A God-awful Small Affair

Art and the Experience of Whiteness in the 20th Century

In December 2018 a picture was shared widely on the internet of Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé standing side by side on a stage. She’s wearing a magnificent gown, in every way flawless—a vision of sophistication. Ed’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans. The internet commentary agreed this was an illustration of the relative amounts of effort a black woman and a white man must exert to earn their places on that stage. Yet Beyoncé’s self-presentation is not what’s extraordinary. It is expected that sophisticated, powerful people are groomed to inspire awe; a time traveler from the distant past might understand the impetus behind her desire to impress. Ed Sheeran’s look, however, would be a head-scratcher. But he isn’t accidentally scruffy-looking: he is participating in a story of whiteness whose signifiers are rooted in a developed “white” aesthetic that spans the arts.

In popular music videos, the Beyoncé/Ed Sheeran gap was visible on MTV too. In 1995, Janet and Michael Jackson released “Scream,” the most expensive music video ever made at that time. Mariah Carey had “Fantasy” and Prince had “Let’s Go Crazy”—all different genres of pop, all magnificent spectacles with costumes, dancers, and high production values. Interspersed with these videos was REM’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”: a grainy, blue-tinted video of the band performing in jeans and T-shirts. In Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Trent Reznor sings in front of a hanging beef carcass. In context, these white musicians’ indifferent grooming, arrhythmic dancing, and unpolished productions were meant to signal sophistication and authenticity, using a completely different symbolic vocabulary than the one used by contemporary performers of color.

Reznor’s beef carcass is a reference to Francis Bacon’s 1954 painting Figure with Meat, where a seated pope screams in front of a hanging carcass—a painting with a smeared texture and a falsely simplistic technique. That painting visually quotes two previous paintings—a Velázquez portrait of Pope Innocent X from 1650 and Rembrandt’s 1655 Slaughtered Ox. The seventeenth-century paintings exhibit the type of sophisticated crafting we’d expect of the period. Sometime between the seventeenth century and the mid-twentieth, the artful use of unsophistication became an ironic signal of sophistication, but only for some people—and nearly all of them close to the center of whiteness, however it was constructed at the time the art was created. While these artists may be sidelined for their gender, sexuality, economic means, or the subdivisions of culture within whiteness, there is an artistic tradition that specifically connects the global cultural dominance of whiteness with purposeful ironic unsophistication. Something happened within whiteness that didn’t happen to everyone else, or it didn’t happen in the same way, or it happened but it looked different, or felt different.

There are features that make a kind of family resemblance among a range of disparate artworks. Each artist may not rely on all of these tropes, but I believe there is an underlying conversation among the arts that manifests many or most of these features:

  • One or more central features of the form is removed: e.g., a television comedy that is supposed to be boring, or music with no perceivable pattern in the sounds.
  • Absurdity, causeless effects, nonsense, randomness: e.g., the poetry of Tristan Tzara or Gertrude Stein, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, lyrics of The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus.”
  • Reversal of what signifiers mean: e.g., Coco Chanel’s use of the signifiers of poverty as high fashion, Jeff Koons’s use of pornography and kitsch as fine art.
  • A sense of inauthenticity around comfortable lives, the direction of authenticity always lying elsewhere: e.g., David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” Fight Club (film).

These artists are in conversation with their nineteenth-century Romantic-era predecessors. In the Impressionist movement, for example, painters and sculptors in Europe began to subvert audiences’ expectations of the form. Eschewing the idealizing mythological themes for ordinary subjects, and sacrificing a polished appearance to highlight the changeable nature of subjects in outdoor light and domestic spaces, these artists implicitly rejected academy judgment, amplifying that absence of approval and redefining sophistication. With the emerging modernist and avant-garde movements after World War I, creators embraced a radical interrogation of their work’s character and purpose. This was the beginning of art that asks, in effect, “What is art?” The ground-zero moment, of course, was Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which lacks nearly everything an audience would expect from sculpture. The questions of the sculpture’s aesthetics and provenance push audiences toward a question of how much can be taken away from a sculpture before it ceases to be sculpture at all. At the same time, music was beginning to ask what music is, and literature questioned narrative, character, and sequence. In short, every art form has at least one famous work that implicitly asks what the form is. The questions are posed with works of art that each lack some essential elements that audiences expected from the form. No group of artists had ever seemed to consider “What is art?” an important question before, or a necessary subject for art—but then it was everywhere among white artists, in all the arts.

