Rizvana Bradley

The scholar on art, blackness, and negativity

Sam Huber
Photo: Cassidy DuHon

In her new book, Anteaesthetics: Black Aesthesis and the Critique of Form (Stanford University Press), Rizvana Bradley interrogates the racial foundations of the aesthetic and its order of forms, arguing for the centrality of blackness to modernity’s regime of representation. Reading across numerous fields and artistic examples, from nineteenth-century painting and early cinema to contemporary video and multimedia installation, Anteaesthetics offers a new interpretive framework for the philosophical interventions black art undertakes, stressing black art’s negative power. Bradley’s book builds upon her 2021 essay for The Yale Review, Picturing Catastrophe,” in which she considers “2020’s so-called summer of racial reckoning” in relation to the racial metaphysics undergirding the history of photography and the politics of visuality.

Bradley is assistant professor of Film and Media at UC Berkeley and a member of the editorial board of TYR. She interviewed the novelist Raven Leilani for our Summer 2023 issue. Earlier this month I corresponded with Bradley about her book, the histories of black art and thought with which it engages, and “the relationship between blackness and the aesthetic itself.

Sam Huber, senior editor

SAM HUBER Anteaesthetics launches from a contradiction that was also central to your TYR essay “Picturing Catastrophe”: in the modern world, black life is at once barred from and compelled into representation, erased and ubiquitous, conscripted into and concealed from view. How did you arrive at this motivating problem?

RIZVANA BRADLEY Carrie Mae Weems once said of Mickalene Thomas (an artist whose work is discussed at some length in the book) that her practice “turn[s] art history upon its head, as opposed to reinserting the black body into art history.” What Weems’s insight gestures toward is in fact crucial for thinking with black art generally, regardless of whether such artwork is conventionally construed as figurative or abstract. Black art and artistry do indeed turn art history on its head and inside out. Weems alludes to the need for a different method of reading, one which would neither reduce black art to a bid for or resistance to inclusion in the Western art historical canon nor presume that blackness has been ancillary to the latter’s formalist schemas, aesthetic judgments, and genealogies of form. So, in part, Anteaesthetics emerged as an effort to elaborate a radically different approach to interpreting black art as well as an exploration of the general philosophical problematics one ought to have to confront in the course of such interpretation.

From the outset, I wanted to think seriously about why and how it is that blackness, to invoke Huey Copeland’s astute redeployment of Cedric Robinson’s phrase, is “bound to appear.” In this respect, my line of inquiry unfolds from long-standing black intellectual and artistic traditions that critically interrogate the nature, dynamics, and fraught appearance of blackness in the context of the modern world. These traditions could in fact be traced as far back as the cataclysm of transatlantic racial slavery, even if the historical archive often erases or distorts the philosophical inheritance they have extended. My own project began from the premise that blackness cannot be represented in modernity’s aesthetic regime but is nevertheless foundational to every representation. This paradoxical premise compelled further questions: How can we make sense of the endlessly forced appearances of blackness, no matter how illusory? And what does all this mean for actually thinking with blackness and the myriad artistries that emerge from it? Anteaesthetics marks an effort to draw out the complex implications of these problematics for critical theories of the aesthetic, of black art, and, moreover, of their vexed entwinement.

I should also say that the book took shape over the course of many years of thinking with artists and writing about art, and also during a period in which black art was increasingly becoming the subject of both popular and critical discourse—typically with the discursive emphasis falling on the artwork’s reparative or resistive potential. I began to notice that while “the aesthetic” was progressively being taken up as a privileged terrain for thinking about blackness and (to reprise a familiar phrase from W.E.B. Du Bois) “the problem of the color line,” rarely was the relationship between blackness and the aesthetic itself being taken up as a serious problematic in its own right. It seemed that, far too often, both popular and critical discourses were taking the relationship between blackness and the aesthetic for granted, and that the aesthetic was either treated as ultimately secondary to whatever the real concern might be—let’s say, the politics of police violence or the carceral state—or the aesthetic was immediately assumed to offer a unique terrain of refuge, of healing, or even of emancipation from the violence of the world, particularly the antiblackness of the world.

The book refuses to acquiesce to the expectation that black art should function as a salve or suture for a lacerated social and political body.

In contradistinction, Anteaesthetics explores the ways in which blackness in general, and black art in particular, are made to come before the aesthetic—the ways they are forcibly put to work in service of the very aesthetic regime to which they are brutally subject. The book contends that modernity’s aesthetic is an irrevocably antiblack formation, and that any meaningful effort to grapple with the stakes and experimentations of black art must contend with the deep critique of form it necessarily undertakes.

SH One of your book’s more bracing interventions is its insistence on viewing black art through the lens of “negativity without recuperation or redress”—that is to say, you resist the common impulse to make black art solve the problems of social and political life. What makes redress so alluring for viewers and critics, and why is it important to you to resist it? What is false about recuperation’s promise?

RB An important question, and you’re definitely right to say that the book refuses to acquiesce to the expectation that black art should function as a salve or suture for a lacerated social and political body. The allure of recuperation and redress is troubling. In thinking through this problem, there’s an important distinction that needs to be made between two specific, if often intimately knotted, expressions of the seductions and impositions of redress. Here the early work of Saidiya Hartman is an essential reference point. The first expression of this redressive drive is an entreaty and demand made on behalf of the very world that holds black people in a state of permanent and incalculable injury. As Hartman contends, this sort of “redressive action is about limiting or containing a breach.” In my TYR essay “Picturing Catastrophe,” which focused on the visual politics of black rebellion and solidarity during the so-called “summer of racial reckoning” in 2020, I wrote about the deplorable ways that black death is made to serve as “the very lifeblood of American democracy . . . [as] a catalyst for . . . ‘healing’” the body politic. In this instance, I’m pointing toward a specific problem: the ways in which black art, in the unconscious of civil society, assumes a morbid affinity with black death in that it is similarly taken as “a catalyst for ‘healing’”—wherein what is imagined and felt as “healing” in fact entails the revivification of the forms of personhood, subjectivity, relationality, and collectivity from which black people are foundationally interdicted.

