Is There Racism in Heaven?

Nick Cave’s Until at MASS MoCA

Until by Nick Cave, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, on view through September 4, 2017.

Nick Cave has said that in Until, his massive, elaborate, and provocative installation at MASS MoCA, he intends to pose the question of whether there is racism in heaven. Our modern-day Beatrice, he leads us on a tour of this paradiso.

One might think that the answer to Cave’s question is obviously no. Heaven is by definition flawless, a place of justice and delight. Vicious prejudice could not smirch it any more than rust could gold. Sacred texts tell us of a realm in which every tear shall be wiped from the eye, and every sword beaten into a plow.

(top) Photo credit James Prinz
(bottom) Photo credit Douglas Mason

And indeed, on a first look, Until seems indefectible, perfect in joy and bliss. One enters the football field-sized room and beholds sixteen thousand shining spinners suspended from ceiling to floor, a dazzling range of shapes—circles, disks, spirals, starbursts. Many of these consist of a set of concentric outlines of a shape, nested within each other, each rotating separately. Together they fill one’s field of vision with a galaxy of metallic-tinted color: red, blue, gold, silver, purple, and green, shifting and shimmering as they rotate, some swaying slowly in the ambient air, some turned by motors, catching light and splaying iridescence. In the center of the hall, a cloud-like platform is suspended eighteen feet off the ground, with huge crystal chandeliers decorating its bottom, interspersed among a field of densely clustered lines of crystals, hanging like innumerable icicles.

(top) Photo credit Douglas Mason
(bottom) Photo credit James Prinz

On the topside, to which we ascend by any of four steep ladders, a cornucopia of figurines, found objects—some of ceramic, some of metal or plastic—resides: birds, cats, pigs, butterflies, flowers of all shapes and colors, grapes to sate one’s desires, small reflective disks, all piled upon each other. Alligators are there, laying down with the fowl, just as in heaven the lion lays down with the lamb. The statuettes are kitsch, to be sure, but they speak in comforting tones of the familiar and domestic. And taken as a whole, they merge into a three-dimensional pointillist tableau of color and texture. At the far end of the room, nets of beads drape and hang from the ceiling, forming a wall and a hill, colored in stripes and squares, in brown, orange, yellow, pink, and magenta. In this beaded tapestry are cheery symbols: a rainbow, a peace sign, an equality symbol, and the word “power” in large letters.

But on inspecting the forest-on-a-cloud, we see that all is not right. With a horrible shock, we discern that dispersed among the ceramic figures are lawn jockeys. We are already knock-kneed on a small ledge at a disconcerting height, but at the sight of these emblems of normalized racial hostility, a new queasiness sets in, one that is moral.

Photo credit James Prinz

Beatrice turns out to be Virgil. Looking more closely at the spinners, one sees that they have at their center guns, targets, and tears. The topic of Until is the racist double standard that partitions daily life and the criminal justice system in America: blacks are guilty until proven innocent, they don’t matter, they can be killed with impunity. Those who gun them down are innocent until proven guilty and never proven guilty. The kitsch seems grotesque now, as it interjects a statement of class and race difference between the museum-goer and the people victimized by white supremacy. The sparkle and glitter of the spinners and the crystal-adorned cloud are thin gilding, barely covering the rot beneath. Now we sort the ceramic animals as predators or prey, and the large, golden pigs that occupy space with the jockeys are symbols of the state’s agents.

Photo credit Grace Clark

The jockeys are worn, their paint is chipped and faded. They embody memory—individual and collective—of pain, shame, and guilt. They were produced in a bygone day, but they haunt us still: a market for such “Americana” persists, in dusty antique stores and on eBay. The past is still present. The United States has a memory problem: we too readily tolerate the lasting cultural insignia of slaveholders, even as we dismiss talk of reparations. A discourse of personal responsibility denies history by construing as blameworthy people who have inadequate healthcare, who lack employment and housing, and who run into the wrong side of the law.

Photo credit Douglas Mason

Behind the wall of beads, confined in a separate room, resides the belly of hell. Hy-Dive is an eight-minute video installation in which nightmare imagery encircles all four walls: decapitated roosters slowly fall; and to macabre noises, eyes in a mask grimace and twitch a traumatized tic (or do they wink a signal for those who have eyes to see?). Blackface puppets scratch their way out of the masks’ eye holes and perform a line dance. Black-blue liquid waves are projected on the floor—no solid footing. A wooden lifeguard chair, too large for human dimensions, sits at the center of the room unoccupied—no savior. Earlier the beaded rainbow conjured hope, it called to mind the sound of Dorothy singing about dreams coming true, above and beyond it. Now it refracts differently, a portent of judgment, as it was for James Baldwin: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, the fire next time!”

