Last month, I assigned my basic writing students a sculpture as a writing prompt, as is my usual practice at the beginning of class. While that day’s in class writing was as insightful and compelling as usual, a student blurted out a question at the beginning of the exercise (technically against the rules) which stuck with me for the rest of the day. Apparently unable to contain himself, the student was confused as to whether we were looking at a photograph of a sculpture or a digital image which had been manipulated to look like a photograph of a sculpture. At first, the question was easy to answer, of course we were looking at a photograph of the sculpture. Midsentence, however, I suddenly found myself not so sure.
The reason for my own confusion, a core element of my teaching practice which I take to be axiomatic, is that the student’s embodied encounter with the work of art as represented on the screen serves as the occasion for writing, and that the student is emancipated insofar as they have the capacity and the right to say what they see, as Ranciere would put it. This means that without any direct knowledge of the history or socio-political context of the work of art, the student has no way of knowing exactly what they’re looking at. This is to say that the object the student encounters, in this case, is indeed a digital representation of a photograph of a sculpture, which is to say a digital manipulation.
The pedagogical as well as theoretical implications of my student’s question are indeed profound, in that for us to critique a digital image of an actually existing sculpture, installation, etc, we must all agree that the image is a suitable representation of the physical object in question. This requires two preconditions: first, that we have a stable matrix of social relationships which enables the mutual trust necessary for everyone to agree that the image is in fact of the object it ostensibly represents, and second, that the meaning inherent to the work of art can be faithfully transmitted via this channel.
This suggests that our capacity to critique, discuss, or teach a digital representation of a work of art which exists in the physical world depends on these conditions, and is troubled in turn if either of those conditions are troubled. This is to say that without a shared and stable lifeworld and a leap of faith that the meaning encoded in the materiality of the work of art can be represented in a photograph, I argue that critique is difficult if not impossible. For this purpose, I will summon the work of Detroit sculptor Dominic Palarchio, specifically his documentation of the subject position “white working class” and his focus on materiality. To gesture in a preliminary way at my final conclusions, I will suggest that Palarchio’s work pokes at the impossibility of critiquing it, raising the question of pedagogical and theoretical possibilities for the work of art beyond critique and representation.
In the spirit of Palarchio’s work and its focus on materiality and materials, I will utilize materials for my own work which carry intentionality of their own. I will only use texts that would have been accessible to me prior to my institutional affiliation, texts which can be easily accessed or located by any English-speaking reader. This means that while the language and concepts employed in this exercise may not be immediately unfamiliar, there will be no paywalls standing in the way of any person or group’s efforts to engage with this writing project. Now for the trust exercise known to fans, critics, and producers of film and media alike, the jump cut.
Sometime around 2016, the American intelligentsia began referring to something it called the “white working class”. This demographic, defined broadly as a teeming mass of white people who lacked college degrees, was apparently engaged in a number of different pursuits. First and foremost, the white working class was suffering from economic insecurity, opioid addiction, an increase in suicide specifically among men, and a bruised collective ego in the face of affirmative action and globalization. Due to these indignities, this group of people was deemed to be at a high risk for supporting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Around this time, I also learned that I myself was a part of the white working class, mostly from other leftists who asked me my opinion on how best to reach them/us. What I would come to find however, is that I was in the white working class precisely at the moment where someone else’s politics required that of me, and at no other time. Curiouser and curiouser, as time went on I found the white working class appearing phantasmatically in different contexts and arguments concerning the 2016 election, in a fashion wherein it appeared that the rhetorical situation at hand seemed to control the definition of “white working class” much more so than anyone was basing their argument on the characteristics, plight, or actions of this group of people. Over time, the concept of the white working class started to appear as a map without a territory, a demographic label for a demographic which lacked a fixed existence, what Baudrillard would term a “simulacra” (Baudrillard, 166).
