“No, painting is not meant to decorate apartments; it is an instrument of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.”1Pablo Picasso, ‘‘Picasso n’est pas officier de l’armée française’’, interview with Simone Terry, Lettres françaises, March 24, 1945, 5.
This was Picasso’s state of mind when, in 1937, he sketched the drawings that would give rise to his gigantic cubist painting: the famous Guernica. For Picasso, artists must use art when they consider that “the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake.”2Ibid.
It is in this same spirit of indignation and commitment that we can place the now famous “Tag de Liège” (the Liège Tag).3Liège is a city in Belgium, the tag was made in Liège. This gigantic tag was discovered on the morning of May 30, 2020 on a train wagon of the Belgian National Railway Company (SNCB). Sadly, on this wagon, painted in white on a black background, were the last words of George Floyd, the 46-year-old African American man killed by police officers in Minneapolis, USA: “Please, I can’t breathe.” A petition was subsequently written by 1UP asking the SNCB to not erase this tag for its anti-racist symbolism.
This petition was one of the many instances in which people in Europe and many other parts of the world showed their outrage concerning the killing of George Floyd. But what concerns us most is the symbolic configuration of this Liège Tag which can lend itself to various interpretations in Europe. One of the most emblematic views suggests that “the situation in the USA is different from the one in Europe.” This implies that the Liège Tag only deals with American racism and that, consequently, the indignation it generates throughout the world is exclusively directed at the USA, whose power has never ceased to feed on the bloodshed inside and outside its borders.4Cornel West, “The chickens have come home to roost”, Middle East Eye, June 16, 2020. One might therefore ask: why does Europe not understand the slogan “Please, I can’t breathe,” or “Black Lives Matter,” as a symbol for the tragedies that Black people have had to endure for several centuries and the perpetuation of white privilege? Why does Europe find it so hard to understand that the condition for a peaceful and shared world depends on looking at history in the face, and confronting its own injustices?
Social life in Europe continues to be shaped by a “racial unconsciousness” anchored in its institutions and in the daily lives of many Europeans. This results in “an unequal distribution of rights, inequalities in terms of opportunities, and the systematic relegation” of black bodies, “the constancy and persistence of a set of representations and prejudices of a racist nature in society” which feed the prioritization of races.5Nadia Yala Kisukidi, “Les vies noires comptent moins dans notre pays,” Interview with El Azzouzi Rachida, Mediapart, June 8, 2020. The Liège Tag poses an ethical challenge for Europe: to look at itself in a mirror before “casting the first stone” at the USA. It invites those who have always benefited from the gains drawn from the blood shed by Black people, in Europe as well as in the USA, to reflect on the meaning of their indignation. It seems to me that this problem is strongly linked to Western “sadonarcissism”,6Sadonarcissim is a metaphor representing both (a) taking pleasure in the suffering of others (sadism/sado) and (b) feeling pleasure through the act of saving them (narcissism). Here, the abuser feels altruistic and admires himself for trying to save his own victim (sadonarcissism). We can find the same phenomenon in humanitarianism funded by Western countries after they have provoked the war. We can also find the same phenomenon among Europeans who are outraged by a racism they daily feed. which can be understood from modern art and the humanism bequeathed to it by the classics. This legacy is at the heart of the de-legitimization of the ethical criticism that the Liège Tag gives rise to.
Negro and Schizophrenic Reason
Despite its humanist rhetoric, Europe continues to treat Black people as sub-human. Indeed, for several years now, the Mediterranean Sea has become a huge cemetery, where Europe watches as tens of thousands of African people drown every day. Relatively few Africans are lucky enough to endure the difficult journey through the Sahara Desert and North Africa. Those who manage to cross the sea may end up in many camps throughout Europe. Some of them end up being detained and forcibly returned to some North African countries to which Europe subcontracts the processing of “illegal” immigrants.
