Art Critics on Emergency is a real-time collective diary by AICA-USA members about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on art critics, artists, arts institutions, art education, and the arts at large. AICA-USA members are invited to submit journalistic reflections and critical observations about this moment as it unfolds.
Note: This entry was written on June 3, 2020, during the first week of demonstrations in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
Some visual images seem to condense reality so compellingly that they become what we call “iconic.” Most of their power, however, is felt before constant repetition accords them such exalted status. Days after it went viral, we can still feel that power when we look at the video of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota on May 25. We can see its impact on so many others all over the world as they enact their shock and grief by sharing images of it on the streets, and through social media. Sometimes, images can do more than show us what to buy or show others how we are enjoying our lives. Sometimes they can reveal the realities within which we are living, whether we know it or not, like it or not.
Sometimes they move us to act.
Communicative media around the world has been filled with stories and images of the murder of George Floyd, an African American man, by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in an inner-city suburb of Minneapolis named Powderhorn. You can’t make up these names: chauvinism sets off an explosion of rage. As everyone now knows, it was triggered by a bystander’s video showing officer Chauvin casually kneeling with the weight of his body on the handcuffed Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. During this time Floyd may be heard calling for mercy, stating that he cannot breathe, that he is being killed, and crying out to his (dead) mother. Taunts may be heard, “So you think you’re a tough guy?” but it is not clear who is speaking. Protesting spectators are kept at bay by other officers. A paramedic is seen to check Floyd’s neck for a pulse and walk away. Chauvin’s knee remains on his victim’s neck for almost 3 minutes after Floyd becomes unresponsive. Several other videos and surveillance footage from nearby buildings have been mined to create a comprehensive filmic record of the event.  Footage of the murder was posted live to Facebook. Since then other videos and photographs have been posted on various channels, along with a torrent of description and analysis. Among these, Wikipedia offers a lengthy, informative, and balanced entry.
African Americans did not need the video of Floyd being murdered before their eyes to know the reality that it amplified so emphatically for the rest of us. Young Black men in particular regularly speak of leaving home every day wondering whether they will return. Based on long experience, their parents already know this fear. It finds eloquent expression in Ta-Nehesi Coates’ letter to his adolescent son, Between the World and Me.  The killing of George Floyd, and the manner of it, sent the same routine warning to local African Americans: we are watching you and are ready to use force, including lethal force, if you step out of line.
Cellphone video of the killing shown on Facebook in real time expands this equation. Especially when it arrives simultaneously with COVID-19, which infects and kills African Americans as disproportionately as it has impacted them economically. George Floyd was one of them. The expansion keeps on expanding. Events such as this exhort all of us to take a stand, to act against the systemic injustice they so vividly exemplify. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, are doing so as I write—from inside my COVID-19 quarantine here in Sydney, Australia, having flown in from New York and Pittsburgh—in solidarity, wishing to be on the streets with them protesting peacefully. I am on board with what Judith Butler recently theorized as “aggressive non-violence.”  She understands the scale on which non-violence has to operate and the kinds of combative force it needs to exercise to be truly effective. Non-violence has to become an alternative ethos and form for national, indeed international governance. Actually, paradoxically, it has to become a kind of policing, one which we all undertake—each according to our abilities.
Imagine that: in every neighborhood in the world the goal becomes to protect our neighbors and ourselves against institutional, criminal, and personal violence by proactively serving and sustaining non-violence. The odds are great: militarized policing is standard practice in authoritarian regimes throughout the world. It has become the norm across the United States in recent decades. It includes the use of agent provocateurs, and all out attacks on civilians by police. These people should be charged, this kind of policing should stop. In contrast, some small signs of non-violence could be seen coming to the fore this week: police in Chicago, mostly women, kneeling alongside protestors; a young Black protester in Pittsburgh delivering water to a phalanx of heavily armed police; white sheriffs in Flint, Michigan and Camden, New Jersey led their forces to join in protest marches. This, too, is spreading as protests grow. The Houston chief of police who politely requested of the President, “keep your mouth shut if you have nothing constructive to say,” when asked on the PBS Newshour on June 3 what was the basis of his appeal for policing based on empathy, replied: “If you are not empathetic seeing what we have all seen, what the world has seen, in terms of how George Floyd died, then I think you are probably part of the problem in this country as it relates to police relations and basically racism in our country.” The same program broadcast a Monmouth University poll showing that whereas in 2016 only 34% of respondents felt that police used excessive force against African Americans compared to against whites, in June 2020 that number had risen to 57%. Such sentiments prefigure what could be a new, non-violent norm.
