James Baldwin and his Switchblade Mirror
by Debra Hand
The great writer James Baldwin had what I call a switchblade mirror. To me it was his super power, both as an artist and as an intellectual.
Baldwin’s switchblade concealed a mirror, and no clever words from his opponents could hide them from its truth. “Click,” said his switchblade, sharp, glistening, and ready to dissect, “have a look at you.”
When I think of Baldwin, in fact, I think “switchblades” in general. A tongue that cut straight to the truth, cut through the words and games and nonsense. He had an incisive wit, punctuated by vivid, expressive eyes that cut back and forth, never missing a play. During debates, his eyes sparkled with revolt and indignation. He could slice you with a glance. All these years later, we recall his delivery as intensely as his words.
James Baldwin was a master wordsmith, but it was his mastery over logic and reasoning, along with his ability to so concisely expose someone’s own BS–even to them–that made up his super power. Baldwin would strike with irrefutable logic, leaving opponents dumbfounded and quivering in their own hypocrisy. Long story short, in the poignant heightened language of today’s street philosophers, Baldwin could “read” your ass like no other.
His speeches and debates not only left opponents nowhere to hide from their own hypocrisy, but also left them and every witness present with a more illuminated view of every aspect of being Black. Baldwin caused people to see. He caused people to reexamine racial issues and their place in the diorama. Each time Baldwin clicked his switchblade into service, it was to show America to America in all its bitter truth. Click. Have a look at you. Just as with every other card-carrying super hero, whenever Baldwin struck he left behind truth and a blueprint for justice.
After he finished his “read,” no one could claim blindness or see the subject quite the same way. If your eyes were closed, he opened them. If your eyes were already open, he’d open them wider and sharpen your focus.
Among Baldwin’s finest switchblade-mirror moments were two debates: the James Baldwin/Paul Weiss debate on the Dick Cavett Show and the Baldwin/Buckley debate at the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, Baldwin stood up, surrounded by White male students of one of the world’s most hallowed universities, during one of America’s most rampant periods of civil injustice, and he so eloquently exposed the hypocrisy of racism that the next-in-line heirs of the systemic privileges of racism jumped to their feet to applaud. Undoubtedly there were men who left that room changed in some way. And it is saying something that you can affect the sight and thinking of those braced to inherit the reigns of society at every top level–from industry to politics, to law. Especially back then.
As an artist, Baldwin illuminated and expanded the consciousness of others. And while not every artist will come to know the eloquence of a James Baldwin in their own presentations, James Baldwin’s life can teach every artist something even deeper: how to dig into your own truth and examine what it is to be fully human, how to grant yourself the right to exist fully and freely as an artist without the validation of others dominating your creative process. This is a skill not easily mastered, especially for artists, because so much of what makes up the art world hinges on external validators: the art teacher grading your work, the critic, the shows or galleries that accept you, etc. Acceptance and rejection create a maze to be navigated, especially in the business of art. But alone in your studio, your passion to express freely, fully, and honestly should be the only tests you are trying to pass.
Baldwin went to France to free himself of the external constraints of being Black in America. He wanted to know who he was as a whole being, a whole writer, a whole poet, a whole artist, even if he then used those talents to spotlight issues of race. Once centered in who he was a full human, Baldwin could then stand in his entire humanity and fight. He could help others, both the oppressed and the oppressor, to see the blind spots in their own human conditions.
As an artist, when is the last time something you said, wrote, or created left someone illuminated in their understanding of the human experience, or expanded their thinking on a subject?
While we might not all have the same mastery over verbal reasoning Baldwin possessed, by the time a person is in their late teens, each one of us is on our way to becoming an expert on some part of life. Each one of us has paid particular attention to subjects or themes in life that others have paid less attention to. Or certain themes have been thrust upon our lives through our circumstances. We’ve been caused to study things about life that others might only gloss over. Family circumstances and dynamics vary for us all, yet we are all unified by our quest to succeed at getting through life. Even as one person is becoming an expert at speaking out, another is becoming an expert at hiding in silence; or as one person is becoming more open to the world, another is becoming more closed off from it because of their particular experiences.
All artists are influenced by what they glean from personal experiences, and within their conscious and subconscious minds, certain themes perpetually circulate. For Baldwin it was race. But just as with Baldwin’s writing, every painting, sculpture, photograph, book, movie, and dance performance tells a story of what the artist thought was important to say or capture in that moment. So the first thing every work of art tells us is something about the artist’s perspective. And for each artist or collector, different things are important, even when looking at the exact same situation.
This makes every artist an expert on at least one thing: what they see and how they see it. No one has the right to invalidate that. Just as James Baldwin did, you have to first be able to validate yourself, and then be willing to stand firm before any person or entity and defend that right.
If my articles do nothing more than this, I hope they will help artists and collectors to understand this one thing: there is no such thing as a painting that is the most important painting in the world, because there is no such thing as a person who is more entitled to examine their experiences than everyone else. A painting can be compared for technical skill, but as for whose story is most relevant to tell or be validated, this is a relative question that will always depend on who is asking and who is answering. And it is the honest and fervent examination of our own lives that help us to form the tools to answer these questions for ourselves, and in the process, hopefully, create works that resonate with meaning for others in the world as the work of James Baldwin will forever do.
By the time Baldwin was in his late teens, he was an expert on rejection, on the non-acceptance of his full humanity. He knew it from every side. He could spot it in any disguise, or hidden behind any words. On a visceral level, he understood the cruelty it imparted. He understood how people could be manipulated and destroyed by it. His battle scars were deep. He understood how robbing someone of their humanity fueled self-destruction, and how it continued to function as a psychological cornerstone of racism; and not just psychological, but also in a very real physical and systemic way. It was his own personal, up-close examination of his own experience that allowed him to break free of the mental shackles first, and then defend his race against further psychological games of capture. He became an expert swordsman at defending his right to exist fully as who he was. Click. Have a look at you.
In his writing, being self-defined was a recurring theme. Over and over, he rejected America’s rejection of his humanity.
As a human and as an artist, he knew he had the right to exist and pursue his chosen work. Baldwin’s art was the result of him honestly and intensely pursuing his internal and external worlds in search of experiencing fully who he was. He did not allow others to decide his worth.
This is the most important thing you can learn on your path as an artist or collector: you have to self-validate before you can begin to truly find your honest voice. You have to ask, “Who am I and what matters to me?” and not, “What will the art world find acceptable to permit in me?” You have a right to create what you choose. You might choose to address social issues in your work or collection, or you may choose not to. You are right, either way, simply by virtue of the fact that it is your choice and no one else’s.
But you also have to learn and accept that your art may not be everyone’s version of what is important, or what is art. After all, each person who sees your work has a right to interpret their own experiences and to respond to what moves them in a work or not.
Like Baldwin, you should be able to stand by your right to exist as you, and to translate your thoughts and experiences into whatever art you choose to make–or even to hide it there. If you’re honest in your internal exploration, your work may end up illuminating the minds of others or bringing them together to engage as fellow humans as they enjoy the aesthetics of your creations. But, first and foremost, seek out your full humanity and don’t allow it to be co-opted in the process of seeking validation.
And, once again, in the profound words of James Baldwin, “Take no one else’s word for your experience.”
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