Inside Pandora’s Box: A Few Thoughts about Art in the Age of Corona – Part II

This is the second of a three-part post. Part I can be found here and part III is forthcoming.

Oh shit

In 1961, the then young politician Edward Seaga delivered his seminal speech “The Haves and the Have Nots” in the Jamaican Upper House. Irrespective of how we may feel about the ideological and political path Seaga took subsequently, and his role in how postcolonial wealth and power were consolidated in Jamaica, it was a watershed moment in the country’s political history as it acknowledged, in compelling, sharply drawn terms, the gaping socio-economic divide that shapes Jamaican society. This divide is still active today, and perhaps more entrenched although it has taken different forms, but it is far less acknowledged while we are called to pursue collective mirages of “prosperity.”

The speech came to mind when I read a recent letter to the editor by the Jamaican anthropologist Charles V. Carnegie, who is an avid walker and observer of Kingston’s streets and a passionate advocate for its “walk-foot people” — that diverse group that does not have the privilege of a car, the people who move about in the ambit of the noise, physical danger, and exhaust fumes of the city’s chaotic, traffic-jammed streets, offering various goods and services, begging and hustling, or just trying to get from home, or school, to work and back. In this letter, which was the Letter of the Day in the Jamaica Gleaner of March 27, 2020, Professor Carnegie reported on his conversation with a car-window washer — one of many on Kingston’s major intersections — who complained about the downturn in business because of the reduced traffic and, no doubt, drivers and passengers being reluctant to turn down windows to hand them money for fear of exposure.

From this conversation, it was clear that the young man and his companions did not have a clear understanding of what was going on, in terms of the public health concerns or the social distancing measures. He appeared to be largely “out of the loop,” information-wise, despite the daily governmental press conferences, curfews, and various media campaigns for hand-washing, staying at home, and social distancing – a dangerous situation since such campaigns can only be effective if there is widespread, shared understanding of the message and and collective buy-in to the necessity of the measures. Carnegie called, in response, for those campaigns to use Jamaican patois, rather than standard English, as he saw the matter of language as a major factor in the apparent communicative breakdown.

 

 

It was early days yet then, in terms of the Jamaican experience of the pandemic, and the public communications have become more Jamaicanized since then, with the slogan (and hashtag) “tan a yuh yaad” (“stay at home”) as well as a few less memorable ones. Several popular musicians have opted in, with songs and social media posts that urge Jamaicans to comply, as is reported in the above TVJ Entertainment Prime clip. Perhaps the window-washer now has a better grasp of the situation – it would be interesting to know if that is in effect so and how this is reflected in his money-earning strategies and income. And the public handling of the crisis has been relatively successful: after a rapid increase in confirmed Covid-19 cases, the daily numbers have now tapered off and only nine deaths have been recorded. While major uncertainties remain, there are now moves to “reopen” the Jamaican economy and, particularly, to reopen the country’s borders to tourism.

But it appears that there is still a major public disconnect and that only part of the population follows the Ministry of Health guidelines, and only when they have to, which may come back to haunt us in terms of greater community spread. The wearing of a mask (over mouth and nose) is now mandatory when going out and most places of business require them, with mandatory hand disinfection and, increasingly, temperature checks also being the norm on entry. The situation on the streets of Kingston is markedly different, however, and I’d venture that mask-wearing compliance is only at about 50 %. Many of those who do wear masks while on the streets have them covering their mouth only, or even wear them casually on their forehead or chin, as if it were a fashion accessory. And it appears that compliance is strongly mediated by class, with middle and upper income persons far more likely to adhere to the directives. The non-compliance appears to come, by and large, from today’s “have nots” and the reasons why may not all be equally obvious.