So far, the public spheres of 140 US cities have been continuously occupied day after day, actions that—with the exception of the looting, wanton property destruction, battling between extremist factions, and unnecessary provocation of police—enjoy majority support from most locals, from public media, and (so far) on most social media. Is this the turning of the tide? Will it be the moment to address the inequities so relentlessly exposed by the COVID-19 virus? These public spheres are suddenly occupied on a scale and with an intensity of which Occupy could only dream in 2011. Is this, at last, after the Obama delay, the “US Spring”? The virus was already necessitating several unexpectedly flexible political coalitions that aimed at building economic and social cohesion during the anticipated recovery. Yet the partisan political divides were also reemerging in many places. Now perhaps they will be exacerbated for some—the extremes will become more extreme—but the middle ground is regrouping, shifting leftwards, and is looking larger, younger, and more diverse than before. This is where the hope lies. Are we approaching the kind of moment that tipped the scales against continuing the war in Vietnam? More generally, on the largest scale, does one dare hope that this coming together of so many kinds of world questioning and movements for reform is the harbinger of the coeval communality that the world needs now?
Within hours we went from video footage of an everyday outrage in an inner-city neighborhood of Minneapolis to millions of people all over the world asking the same, similar or closely related questions. Surely, we must be able to “get along” (to quote Rodney King) better than this! Do we want to keep living in a world in which anyone can be murdered so nonchalantly, for so inconsequential a reason, by a state official, a person obliged by us as citizens to serve and protect us all? Of course, putting the question this way instantly exposes a convenient fiction: in divided societies such as the US, a major function of the police is to patrol the lines between the races, the classes, and the districts. Nebulous, porous and constantly shifting on the ground, these lines must remain unspoken in official discourse, which is stuffed with surrogate terms, such as “the rule of law” and “law and order.” These terms at least have the veracity of linking law with state violence. On the ground what actually prevails is the myriad local laws and ordinances that have arisen from the practicalities of enforcing these separations. In the US, the rate of Black deaths in custody is the tip of the iceberg, one of the many legacies of slavery, so far from being resolved. These deaths have been steadily accumulating. Minneapolis had had several George Floyd type killings in previous years, including Jamar Clark (2015), Philandro Castle (2016), and Thurman Blevins (2018). As the Black Lives Matter movement claims, the powder keg was due to explode. It took the clear visual documentation of one instance of such death dealing—one that all could see, without equivocations, ambiguities, complications, or blur, playing out in real time—to light the fuse.
The George Floyd murder video is a token of a type, an instance of commonplace white police brutality against Black people. It joins the constant flow typical of the image economy (I will call it the iconomy) in its normalizing operations. Live posting on Facebook, Instagram, Weibo and the like is also part of the current iconomy as a self-managing, hierarchical machine for the circulation and control of subjective and shared desires. Even its virality was structural: social media thrives on constant anticipation. Yet the video, on its face, is not of the kind that might become a fixed icon, a component within the control economy. It does not settle into what Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, called a state of studium, an image of injustice, in this case, so conventional in its codes, so readily classifiable, that it moves us only to mild anger.  Both Barthes and Susan Sontag alert us to the deep relation between photography and death. Every photograph of a person evokes a time now past for all who now look at it. If the subject is still alive, it captures the fact of their being there, looking like that (to that camera and photographer) at that moment. If the subject is dead that too becomes a fact about the image. Does this most fundamental fact about photography apply to this video? Does it not simply show too much to be constrained as if it were a still image, however shocking? It shows an execution, performed slowly, in real time, indifferently, as if by accident, such that the protesting, perhaps dying body beneath my knee is—oops!—the unfortunate collateral damage of proper, normal (perhaps a little too zealous but not over the top) policing.
Photodeath. As Sontag reminds us in Regarding the Pain of Others, the morbid fascination on the part of the living with the imagery of death contains elements of obscenity.  The obscenity lies in how readily we evade the imprecation to act against the atrocity that we are witnessing. After all, we unconsciously say the image might be doctored, other viewpoints might show less brutal motivations, something that we are not being shown might exist to justify it. But the killing of George Floyd in real time seems to banish everything except itself while at the same time bringing into visibility everything that is like it, the vast, deeply embedded injustices that made it inevitable. The Real becomes visible, we can see it unadorned, unalloyed, undeniable, unequivocally. So rarely seen, but always present. It is there, and it is horrible. “Videodeath” might be one of its names.
