A Review of "Assuming Boycott"


Steve Biko, in an article titled “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity” that was published in the newsletter of the South African Student Association, spoke of the economic origins of his country’s racial caste system:


There is no doubt that the colour question in South African politics was originally introduced for economic reasons. The leaders of the white community had to create some kind of barrier between blacks and whites so that the whites could enjoy privileges at the expense of blacks and still be feel free to give a moral justification for the obvious exploitation that pricked even the hardest of white consciences.


The aim of overthrowing apartheid, in other words, was not simply a matter of causing the white oppressors to feel guilt and concede power on their own. It was a question of how black South Africans could weaken and dismantle the structures that held them down by using whatever cultural and political leverage they had.


The question of how to fight back against oppression through boycott is the subject of Assuming Boycott, an excellent series of essays edited by Kareem Estefan, Carin Kuoni, and Laura Raicovich. What makes a boycott work? Is it the righteousness of the mission, the dedication of the participants? Is it the particulars of strategy or the disgust of the watching world at the injustices being challenged? It is all of these things of course, but the story of how boycotts play out between governments, civil societies, radical activists, artist collectives, and cultural institutions is what makes this volume so compelling.


The book begins with an essay by Sean Jacobs examining the comparatively favorable conditions that allowed the boycott of South Africa to find success where other boycotts have not. “The cultural boycott was successful to the degree that it was because, by the late 1970s, there was widespread popular consensus about ‘the evil of apartheid,’ especially in the United States and Britain,” he writes, a reminder of how far movements like the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement have to go in terms of influencing widespread public opinion.  


Though the boycotts against apartheid South Africa and Israel are different in a million small ways, the similarity in the backlashes they produced is striking. As Jacobs writes, “there was the well-funded lobbying and propaganda of the South African state and its business allies, which undermined the boycott” and used such tactics as offering huge sums of money to music acts that played in Sun City (Frank Sinatra supposedly earned between $1.5 and $2 million when he played there in 1981). Such stories carry added resonance in light of the recent controversy over Radiohead’s decision to play in Tel Aviv.


For sheer readability, Frank B. Wilderson III’s essay “Incognero: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid” is unbeatable. With vivid literary style, he describes a 1989 visit to Soweto as a black American man attempting to navigate the complexities of a new but familiar place. He ends up in a living room gathering of black intellectuals discussing mortgage and rent strikes, P.W. Botha and the Defiance campaign. At one point Wilderson remarks that Mandela, once released from prison, should die (“of natural causes, of course”) before he can do any damage to the revolution and “use his biblical stature to sanctify an accommodationist stance.” Wilderson’s prose brings a welcome dose of irreverence and vitality to a book of essays that occasionally comes off as pedantic and stuffy.


The volume’s occasional lapses into postmodern pretension are a shame, because even the most eye roll-inspiring passages are surrounded by unique insights. Take Eyal Weizman’s diologue with Kareem Estefan entitled “Extending Co-Resistance.” One minute Weizman is suggesting concrete, if vague plans (“Whenever BDS cuts off or impedes a relation with a state institution, the movement should find – perhaps even create – new forums for solidarity and cultural production”) and the next minute he has disappeared into the ether (“It is a matter of forging communities of practice, wherein action produces political constituencies and radical subjectivities among those who withdraw from the state.”)


Ariella Azoulay’s essay on BDS is more straightforward, examining some of the less-discussed aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She points out that in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel’s “enemy” included both British imperialists and the native Palestinian population: “Thanks to this deception, the neocolonialism pursued by the nascent state of Israel could pass as anti-imperial struggle and provoke international support.” In Azouly’s formulation, it is not just Palestinians fighting for rights but Israelis too – “the right not to be perpetrators” and to escape the “implicit complicity” in Israel’s crimes.


Another highlight is Tania Brugera’s essay on censorship in Cuba, which ties into the book’s overarching theme of cultural production despite feeling somewhat isolated due to its divergent subject matter. Her disgust with the tactics of Castro’s government in blackballing dissident artists (a sort of reverse boycott, of the artist by the single-party government) is a welcome corrective to the cult of personality surrounding Castro. Yet she thankfully offers no paeans to the free market, remarking that she was shocked how much power it had over artists when she visited the United States.


Other essays touch on subjects such as the boycott of the Guggenheim Foundation over their abusive labor practices in the planned construction of the still-to-be-completed Abu Dhabi museum, the influence of technology on international activism, and the legacy of Marcuse and Adorno. Throughout, the writing is infused with a sense of purpose and urgency that manages to propel the reader though the few turgid passages scattered throughout.


A boycott, the book correctly implies, is a line in the sand. It does not try to formulate a complex artistic reaction to a complicated political situation, as so many contemporary artists have attempted in their work, because what is needed most acutely is not abstraction, or even satire, but refutation. Too often what gets called “complex” or “nuanced” in the pages of Art Forum is simply nonsensical or at the very least purposely nebulous, an empty vessel of symbolism with which viewers can fill any number of meanings and draw any number of conclusions.


There have been plenty of artistic representations of love and friendship between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, to give one example, along with metaphorical works that explore the conflict in some way. Yet reading this book I could not help but think that such heartwarming tearjerkers and symbolic representations offer little more than empty solutions and false hope. What we need are clear statements of condemnation, divestment from oppressive governments and complicit instructions, and an all-out refusal to engage commercially with the offending bodies.


Beyond being a line in the sand, a boycott is a clear test of solidarity that one can either pass or fail (though those who fail inevitably claim the test is rigged). It is, almost by definition, an oversimplification – a tidy answer to a messy problem. But who refuse to boycott due not to a disagreement with the cause but out of a belief that art alone can change enough minds to change history are mistaken. Art can be powerful and transgressive, true, and the rule often holds that the tolerance of a regime for subversive art exists in inverse proportion to its capacity for totalitarianism. But as any good Marxist can tell you, money speaks louder than words. It’s the economic base that determines the cultural superstructure, not the other way around. A painting or song might move the heart or spur the mind, but it is people – and their capital – who control the world.