Airing Out Ambivalence: on cultural care and the allure of judgment

by Ellen Tani

In the opening line of his 1992 essay “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary,” Kobena Mercer lays out his intention “to explore the experience of aesthetic ambivalence in visual representations of the black male nude.”1 The subject of his ambivalence is Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic book Black Males (1982). Calling up both the intellectual and embodied experience of ambivalence, Mercer seeks to reckon with his attraction to the bodies pictured by the artist, a sentiment that contradicts his anger at the artist’s reduction of those bodies to aesthetic objects. Viewing it with his friends, he says, “we wanted to look, but we didn’t always find what we wanted to see…But still we were stuck, unable to make sense of our own implication in the emotions brought into play by Mapplethorpe’s imaginary.”2

The emotional force or valence of a work — the quality that repels or attracts — drives us to write about it. Repulsion and attraction are obviously not the only two feelings that move us to respond, and we often feel both at once. The term “ambivalence” describes this situation: coexistence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (as love and hatred) towards a person or thing.3 Yet ambivalence is considered a weakness in the writing of art criticism, which, for the sake of authority and clarity, ostensibly happens after one has made up one’s mind. The mind’s resolution produces a thesis statement, evidence of the author’s decisiveness. But what if the point we need to — or are afraid to — make is that we haven’t made up our mind? Is there a place for ambivalence in art criticism?

Ideally, one’s text should move the reader in the spirit of how the artwork moves the writer. Recent debates over controversial or triggering artworks must grapple with variations in cultural climate,4 but often move the reader to police the words and work of others, creating an echo chamber of antagonism. Is there a space for writing with caution and care, to retain a voice with a self-consciousness that doesn’t result in self-censorship? Criticism should ultimately be an act of generosity; modeling ambivalence in our writing realizes vulnerability as a necessary quality of developing alliance. And at a time when the line between identifying with and identifying as can be a matter of life or death, it’s worth complicating the notion of allyship, which has become an easy stand-in for signaling one’s position on the “right side” of other people’s struggles. In a culture in which race, gender, and poverty are factors of relative value for human life — a strange economy indeed — equivocating in our words seems like a slippery slope.

Criticism should ultimately be an act of generosity; modeling ambivalence in our writing realizes vulnerability as a necessary quality of developing alliance.

We may fail to recognize our ambivalences, or let the shame of their discovery move us to sweep them under the rug.5 In the heat of debate — as exemplified by recent public discourse around the exhibition of controversial artworks — assumptions often seek validation through selective reading and listening at the expense of research or even authentic voice. Cultural harm, in the context of the art world, can take the form of what we see and what we don’t see; it affects specific viewers, bodies, and human subjects more than others. Cultural harm can emerge from perspectives that are informed by neither direct experience of artwork nor responsible inquiry into the broader circumstances of the event, belying an ambivalence that has been closeted for the sake of vocality. As a result, we volley perspectives back and forth, but rarely unpack the thought process of arriving at them. By postponing judgment, and admitting that we don’t know how to make up our minds — or that we can’t — criticism might produce more generous rather than hazardous effects, and cultural institutions might recognize how to avoid doing cultural harm in the process of performing cultural care. Productive ambivalence requires listening both to the self and to others, dismantling defensive codes, and allowing for temporary self-effacement in the service of widening our view.

A few brave writers, Mercer included, have undergone performative revisions — issuing a text weeks, or sometimes years, after an original text — that grapple with indecision. They realize that powerful art has a strong and complicated valence, and that its restlessness reflects inevitable changes in context that re-establish the ground against which that work is read: ambi-valence. When we let our ambivalence breathe the same air as our judgment, we make ourselves vulnerable to our audience and dismantle our claim to authority. By laying bare the incompleteness of our intellectual world, we reject the hegemonic allure of judgment. Exercising ambivalence, while acknowledging intention, is how we begin to recognize what we don’t know.

