Editor’s Note: After we went to press it came to our writer’s attention that Greenspon Gallery had re-opened without advertisement and by appointment only for audiences to come view the exhibition. Noah Dillon’s reportage has been updated to reflect this new information. Degree Critical regrets any confusion that may have resulted.
Rice is best known for NON, a noise-music project he began in the mid-1970s. NON has been musically innovative, using locked grooves, invented instruments, and aleatory procedures. But Rice has also employed a lot of fascist imagery: militaristic black leather costuming with weapons and peaked caps, references to Iron Youth and total war, NON’s Wolfsangel logo—a heraldic symbol adopted by the SS—and so on. Rice never tried to hide any of this, and his deployment of these symbols is unremarkable for that era’s abrasive counterculture. Members of the Sex Pistols wore swastika T-shirts, Siouxsie Sioux wore a Nazi armband, Throbbing Gristle made various references to Nazism, and so too Joy Division, Death in June, and several metal bands since. More recent examples include Nicki Minaj (the lyric video for her 2014 song “Only” features a cartoon depicting Minaj as a Nazi-like despot) and Tyler, The Creator (who, in 2015, designed T-shirts with a circle-and-cross icon used by White Power groups).
This imagery is typically intended to shock; sometimes it’s definitely meant to convert. Many early progenitors of the meme are English and were calling out post-war Britain’s interests in surpassing national trauma and suppressing the acknowledgement that many in their government and aristocracy had actively supported fascism. Rice doesn’t have that heritage, instead coming from the American West, San Francisco’s artsy weirdo underground, and Anton LaVey’s Nietzsche-inspired Church of Satan.
Rice collects Tiki bar novelties, has participated in the psychedelic Partridge Family Temple pseudo-cult, and also edited an archive of Charles Manson materials. He has consorted with various cretins, such as Manson, white supremacists Bob Heick and Tom Metzger, incendiary writer Jim Goad, and members of the the far-right neo-pagan movement, among others. He's got a reputation for being genial, but inhumane, and he depends on being given the benefit of the doubt—that he’s just being provocative, challenging social mores, or whatever, as he sometimes claims. He’s consistently coy and disingenuous. Most heinously, Rice has advocated for rape.
I need to interrupt this line of argument for a moment to note a further complication of the politics here: The show was not even actually cancelled. It’s unclear to me when this decision was made, but sometime between the cancelled opening and the publication of this essay at the end of November, the exhibition was simply quietly kept. Although it is not listed on the gallery’s website (which instead merely says “Gallery open by appointment”), the show is up and people can visit it. I did just that one day this month after walking by, seeing the “cancelled” show through the window, and was let in by a gallerist after I tried the locked door. Rice has three large abstract paintings, as well as six small collages made of memorabilia and ephemera, including some that were described as imaginary fan letters. Among these are Christmas cards from Andy Warhol and the serial killer Ian Brady, another mashup of LaVey and Tiny Tim, and one of a glamour shot of Brigitte Bardot and a memo by Adolf Hitler complete with debossed Nazi Reichsadler seal, which makes the already-dubious claim by Amy Greenspon that she didn’t know about Rice’s use of fascist images even more suspect. The gallery has since not responded to requests for comment.
Bajagić, who is much younger than Rice and whose work draws from porn, true crime, and histories of political extremism, says she was aware of Rice’s infamies and still elected to have her work shown with his. Bajagić’s work has made critical use of (and been criticized for) extreme right-wing imagery. Following the show’s cancellation, she posted to Instagram images of recent artworks included in the show: Two (“German Madeleine McCann” and Beate—helpful, kind, nice, obliging, primitive, subliminally aggressive and vulgar, both from 2018) featured the emblem of Greece's Golden Dawn party while another, Screenshot at 13.49/15.02 of the NSU’s “Pink Panther” confession video (2018), drew from creepy propaganda about racist murders by a German group called National Socialist Underground. But Bajagić’s use of this imagery, mined from the Internet, indicts its source, turns it back on itself.