Photo credit Douglas Mason

If this installation is supposed to be heaven, then it confounds. But then again the logic of heaven has always depended on exclusion and condemnation. Paradiso requires inferno; one person’s suffering ensures and amplifies the security of another. In Dante’s vision, the proclamation above the hated gate teaches that God’s love made hell. Nietzsche turns this on its head, wryly remarking that the door to heaven should announce, “I too was created by eternal hate.” Whether for the believer who imagines heaven as a literal post-mortem destination or for the non-believer for whom it signifies a utopic thought experiment, heaven is pristine only insofar as it excludes undesirables. And such a paradise is not just the stuff of dreams: we order our homes, our neighborhoods, our social media, our travels and vacations, our universities, and our art museums to beatify, and they do so only when the underclass remains invisible.

Heaven and hell then are intertwined. The garden is laced with brimstone, and American ideals are shot through with racism, classism, and violence. No plenitude here without lack there, no security without suppression, no order for some without harsh law for others.

Photo credit Grace Clark

In general, the imaginary of heaven (as literal or as desirable ideal), precisely in its fantasy of perfection, too often serves the ends of escapism and denial: a space removed from the ills of the present, predicated on denying those it excludes. Dante had to drink from the river of forgetfulness before ascending to glory, since in the vision of The Divine Comedy, the pleasures of the good must exclude awareness of the bad. Until refuses that medicine. If in our idealized imagination, we think of ourselves as beings who have forgotten racialized police violence and its precursors in Jim Crow and slavery, then we are imagining beings who are not us—ones that do not resemble us sufficiently to count as continuous with ourselves. To project ourselves in heaven without the memory of racism is to think of the effects of racism as something detachable, something that could fall away, leaving our identity intact. Could one live in heaven and not remember Sandra Bland and the circumstances that ended her life? What is at stake in wanting to imagine oneself as such a being?

Photo credit James Prinz

More so than asking questions about heaven, Until is then asking difficult questions about the here-and-now, about the character of those who imagine heaven and more immanent utopias, about how we remember the past and what we see in the present. It defies the notion that the US is post-racial. It goads us to remember historical injustice and its ongoing presence. By incorporating evil in the imagination of heaven, Cave challenges the exclusionary logic of utopic thinking in general, demanding that we continuously attend to those who suffer and bear injustice. He contests escapism and denial. Until punctures every fantasy that would obscure the vicious brutality that stops, frisks, chokes, shoots, and lies in the name of law and order.

In what sense then does the work represent heaven? Does Cave betray the horror of violence when he makes guns sparkle? Until’s lawn jockeys hold dream catchers. Does Cave lessen their offensiveness in transfiguring them so? Is there racism in heaven? Why visualize heaven at all when thinking about the pains and outrages of racial injustice? The acknowledgement of racism in this installation does not just speak truth to escapist fantasies, it transforms. Until is not just about how we think about the past and the present, it is also about achieving a better future. Cave’s transfiguration of the iconography of evil urges us toward justice, in a spirit of hope. The jockeys’ dream-catching nets extend upwards. What dreams are they poised to catch? Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood”? In his famous speech, King testifies that this day will not come so long as African Americans remain “the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” and its enabling white culture. And Cave like King insists that much work remains to be done until this dream is realized. Until imagines a future beyond the pernicious racial divide of the present, but one that is attainable only through the ongoing confession of the legacy of racism. The word “power” that his beads inscript is ambiguous. The militarized police have power, white terrorists have power, but so also do communities of color and citizens of all stripes. The “p” is almost entirely obscured behind a layer of beads, and the “r” is partially so, reminding us that each of us is an “ower,” we “owe” proper acknowledgement to each other, we are jointly responsible for the condition of our society. Only in the ongoing discharge of this debt will citizenly power come about, transforming our imagination and our reality.

Stephen S. Bush is a scholar of religious studies at Brown University, where he teaches religion, philosophy, and ethics. He has published Visions of Religion (2014), William James on Democratic Individuality (2017), and several academic essays on philosophy, art, and visual culture. He is currently writing a book on how philosophy, literature, and art portray human value.