Its manifestation as passive resistance or apathetic inaction makes ambivalence a familiar feeling for POC and white people alike. Honoring the feeling of ambivalence, rather than disguising it, can be a productive way to teach ourselves how we think, and in doing so, to understand our own biases and limitations. Mercer, who first wrote about his response to seeing Black Males in 1987, revisited the topic three times, most recently in 2003. Along the way, his attitude was shaped by the shifting context of contemporary art practices by black queer artists in the U.S. and Britain that cast Mapplethorpe’s work into an ever sharper historical light, primarily because of how they problematized earlier conceptions of identity in black cultural practices. In reckoning with his earlier text through the work of other artists, Mercer asks how we might frame “the constitutive ambivalence of the identifications we actually inhabit in living with difference.”6 Ambivalence is key to this framing, because, as he notes, it always happens between the cultural text, the world, and the reader.

More recently, critic Aruna D’Souza authored a positive review of Jimmie Durham’s retrospective at the Hammer Museum, followed several months later by a powerful essay properly summed up by its title, “Mourning Jimmie Durham.” Durham, who was deeply involved with the American Indian Movement and whose artistic practice took wry and cutting approaches to the vicissitudes of identity politics and postmodernism, had a complicated relationship with Native American identity. In her self-reflective text, D’Souza unfolds her ambivalence as follows:

The work tickled all my sweet spots — it was funny, self-deprecating, ironic, anti-essentialist when it came to the artist’s own identity and the romantic stereotypes forced upon him by the artworld, and it was deeply critical. The problem was, of course, that while Jimmie Durham’s work appealed to me — a South Asian woman determined to work beyond the bounds of my identity — precisely because of his defiant rejection of attempts to box him into the category of “Cherokee artist,” it turns out that it wasn’t his box to claim or reject in the first place.7

D’Souza’s metacognitive reflection acknowledged her difficulty, as a person of color and an ally, to temper her enthusiasm with criticality and recognize her own omissions. In addressing her error, she half-jokingly admits to experiencing the five stages of grief as the public investigation over Durham’s self-constructed mythology of Cherokee ancestry compounded on social media:

That I passed through these stages in public, on Facebook threads that will forever record my stubborn refusal to accept some basic truths about art, identity, and settler colonialism, is more than a little embarrassing. But, shame aside, I was lucky to benefit from a group of incredibly patient, open-minded Native American friends and strangers who took the time to school me — and trust me, they schooled me — through every one of the inevitable steps required to process such a major revelation.8

D’Souza’s performative revision takes as its subject the process of using ambivalence as a source of productive struggle, and acknowledges the discomfort of having one’s judgment stripped bare. Artists, too, have used ambivalence in generative ways, making the case for ambivalence in the creative act. Artist Nyeema Morgan wrote the following diaristic text in tandem with making drawings:

In the beginning my intention is to be as equitable as possible. I start near the center — approximately — and this is where the doubt begins. Anticipating congestion, I give sentences room to breathe without resorting to strict measurements that would slow an already labored process. I feel optimistic in the potential for something wonderful to happen, something different despite a task that will be no less than tedious. I make a few satisfactory strokes; I am content. Time passes and I am attentive — proud of my resilience. A hierarchy of visual perception emerges, governed by my waxing and waning interest. My growing ambivalence is making me feel guilty.9

Morgan’s earnest reflection conveys a different tone than other more conventional artist texts — either the generic artist’s statement or the strong-voiced manifesto. She is not immersed in her work with a consistent intensity and focus; she acknowledges her fatigue; she is fascinated and bored; she is both guilty about her feelings and proud of her efforts. The form of the manifesto, on the other hand, has a structure of forward progress; often written in a punchy, declarative style, it conveys an uncompromising commitment to clearly-stated aims. But even a manifesto can honor ambivalence. Tania Bruguera, who is notable for her declarative and often polemical work, embraced the value of insecurity in her 2009 talk “Culture as a Strategy to Survive,” acknowledging it as an essential aspect of authenticity: “Artists should stop and start from scratch, from a place that is not self-nostalgic, a site where all our insecurities are present, an insecure place, a place that is not self-important, a place where art is not an important concept. Art should be a concept appearing later, after the fact, not an a priori decision.”10

And while critical authority stems from one’s intellectual world, it’s easy to forget that one’s intellectual world participates in these systems, is shaped by ideology even as it forges the tools to reckon with its entanglement.