There are constant reports and laments in the media and on social platforms about disorderly, crowded and sometimes defiantly unruly situations in public places. Several such situations have, ironically, involved Covid-19 relief efforts, such as impromptu farmers’ markets and the distribution and encashment of relief cheques. This cannot be explained by the usual “our people are so undisciplined.” For one, keeping physical distance is not part of the culture and it will take more than a for many still very abstract health crisis for that to change. It may also be that the message is still not reaching as broadly and as well as it should, and that the language and media used are not as accessible as assumed, the “Jamaicanization” of the message notwithstanding. The digital divide may be a big factor in this, along with the resulting information divide, and the question of language not only goes to the verbal but also to the visual, for instance in terms of the cultural clarity of public health advisory posters and billboards.

But I think there is a lot more to it, as it appears that there is a level of open defiance on the part of some and a jaded “passive aggressive” resistance on the part of others. It may be that such people are of the view that they have no choice in this, and that their “hand-to-mouth” survival strategies must take precedence over public health risks that still seem relatively tenuous to many. And who are we to say that they are wrong? Complying with some of the directives such as “tan a yuh yaad” is, after all, a luxury many can ill afford, when the daily hustle requires them to be out and about, and the “yaad” in question may not be the well-provisioned and -connected sanctuary it is to the middle and upper classes, who usually also have the financial resilience to support their seclusion.

The “have nots” are the ones who are most directly and viscerally affected by the economic downturn, which will not be meaningfully mitigated by the one-time, token benefits that are made available to some of them, relief cheques, free masks, and care packages included. And for those who live in Kingston’s inner cities, where economic survival and personal safety are under threat even at the best of times, the additional risk of becoming ill and of spreading Covid-19 may not rank all that high, especially since the reported local mortality rate has been low.

There is a fundamental distrust of power and authority in Jamaican society, which has long and deep historical roots and which is perpetuated every time political promises are not met, or granted only opportunistically, and every time there is any evidence of abuse of power. This distrust is evident in all aspects of Jamaican life but especially among the “have nots.” It is really quite simple: people whose trust has been betrayed time and again by those who have power over them are less likely to adhere willingly to government directives, irrespective of whether they are demonstrably for the common good.

In fact, and this may well be the crux of the matter: why should there be any sense of “we are in this together,” with all the personal and collective commitments and sacrifices this requires, on the part of those who have never benefited from such social solidarity. What the mixed response to the Covid-19 measures ultimately, and devastatingly, demonstrates is the lack of real social cohesion in Jamaican society and the inability of those who are in positions of power and leadership to credibly appeal to a sense of common cause on the part of the disenfranchised. And that is where the attention really and urgently needs to go, as we brace for the “post Covid-19” economic tsunami, as the possibility for catastrophic social dissolution is high. As a dear friend keeps saying, the poor will rise and not in the scripted and presumably constructive revolutionary way we may have hoped for in more idealistic times, unless they can be offered more equitable and sustainable alternatives. And the question is whether such alternatives are even possible, now or in the foreseeable future..

You may ask why I am pondering all this in what is supposedly an art blog, as part of a series of posts on the impact of the Corona pandemic on the Caribbean art world. I do so because what is happening and needs to happen in the art world is tightly and rather depressingly interwoven with what I have outlined here, and this replicates itself, with some variations, throughout the Caribbean. It is the socio-economic terrain on which Caribbean art evolves, and to which it responds, in terms of the artistic practice itself, its institutional and organizational contexts, its politics, its conflicts, and its markets. And it is also the terrain to which the art world contributes, and can contribute, in positive and negative ways, as art can both challenge and consolidate the social order (and often does so simultaneously).

The social divisions and tensions in the art world itself, and the various power dynamics and factions that come with this, are and have always been the proverbial elephant in the room of the Caribbean Art world. While the situation varies from island to island, and over time, it is directly related to the social tensions and disconnects that trouble Caribbean society as a whole. The truth is that there is no prevailing sense of common cause in the Caribbean art world, on a localized or regional level, as the chronic culture wars and ever-changing factions well illustrate. These issues will have to be tackled in some way if there is to be any equitable “post Covid-19” resilience in the Caribbean art world. As recent discussions on the Critical.Caribbean.Art Facebook group have illustrated, however, the social tensions and divisions in the Caribbean art world are something many feel strongly about, and have experienced in their own lives and practice, resulting in significant bitterness, but which few are willing to discuss openly or with any hope or even desire for resolution. Perhaps I am just naive, but I believe that it must be possible to address at least some of these issues, even if it just to start by acknowledging them, with all the painful self-reflexivity this takes and with a commitment to greater solidarity. Then perhaps, we can begin to discuss and negotiate possible solutions, incremental as some of these may be.