Yet, some of those who manage to survive the tortuous journey from Africa will either freeze or starve to death in the major European capitals. Otherwise, they face the option of hiding in makeshift trucks heading for England, risking great harm and even death on the long, hot, asphalt roads. Just like the captains of the ships on the Mediterranean, the truckers do not help these immigrants. European laws do not allow it. These lives, according to European laws, do not really count, and suffering an atrocious form of death on the road either serves as a lesson to survivors, or as a deterrent to others planning to embark on the same perilous path. All this is reminiscent of the deterrent function of the 1886 “Ballade des Pendus” (Ballad of the Hanged) in France, and its American version, the 1937 song, “Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holiday. The famous Billie Holiday song includes the following lyrics:
“…Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh…”
For those migrants fortunate enough to survive, some will find daily work (despised by locals), in the apple fields. Of these, the few who eventually manage to accede to European citizenship are hardly better off. As the report Being Black in the EU, shows, Africans and people of African descent suffer from the silent, but systemic racism in various European countries: physical assault and harassment, exclusion, discrimination in employment and housing, and discriminatory profiling by the police.7European union, “Being Black in the EU”, Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, (European union, 2020). These black migrants battle until complete exhaustion. As Elsa Dorlin aptly sums up the fate of the resistance of the dominated, “In certain circumstances and for certain bodies, to defend oneself is equivalent to dying by self-exhaustion: to fight is to struggle in vain, it is to be defeated. Such a mechanism of unfortunate action […] what can I do if everything I initiate to save myself leads to my loss?”8Elsa Dorlin, Se défendre. Une philosophie de la violence, (Paris: Zones, 2017), 2.
Racism and its banality
“We do not push the naivety to the point of believing that appeals to reason or respect for man can change reality. For the nigger who works on the plantations […] there is only one solution: the struggle […]”9Franz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs, (Paris : Le Seuil, 1952), 18. “because, quite simply, [the Negro] can only conceive of his existence under the species of a struggle against exploitation, misery and hunger.”10Ibid.
Franz Fanon’s vision of how to solve the problem of racism is encapsulated in the quote above. For Fanon, being outraged at racism is not a struggle per se. Struggling against racism means changing black people’s material living conditions. In the West, the living conditions of Black people are far worse than those of white people, who enjoy exclusive privileges. This gap is often linked to “systemic racism”, i.e. not exceptional, but daily and ordinary, due to discriminatory policies against Black people, as shown in the report Being Black in the EU.
It would be a mistake to think that George Floyd’s killers are necessarily evil, or inhuman. It would be forgetting that they simply belong to a recurring pattern of racially motivated actions. By taking action, the stakeholders – as well as those who witness them – often suspend their moral convictions and their personal practical commitment, thereby nourishing their diverse interests and privileges.11Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (Penguin Publishing Group, 2006). “I think about it and then I forget. That’s life, that’s life,” Jacques Dutronc sang in 1966.
The structural problem of the relegated position of Africans living in Western societies has a colonial origin. This colonial universe in which Black people are locked up has never ceased to reconfigure itself through discriminatory and racist practices in the former metropolises and through security and economic policies in the former colonies – in complicity with leaders from the Global South. This system has never ceased to adapt its language, images, and fictions that overflow and still work on our present, as well as our lives in that sense it constrains and, sometimes, stops them.12Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, (Duke University Press, 2017), 257.
Many Europeans who cast aspersions at the United States of America fail to see how they themselves are contributing to the system of institutionalized racism. It is the same system with its roots in 14th century Europe that continues to operate within the American and European police forces. It also explains the indifference of many Europeans towards the fate of Africans, many of whom are fleeing wars provoked or supported by the West, or from the unfortunate consequences of the neo-colonial economic policies that the West has been promoting in Africa. If indeed capitalism “has always needed racial subsidies to exploit the world’s resources,”13Ibid. then those who benefit from these resources have a moral responsibility to redress any injustices.