Why? And why then? In the case of the visual arts, after photography emerged as a medium for representation in the late nineteenth century, the changes in paintings and sculptures might have been a reaction to a new freedom and a confusion of purpose. If art was freed of being representational, what other subjects could it bear? And if photography did that for sculpture and painting, what released dance from the responsibility to connect to sound in the way it most often had in the past? Why did poetry no longer need meter and rhyme?

Sigmund Freud’s psychological analysis of affluent Europeans came to illuminate the psyche in ways that suggested a new and secular subject deserving artistic representation. Freud made the illogic of dreams seem intellectually important, and the European tradition of Romanticism lauded irrationality in general. Surrealism, Dada, and abstraction emerged; a picture of a person looked less like a person because in some ways, being a person in an industrialized society began to feel like not being a person at all.

At the same time, mass advertising was colonizing an increasing swath of people’s visual and audible landscape—radio, billboards, TV ads. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays published Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda in the years leading up to his 1929 ad campaign to promote female cigarette smoking. The successful campaign acted as a kind of test incubator for his thesis that humans’ baser drives could be harnesses for profit. Zippy, memorable couplets came to be associated with consumer persuasion rather than the dignity of the public memorial poem. In short, advertising sought to be pleasing in order to advance an agenda; pleasure and beauty, then, became untrustworthy.

There’s another reason industrialization may have influenced artists to remove the pleasurable center of their arts. Marx had argued that that the factory worker’s life was a hollow shell of a human life, outwardly like a life but with the meaningful and pleasurable elements scooped out. In the heart of Marxism, after all, is a story about labor and human life—if a person works to make jars on a pottery wheel, at the end of each day, they have improved their skills a little, gained the respect of their community as a jar-maker, and they have several jars to use or sell to neighbors. Marx sees this form of labor as profoundly human, building the soul of the person who spends their life this way.

In a jar factory, by contrast, a worker is in an assembly line doing such a tiny task there’s no chance of building skills, and their body becomes even weaker and breaks down relative to that task. At the end of the day, they go home with no jars, but wages that are based on the factory owner’s decisions, probably just enough to live on till work the following day, likely not enough to buy the jars produced in the factory. No new skills, no esteem from others, no building of a reputation or cleverness, and no jars. Every function of human life has to fit into the time between the end of their factory shift and the hours they sleep. All family work, cultural observances, and soul-building and respect-earning labor is packed into that short period of free time the factory owner is forced to pay for without getting any labor directly from the worker. The worker is being kept alive rather than experiencing a full life.

If that’s true, it could be why a painting with no person and no pattern seems to authentically represent something elemental about industrialized, capitalist life. However, Black Americans and colonized populations have a deep history of experiencing dehumanizing labor conditions, and experienced the same transition to industrialization as white people—but Black American artistic traditions didn’t shift toward asking, “What is art?” or purposeful unsophistication as white artists did. Across lines of class, gender, sexuality, and subculture, white artists created and consumed art that signaled sophistication with absences, reversals, and purposeful unsophistication, where artists from other traditions within in the United States and Europe don’t appear to have joined in. There must be more to the phenomenon than dehumanizing labor conditions, propaganda, and Freud, something more specific to the experience of being white inside twentieth-century white supremacy.

Citizens rooted in a powerful culture are positioned to regard unfamiliar cultural signals as exotic, absurd, or nonsensical, at no detriment to their own economic security. In contrast, it’s a matter of survival for people from less powerful cultures to take unfamiliar signals seriously and learn their internal logic quickly, rather than assuming there is no logic at all. Bronte’s Jane Eyre is incredibly attentive to the cultural signals of rich men, but when she has to account for the reasoning of a woman of color, we’re to believe that the character does things nearly randomly, or if her actions have meaning, they are symbolic of Jane’s own feelings. Picasso appears to think the African art he mimicked is primal and magical, and if it has meaning, it originates from Picasso’s own feelings, not from the motifs he appropriated. The same could be said of the Beatles in India, seeing transcendent nonsense all around, an entire country that seems (if we rely only on their creative output as a guide) similar to a drug trip. Even Coco Chanel, who used her own impoverished girlhood and years as a sex worker to gather symbols for her high-fashion career, plundered her own background, reassigning symbols from a less powerful group to the meanings of a more powerful group. This dynamic is central to the psychology of a colonial empire, regardless of whether individual citizens settle abroad or only daydream about it. In this psychology, a transcendent nonsense abounds everywhere except home, and its symbols are up for grabs. Tintin and Indiana Jones are more obvious vectors for the glamour of colonialism abroad and comfort at home, but the psychological texture is pervasive.

