Kara Walker‘s colossal, much-discussed work A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, commissioned by Creative Time and currently installed in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Refinery, has recently spawned some tasteless Instagram photos from people clearly missing the point of the work. Meant to serve as a commentary on the sugar cane trade, and a cultural critique of slavery and perceptions of black women throughout history, the work is part Sphinx, part racist Mammy stereotype, and is coated in sugar. It features exaggerated features including breasts, a bottom, and a vagina. As Walker told artnet News, “Nudity is a thing, apparently, that people have a problem with; not slavery, or racism, but female bodies, or bottoms.”
Those posting smutty pics on Instragram of this work of art are missing in fact three points: One, a critique of Afrocentrism (this to me is the work's most troubling area—the history of slave labor collapsed with the politics of black American nationalism); two, a comment on the mammy type (read Michelle Wallace's Black Macho and Myth of the Superwoman), and a presentation of slavery that locates it dangerously within and not safely outside of capitalism. To better understand the third point, one can turn to a passage in the first chapter in the new and very popular economics book Capital in the 20st Century by Thomas Piketty. The passage in question:
Human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market (not permanently, at any rate). This is a key difference from other forms of capital. One can of course put one's labor services up for hire under a labor contract of some sort. In all modern legal systems, however, such an arrangement has to be limited in both time and scope. In slave societies, of course, this is obviously not true: there, a slaveholder can fully and completely own the human capital of another person and even of that person's offspring. In such societies, slaves can be bought and sold on the market and conveyed by inheritance, and it is common to include slaves in calculating a slaveholder's wealth...
Piketty is making two moves here. The first dismantles the popular idea of human capital—an idea whose most famous proponent (the economist Gary Becker) died recently. What this move does is essentially separate Piketty from the neoclassical school of economics, a school which has dominated university programs and government policy for the past 30 years. From neoclassical thinking we get these three neoliberal realities: A government concerned not with full employment but price stability (keeping inflation low), the privatization of as many services as possible (the prison system, for example), and subjects who are no longer citizens but see themselves as entrepreneurs (your education, your skills, your daily life, you children, your dreams are investment opportunities—human capital). Piketty, however, sees this as nonsense because (and this is his second move) human capital does not meet the criteria for capital (which is "the total sum of nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on the market") but, however, American slaves did.
You could buy a black African woman/man, sell him/her, loan him/her, make a profit from him/her, borrow against him/her, and so on. Slaves were people reduced to nonhuman capital assets, people who were property in the sense of a government bond or a share in a company. And marketable, profitable assets is what capitalism is all about. Human capital fails to meet this basic standard of an asset. Also human capital is human. Also human capital is really a political project and nothing more. It's about universalizing the weltanschauung of one and very peculiar (and very powerful) mode of life: white men with lots and lots of money. The neoliberal world we find ourselves in still today (TINA's "C.R.E.A.M.") is nothing but the generalization of the thinking and being of this tiny group of humans.