The chaos of knowledge and value of difference

One of the great pleasures of my new freelance life is the time I have for reading and writing, activities that I found hard to do when I was in my full-time role at Tate.  Over the last weeks I have been reading the collected writings of the American poet, writer and activist Audre Lorde, brought together in the 2017 publication ‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You.’  There is so much here I have found enlightening and instructive in relation to life generally, but also to museums, not least because it is fascinating to reflect on how Lorde’s ideas are permeating these institutions.

I, like many others I imagine, was familiar with the much-quoted sentence that forms the title of one of her essays; ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, that Lorde first gave as comments at a conference in New York in 1979.  Reading the essay from which the sentence comes, I was struck by how multi-faceted this observation is.  In the first instance Lorde is making the vital point that ‘only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible’ if the tools of a racist patriarchy are ‘used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy.’  In other words, real change cannot come about if the consciousness and experience of those who have historically or traditionally been excluded from the dominant community are not recognized and empowered.  She goes on to say that there is great danger in members of society (white feminists in the specific case Lorde is referring to in the text) assuming that their experience is universal.  Instead, what is urgently needed is not just the recognition of difference, but a championing of the ‘creative function of difference in our lives.’ It is through paying attention to our differences, seeing them as positive sources of strength and interdependency that we can start to bring about genuine transformation.

In terms of the twenty-first century art museum the obvious insight I take from this is the need to have a multitude of knowledges, perspectives, and experiences, not just accepted but actively and consistently advocated for within these organisations.  Without this, and despite all the declarations about and commitments to greater equality, diversity and inclusivity, museums will struggle to bring about systemic and sustained change.  This change goes beyond diversifying the workforce, which is not to say that this is not a crucial undertaking.  More broadly, ideas, opinions, and ways of knowing that diverge from and at times challenge the accepted canon, must be seen as positive and enhancing rather than threatening or problematic.  Is this possible within institutions whose authority, even existence, has historically rested on the creation and maintenance of a well-regulated canon of art and artists?

In an online essay on Lorde’s influence Gemma Bird talks about her own experience of teaching political science at a UK university.  She describes how she moved away from an uncritical celebration of the canon of political writers and theorists to using the same texts as a ‘springboard’, ‘a vehicle to magnify voices and lessons that have been forcibly disappeared.’ She emphasizes how Lorde and other writers helped her see how the presence of a canon silences marginalised voices whilst perpetuating existing dominant ones. And she argues that teachers can and should empower students to both critically engage with the canon and look for voices and ideas from outside it.   I wonder what this means if we situate the museum as a teacher according to the model Gemma Bird is advocating?  To what extent are museums already alert to this, seeking through their education and curatorial programmes to move away from the notion of a canon, to foreground hitherto marginalized voices and empower visitors to question dominant narratives?  What more needs to be done?

I gain further inspiration from Audre Lorde’s ideas that the dismantling of the master’s house is a creative as well as critical project.  She is clear that it is not enough to critique existing structures and knowledge. What is needed is the recognition of difference as ‘a crucial strength’ which allows for productive confusion and the emergence of new ways of being.  Or as Lorde describes so beautifully, we need ‘to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future.’  Museum professionals might justifiably feel anxious at the idea of descending into chaos, however, the key point I see Audre Lorde making is that we must never fear ideas that diverge from our own, but instead value the potential of difference to transform and improve.

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