Content warning: this piece contains discussion of racial and sexual violence. Also, if you’re so inclined, Content warning: content warning.
Cycling home one evening, I saw the poster featuring the original title of Madame Nielsen and Sort/Hvid’s (Christian Lollike) recent collaboration, the play White Nigger/ Black Madonna (hereafter to be referred to by its current title Black Madonna). Not for the first time, I was left aghast at what gets state support in the Danish art world. This title was always a rough parallelism. Black and white are of course opposites in the realm of colour theory but to oppose a racial slur predominantly used in North America to describe African people sold into slavery and their descendants against either the mother of Christ or the Queen of Pop (though the video for “A little Prayer complicates this) is a little tricky. So, to make sense of this, we are to take the colours to refer to the social constructs known as races as well. This makes the intended meaning much clearer and much more complicated at the same time. If the slur is to function as such, it requires a specific set of historical and material circumstances to be meaningful. So what then are we to make of the now omitted part of the title? What historical and material circumstances are we to use to decode the meaning inherent in this term? Are there any that don’t reduce racism to mere poverty or simply outsider status? Or is this just a piece of provocative nonsense as theatre marketing? To use some internet terminology, the only way to describe such a marketing technique would be “much provocative, v edgy”.
This essay is about marketing, which is the most that the majority of the Danish population will experience this play. I have not seen the play and so I share this perspective. So, I will not comment on the production itself. But the debate surrounding this production is not about the contents of a play that most people won’t see. The debate is about whether one should be able to promote a play by plastering posters with a racial slur on them throughout a city that claims to be cosmopolitan with impunity. And the related debate then is how vocal should those that think you shouldn’t do this be.
On the first debate, I would say that there are circumstances when the n-word word can be used to great artistic effect. That said, adopting a detached perspective, I think plastering it up around the city over an image of a white artist in blackface comes across as pointlessly offensive and thus, a negative response is justified. Of course one should always have the legal right to be culturally irresponsible. Indeed, it seems like attaining this designation was the point of Black Madonna. But the whole point of being cuļturally irresponsible, why one can build a reputation and career for being so, is that it doesn’t necessarily come with the right be congratulated for it. And on the second debate, given that the marketing campaign was “much provocative, v edgy”, I think a response to such a provocation in kind is entirely warranted. This would include pulling posters down (the horror…) and even reporting the offending language to the legalistic moderators of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. It’s just not the kind of thing Mark likes to have on his wall. It should be remembered that if you enter public space and say something offensive, people might tell you to shut up. If the offensiveness of your public utterances is such that it enters a grey area between speech and a speech act that others find intimidating, they may react more strongly…they might even pull your posters down.
Of course one should always have the legal right to be culturally irresponsible. Indeed, it seems like attaining this designation was the point of Black Madonna. But the whole point of being cuļturally irresponsible, why one can build a reputation and career for being so, is that it doesn’t necessarily come with the right be congratulated for it.
On one level, the original debate is about how to use an English word and the seeming inability of many Danish people to understand the word fully. The only conclusion I can draw is that Danish people, despite delusions of linguistic grandeur, have not overcome the problem of the untranslatability of idiom as described by Derrida (Monolingualism, 1998, p. 46). Some essence of meaning is lost in translation. Something which has already unavoidably happened to this very piece of writing*. This, however, usually has to do with the poetics of language and not the empirical history of a words usage. You might be able to watch an American film that makes use of this racial epithet and understand that the motivations of the characters doing so are racist, but, while true, this misses the point. It is not just about the use of a mean word but rather the invocation of a system of meaning making that has unpersoned certain people for centuries, and did so with the violent power of the state. The legacy of this is still present. This is a violence that, according to Afro-pessimist theorist, Frank Wilderson III, at a recent talk at Folkets hus, exceeds the possibility of comprehension by mainstream discourse. A devastating example used by Wilderson to illustrate this would be the programs for forced breeding in the southern states of the US in the early 19th century that swelled the population of slaves from 300.000 to over 4 million in 30 years. But, he argues, one cannot even properly describe this atrocity as rape, as consent was never a possibility for slaves and thus could not even be violated. According to Wilderson’s perspective, the violence contained in this word is not just that it can only exist in reference to a context composed by incomprehensible violence, but that this violence is reproduced in the dominant (white) culture’s refusal to acknowledge it. All this is to say, that when you put this word on a poster, you’re playing with something a little more powerful than “edgy”.
The insistence I have heard from many who are against the activist reaction (of removing and replacing posters, and asking to talk to the artists) is that no word should have such a power. To this my response is twofold; in the first instance, this defense might well set a dangerous precedent for all artistic expression. Words and symbols are powerful; that is why we do this stuff with them and how we produce a good deal of culture. But the elaboration of this argument is for another day. My second response to this criticism of the pushback is that I am sympathetic to the desire for utter linguistic freedom, but that your issue is with the history of colonialism and slavery, and the legacy of that in the present under which many still suffer, rather than those who express displeasure at a ghastly marketing campaign. While it’s not a perfect metaphor, we could perhaps consider the story of king Knut here, ordering back the tide, at least where the insistence that it is appropriate to market a play with the n-word is concerned.