Or at least that is how the video reads to almost all who see it now. The coverup began straightaway, with the police coroner reporting that Floyd died from stresses caused by a combination of his being restrained, an underlying heart condition, and excessive alcohol and methamphetamine consumption. Chauvin was initially charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, charges designed to recognize deaths caused by accident or negligence, not lethal intent. (In most jurisdictions, proof of murderous intent is required if the presumption of immunity enjoyed by police is to be overridden.) Within days, an independent autopsy established that Floyd had in fact died from the pressure applied by Chauvin and by the other officers. Several investigations, including by the FBI, have led to further charges. Those against Chauvin were upgraded and laid against the other officers. Profiles of Floyd as a quasi-criminal lowlife quickly appeared, to be countered by family stories of him as a good man.
For all of their present power, we can anticipate the likely fate of the imagery of George Floyd’s murder. The many lives of the video of the beating of Rodney King by several Los Angeles police officers in 1991 is a warning. George Holliday’s film was the product of chance and coincidence: on the evening of March 3 of that year, he had set up a new camera on his balcony to record the Marathon the next day; the beating happened to occur on the street below that same evening. Today, however, smart phones and surveillance cameras are ubiquitous, even on the streets of an ordinary suburb such as Powderhorn. Shown on the local TV station the next day, Holliday’s grainy black and white video struck most who saw it as an unequivocal record of the excessive use of force by the police involved. It sparked local and national outrage at the brutality it depicted. Infamously, this self-evidence evaporated inside the courtroom when the officers were tried. While the prosecutor relied on the self-evidence of the video shown as a whole, the defense for the police showed selected clips, arbitrarily froze others, then projected sections of it at varying speeds, often so slowly or abruptly that its actors became unreal figments. Crucially, they highlighted a 10-second section at the beginning, often left off television broadcasts due to its lack of clarity, that could be interpreted as showing King taking a small step towards the officers. On this slim basis, a case for his threatening them was mounted, and the following fifty plus beatings with batons, and the administration of a stun gun, plus several kicks from many of the thirteen officers at the scene, were discounted. A situation was created that, as Louis-George Schwartz notes in a 2019 Artforum article, “effectively created a visual context which rendered the reality of what the police had done to King invisible.”  Schwartz goes on to chronicle case after case—such as that of the strangulation of Eric Garner on a Staten Island street in 2014—in which what seems to be incontrovertible video evidence of excessive and often deadly police violence, shot by police cameras as well as by independent witnesses, goes to court to die.
The acquittal of the brutalizing officers in Rodney King’s case sent South Central Los Angeles up in flames and led to angry riots across the country. The accelerating accumulation of similar cases since then has not, it seems, changed the overall equation. Schwartz pinpoints the ongoing disjunction:
In 1992, most scholarly responses to the video of King’s assault focused on an effort to imagine the circumstances under which video evidence would lead to the conviction of violent police and the eventual prevention of police violence. Today, that thinking seems largely irrelevant, and the central question has become what to make of the widening chasm between legal and extralegal interpretation of these videos. Trials themselves, along with the entire justice system, have long since lost legitimacy as a search for the truth in the case of police violence. Outside the courtroom, as such footage increasingly triggers public interpretation and reaction in real time—before trials, before grand-jury findings—it seems destined to start more fires, which will burn hotter each time.
Inequity not only prevails, it does so more evidently, in plain sight, in view of many more news feeds, internet postings, and public broadcasts. The iconomy saturates our exchanges, all but the most private ones (into which it constantly intrudes). Several of its typical protocols are in evidence during this crisis. One is connectivity of content established through formal resonance. A striking instance is NBA basketball star LeBron James’ May 26 Instagram posting that juxtaposed an image of officer Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd with one of quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before a game in order to protest precisely police violence and racial inequality in the US. Kaepernick’s contract with the San Francisco 49ers was not renewed after the 2016 season. Despite his outstanding skills, has not been able to find a place in any other NFL team. James’ post was headed “This…” above the image of Chauvin and “… is Why” over that of Kaepernick. The caption reads: “Do you understand NOW!!??!!?? Or is it still blurred to you?? #StayWoke.”
The hundreds of thousands of protesters who demonstrate in cities across the world throughout each day and who at night defy the curfews (directed at 45 million on the night of June 1) have made this connection. They do so in multiple ways. One aim of the demonstrations is to create a culture in which murderous police will cease to act with impunity because the courts will no longer protect them. The courts will cease to do so only when their role as protectors of social inequity through the upholding of bad law is eclipsed and eventually extinguished by a commitment to the exercise of justice. This will only happen when the people demand it and when individuals act justly as citizens, allies, neighbors, and partners.