Somehow, at the same time that think pieces and opinion essays concerning the white working class were proliferating, I also began to see articles about how it was disappearing. One way of imagining this is the simple fact that white people without college degrees were an increasingly smaller demographic in the United States, and that the total share of the US population meeting that description was declining. On an individual basis, also, it appeared that white working class people, men specifically, were dying early deaths at a higher and higher rate every year, from suicide, heart disease, opiate overdoses, workplace accidents, and other causes. It was almost as if the decline and imminent disappearance of the white working class was fully imbricated with their/our sudden appearance on the political stage as important actors. If we return to Baudrillard’s notion that the simulacra (in this case the image of the white working class), rather than being a lie or a manipulation, in fact serves the purpose of concealing that there is no truth, we see that the systems of race and class which we imagine as fixed and immutable are in fact fictions in their own way. At the same time, something real is happening. After all, people with a certain set of characteristics, however they’re defined, do seem to be dying.
Dominic Palarchio. Untitled, 2019.
12 x 6 x 5 in each
In Palarchio’s Untitled, a pair of grass cutting shoes sit affixed to a wall with Tupperware containers inserted into the shoes. Quite literally, the shoes are stained from cutting grass, and their new status as part of an art project is an afterlife of their original purpose. At first, I thought of how cutting grass was both a coming of age ritual in my household, as well as my first job. Next, I thought of how the meaning of grass cutting sneakers is radically different depending on one’s perspective. Either one wears them in the cutting of one’s own lawn, wears them in the cutting of another’s lawn, or observes someone else cutting either their or another’s lawn. In essence, their connection to the labor of lawn maintenance depends on the economic relation between the person cutting the lawn and the person who owns the lawn. It is these economic relations, and the lifeworlds they enable, that are shifting beneath the feet of Palarchio’s grass cutter.
As jobs in manufacturing, trucking, and the like dry up never to be replaced, home ownership and thus the privilege to cut one’s own grass increasingly escapes the fabled white working class. In my parents’ neighborhood, many of the houses are now owned by landlords who accept Section 8 payments. This means that the lawns on their block are just as likely to be cut by employees of a property management company as the occupants or owners themselves. Palarchio’s shoes also reveal the necessity of a shared lifeworld between critics, viewers, artists, and the like, in that people with different relationships to lawns and different structural positions will view the shoes very differently. In fact, it’s possible that my origins in the same milieu as Palarchio rendered me incapable of grasping the shoes as conceptual art, in that I immediately recognized them as grass cutting shoes. Were I an upper class Boston native, I might assume they were a comment on late capitalism.
Dominic Palarchio. Remnants of a Pimped Ride, 2018.
Subwoofer, plaster, paint pen, milk crate, neon, stereo, CD, amplifier, power converter,
speaker, key chain, hardware.
30 x 72 x 14 in
Sound: Xzibit. X, 4:25.
When my basic writing students encountered Palarchio’s “Remnants of a Pimped Ride”, they found themselves at a crossroads between the problem presented by the writing prompt from my basic writing class and my struggle with Palarchio’s lawn cutting shoes. On Palarchio’s website, the piece is presented as a photograph, whereas in a museum setting the installation is a functioning car stereo attached to a subwoofer. Thus, when my students encountered the piece, it was under the guise of a digital image projected onto a screen, an image which they assumed was of garbage in someone’s garage. In fact, they assumed I was playing a joke on them. I will admit, part of my motivation was to momentarily confuse them to set up the conditions of possibility for a teachable moment. “Remnants” forces us to contend that it is only our consensus reality and social relationships which cause us to recognize a given object as art or not, and in this scenario the meaning of the object certainly cannot be fully transmitted from its original location to a digital representation, a fact I am forced to contend with in whatever capacity I encounter the work.
Much like my encounter with the grass cutting shoes, however, many of my students immediately grasped not only the function of the objects pictured in “Remnants”, but recognized them from their own lives. Aftermarket car audio was extremely popular from the late 1980s onward, peaking in the late 1990s and tapering off as cars were increasingly packaged with powerful and sophisticated sound systems. Thus, my students recognized the head unit and subwoofer setup as being similar to one owned by an older sibling or another relative. They also understood the association of loud sound systems with masculinity, power, and respect. This is to say that a young man with a powerful sound system in his car is able to control not only the sound of bass heavy music in his car, but also project his presence over numerous city blocks. My own initial encounter with the speakers was the same as with the shoes, simply that the work was a head unit and a subwoofer.
