The Perfect Beauty of Black Death
Now this will be a beautiful death
-Kanye West, ‘Power’
In Remainder (2005) by Tom McCarthy and “The Body of Michael Brown” (2015) by Kenneth Goldsmith, two works that play upon the transformation of reality into art, of catastrophe into fact, black death has an aesthetic function. Not only does it order the world but it also serves to express and then to expose, in roughly the same way that forensics (of the forum, public assembly) opens death to the inspection of law and of sovereignty, how the black corpse, by a kind of natural necessity, ultimately becomes the most perfect illustration of death as beautiful finality. But, further to this, in these works black death also tactically serves another purpose and is endowed with the most contradictory meanings. Murdered, not-yet-buried as “surplus waste,” the black corpse is able, from a place other than the grave, to transform murderous violence into beautiful social fact, white narcissism into a public good and aesthetic value into deadly perfection. As the perfect specimen for the fatal instrument of law, or the social needs of violence, black death confirms a requisite truth: “No beauty without violence, without death.”
The rhetorical function of black death is to express death’s essence. In Remainder the black corpse becomes a “symbol of perfection” because it has merged into substance, and this attribute is used to distinguish between the imperfection of a gap between being and event and the perfection that scorns such distance. Forensically and beastly dead, blackness can only signify perfection by being dead – in these instances, shot to death – its absorption in death is the “ground zero” of its perfection. This death becomes art in the same way that murder becomes forensic, and the gap between real acts of death and their lived, symbolic meaning renders the corpse as a zero that turns into extractive surplus.
When all is said and done, this trope of a desire to experience black death intimately, to possess it, is not a recent one. Moreover, it is as a fungible entity that blackness owes its origin in the world as a commodified property (and one whose death has been performed relentlessly, repeatedly, narcissistically). And yet, since this essence needs underwriting by something else, as an aesthetic value, it is underwritten by the obsessive need to perform it, to re-enact it, as a worldly duty: “And so I had to re-enact this death: for myself, certainly, but for the world in general as well” (The difference between McCarthy and Goldsmith is that this duty is also seen as part of a national obsession with black death.)
World here denotes public culture. It is understood exclusively as a forensic history of anti-blackness, wherein black social life is no more than a signifier of the deadly perfection that awaits it, and that will become the ground zero of its being. The world is the sovereign possession of black social death, but it is also the space where that death can be forensically altered; what once was killed has symbolically become a still, forensic outline of being. White conceptual art gives form to this outline, but only by immobilizing it as a mythological quality or value. Art becomes violation – it arrests the black corpse in the history of its violation. This is why the essence of black life must first be thought forensically before it may be determined as a beautiful presence. It changes the function of the trope blackness is beautiful — here the verb ‘to be’ transforms a feeling of resistance from a political necessity into the rigor mortis of onto-political judgment. In short, the verb functions here more like a syntactical break between the beautiful idea of black devastation and the devastatingly real impact of its happening. The copula suddenly becomes ‘beautiful’ when the moment of enjoyment and preservation arrives as the forensic meaning of black life. The artistic re-enactment of that history is merely a new kind of avant-garde cruelty and perhaps even fantasy of a murderous violence that is its own event. I say avant-garde because nothing can overcome the resistance to metaphor quite like the metaphor of a meaning beyond analogy and resemblance.
Similarly, this forensic knowledge is also assumed to be beyond metaphor or analogy, for it is never more than the singular expression – immemorial and inalienable – of its deathly portent. This is why in these artworks blackness always dies twice: first as metaphor, in the posthumous version of a life lived as social death, which coincides or merges with the event of its murder; and second as beyond metaphor, as a death always deprived of the meaning of its own death, for blackness is merely the name of a surplus to be obliterated. Every black death has this dual property of zero and surplus – since it can be established as servile, it can also be destroyed as valueless. This is how black death acquires its beautiful perfection: as ante legum, its being is always already dead and so cannot be killed; and as property, it can be punished according to the forensic rules and pronouncements of the forum, a law that can be re-enacted each time white desire needs to defend or affirm itself as the rightful law of the living.
There are, without a doubt, many reasons why white art relegates blackness into mere matter for its own prestige and enjoyment, and in ways entirely distinct from the human. The command to blackness to be still, do not move, is at once a claim for deciding the rightfulness of that delegation, and the fatal moment that actually enacts it, in which re-enactment is conceived as absolute negation, either by denying life, or by being seen as a disposable, material remnant. Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown” goes so far as to loftily set apart any conception of black death from whether the person is living or dead, for what actually matters are the semiotic patterns, shapes, and texts by which art lends the dead existence.
For herein lies the drama of this conceptual art – the factor that drives it: the preservation of black death as outline is also its preservation through erasure. Here we see the merger of two fantasies. On the one hand, the inescapable brute fact of death against which no one can prevail without imperfection becomes, in art, a matter of magically merging with a barely nameable blackness of being, of being absorbed into zero (since blackness is understood not as a human but as a pre ontic-ontological substance). And, on the other hand, for white art to matter it must itself become either forensic or murderous – the beautiful manifestation, on the level of the aesthetic, of a violence altered by its identification with the black subject being murdered.
You can always identify the trauma of white sovereignty, in brief, with the extent to which it derives its essence and suffering from the prosopoeia of black catastrophe. And if these two works are particularly egregious examples of this, it is because neither happens to notice the sense of entitlement that allows them to declare that certain deaths are merely livable, synonymous with a passive servility, and that have no other meaning than as a spectacle of property, up to the point where they become art – the exact equivalence of their forensic actuality.