On art, cocktails, and Amsterdam
Just like that, it’s March. Was it just me, or does anyone else feel like Black History Month was unusually short this year? Obviously, we celebrate Black History all day everyday over here, but wow, February said, “Gotta go girl, I am NOT tryna stay up in here and catch the ‘rona.” I feel you, Feb.
As we embark on a new month, I plan to set intentions today to start it off right. Number one on my list is making time and space for REST. I’d love to hear any intentions you have for the new month—feel free to share yours in the comments below.
PS – We’re having a virtual event this Saturday, March 6th and I want to meet you there! What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than by cultivating community and self-love? If you haven’t already, make sure to RSVP here (pssst, it’s FREE).
This Week’s Story
White elitism has ruined a lot of things, but cocktails?! We can’t have anything peacefully, can we? In the world of art and literature, its common to have studied the works of iconic white European artists like Van Gogh, Shakespeare, and Picasso in school, but our writer Rose Fall asks, would they have even seen me as human? The tea (or should I say cocktail) is strong with this one. Enjoy!
White Elitism Ruined My Cocktail
by Rose Fall
On the southern edge of Amsterdam1, on a popular street called Paulus Potterstraat, there sits what some may call a “fork in the road”. One side houses the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, and the Rijks Museum. On the other sits the House of Bols2; a cocktail museum. In the midst of our semester abroad in Dublin, a friend and I found ourselves on Paulus Potterstraat. She chose Starry Night, and I, the Snow Owl. While neither of us regretted the decision we made, I’ve been defending mine ever since.
Featuring rooms like “The Hall of Taste” and “The Bols Geneva Room”3, The House of Bols Cocktail Museum provides an interactive experience that activates all the senses. Films, photos, and smelling booths recount the story of the Bols brand. The experience ends with a cocktail of your choice served in the Mirror Bar. Made with a combination of yogurt, lychee, and maraschino liquors, the Snow Owl is still the best cocktail I’ve ever had.
From my recollection, admission into the Van Gogh Museum costs 20 euros. This was no small fee, and considering the high price of tourist attractions compared to our low international student budgets, we often found ourselves making cutthroat decisions.
Now, I’m the type to forego the Sagrada Familia for the sake of squid ink pasta and extra tapas, but my friend was not. Though surprised by my decision to skip the Van Gogh Museum for exquisite cocktails, my friend took it in stride. The real trouble started when we met up with another group of our friends who lived in Barcelona. In particular, one friend, who we’ll call Amy, was especially bothered when she learned of my decision.
I remember her incredulous expression conveying a mix of confusion, disgust, and scandal. In the aftermath, I found myself feeling the need to justify my decision not only to the group but even to myself. I recounted my reasons; tickets to the cocktail museum were half the price of that for the Van Gogh Museum, I wasn’t particularly interested in Van Gogh, and I loved cocktails. To Amy, these reasons were invalid. How could the opinion of someone I’d developed a feeble proximity friendship with have me rethinking such a mundane decision I had no regrets about?
I spent most of my academic experience in predominantly white spaces. Outside of class, I still felt pressure to feign interest in artists and writers featured in our curriculum. When my classmates discussed the connection they felt to the works of Botticelli, Wordsworth, and the Bronte sisters, I simply wondered what an interaction with them would have been like. Would they even see me as human?
Personally, I have never been able to separate this question from my perception of the works of white artists of yesteryear. After all, after the American Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal,” slavery continued on for nearly another century. I’d argue that the reason most did not immediately see the hypocrisy of such a statement is because Black lives—and women’s lives—were completely unseen to the naked blue eye. So, why would I center the works of artists that were never creating for me? As 2020 had inspired me to assess twenty-five years of damage from never being “the main character,” (even when I’m the writer!), hindsight has reaffirmed my choice that fateful afternoon.
I recall that in trying to find the reasoning my peers were searching for, I began to realize there were larger forces at play. Eventually, I asked myself why there was a justification necessary for my decision at all. I realized how bizarre it was, for an institution to paint any opinion of an artist as so universal that people would feel the need to justify not connecting to them. Under the guise of free-thinking, unbiased education, and a diversity of ideas, our liberal arts colleges had instilled the notions of white elitism so deep that I’d internalized a very near-sighted hierarchy of culture.
In my reflections, I acknowledged that the overwhelming majority of my art education was dedicated to European artists, and only ones who had been dead for at least a century. Artists of color, on the occasion that they were mentioned, were peppered in between a sea of white male faces in my art history, English, and film courses. Then there was the disparity between what forms of art were deemed “respectable” and those that didn’t seem to merit closer analysis; plays versus films, classical music versus rap, ballet versus break dancing. In recognizing that these dichotomies tended to favor white cultural traditions and creators, I acknowledge that I may have developed a resentment that led to strong disinterest in spending money to see the works of an artist like Van Gogh.
In the end, my problem is not so much with Van Gogh, dead and gone, but the people who propel those like him into untouchable status. The implication is this; “if you do not know this person’s work, if you do not think they’re a genius, you are uncultured and should be embarrassed.” Meanwhile, the declarers of such statements are often uneducated about culture-makers outside of their own and blissfully unaware of the irony of their own ignorance. In the end, whatever the reason, I was simply not interested in spending 20 euros to go see Starry Night.
This whole debacle, arguably trivial, has been empowering in my reflections. It is startling how slavery, a system driven primarily by economic gains, has left us with a legacy that continues to penetrate every aspect of our existence. When I think of liberation, I think primarily of tangible freedoms, guaranteed by constitutions, workplace policies, etc. But I’ve also begun to consider the influence of soft power and the way it mobilizes the opinions of others to hinder many of us from fully embodying our true selves.
There are choices we make that can endanger social acceptance among peers, there are risks that come with separating ourselves from what’s acceptable, respectable, desirable and any number of other glorified ideals depending on the intersections of our identity and the spaces we frequent. While I think any member of society may feel pressure to conform, the further you are from the status quo; straight, white, cisgendered, and male, the more contortions you may find yourself performing to fit.
Whether it’s feigning interest in topics we aren’t interested in, altering the way we speak, or hiding our emotions, most of us occasionally chain some part of our identity for the sake of survival, acceptance, and peace. As someone who still struggles to keep all these pressures at bay, I choose to define liberation as the act of following my instincts and making choices for myself that are as unhindered as possible by the pressures of racism, misogyny, heteronormativity, conformity, elitism, and tradition. Having always felt like an outcast, I am just beginning to recognize the power of embracing that identity.
Once the floodgates are open, radical honesty becomes a little easier. I don’t like Harry Potter. I am bisexual. I’ve never seen Friday. Perhaps that was part of what made the Snow Owl so delicious. It was one of my first ventures down the unbeaten path, and it tasted like freedom.
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Rose Fall is a first-generation, Senegalese-American musician and writer based in Los Angeles. Her work has been featured in Reclamation Magazine, Brash! Magazine, and Hey! Vina’s Vinazine. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and Soundcloud as @RoseMFall and on her website.