This state of affairs is exactly what the current occupant of the White House does not want. Neither do corrupt officials, such as Attorney General William Barr, or Republican politicians such as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. In the week following Floyd’s murder, Trump stoked flames of division via his Tweets while, when protesters came too near, hiding in a bunker in the White House. He finally stepped out to speak on the evening of June 1, delivering a clear message of no tolerance, proclaiming himself the “law and order president” and promising military occupation of streets across the nation. His speech was laced with not so coded invitations to his base to rally in defense of their America. Meanwhile, the sounds of exploding canisters and the smell of tear gas drifted into the Rose Garden. Violence against civilians was unleashed to clear space for His Hypocrisy to do a well defended walk to St John’s Episcopal Church, adjacent to the White House grounds, and awkwardly display a bible. This act of pure photo opportunism was quickly called out by bishop Mariann Budde for its abuse of the church’s sacred symbols and place.
Like his white supremacist supporters, Trump is happy to stir up a race war. It is a battle that they think that they can win. At enormous cost, but no matter, some of them will, they believe, come out on top, and Black people, Asians, Hispanics and liberals will be gone. It is a war that has to be fought soon, they believe, otherwise the numbers of the others will be overwhelming. Right-wing Israel writ large.
Even in actual democracies the state claims to be the only source of legitimate violence. Most of the time most citizens consent to this awkward surrogacy. But in the US under Trump and his Republican pretorians the state has become illegitimate. Not even they believe in it. Yet they do believe in unleashing its reservoirs of violence in defense of their power, positions, and property (while of course justifying it in terms of defending higher values and the nation itself). In threatening to send the US army into states and cities where governors and mayors refuse to impose martial law, Trump is shooting straight past civil war toward all-out authoritarianism. Given the legal limits on presidential power, however, he might be, as is also usual for him, merely shooting off at the mouth. But the situation is already a state of emergency, one in which those legal limits might ultimately not apply. If enough of the apparatus, up to and including the military, support Trump in exceeding the legal limits of executive power, then military rule will become the de facto state of affairs. In this situation, state violence, exercised in this way for these reasons, does not have to be legitimate. It simply has to exercise itself. Is this what the protesters have sensed? They are out on the streets looking for the lineaments of a different kind of governance, one that does not have its roots in the exercise of violence. They are also insisting on such equitable governance in their institutions, workplaces, and homes. Let us hope that these changes take forms that the media can comprehend. Right now, November is looking a long way off. It is way past time for Trump and his cronies to go.
Meanwhile, the virus delights in the fresh opportunities afforded by the rush to reopen “the economy,” and by the congregations of worshippers, fun seekers, and protestors. The virus, however, is indifferent to their quite different reasons for taking it as less serious than their personal pressing concerns. The paradoxical consensus behind social distancing be damned. At the time of this writing, the US is experiencing over 1,000 deaths from the virus each day. But the virus and the protests are connected by more than coincidence. Roxane Gay explains how:
Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism. We will live in the knowledge that a hashtag is not a vaccine for white supremacy. We live with the knowledge that, still, no one is coming to save us. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free. 
This yearning is now shared by all of us who are out there, in real time and in spirit, on these abnormal streets.
Terry Smith is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, and Professor in the Division of Philosophy, Art and Critical Thought at the European Graduate School.
1. See "How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody," By Evan Hill, Ainara Tiefenthäler, Christiaan Triebert, Drew Jordan, Haley Willis and Robin Stein, The New York Times, Published May 31, 2020, Updated June 22, 2020. <www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html> and "George Floyd Killing: New Video Shows Three Officers On Top Of Him," TMZ, May 29, 2020. <www.tmz.com/2020/05/29/george-floyd-killing-death-new-video-three-police-officers-derek-chauvin/>.
2. Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York; Spiegel and Grau, 2015).
3. Judith Butler, The Force of Non-Violence (London: Verso, 2020).
4. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill & Wang, 1980).
5. Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2003).
6. Louis-George Schwartz, “In Plain View: Video Evidence,” Artforum (Summer 2016), <www.artforum.com/print/201606/in-plain-view-video-evidence-60108>.
7. Roxane Gay, “Remember, No One Is Coming to Save Us,” New York Times, May 30, 2020. <www.nytimes.com/2020/05/30/opinion/sunday/trump-george-floyd-coronavirus.html>. Tamika Mallory puts it best: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7-2qnaCQr4.
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