Thursday, 22 October 2015

2. On niceness

The notes went

[Niceness being used to disguise:]

Reproducing structures of oppression

Reproducing structures of listening (who is heard, what is heard)

Reproducing the very shapes of conformity and obedience – in patterns of behaviour, patterns of speech, patterns of dress, and patterns of life-arc

as opposed to

[what is seen as] BEING TOO NICE = [labelled as] Of Lesser Value

I think these notes might actually already hold everything I want to say on the topic – which is why I held this blog post idea in draft for quite a while, making it shorter every time I come across it. The notes above lead to quite a diverse array of possible examples that I want to keep present in this conversation without noisily elucidating them all. But a few specific examples and reflections, in case they offer something, follow.

[--As is frequently the case, you can see that the a lot of my thinking is inspired by Sara Ahmed’s thinking – or at least that her excellent writing gives me the courage to take a leap of faith and explore out loud the way I perceive the structures that are holding things in place.--]

Reproducing structures
For some reason, and much against my instincts, I recently attended my twenty-year school reunion. It’s a private, all girls, Church of England school. We drank tea, and went on tours of the (almost all-new) buildings, had lunch in the refectory, and everyone commented on how no-one had changed at all over the years. And I don’t know why I was surprised by this, but I was struck by the performance of niceness that happened when we were reunited, and the way it felt utterly familiar, and that this was entirely linked to a performance of sameness. When I tried to express, for example, how much I had changed during the twenty years since I left school, this was met with a particular kind of non-response that entirely reminded me of the experience of being at school. People were unable to hear anything that differed from the model they were proposing. Under a veneer of niceness, of politeness perhaps, were hidden all the possibilities for difference and dissensus and queerness that make life, for me, bearable.

There is something important for me here about the ways in which we enact niceness, and reinforce structures where niceness is enacted. The place where I went to school feels far far removed from this life I have built for myself, as someone working in an experimental arts world. But I have seen this pattern of behaviour particularly when working in the arts world – a world that prides itself on the niceness of the people in it (we all do this because we love it! why else would we do it?) and yet people act in some of the least nice ways I can imagine towards each other and then never mention it again because “we are all nice people”.

Being too nice
On the other hand, I’ve often heard, and felt, the accusation that I am too nice or that my performance work is too nice to be taken seriously. It is the familiar opposition that is created between things that are ‘too nice and inclusive’ and things that are ‘rigorous and critical’, and it’s a problem I’ve articulated frequently. For me, those spaces that are both difficult and nice – by which I mean both genuinely inclusive in their invitation and able to hold open spaces that are not easily resolved and that do not aim to please all – are the most important, and perhaps the only important artistic spaces. But they have to be doing both those things: they have to be taking care as well as holding open.

I had a conversation recently with the wonderful artist Rosemary Lee about this – about how, if one is trying to make truly inclusive work, one will always be accused of being ‘too nice’ or maybe ‘not challenging enough’. And I realised that this very accusation, which sounds like the opposite of the enacting of niceness described above, is in fact exactly the same thing. The work is described as being too nice because it is inclusive. But this very accusation, of the work being 'too nice' is often levelled at an inclusivity that might mean voices or aesthetics are included that in fact are simply not conforming to the shapes or structures of the avant-garde; the structures of thinking, of language, of aesthetic, of life arc, that are valued within a certain artistic structure as ‘challenging’, ‘rigorous’, or ‘critical’.

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