I am still thinking through my own position on all of this and I need a bit more time to articulate it, but do look out for more on that in the third and final part of this series of posts. In the meantime, I wholeheartedly welcome any comments and feedback that helps us all to think through the dilemmas involved.

5 thoughts on “Inside Pandora’s Box: A Few Thoughts about Art in the Age of Corona – Part II

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  1. I do agree with you that this post is relevant to the art world. Art ecologies all over the world are responding in many ways to this new situation. I have seen many museums and other art spaces getting the public involved in various online art “challenges” and other kinds of participation. Even the independent curators have gotten involved with the art public. I have signed into several art discussions on zoom and other platforms. I suspect that this new “hyper-interconnectivity” will be a part of the art infrastructure going forward.

    I am less certain about the ideas of the kinds of “noble” indiscipline that Jamaicans exhibit from time to time. The romantic notions of the enslaved defiance are too easy for me. It isn’t a case of simply not understanding the instructions of the government. You are correct in saying that some folks are openly defiant but where I disagree is, specifically, your ideas about trust and the lack of it between our government and the populace. I suspect that Jamaicans are disciplined when they need to be. Simply go to any embassy in Kingston and you will observe the most disciplined Jamaicans you have ever seen. No complaints of language issues either. former P.M. Bruce Golding said it best, he was talking about our response to the government’s NIDS project…he said something to the effect of “how is it possible that Jamaicans can go to an American airport and give the united states of America every print and identification mark we have on our bodies, they even give the USA retinal scans, and that government has the C.I.A, F.B.I and the N.S.A… but we can’t give our own government the same information…I think we have gotten in the habit of circumstantial obedience and compliances. I don’t necessarily believe in the “rebellious Jamaican spirit”. If that were the case, “we” wouldn’t be able to turn it off and on at will. I think the adage “duppy know who fih frighten” is more accurate…..

    I also agree that there is a social divide as it relates to the ideas of compliance, but I would take it a step further. Middle classed Jamaicans may not be bundled up in lines for relief funds but let’s be sure about this, the same parties that are occurring in the inner-city communities are happening up the hill. It’s a simple issue of visibility. Also, in the same way people fled Partmore at the announcement of the lockdown, so did many middle classed Jamaicans left Jamaica. the fear of facing a health crisis in a 3rd world country was way too frightening for many and that was clearly a mistake…. As Buju said “those who can afford to run will run but those who can’t will have to stay”, and it’s a good thing they did….

    Finally, we must agree that there are “haves and have nots” in our art world as well. If you can understand that in our society, it has never been beneficial for the “have nots” to find solidarity with the “haves” then we cannot expect the artistic community to deviate from that simple truth. There are many artists in this country that have been underappreciated for many years simply for the promotion and consolidation of other supported art practice. You cannot expect the “have nots” to sing “come-by-ya” now that “we” are in trouble. We have been too separatist for too long and many people feel that it is better to flat line the playing field as opposed to resuscitate a corrupt and one dimensional system.

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  2. Thanks, Phillip. Insightful as usual. Just one point of clarity, though. I am not romanticizing Jamaica’s culture of resistance and deliberate indiscipline, certainly not in this case. I think what we are seeing is, more correctly, a loud “fuck you” on the part of those who refuse to comply. Nothing romantic about that, but it goes to the issue of the lack of a sense of social common cause and it is in fact a very dangerous signal, as it spells anarchy.