Invisible Dole’s campaign for the show’s cancellation was shortly brought to Bajagić’s attention, whereupon she published on Instagram screenshot excerpts, with names, of conversations on the listserv in which members encouraged each other to contact Greenspon. In their discussion about de-platforming Rice and Bajagić, listserv members shared Wikipedia links (to an unrelated racist punk album and to the entry for Rice, which is bland and overly forgiving) and trawled Bajagić's photos, as well as people she follows and her followers on social media, for other fascist imagery, the latter of which seems like an especially dubious way to impugn someone.
I don’t know every participant on Invisible Dole, but judging from Bajagić’s Instagram posts, the listserv seems to include some fairly successful artists, including Alisa Baremboym, Josh Kline, Ajay Kurian, and Anicka Yi, all of whom show at 47 Canal. Margaret Lee, also on the listserv, shows at Jack Hanley and is a co-founder of 47 Canal (she wrote movingly last year, for Affidavit, of her disgust with Omer Fast's exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery in Chinatown, which included an installation widely perceived as racist). Tauba Auerbach is at Paula Cooper. One artist, Jory Rabinovitz (represented by Martos), gave Bajagić's Instagram feed an intertextual reading and declared that her follows and her work indicate fascist sympathies. One item Rabinovitz highlighted was a ring worn by Bajagić, with a cross pattée, a medieval insignia that was also used by the Nazis. Rabinovitz did not note (didn’t know?) that the same insignia has been widely used for centuries in Montenegro, Bajagić’s country of origin, including by Montenegro’s liberal, anti-war, independence movement. In 2016, after her work was pulled from a show about “the aesthetics of evil” at Bucharest’s Galeria Nicodim, Bajagić wrote on Tumblr, in part: “We live in a world where more than ever lies are masqueraded as truth. Whatever the media says people blindly accept and follow without question.” Rabinovitz suggested that the excerpt, critical of media narratives, may be a veiled accusation against the Lügenpresse, a Nazi-era term in vogue with the European far right, translated as “lying press,” like “fake news.” But it's also the kind of condescending blanket criticism I’ve heard all sorts of partisans make. There are stereotypes that, say, Republicans parrot FOX News or Democrats mindlessly swallow MSNBC, and that politics exists only between two such poles. The point is that it’s unfair, sloppy, and lazy to construe a pan-political criticism of “the media” as verification of hideous ideological decrepitude.
Certain listserv messages, including those by Rabinovitz and artist Jesse Hlebo, describe Bajagić’s work and Instagram as “questionable,” though no question is asked and there is an implied accusation, such as “Darja Bajagić is cultivating fascists on social media, period.” Bajagić and Rice even proposed a roundtable discussion in lieu of the opening reception to address questions raised by their work, but Greenspon rejected the idea.
It looks like punching at least laterally, and possibly down, when several more-established artists dogpile to get a show by their colleagues cancelled. (Again, the gallery's response is also rather duplicitous and mealy-mouthed.) It wouldn’t be particularly surprising to discover that many of the people who complained about the show were also fans of Joy Division, Nicki Minaj, the Ramones, or whoever, and were perhaps willing to put aside their qualms about those artists’ fascist imagery. Such an argument is a tu quoque fallacy that doesn’t actually address the criticisms of Rice and Bajagić. However, it’s worth considering the contradiction. We might ask: Ought a reference to an aspect of something be taken as a wholesale endorsement or empowerment of the same thing? Would it then follow that not depicting something is identical with condemnation and kneecapping? Or are relationships between imagery and meaning more complicated? Must criticality be an all-or-nothing position? Moreover, can people encounter cultural products without being indoctrinated into a particular viewpoint? I listen to Rice’s music and am opposed to the ideology he draws from. I expect likewise that most people are more interrogative viewers than perhaps they’re given credit for.