To migrate slightly from my declared topic, the way art is often discussed in the Danish press is as if it is a transcendental safe space. Mette Høeg’s attacks on Emma Holten and Olga Ravn could be summarized as “stop sullying art with the muck and banality of life”. The same is true of Mikkel Bruun Zangenberg’s critiques of Ravn. A British scholar based in Denmark, Brian Graham, has even made this desire for the irrelevance of art in relation to the lived present into something like a manifesto. All of this seems to be based on some utterly naive aesthetic theory that would have art exist as somehow entirely separate from the conditions under which it is produced. As if inherent to the very idea of an artwork was some kind of right for it to exist as close to ideation as possible. This is very silly because art only ever exists in the world and so is somewhat subject to the conditions of the world. Turning to the present controversy, Josefine Klougart’s defense of Black Madonna, published in Politiken, basically amounts to asking why the material realities the play sought to address are affecting the attempts of the play to address these material realities… It also laments the interference of so-called identity politics in a play about the politics of identity… There are actual stakeholders in this sphere of life that artists, drawn magnetically to transgression and taboo, reduce to a mere topic racial identity, who don’t want to just be the flavour of the month. It is all very well if you want to make art into a bunch of purposefully irrelevant formal experimentations, it will spare the trouble of being addressed but those subjects you regarded as objects. But if your object of artistic inquiry is something related to the world, the world might take an interest. Even parts of the world you had never really thought about.
there is a cultural norm in Denmark that one should love a bit of the ol’ political incorrectness (while simultaneously being a people seemingly unable to cross the street against the light), which has helped to marginalize many anti-racist voices when it comes to problems of discourse.
Indeed, this notion of being thrust into the world as it is is so integral to the play’s ostensible subject matter that it is hard to entertain that this marketing choice to be an oversight. In the context of the global cultural hegemony of the United States, the cultural productions of which have been largely defined by the objectification and exploitation of those with black bodies to make money for white executives, the problem at hand with this marketing decision has hardly gone undiscussed. A play that sought to address how this hegemony is an imposition of the consciousness of Danish people thousands of miles away might make for an interesting play but the artist could also be expected to tread carefully. This is the craft of doing political art. I’m sympathetic to Klougart’s desire, as expressed in her Politiken piece, for works of political art that don’t bash you over the head with what to think and by some accounts that is what Black Madonna achieves. Though by other accounts this is not the case at all. Nonetheless, the marketing Black Madonna does not align with this desire.
If the play had had a Danish title, which used the pseudo equivalent racial slur in Danish (neger—more akin to “negro”, which is also far from ideal) there would have been less uproar. This is due to a combination of factors. First, there is a cultural norm in Denmark that one should love a bit of the ol’ political incorrectness (while simultaneously being a people seemingly unable to cross the street against the light), which has helped to marginalize many anti-racist voices when it comes to problems of discourse. And secondly, because the word is less strongly, though it still is, associated with slavery, forced breeding, lynching, police violence, mass incarceration and discriminatory public policy. But the thing is that Nielsen and Lollike, by using English in the title of a work about viewing this world of American racial identities from Denmark, were asking to enter the debate as it is in the English speaking world. The price of admission is working harder not to be misunderstood.
For me this begs the question, should I give any import the opinions and ideas of someone, who, in attempting to make a work about the fraught nature of racial identity in a country under the thumb of North American cultural hegemony, is surprised by the strength of reaction to the use of this specific racial slur in their marketing? Basically, one who appears surprised that the fraught thing they were exploring because it is fraught is actually fraught. This seems elementary. So much so that I cannot believe it to be the case that it was overlooked. This leads me to speculate that Nielsen and Lollike knew exactly what they were doing and exactly the kind of reaction they would provoke and were able to capitalise on it both professionally and monetarily. “Much provocative, v edgy, so art”. And this way of working—using shock from a position of privilege and protection—does operate through the reproduction of a kind of racism. Using a term connected to the aforementioned legacy of and ongoing violence outlined above for a badly thought out parallelism needs a racist culture to be able to function as “much provocative, v edgy” marketing for a state-funded artwork.
In the end, all they are doing is using people’s anxiety about being mistaken for being racists as a marketing catalyst and presenting the response of marginalized groups to violent actions as if it is the unwarranted aggression of a terrifying other.
I have avoided using the term “racist” for most of this piece. This is because, on the one hand, I don’t care about the content of Nielsen and Lollike’s character, but chiefly because, speaking from bitter experience, when white people read this accusation they tend to shut down. But this subject is not avoidable here. The racism in action here may not be in the motivations of Nielsen and Lollike (we can never know) but their ability to act so carelessly and so impactfully is expressive of a wider racist logic that operates throughout the culture, which places a higher value on the whims of white state-funded artists than it does on the experiences of those whom they make the object of their expression.
What irritates me most of all is what seems to me can only be the faux naivety and shock at the strength of the pushback that both Nielsen and Lollike have displayed in the press and on social media. If they did not know this is what they were inviting with the title, which seems unlikely, I would suggest they have not performed sufficient research as artists to meaningfully engage with this topic. If they did know, then this pretense of naivety is what? An extension of the artwork into reality, illustrating the pitfalls of the discourse surrounding race? There would perhaps something to be admired in such a pedagogical project if it were not so arch. But also the cost and consequences of this intervention, performed as clumsily as it has been, greatly outstrip these speculative good intentions. How can we be so stilted in our thinking that we think that in producing such work intentions matter at all in comparison to what is actually done? And what has been done here? In the end, all they are doing is using people’s anxiety about being mistaken for being racists as a marketing catalyst and presenting the response of marginalized groups to violent actions as if it is the unwarranted aggression of a terrifying other. A population has been made to watch a debate about a poster for a play that most of whom will never see. This is a great way to sell tickets, nonetheless, but also for an argument to lose the nuance of intention.
*This piece was originally published in translation, by Alexander Buk-Swienty, by Atlas Magasin.