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Satire is no excuse for racism in art

Published: Thursday, January 30, 2014

Updated: Thursday, January 30, 2014 00:01

Public uproar has followed the publication of a photo, released on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of Dasha Zhukova, a Russian socialite and Garage magazine editor, posed atop a chair created by artist Bjarne Melgaard, made to resemble a bound black woman on her back. 

Melgaard’s emulation of Allen Jones, a pop artist who created similar chairs of white women in the ’60s, not only imposes unchecked racism, but also incites concern for the quality of art whose satirical intentions fall flat. 

While some consider Melgaard’s rendition of Jones’s forniphilia, or human furniture, a means of retoxifying the subordination of women that his sculptures provoked, using women of color for this endeavor reinforces oppression. His positioning of black women in the same way to comment on misogyny against white women, suggests discriminatory views of both patriarchal authority and white supremacy. 

For this reason, any defense the chair was not racist until a white woman sat on it is unfounded.

A sense of “justice” cannot emerge from satire that stimulates negligent exploitation. 

Yet Melgaard, responding to the torrential criticism of his chair and its photo publication, does not indicate a satire of misogyny, but rather a broad statement of cynicism that skirts the problem. 

He beckons the general public to address the “REAL obscenities that threaten our actual existence (in the Anthropocene),” insinuating that any offense to Zhukova’s placement on top of the chair is really a minute concern

Though Melgaard may have hoped to convey the “utter decay” reflected in our society and the “crusty notions of race, sex and power” in this artwork, he actually trivializes the racist interpretation of his chair by defending Zhukova. Rather than addressing how his own intentions of the piece are undermined within Buro 24/7, the eastern European fashion publication that printed the photo, he relays that the completely avoidable racism exhibited is irrelevant.

Other controversial satirical artworks engage the viewer with a more direct and stabilized form of satire. 

Take, for instance, Paolo Schmidlin’s “Miss Kitty” sculpture, which portrays Pope Benedict in a near-nude, hyper-sexualized manner. Or Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary,” which reinvents our common conception of the Virgin by incorporating sexual aspects of the female body and elephant dung. While the meanings of both pieces could have been interpreted as solely undermining the figures they represented, they instead redefined them by creatively contextualizing them in ways they never previously functioned. Their satirical nature is confrontational rather than a blind statement of dominance. 

Of course, an understanding of context is key to recognizing satire. However, referencing Jones’ already controversial concept by interchanging race is fruitless and overtly offensive. 

Buro 24/7’s photo might be interpreted as satirical in itself by reinforcing the power relations Melgaard initially attempted to convey. Yet, in Zhukova’s apology, she stated she “regret(s) allowing an artwork with such charged meaning to be used in this context.” 

Melgaard was irresponsible about how his art was showcased. His is satirical attempt has also proven futile given that the negative context of the photo was not meant to advance the artist’s intentions for his work and that the chair itself cannot successfully translate his message of societal decay.

Isabelle Cavazos is a sophomore majoring in English. 

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