This exhibition comes during an intense period of argument in the United States about free speech and the de-platforming of vile speakers. As far-right-wing movements worldwide find themselves with greater power, liberal democrats everywhere are hypervigilant against chauvinists who show up online, on campus, in government. Unsurprisingly, after three years of provocations, shouting matches, and streetfighting, many partisans are on a hair trigger for any Left/Right virtue signaling. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely that the alt right would obtain much succor from a show at Greenspon or feel a loss on Rice’s behalf. (And in any case, if they’re looking for publicity, bigots far more influential than Rice—e.g. the President, many of his supporters, and officials—have platforms, including the national press.)
In 2005, a guy named Nathan Poe described on an Internet forum what is now called Poe’s Law: “Without a […] blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody [dogma] in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article.” While anyone can claim that employing white power imagery is performative or insincere, as one friend put it to me: “It definitely feels earnest when it's being screamed,” as in Rice’s music. And given that YouTube videos for Rice’s song “Total War” include comment threads praising National Socialism, whether or not Rice is sincerely a neo-Nazi may be irrelevant. The right wing has tried diligently to stake a claim that vicious and cruel trolling is virtuous, and that free speech means any manner of speaking should have no consequences and is obliged a platform. None of this is the case, though such arguments are invoked as cover to disingenuously advance putrid politics. People will (and should) shun disgusting speech, and anyone making use of fascist imagery should understand that they're playing with fire—there are potential consequences.
I don't think it's good or a good idea to give Rice a painting show, but I have a hard time seeing what exactly the harm is or could be. It appears likely that concrete harm might be done to an emerging artist (Bajagić) by obstructing her work, without evidence she's done anything particularly malevolent. I don’t understand why Greenspon couldn’t have restaged the show as a solo exhibition by Bajagić. I do intuitively understand horizontal violence, the desire to punish targets closer to home than the racist autocrat in the White House. Knocking down Rice, Bajagić, or, say, Richard Spencer, is a lot easier than ousting a president. But along with legitimate exercises of social power has come reactionary piling on, perceived transgressions blown out of proportion, and misdirected censure, with people's lives and livelihoods treated as acceptable collateral damage. It doesn't mean that the suffering of oppressed people is incidental, but that retribution (especially against someone like Bajagić, who is not the oppressor, if we’re thinking about the differentials of power in American culture and politics) is not synonymous with justice.
Free speech is a hard problem. I’m not confident that we know where to draw the line of opprobrium between vile speech and dangerous speech. Neither am I totally persuaded by what kind of onus rests in any given speaker. We might question the idea that all speech may be profitably met with more speech. I believe in such hoary liberal ideals, though my belief wavers in the face of sophisticated media strategies, echo chambers, hypocrisy, and cynicism, which impede disentangling personal expression from political speech, irony from sincerity. How can we hold to the Enlightenment-ish proposition of “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” if the problem is not merely disgusting, hurtful speech, but also that there are incentives for many parties, both for and against any bigotry, to act illiberally and in bad faith? This is the liberal precept that far rightists cynically play on when they demand their vulgarities be heard—that they are airing new ideas for discussion. They complain vociferously of censorship, which is their deliberately inaccurate term for the social disapproval that follows inflammatory rhetoric. The problem with Boyd Rice is not only his ideology, but also his questionable sincerity, his willingness to turn his work into a hall of mirrors, to be allowed fascism and plausible deniability. Someone like Rice makes it much harder to adequately appraise and respond to work like Bajagić’s, which dissects the aesthetics of authoritarianism, endemic misogyny, and paternalism, rather than promulgating them. Rice and his ilk are not new, and they are not going away. So how do we deal with them?
Also: I come to this issue with my own priors and biases, including being a cis, white, heterosexual man who likes loud, ugly music and obscenity.
Typical of the de-platformed media strategy is that the alt-rightist gets to gibber about the “totalitarian regressive left,” as Milo Yiannopoulos did after getting booted from Twitter. Bannon, in his own case, called The New Yorker “gutless.” National Socialist organizer Matthew Heimbach, the day after Charlottesville, told PBS NewsHour, in all seriousness, “The left [...] want to kill anyone they disagree with. They believe in no platform for people they disagree with, and use violence to get that.” Can you believe that shit?