What Is Offensive Art?

Rashaad Thomas, Engagement Manager, Blackface from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled

Art.  Freedom of Speech.  Censorship.

“Bad art is more tragically beautiful than good art ’cause it documents human failure.’” – HENRY LETHAM, Stay (2005)

Social media and I are on a trial separation. We still chat from time to time. Twitter, Instagram and I exchange direct messages every now and again.  We indulged our toxic relationship because we were afraid we’d become irrelevant.  Our fears manifested as resentment, pushing us further apart.   In my absence, words of mouth became close friends.  They keep me in the loop about Facebook’s fits of rage catalyzed by mainstream news.

Not too long ago, azcentral.com and a few e-mail inquiries brought me news about Phoenix’s First Friday incident in December. Ted Decker with the Phoenix Institute of Contemporary Art (pHica), chose to support an artist’s portrait of himself in Blackface.  The incident set off a firestorm on social media and in our community, forcing people into have uncomfortable conversations about multicultural education and racial equity.

In the past, I jumped into the fire with my comrades looking for the person who made racist remarks.  I didn’t accept the excuse that they were taught that their whole lives.

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

No way, no suh. There are no excuses I’m willing to accept. I burned to sever a branch of white supremacy’s tree, “By Any Means Necessary.”  However, this time it’s too close to do that.  I consider Ted Decker a friend and strong supporter of the arts.  I just returned to the community after an extended period of self-care.  In the past my strategy was to harden my heart for protection and join the toxicity coup that lead with their hivemind.  Now, I believe it’s best to lead by love, with both the heart and mind.  Times are changing.  People are changing.

That being said, I don’t think the Phoenix Art Community is changing.  Phoenix appears to be a desolate silo.  White people remain afraid to give up power to artists of color in “their” (the former’s) own spaces.  Still, I don’t think there’re any definite answers.  That’s the point of being an artist: to not have answers, but rather explore self and society.

So as a Black artist, I look within and ask myself—and the Blackface debacle—a few questions;

  1. What constitutes as good or bad art?
  2. Where is the line between what is offensive art and what is provocative art
  3. Is there a balance between censorship and respect for all humans?
  4. What is free speech?

Again, there are no definite answers, but we must explore. This leads me to the last question I have, “What are we doing to make the Phoenix Art Community inclusive?”

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” – Malcolm X