The second expression of the redressive drive can’t be analogized with the first. This expression concerns the desire for a reparative orientation that is substantively equal to the violence and suffering that black people have endured, to the violence and suffering which persist unabated. The issue here, again echoing Hartman, is that the available means of redressive action are “desperately insufficient.” This insufficiency is due to “the magnitude of the breach” cleaved by and to an unfinished Middle Passage. Amidst the strictures of the world this passage produced and produces, within the confines of the given, such actions can only constitute “effort[s] to redress an irreparable condition.”

In short, the insistence upon redress and recuperation ultimately places black art in service of the existing grammar of the political, while displacing the antagonisms that subtend the political. Rather than acceding to forms of redress and recuperation that surreptitiously reinscribe the order of racial subjection, Anteaesthetics works to foreground the negativity of black art and to remain open to the indeterminacy that negativity refracts and extends. This priority emerges from a commitment to attuning to the minor refrains of black existence, to inventions which are, to borrow David Marriott’s phrasing, “radically unwritten.”

SH At the same time that you refuse any “idiom of resistance,” you also acknowledge that black art and thought are “never completely subsumed” by dominant “racially gendered orders of intelligibility and permissibility.” Something in black art exceeds or subverts the aesthetic regime that also curtails it. What is the nature of this subversion, and how can a critic do it justice without falling into undue optimism about art’s revolutionary potential?

RB Another great question, though I would stress that the book is definitely not arguing for the impossibility of resistance. But Anteaesthetics does insist that we need to pause and consider whether we’ve taken the abstract concept of resistance, as well as our capacity to identify its concrete manifestations, as self-evident. I would add that the importance of questioning the axiomatic character of resistance, as both an analytic and a demand, is hardly exclusive to those of us invested in thinking with black art but extends to everyone variously struggling to confront the ecocidal machinery of the modern world.

Anteaesthetics traces a number of ulterior figurations: contamination, impurity, exorbitance, and ruination among them.

In the course of reflecting on what we may have taken for granted about resistance, we might also find ourselves considering why it is that a relatively uninterrogated notion of resistance serves as one of the principal interpretive frames through which contemporary discourse on black art unfolds. Theorizing the conditions of possibility and singular force of numerous works of art, my book contends that “the idiom of resistance risk[s] eclipsing” the negativity of black art. That is to say, if we reduce black art to an articulation of “resistance,” we eclipse the complex inhabitations of these artworks and their recursive deconstructions of aesthetic modernity’s predominant forms.

What black art bears is in fact something far more terrible and beautiful than what familiar lexicons would permit us to articulate. Rather than beginning from the presumption that the function of black art is to either resist or repair the world, Anteaesthetics traces a number of ulterior figurations: contamination, impurity, exorbitance, and ruination among them. These are figurations which implicate, deconstruct, and often existentially threaten commonsense political grammars, but they are certainly not figurations that can be reduced to or subsumed by these grammars.

SH Your writing moves thrillingly across many artworks, images, and contexts, which makes me curious about the relationship between idea and example or case in your work. How do you know when an artwork demands to be written about? Do you keep a mental store of images, to be deployed as needed in the service of an argument? Or does an encounter with an artwork propel (or compel) the writing?

RB Well, I’ve always tried to withdraw from a functional or teleological relationship to the work of art, in which art is rendered little more than an object to be placed in the service of an analytical framework. And there are of course idiosyncratic proclivities that play into which artworks I’ve found myself taken by or drawn into an encounter with. So, for instance, my early encounters with Glenn Ligon’s works were induced, at least in part, by my love for literature and the written word. But I would say that I’ve generally been compelled by artworks that are suffused with philosophical questions—questions that overturn, implode, and even infinitely recede from canonical philosophy’s organizations and valorizations of knowledge. Often this happens through the artwork’s descent into an irreducible materiality that troubles the categorical definitions and partitions of the sensorium that have been foisted upon us. Many of the artworks discussed in the book invite us into an encounter with the beauties and terrors of what I’ve variously theorized under the rubric of “the haptic.” Ligon’s work, for example, radically deconstructs normative articulations of the visual, the textual, and the phonic. Yet even this operation is deeper than it could first appear; I could return to Ligon’s work again and again and never exhaust its capacity to exhaust the conditions of its own emergence.

So, in this regard, I’ve certainly been most drawn to artworks which exhibit a certain rhizomatic movement between art and philosophy, or which, more precisely, reconceptualize the minor through an inhabitation of the negative underside of form. Still, I want to be careful not to overemphasize the element of choice in this encounter. To riff on Julie Beth Napolin’s words, the “resonance” of the encounter with the artwork “is there before I arrive.” The encounter with the artwork is one that precedes and exceeds my recognition of the encounter, and ultimately flies in the face of every way one might want or try to put an art object to work. What I have learned is that the artwork is a site of undoing, in which neither the pretense of sovereign spectatorship nor the fetishization of the work of art can be sustained.

Sam Huber is a writer and senior editor at The Yale Review.
Sam Huber
Originally published:
October 30, 2023


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