Spotlight Series

Spotlight: Contemptorary

This summer, Daily Serving is highlighting some publications that contribute to the global arts conversation. Today from contemptorary, co-founders Eunsong Kim and Gelare Khoshgozaran write, “Legal scholar and artist Mari Matsuda’s interview further extrapolates the power dynamics found in freedom and the arts. In ‘Mari Matsuda: Founding Critical Race Theorist, Activist and Artist,’ we discuss with Matsuda her thoughts on the intersections between law and expression, and the possibilities of contemporary art.” This conversation was originally published on April 30, 2017.

Codex, 2017. courtesy of Mari Matsuda. Photo: Reese Kato.

Codex, 2017. Courtesy of Mari Matsuda. Photo: Reese Kato.

contemptorary: We are so grateful for your existence and presence in the world. We have been avid readers of your critical race and legal scholarship—and we were so excited to learn that you also have an art practice. We were curious what the field or the practice has offered you. So we wanted to ask you about your legal studies and art relationship—there seems to be a small tradition in which legal experts take up (and take apart) representation; we’re thinking, NourbeSe Philip as the most contemptorary example.

Walter Benjamin describes the necessity of “The Author as Producer”—where the writer of the photograph not only provides the captions and the text, but the labor involved in photography in order to unsettle artistic categories and remain in solidarity against the function of management. Is this how you might describe the dynamics between your legal scholarship, your theoretical work, and your art practice: as an undertaking that unsettles labor and author categories?

Mari Matsuda: No one has ever opened an interview with me expressing gratitude for my existence. Blessings to you for your existence as radical women art and idea generators.

Poet lawyers abound—Elizabeth Alexander, Pauli Murray—some of my absolute favorites. Many of us chose law because it is a tool for justice. A problematic tool, but not one to dismiss lightly. Critical race theorists came to understand law as an ideological support system for inequalities of all kinds. Law allocates wealth, power, life itself. As Woody Guthrie said, some kill you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen. Understanding how law worked as an ideological system, what lies it told, how the lies seduced, how they were resisted, was our work.

Entering the art conversation late, I find art questions are basically the same as law questions. Like Walter Benjamin, I don’t see aesthetic value as separate from value in the human struggle for just and beautiful lives. My art making is not so much what you are calling unsettling categories (although it ends up doing that) as it is taking sides.

It is no surprise to me that women who are warriors in law would also make poems, or that the anti-racist historian Nell Painter switched to art. The project doesn’t change. It is about describing a world inhabited by humans, with all its pain and all its possibility.

Read the full conversation here.