Bruguera and Morgan’s reflections remind us that we should stop treating art as if it were always there, as if an artist could forecast and carry out the spectrum of artistic intention. Intention is subject to the forces that shape what Mercer identified earlier — that mercurial space between the reader, the text, and the world — or what Lauren Berlant has referred to as the infrastructures of sociality.11 Ambivalence as equivocation is powerful, both in its ability to mute action and to fuel stronger connections with complicated debates.

Ambivalence is part of how we, as writers, point to and explore the horizons of humanity bound by hegemonic systems that value some lives over others. We are constantly negotiating difference: between ourselves and others, between our changing selves and a changing world. And while critical authority stems from one’s intellectual world, it’s easy to forget that one’s intellectual world participates in these systems, is shaped by ideology even as it forges the tools to reckon with its entanglement. Too often, ambivalence is relegated to process rather than portrayed in the act of writing, as if it’s a mere phase of thought that bears no traces. We can acknowledge the contradictions in our own thinking without producing contradictory texts. Thinking through ambivalence might enable us to understand the contradictions endemic to seemingly resolute vagaries — like “accountability” and “responsibility” — invoked in demands for reparation of cultural harm, which have no singular origin from which to proffer a solution, even if institutions, artists, curators, or writers are the obvious culprits. When we do make up our minds, we might examine the forces that shape our judgment, negatively and positively, and acknowledge those forces rather than dismiss them as scraps in the process.


This essay was commissioned by The Chart as part of Field Perspectives 2017, a co-publishing initiative organized and supported by Common Field as a part of their Los Angeles 2017 Convening. Field Perspectives 2017 is a collaboration between Common Field and arts publications ARTS.BLACK, Art Practical, The Chart, Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, contemptorary, DIRT, Pelican Bomb, Temporary Art Review, and X-TRA. Partners each commissioned a piece of writing that aims catalyze discussion, dialog, and debate before, during, and after the Convening.



  1. Kobena Mercer, “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary” in Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, 1995, 171.
  2. Ibid.
  3.  “ambivalence | ambivalency, n.”. OED Online. June 2017. Oxford University Press. (accessed September 22, 2017).
  4.  When Theodor Adorno said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” he was not negating aesthetics writ large; rather, he was describing the aesthetics of post-Holocaust poetry as “barbaric” in character: rough-hewn, unresolved, and reflective of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. The act of making art, he argues, is not barbaric; its barbaric quality was an inevitable climactic effect of its context.
  5.  The desire to bypass ambivalence in the service of action undergirds the problematic aspects of noblesse oblige as well as advocacy for non-minority rights.
  6.  Kobena Mercer, “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary,” Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, 1995, p.171.
  7.  Aruna d’Souza, “Mourning Jimmie Durham,” Momus, July 20, 2017. Online:
  8. Ibid.
  9.  Nyeema Morgan, excerpt from The Dubious Sum of Vaguely Discernible Parts, 2012.
  10.  Tania Bruguera, “Culture as a strategy to survive,” Delivered at La Culture comme strategie de survive, Organized by Maria Inés Rodríguez, March 6, 2009, Jeu de Paume, March 2009, Paris, France, bc, Summer 2009, pp. 80–81.
  11.  Berlant: “I am proposing that one task for makers of critical social form is to offer not just judgment about positions and practices in the world, but terms of transition that alter the harder and softer, tighter and looser infrastructures of sociality itself.” (The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times” (Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2016, Vol. 34(3), p.394).

Ellen Tani

Ellen Tani

Ellen Y. Tani, PhD is an art historian, curator and critic whose research explores the political and philosophical endeavors of contemporary artists, with an emphasis on artists who engage with racialization. She is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, where she organizes exhibitions, teaches class sessions in the museum, and leads workshops for faculty on object-based teaching. She is currently organizing a major exhibition entitled “Second Sight: the Paradox of Vision in Contemporary Art” (Mar-June 2018), which features a range of artists from the 1960s through today who question and challenge the primacy of vision in their practice. Dr. Tani received her PhD from Stanford University in 2015, where her dissertation, “Black Conceptualism and the Atmospheric Turn, 1968-2008,” examined how artists like Charles Gaines, David Hammons, Lorraine O’Grady and Lorna Simpson responded to the interconnected legacies of conceptual art and the black arts movement. Dr. Tani has worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University, and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History. Her writing has been featured in Art Practical, Daily Serving, American Quarterly, Apricota journal, and Artsy.

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