    As for how that pans out in the art world, I would not expect much solidarity either but I note with interest, and some jaded amusement, that some of those who claim that they are allowing the playing field to flat-line are still quite willing to participate in whatever opportunities are dangled in front of them by some of those who have caused for the system to become so corrupt and one-dimensional to start with. Part of the problem of the art world is its opportunism. We would be better off if more positions of principle were taken. And we need to be more honest about the complicity of practically the entire art world in a system that some of its members decry.

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  3. I understand your point regarding the society’s disobedience and its apparent “fuck you” to the government. However, I will quickly point out that there is much sensationalism when it comes to these kinds of antithetical stances against the government…particularly this government… We have a culture of it, long before the pandemic. On the other side of it, I think that good sense does “rear its ugly head” in Jamaica from time to time. Musician Tanya Stephens got a dose of some common sense recently, no matter how elitist we have made common sense out to be in this country. In the end, I think, considering the alternatives, the government of Jamaica managed this situation well. Far better than a lot of countries with much more robust systems.
    As for the “chronic ambition syndrome” that you suggest is plaguing the art world, I have a slightly different take on it. For years we have been schooled in the art of “go getting”. Many generations of Jamaican artists cut and ran away from Jamaica in order to pursue their “immortality.” Many were forced to join black American or British culture in order to expose themselves to the possibilities of manifesting their dreams. And we praised them for it. You can often see the sociological shift play out in text form, from “Jamaican artist” to “Jamaican born artist” …it gives me a chuckle every time I have read those kinds of social distancing. The truth is, chronic ambition was the way many Jamaican artists would acquire a sense of respect in this country, and you would be considered crazy to leave the united states and pursue your career from home. I can tell you, I know. This is why I was not surprised by your question about it in our interview.
    Now, if you believe that artists (and perhaps other art professionals) who are less entrenched in self-promotion should be more worthy of praise, then I could name a number of artists here that fit that bill perfectly. Omari Ra is perhaps chief among them. There are quite a few artists who were considered crazy and romantic for not engaging in social media and its chronic self-promotion methodologies. Many of those artists did not get the sense of “respect” and “praise” that you are suggesting that they deserve. We have fostered the artist’s “personality” and made great pains of using that as the marketing ploy…I have even watch artists who clearly have real emotional problems propped up as eccentric and monetarily and socially abused for those eccentricities. the constant social media meltdowns, the “feel sorry for me” tactics and the ridiculous social media armchair philosophical quotes, I could go on… I even see it at the college, students being groomed into cult building long before they have even developed any work.
    We can’t simply say “chronic ambition” has gone too far now, simply because we played Frankenstein and our monsters actually came to life. One of the sad truths I worry about today is the continuation of this kind of “chronic ambition”. I think about all the people that changed my own life here in Jamaica, when I was a student. I can’t imagine what would have happened if those people never came home and payed it forward. The sad thing about “Pandora’s box” is that after Pandora released all the hate and envy and suffering on the world she closed the box just in time to trap “hope”. The question is, what was “hope” doing in a box of horrors….

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    1. Thanks, Phillip. Just to be clear though, I was referring to the relationship with power and patronage in Jamaica, and its relationship to our institutions, and the opportunistic way that is handled by many, including some of those who do not go into social media self-promotion frenzies. And let’s face it, power and patronage is a very fraught affair in Jamaica (as it is elsewhere) but given the stated politics of many in the art world the ironies are significant. I guess many do not want to bite the hand that feeds them, no matter how intermittent and problematic those feedings may be. In fact, I’d venture that social media self-promotion has one advantage, in that it allows for some freedom from that patronage, a more self-empowered kind of self-advancement that requires less genuflection to power. While it of course feeds on the “likes” there is a certain independence about it. But I guess that is a matter of perspective. I personally believe that artists should be judged first and foremost on the merit of their work, and for that of course work has to be produced, and it must be possible for the artists to do so, and reasonably available, so I know that is easier said than done. But until we agree to some form of meritocracy and not hierarchies that are negotiated by affiliation, status genuflection, and other unprincipled behaviour, we’ll get nowhere. But perhaps that is why “hope” was in that box of horrors…

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