husband. Ernst Röhm, a well known homosexual, was also an early member of the Nazi Party and close friend to Adolf Hitler. Nicky Crane was a British neo-Nazi in the 1980s before he was ejected for publicly coming out as gay after he had contracted HIV. The Sun newspaper aptly printed the headline “Nazi Nick is a Panzi.”
Needless to say, I was at a loss for words. In order to grapple with this expanded view of what I perceived as incomprehensible, that of queer fascists, I let research dictate the conversation. The first to speak was Röhm. A high ranking member of the German Workers’ Party, Röhm was brazen in his homosexual posture. Opposing Paragraph 175, Röhm challenged heteronormative superiority and his prophetic words formed the foundation of my approach in the work. “All revolutions devour their own children.” Disembodied mouths, both sexual and sinister, silently quote the dire prophecy. The photographs float in a black void as a nod to the Samuel Beckett play Not I—a reminder to myself while peering into the darkness. Aluminum truncheons, the weapon of police and symbol of authority, hang underneath Röhm’s words as tokens of masculine prowess and sexual deviance.
Nicky Crane, or “Nazi Nick,” proposed a different conversation. His double life as a homosexual man frequenting gay dance clubs one night, then leading racist attacks on young black men on another, confronted me with how the marginalized find warped positions of power. Yet Jack Donovan and Nicky Crane were too extreme to work with, I needed my own manifestation. I decided on creating a caricature of the queer alt-right: a queer skin-head who could stand as counter-vanguard and antagonist for me to reconcile with. Garlanded with a black rubber harness constructed with the same pattern as the Panzi Project, the character Jacksie came alive. Towering and hateful, his image is all posturing, his harness a bit queer. The braces (British term for suspenders) attach to nothing, merely draping over his back and shoulders. The form is based on a sautoir, a long open-ended necklace intended to draw the eye to its end, hovering just above the groin. The intention was to add some semblance of sensuality to his bereft hostility, regardless of how futile that may be. I’m apprehensive of how Jacksie takes on a life in my work. He’s contentious in his creation but also in his banality.
For this reason I’ve returned to the perspectives of the twentieth century political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Her words on totalitarianism, now approaching seventy years from their original publication, are once again looming ominously over our current time. Arendt’s famed concept of the ‘banality of evil’ was in response to the trial of Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann. Though conscious of his sheer guilt, Arendt’s expression was to convey the thoughtlessness of Eichmann’s deeds, the banality of a man performing evil without evil intention. Through conformism, blind acceptance and collaboration, one surrenders the ability to think and to be human. For Arendt, that is when evil infiltrates society.
There is a subtle irony in the concepts presented by Arendt and the social tribalism of today. Arendt effectively disarmed the emotional fervor surrounding Eichmann’s trial by introducing the monster as a banal thoughtless bureaucrat. I propose that same zeal in which we comply with defending liberalism produces a tangential consequence—the Mediocrity of Tolerance.
Clearly I don’t wish to equate the horrific atrocities of Eichmann and the Third Reich with decent people attempting to better society through advocating social progress. The banality of evil stands as a warning for generations of decent people, as a constant reminder how demagogues cultivate ‘normative morality’ to suit the tribalist ego. Social morality and ethics are the pillars of democratic societies. They also require careful and constant maintenance. When we encase ourselves in tolerance without understanding, without thinking, social dialogue becomes empty words uttered without purpose. Appearances of being ‘woke’ are revealed as little more than a daydream.
Dialogue is what rouses consciousness to the lurking contradictions within tolerance. Whereas the banality of evil elicits a normative morality, the mediocrity of tolerance elicits moral urgency. With the potential of offense engendering such trepidation, content becomes paralyzed through its curtailment. This jarring realization happened for me in the recent exhibition of a new body of work, ironically titled the Redaction Series. Twenty-one photographic metal prints of gay and trans men—each with their eyes obscured by a pixelation device. Emerging from the horrific reports of abduction, torture, and execution of homosexual men in the Russian-backed Southern Republic of Chechnya, I wanted to determine whether it was possible to document the liminal boundary of empathy and apathy. Arranging itself on two fronts, the project formed a schism between production and reception. Given that I required men to photograph, I had to form a deeper relationship and engagement with my local gay community. The basis of the work generated an outpouring of support and interest to participate. My studio gradually formed a secondary site for queer interaction and community outside the familiar bar-scene. We united into a family. Reception of the work was far more shocking. Discussion rebounded from the content of the work into a battleground of political one-upmanship. Interrogations spanned the gamut of social triggering. I was misogynistic for the absence of lesbian women. I was transphobic for the lack of trans women. Flawed in the ambiguous representation of trans men, and insensitive to black trauma as a white artist depicting men of color. I see the anger, but also the blindness. The moral urgency to call out perceptions of intolerance kept them from seeing reality. My objective with the work was to delineate the threshold of empathy and apathy. What I discovered was a blockade.
We’ve detached ourselves from complex reasoning through encampment inside thinly-walled temples of tolerant simplicity. I needed to provide multiplicity. My role reversed from initiating conversation around empathy, to defusing apathetic tensions, and defending the contextual conditions for the project. The greater theme of my work focuses on the hypermasculine, and the fragility/fluidity of its construction within the hetero/homo male binary. Chechen authorities have publicly condemned all homosexuality, yet their campaign of torture and murder only targeted gay men. The absence (or redaction if I may) of lesbian and trans women’s visibility in the project, is part of the dialogue. It’s not an erasure, but a conversation surrounding the politics of sexuality and masculinity. Regarding a white artist depicting people of color, Dana Schutz’s infamous painting of Emmett Till certainly has every curator of art wringing their hands. The success surrounding Schutz’s painting was in part the constructive dialogue of racial trauma. The failure of the painting was that Schutz appropriated black trauma through the privileged reflection and re-creation of a white artist. The men in my work are a collective family. We share in collective queer trauma. While I can empathize with the inequities of my gay community, I also recognize the boundary of discrimination for others. I can however use my privilege. I can speak to the racism and transphobia within the gay community by incorporating that dialogue within the work. The revealing comments I received speak more to our current cultural preoccupations.
These tendencies of contemporary life illuminate why we need to be offended less, and shy from retreating into a world superseded by emotion, than that of logic and dialogue. Public discourse is more than capable of entreating complexity in uncomfortable viewpoints, so long as we speak with purpose and thought. Art by its nature is pressed to offend as a counterforce to mediocrity. It should not be censured out of fear of infringing sensibilities. It exposes who we are. Language is deceitful. Those gifted with a talent for words can rally the masses. My work is an act without words. It undermines the script we use to govern each other. An apparition of dialogue for us to finally listen.