I’ve been in Austria for a week now. I’m starting to get used to the trains, the weather, and the fact that the computer I use at work operates in German. But a set of recent events and experiences have me thinking a lot about the United States.
Theaster Gates is a black American artist from the South Side of Chicago. My uncle lives in Chicago so I’ve visited the city on several occasions, although I knew nothing of Gates or his work. Coincidentally, Gates currently has an exhibition titled Black Archive at the Kunsthaus museum in Bregenz, which is two train stops from Hohenems. I visited the museum yesterday.
Much of Gates’ exhibition deals with images of blackness in the white gaze—in non-academic terms, how a society in which white people are in the majority in terms of both population and power (like the U.S.) represents black people in things like movies, books, and other aspects of culture.
I found it slightly ironic that I was observing Gates’ art on blackness in the U.S. while I was in Europe. His works are laden with allusions to American culture and history—dealing with subjects like minstrelsy, the n-word, and the American Civil War. Had I been raised in Austria, I probably would have interpreted the art differently than I did.¹ I’ve learned in my short time here so far that the predominant notions surrounding race are fairly disparate between Austria and the U.S.
There’s a popular beer brand here in Vorarlberg known as Mohren.² Its logo is an exaggerated stereotypical African facial profile, and I was told that the name has negative racial connotations as well.
I wonder what Gates might say about Mohren beer, which isn’t available in the U.S. That logo would be considered obviously racist in America, but I’ve been told that most Austrians think its normal.
At the same time, there are certain cultural components that don’t bother anyone in the U.S. but strike a nerve in Austria. For instance, bloodline is a perfectly normal word in English that describes people who are biologically related. But—as I learned last week—the equivalent word in German still has Nazi connotations.
History substantially affects how we interpret language and culture. Austria didn’t have chattel slavery; the United States didn’t have the Holocaust. Of course, that doesn’t mean that stereotypical representations of black people are OK in Austria or that discriminating against a entire religion should be acceptable in America.³ But the existence of the past impacts how each contemporary society tolerates these acts.
On the subject of tolerating things that are bad, I woke up last Sunday morning as news of a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, was first making its rounds on the internet. That afternoon, I learned that forty-nine people (plus the shooter) were dead. Like everyone else, I think it’s a horribly tragic situation, I feel for the victims and their loved ones, and I wish something like it would never happen again.
The United States has a surprisingly high tolerance for mass shootings. Even before the events in Orlando, several people I’d met here in Austria told me that they thought America’s obsession with guns is crazy; the tragedy proved them right once again.
Although I read the news and have seen my friends’ posts on social media, I haven’t talked with any other Americans about Orlando. I don’t know what I’d say—while the shooting was terrible, it wasn’t unique, seeing as the United States averages nearly 90 gun deaths each day. And I feel like I’m at a point where I just expect these things to happen and pray each time that no one I know gets hurt.
As it turns out, many things can become routine. And though it’s good to get used to rainy weather or a new language, it’s worthwhile to look at ourselves and ask if tragedy or discrimination have become normal to us. I know I need to do that.
¹ The piece of art that most struck me in Gates’ exhibition was a towering minstrel doll that moved when someone stepped on its base. Minstrel figures occupy a shameful place in American history. Minstrel shows—which became popular in the 19th century—typically involved white actors in blackface dancing and singing while portraying stereotyped black people. The shows often depicted black Americans as unintelligent, clownish, happy-go-lucky, or lazy.
Minstrel dolls, which arrived shortly thereafter, were an at-home, do-it-yourself version of minstrel shows. They were simple figures representing black bodies; their faces were often cartoonishly happy or leering. (If you can’t imagine what that looks like, here is an example). With a simple flick of the finger onto the attached paddle board, the doll would bobble up in down. It still reinforced African-American stereotypes and the owner had full control over its movements, alluding to America’s embarrassing days of chattel slavery.
Gates inverted the concept of a minstrel doll by creating a huge one. To make his minstrel doll move, you have to do much more than simply flicking your finger—you’d have to put a lot of body weight on the paddle. The curator of the exhibit (who happens to be a Hohenems descendant as well) informed me that, when someone moved it, its clunking figure sometimes scared small children.
I had no interest in trying to make the giant minstrel doll move. I could see Gates’ intention with the art, but it made me deeply uncomfortable. Did the doll’s size relative to me really change that I would still be controlling its movements? And if it was leering down on me as I moved it, didn’t that still reinforce the American stereotype about scary black men? (Such a stereotype is one of the reasons that the South Side of Chicago has a bad reputation).
I have no idea if I interpreted this work in the way Gates intended.
² Geography lesson: Vorarlberg is the Austrian state in the far western part of the country where Hohenems is located. Bregenz is its capital. Beer lesson: I can’t personally speak to the quality of Mohren. I’m 18, two years older than Austria’s legal drinking age, but medically necessary dietary restrictions prevent me from drinking beer.
³ A substantial number of people in the U.S. (including the presumed Republican nominee for president) have called to ban Muslims and refugees from entering the country in light of recent terror events. While Austria has been debating similar questions, Hohenems (which is 20 percent Muslim) has also been taking a number of Syrian refugees.