Selectivity and “Sadonarcissism”
“What is at last to be expressed in art is the man, the spirit and human characters, the contemplation of what a man is in general, but also of what a particular man is.”14Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hege, Introduction à l’esthétique. Le beau, (Paris: Flammarion, 1979). Such is the humanistic understanding that Hegel proposes about the classical art from which the avant-gardians of the modern art engage humanism.
But despite its humanism, Western art developed at the same time as slavery. The golden age of art paintings celebrated humanity, but in a selective way: humans could only be those who were considered as such by a monad and instrumental reason. Black men were never part of it. This is also why we can afford to discuss the feelings aroused by a painting like Guernica or the Liège Tag. One can then understand why the Liège Tag and other representations of the killing of George Floyd are more moving and indignant than the ordinary and everyday forms of racism that nevertheless produce the same effects: the slow and painful death of Black people.
The “highest values of humanity and civilization” that Picasso finally speaks of are those that he defines. In the same way, the humanism behind the Liège Tag is selective about the “values” that are worth defending; the dramas for which we must be indignant. Worse, as with Kandinsky or Schönberg, it imprisons us in a unique and narrow vision of humanity. This is the whole tragedy of a certain modern art: this humanistic confinement inherited from the classics and erected as a divinity. Now, apart from being fundamentally “sadonarcissism”, it creates its own evils and remedies for its own glory.
Finally, it is not a question of fitting into the dichotomous Western figure that Albert Einstein takes up when he explains that “the world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them and do nothing.”15Fitzhenry, Robert, The Harper Book of Quotations, (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 356. Nor is it a question of begging Europe to engage in a new form of humanitarianism in favor of Black people – whose responsibility is to fight for their own salvation.
One would think that Europeans have suddenly realized that racism has accidentally come to dominate their world of equal and dignified men and women. But this is not the case. Much remains to be assumed and rethought in Europe’s relationship with race. History will long remember the year 2020 and how Covid-19 has changed in our lives. But it will remember less about the Liège Tag, if we don’t think seriously and radically about how our certainties, banal words and gestures and the clinging to our little privileges may contribute toward creating many future George Floyds. Nevertheless, almost sixty years ago, we can now understand why Fanon was so angry at the European “sadonarcissism” – represented today by the Tag de Liège and the false indignation at the murder of George Floyd – when he said: “Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking about man while murdering him wherever it meets him, on every corner of its own streets, in every corner of the world.”16Franz Fanon, Les Damnés de la Terre, (Paris : La Découverte 2002), 229.
- 1Pablo Picasso, ‘‘Picasso n’est pas officier de l’armée française’’, interview with Simone Terry, Lettres françaises, March 24, 1945, 5.
- 3Liège is a city in Belgium, the tag was made in Liège.
- 4Cornel West, “The chickens have come home to roost”, Middle East Eye, June 16, 2020.
- 5Nadia Yala Kisukidi, “Les vies noires comptent moins dans notre pays,” Interview with El Azzouzi Rachida, Mediapart, June 8, 2020.
- 6Sadonarcissim is a metaphor representing both (a) taking pleasure in the suffering of others (sadism/sado) and (b) feeling pleasure through the act of saving them (narcissism). Here, the abuser feels altruistic and admires himself for trying to save his own victim (sadonarcissism). We can find the same phenomenon in humanitarianism funded by Western countries after they have provoked the war. We can also find the same phenomenon among Europeans who are outraged by a racism they daily feed.
- 7European union, “Being Black in the EU”, Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, (European union, 2020).
- 8Elsa Dorlin, Se défendre. Une philosophie de la violence, (Paris: Zones, 2017), 2.
- 9Franz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs, (Paris : Le Seuil, 1952), 18.
- 11Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (Penguin Publishing Group, 2006).
- 12Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, (Duke University Press, 2017), 257.
- 14Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hege, Introduction à l’esthétique. Le beau, (Paris: Flammarion, 1979).
- 15Fitzhenry, Robert, The Harper Book of Quotations, (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 356.
- 16Franz Fanon, Les Damnés de la Terre, (Paris : La Découverte 2002), 229.