In this case, my students (primarily working class and Latinx) and I both recognized the object and its larger significance, and in that moment I, they, and Palarchio were able to construct a shared lifeworld around our mutual understanding of what the installation “means” and what it literally “does”. “Remnants”, like “Untitled”, does the work of showing how class sets the tone for the encounter with the work of art by prompting different reactions from different viewers based on their relationship to aftermarket car speakers. To push things even further, it creates a space wherein my students and I were able to share the memory of early 2000s subwoofers in a way that bypassed the usual borders between them and I. Things become a little more difficult in another untitled piece wherein Palarchio utilizes teeth molds to create a simulation of bloody and broken teeth. This piece for me required a bit more hermeneutic work, in that it was not in fact an actual set of teeth. Even so, I was immediately drawn in. In the United States, dentists are not required to accept Medicaid, and dental care without insurance can be prohibitively expensive. This means that a person who goes without quality health care will likely lack quality dental insurance, and that class distinctions most acutely present themselves in one’s teeth. Prior to my encounter with the piece, I used to joke that people said I was in the white working class because of my teeth, which are crooked and misaligned on the bottom. Looking at Palarchio’s piece, this joke appears to have come to life, in that the teeth are also immediately familiar to my experience in such a way that I recognize them as immanent to my own experience.
Dominic Palarchio. Untitled, 2019.
Dental impression, grime, oil, transmission fluid, blood
3 x 3 in
The significance of “busted” teeth, to use the vernacular, is deeper than just diminished access to dental care. Teeth are often negatively impacted by consumption of soda, smoking, and of course drug use, activities which are more common amongst people of working class origin. Looping back to our earlier discussion of the various afflictions increasingly impacting the quote unquote white working class, we note that health problems both acute and chronic are visited upon different social groups unequally, and that the combined effects of poverty, joblessness, and collective despair in places like Ingham County and Brighton can very much result in sets of teeth like those depicted in Palarchio’s piece. In the post 9/11 era, we see the specter of the “tweaker”, a methamphetamine addict who is likely to steal your catalytic converter or lawnmower.
The irony is that for years, it was easier to see a primary care doctor for tooth pain than a dentist, and doctors were famously willing to prescribe opiate painkillers for tooth pain. This is to say that lack of preventative dental care could itself be a gateway into drug addiction. My encounter with the teeth is also different in that it makes me uneasy, thinking about my own teeth and how my lack of preventative dental care will likely follow me throughout my life. Beyond that, my teeth will always reveal the fact of my origins, even in situations where I would prefer to conceal them. I can only imagine that this is the case for anyone viewing the piece, that their relationship to the question of “bad teeth” is the condition of possibility for how the teeth can become intelligible to them. Again, I find myself in the paradoxical situation of knowing what the teeth “mean”, without being able to imagine them as a piece of abstract art. This, to me, is another instance wherein Palarchio’s work teaches us that what we do or do not consider to be art depends on our position within a series of social relationships, and that an individual viewer’s reaction will force them to contend with this fact.
What do we make of the fact that one must seemingly be fully removed from the lifeworld in which Palarchio’s work is intelligible in order to make sense of it as art? Palarchio is not the first artist to use everyday objects, nor is he the first artist to perform a commentary on class politics. What is interesting about his work, then, is not so much that he takes working class objects and makes them talk about class, but rather how his work breaks open the logic of how we come to regard objects as art, and speaks directly to a working class audience in a way which bypasses and circumvents the educated and civilized mind we associate with the appreciation of art. Indeed, I am decently literate in the arts and Palarchio’s work is even able to cut through my own years of cultivation and bring me back to a few important moments in my young life. What space does Palarchio open for us? First, I suggest that Palarchio’s work demands that we develop a new framework for teaching our students to read and understand images.
This is to say that by grasping images and other works of art as performing certain work in the world rather than representing a certain experience or concept, we can escape the deadlock wherein our theories of representation are perpetually imbricated with our social relationships and historical conditioning. From “teaching” work from Palarchio and others, I have learned that the best way to empower students is to begin from their own reaction to an object, and then work backwards to make sense of that affective encounter as a way to make sense of the world and their role within it, as opposed to teaching them about art as a means of teaching them how to experience it. Within this exercise, I have successfully completed the work I would ask of my students, reflecting on my own experience of art as a way of meditating on what it means to inhabit a given position, be it a real one or not.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations”.Selected Writings, Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford University Press, Redwood City, California, 1988. p 166-182.