No. 107: Family
Deadline September 1st, 2022
As the basis for social organization and the primary site of socialization, the family has drawn particular attention in the visual arts since the inception of art history. The production of images of the family has made it possible to spread a traditional and idealized vision of roles, to reinforce conventions and values, and to highlight, through intimate images, our fundamental need for connection and a sense of belonging.
A number of contemporary artists have taken up and problematized the figure of the family to probe issues such as domesticity, childhood, and siblinghood. In both painting and photography, family portraits offer opportunities for conversations. It is often by opening photo albums to gaze at snapshots that family stories are woven, past generations are celebrated, and memories and traditions are shared. A formidable tool for meaning-making, such albums usually capture, even if enigmatically, the aspects of personal identity passed down from forebears.
Even today, the family circle often serves as an absolute model of sociability and power, as political leaders are commonly described as “good family fathers,” and the nuclear family is still largely presented as a norm in advertising and cultural production. Synonymous with a refuge of well-being and safety, the bourgeois archetype is complexified by artists who remind us, through their works, that this image is a very poor fit with the numerous and disturbing stories of dysfunctional families, domestic violence, and traumas of all sorts.
For many years, feminist criticism has exposed the extraordinary power of the family to reinforce patriarchy—especially around gender roles, which are calcified in a conception of parenthood that should, instead, be feminist and alternative (bell hooks). Feminists have also brought to light the difficulties of reconciling maternity with work as an artist and the heavy psychological weight borne by women, who are generally responsible for taking care of others. And then there’s the new field of children’s studies, which reverses the perspective by examining the family unit from the world of childhood, with its own culture, history, and social constructions.
Queer thought, meanwhile, has brought forth the difficulty for LGBTQ+ individuals to find their place at the table, addressing, among other things, the violence that carries over to family reunions, in which each member must play a role (Eve K. Sedgwick) and heterosexual filiation is imposed (Sarah Ahmed). Added to this is the struggle for the right to alternatives—homoparental families or other “chosen” connections. The sense of belonging is also weakened by colonization when it tears children away from their parents, and in the diasporic experience, when migrations splinter family trees (Avtar Brah) and the imperative of adaptation causes ruptures and nostalgia (Marianne Hirsch).
As contemporary art seems well engaged in an examination of cultural practices, the family, in all its forms, is returning to the spotlight. Drawing, notably, on the narrative potential of the photographic ritual, many artists today revisit family traditions, sites, and taboos, challenge what has been held as unspeakable by digging into archives, and invent new, intimate forms of sociability out of biographical or autobiographical experiences. For this issue, Esse arts + opinions invites authors to reflect on family histories as they are rewritten in contemporary art. What portraits do artists propose? Are there artists who choose to work as a family? How are childhood and family life represented? How do artists reactivate technical or ancestral knowledge that has been passed down? At a time when the great dream of family is fading, how does art deal with its contemporary iterations in its reconstructed versions? Can art contribute to a more honest and diversified reinvention of what tradition has built into a myth?
No. 108: Resilience
Deadline January 10, 2023
In May, we found out, thanks to a leak to the press, that the US Supreme Court is likely to render an opinion that reverses Roe v. Wade, a decision almost fifty years old guaranteeing the right to abortion throughout the United States. We are facing constant challenges to gains that women and people in minority groups have made, governments dragging their feet on establishing serious environmental protection policies, and a financialization of the economy that exacerbates the concentration of wealth. As such, we are fully entitled to reconsider what we believed to be automatic freedoms, which are now under continual assault by a new, particularly reactionary Right. How should we react to these steps backward?
The critical reflex, among other things, is at issue. Is it still enough to raise awareness by painting a sinister and cynical portrait of the state of the world, given that this is the very strategy now used by the Right to mobilize a white proletariat that perceives itself as weakened? Can we still hew to the mechanisms that reveal seemingly hidden violence and domination? Do we want to reproduce, in words and images, the apocalyptic tailspins of a world in crisis?
Over a century ago, in the last of his Theses on Feuerbach (1888), Marx stressed that we should not be content with critical distance and its alarmist analyses: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Yet, to get to this place, we have to start, once again, with learning to survive. To this point, the Canadian author and former social worker Kai Cheng Thom begins her essay I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World (2019) with a striking observation: “We know so much about trauma but so little about how to heal it.”
What Thom proposes—love as a reparative force—is only one of the solutions that could mobilize stakeholders, resources, and spaces in the art world in a different way: no longer simply to recount traumas and reiterate catastrophes, but to seek inspiration. Art has the capacity to show how to find the strength to continue. Art has the power to share resilient experiences, stories, and practices. By exploring things such as listening, respect, introspection, equanimity, joy, compassion, and friendship, we can find a way back to hope, which helps us dig up the necessary courage and energy to continue, to persist, even when the setbacks are stunning, even when our heart isn’t in it anymore. In art, there is a way to not let ourselves be beaten down.
Knowing how to live with regret and hold on to trust, motivation, and enthusiasm might seem like a luxury, but we can hardly do without it today. So we must develop strategies for living with the discomfort of failure, experiencing disappointment, and warding off shame. It seems an opportune time to try to slough off simplifying essentialism, avoid virtue performance, and dare to have difficult conversations marked by respect, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and the desire for reconciliation. This speaks to our capacity to heal, solve problems, confront sociopolitical changes, and continue to evolve.
But we must remain vigilant. Such resilience may prove problematic when it is overlain on neoliberal subjects as an ideal. Political theorists Brad Evans and Julian Reid maintain, for example, that the capacity to adapt to “dangerous” situations such as climate change is, paradoxically, partly engendered by neoliberalism itself.
For the thematic section of issue 108, the Esse art + opinions team is calling upon authors to celebrate that which in contemporary art teaches us to persevere despite rejection, to stand up again after falling, to make it through our disillusionment. We hope to respond to the difficulties that try to overwhelm us by highlighting the need, as a community, to surpass pessimism, to transform our vulnerability into empowerment, to choose not naïve optimism but a certain strategic realism. Resilience is a gigantic challenge. How do we remain aware of the hostility in the world without sliding into irony or apathy? How do we make the transition from Derridean deconstruction to the reconstruction of affect theory? How do we learn the from Indigenous peoples in our approach to truth and reconciliation? How do we reiterate the need for accountability and recognize the intense struggles fought by those most fiercely attacked by capitalist and patriarchal colonial modernity, while defusing violence? How can we hold on to resilience in the face of brutal domination and attend to the sociopolitical implications contained within the concept of resilience? How can we imbue writing on art with this sensitivity to difficulty and failure? And above all, the question that for us leads to all the others: how does art help us get back on our feet and heal ourselves, so that we can continue?