Do I stand in darkness or in light? Do I speak or am I silent? When I do speak, how are my words received? Where does my power and privilege lie?
These are questions I ask myself daily. I imagine many of us do. What these questions articulate is a need for clarity, but for a while, let’s spend some time in an ambiguous place, a space of uncertainty that has a great deal more to offer than does certitude. Indeed, uncertainty offers antidotes to the default of patriarchy, and the tyranny of the conventional.
In Rebecca Solnit’s important book, Men Explain Things to Me, there is an extraordinary chapter devoted to Virginia Woolf’s “darkness.” Solnit refers to Woolf’s statement, made after emerging from a deep depression: “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.”
Solnit keys into two essential elements of Woolf’s offering: The worlds of possibility embedded in darkness, and the tentative addition of the phrase “I think” to the end of the sentence. She notes that while darkness is more commonly associated with the unknown or obscure, it can also be a space of magic, possibility, love, and enchantment. Solnit posits that Woolf invites us to revel in the opportunity, the sheer possibility of having our eyes open in the dark, and simultaneously reveals that she is “uncertain even about [her] own assertion.” Uncertainty is beguiling.
So I venture that “knowing,” in making and interpretation, may be overrated in the field of art. Even as we seek spaces of uncertainty, our culture declares that we must be certain, confidently sure. Art adopts biblical languages of “begats” to describe artistic lineage; weaves together canonical stories that become embedded in art history, criticism, and writing about art; imposes singular narratives and histories that silence, obscure, confine, and omit.
But good art often happens in spaces of darkness, of ambiguity and uncertainty. Artists ply these regions often negotiating two sides of the line, using what is “known” in devastating conversation with the “unknowable.” When I encounter artworks with which I feel great affinity, I invariably think that they both reveal something about the world that I hadn’t quite appreciated, and simultaneously interject enigmas. The latter, as a space for possibility, implies hope.
This is therefore a call to embrace ambiguity, for collectivity, and for the hope that comes from that open space. It is a call for collaboration. What better way to create room for the unconventional; for experimentation and divergent and parallel narratives; for disruption?
A book came out recently titled Herstory Inventory: 100 Feminist Drawings by 100 Artists. Ulrike Müller instigated the project, but dives insistently into the darkness of collaboration, in the process revealing “a larger framework for ways of thinking and doing things together.” The open-ended nature of the project, and its revelation through the documentation of endless email exchanges as well as the eventual drawings produced, is an ongoing questioning of the languages of feminism, a simultaneous “homage and critique” that does not offer something definitive. Its strength is in its proposal of process. Feminism, the very word hotly debated, via this collective imaginary, can, again, be a catalyst for engaging myriad ideas rather than squeezing into outdated assumptions. As Müller writes, “Feminism’s most pressing challenges continue to be structural: why would one be a feminist if not to make the relations and, more generally, the world one wants in a real and applied way?”
Yes. Standing in the dark with our eyes wide open, welcoming the uncertain, is a threat to the status quo. It is an invitation to undo the ways “things are done” and invite alternatives into the equation. It may be our salvation.
So, feminists of the art world, women, men, trans, queer, and self-identified other, can we take a trip into uncertainty together? I imagine that we have a great deal to learn from it. When we are sure, when we “know” something, it can be heartening, but we may not really care about it, and we probably won’t learn anything new. I offer that perhaps if we are uncertain, we can begin to reclaim the interdependence that has been leeched out of us, to upend oppression, both individual and collective. In rejecting being certain and taking sides and making decisions that are indexical rather than contextual, we might attend to parts of ourselves that need to be cultivated, healed, repaired, undone, redone, cut out, cured, reinvented … and maybe even see parallel transformations in our surrounds.
Solnit argues that we “don’t have the memory of the future; that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be; and that, in the end, we always act in the dark.” If this is true, we may as well get some practice enjoying this darkness. Maybe in this space we can find the languages to describe our own states of varied experience and come to ideas that reinforce the slippery side of being, acknowledging that doing so has real power and consequence.
Laura Raicovich works as president and executive director of the Queens Museum. Her book At the Lightning Field is out this April from Coffee House Press. She is the author of A Diary of Mysterious Difficulties (Publication Studio), a book based on Viagra and Cialis spam, and is an editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books)