Twentieth-century modernist writers and musicians who wrote from somewhere other than the center of whiteness, such as James Joyce or Philip Roth, used these techniques to argue for the validity of their own cultures. They may have used apparent nonsense or experimental techniques, but they rarely used causeless nonsense to signal authenticity or located transcendence in some distant other place—that is, Joyce and Roth each implicitly argue that authentic, transcendent life can be lived in their own provincial home towns, among side-lined groups of people. Joyce’s obscurity in particular doesn’t reverse the meaning of symbols, but asserts symbols’ original, context-rich significance. Even though the effect may be similar to “I Am the Walrus” to outsiders, the heart of his project is the opposite of that style of nonsense.

During the years after World War II, as America continued to rise as a global capitalist juggernaut, things happened selectively to white people that happened to a much smaller degree to everyone else. For instance, the US economy discriminated in favor of white consumers in the housing market, access to lines of credit, and access to the stock market. These may seem like legal, financial, and even military policies, but examined from the inside, they’re also a psychological state. For instance, in Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and countless other descriptions of the industrial suburbs, stability is too easy to attain—the union card and wedding coat are given to you on your nineteenth birthday, and thereafter, boring comfort is the path of least resistance.

In other words, the stock market, home ownership, and credit cards separate all your prosperity from your efforts and fill your life with random, causeless effects. Marx’s alienation of labor guarantees that you never develop a real, thoroughly human life; while on the other hand, a more authentic, vibrant, uncorrupted life is happening somewhere else—and furthermore, the privilege of whiteness is that you should be allowed to go there. David Bowie’s protagonist in “Life on Mars” doesn’t just believe that her ordinary life and the movie playing on the screen are “a God-awful small affair”; she believes that if there were something cool happening on Mars, she would belong there. The Kinks expressed gentle condescension toward the Village Green Preservation Society, as did the Rolling Stones toward the mother in “Mother’s Little Helper.” An outward-reaching desire for transcendence, and the simultaneous rejection of the comfortable home, are consistent through an enormous array of late-twentieth-century music, movies, and literature. Often they’re the same works that use randomness, roughness, and absence to show sophistication. In a single song, the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” unites all these features, showing that the artists have grown into serious musicians.

In the 1990s, both Seinfeld and Friends showed their sophistication by promising not to deliver tropes that audiences would expect from TV comedies—in Seinfeld’s case, “no hugging, no learning” and of course, being “about nothing,” which is itself a signal of how culturally central the protagonists felt. In Friends’ case, the original absences were hook-ups among the six principal characters, and friends who weren’t white. In the following decade, The Office was the show proving its sophistication through absences. When Jenna Fischer auditioned for the role of Pam in the US version of The Office, she wrote that she was asked to “dare to be boring,” where being boring is clearly not what an audience would expect from a sitcom. She made herself dowdy instead of glamorous, and got the job.

At first, earnest characters who thought their efforts mattered were suckers, and the characters who saw the absurdity of their jobs were wiser—they knew real life was elsewhere. It was “boring,” it was absurd, it said transcendence was somewhere else, it was nearly entirely about white people. It had all the hallmarks of art that asks, “Is this still a television comedy?” and was lauded for asking the question.

The US version of The Office stayed on the air for nine years, and by the end, it had largely dropped the idea that it was not trying to be funny, and also the idea that the sincerity was foolish. The characters who started off showing their intelligence and charm by hating everything began to take their jobs and their relationships seriously. They got promoted, they got married, and the show made those connections transcendent. And while Ed Sheeran might still wear his jeans and T-shirt on stage in 2018, the narratives behind these signals seem to be dwindling, as the economic and cultural realities of all our lives change. It would be too optimistic to say that artists and audiences no longer experience or express the psychological texture of living inside white supremacy. Still, the way it appears in art seems to be changing. By 2013 when The Office went off the air, a steady job and a comfortable home had become difficult enough to attain—even for white people—that stability was a happy ending.

Catherine Nichols


The illustration for “A God-awful Small Affair” is by Jasmine Romani-Romero.