Rejoice, Artists and Lawyers, at the Mutual Goal of Art and Law: On Yxta Maya Murray’s “We Make Each Other Beautiful”

Ishani Chokshi reviews Yxta Maya Murray’s latest book, “We Make Each Other Beautiful: Art, Activism, and the Law.”

Rejoice, Artists and Lawyers, at the Mutual Goal of Art and Law: On Yxta Maya Murray’s “We Make Each Other Beautiful”

BEAUTY, IN WESTERN classical thought, has long been tied to the objective: beauty is that which evokes the highest principles of truth itself, made manifest as justice under law. However, art’s involvement in all of this has been highly contested, if not outrightly condemned.

Take Plato, whose concept of beauty rejects art. For Plato, it is philosophy—not art—that leads a man toward his truest end, which is to realize justice by ordering himself and society along laws based on the beautifully transcendent principles of reason. Art, however, misleads man by merely mimicking the beautiful. Man, bewitched into enjoying fleeting worldly creations rather than the transcendent principles of reason, strays from the demands of justice, making art one of the (if not the) greatest dangers to mankind.

At least, that is Plato’s take on art. In the millennia since Plato’s damnation of artists and art-making, many have criticized his distaste for artistic practice, including Aristotle himself, Plato’s star pupil. Aristotle maintained that art, by expressing people’s pent-up emotions, can be a productive form of political catharsis for its viewers. Expressing rebelliousness onstage and representing its tragic consequences, said Aristotle, can repress rebelliousness in everyday life. Art need not be diametrically opposed to mankind’s quest to realize truth and justice under law, and it is this Aristotelian insight that Yxta Maya Murray recrafts into an activist call for justice in her new book, We Make Each Other Beautiful: Art, Activism, and the Law.

Yxta Maya Murray, an American Latina novelist as well as a professor at Loyola Marymount’s Law School, has spent three decades studying political art and progressive lawyering. She is also a reporter for Artforum and has been writing art essays since 2012. While Plato may have found any connection between art and law to be vile, Murray has found a relationship between these two fields. Her latest book realizes such a conversation by highlighting and promoting art’s role in the pursuit of justice, a pursuit that has transformed American law over the decades.

With the aim to inspire a rethinking of the future of American law, Murray’s book is a survey of artist-activists (or “artivists”) whose “artivism” has challenged American law by expressing the everyday truths of marginalized peoples who live under it. The work of these artivists necessarily implicates American law, and Murray’s message is that the legal profession should pay attention. Why? Because artivism, says Murray, provides such a “deep well of jurisprudential insight” that it would be irresponsible for legal professionals not to study it.

One of Murray’s central contentions, backed up by public interest lawyers, is that American courts of law too often are unable to see “intersectional” people (people with multiple identities that have been marginalized by law) as humans, as these people often slip between the cracks in the laws that would otherwise grant people legal rights. Murray argues that artivists can provide a cathartic way of “seeing that which is human, a way of seeing that is rooted in the emotions.”

To make her case, Murray first surveys artivism throughout history, arguing that political artworks in the 20th century catalyzed dialogues that have produced more justice in the United States. Such art has shed light upon the unjust realities of millions, if not billions, of intersectional people, and has also revealed inconsistencies in American law. Although Plato would likely deride this as counterproductive to the realization of justice, Murray suggests that artivists “often behaved like key players in social movements that had inspired major US legal reforms” by rendering these legal anomalies visible, and open for resolution by theaters of law.

Thus, Murray insists that lawyers and artivists should collaborate, since artivists are “often alert to human rights issues well before the legal community” and can provide analyses and cases to challenge unjust formations of the law. She argues that “conversations between the two disciplines could enhance the project of justice and legal reform, similar to the way social movements have driven law’s evolution.”

The bulk of her book focuses on the practices of five contemporary artivists: Carrie Mae Weems, Young Joon Kwak, Tanya Aguiñiga, Imani Jacqueline Brown, and the artivist collective assembled for the exhibition Drawn Together. Murray pulls out the critiques of law that emanate from their artivism, explicating the ways in which their artworks have confronted and reinterpreted American law by representing the tragedies of the everyday lives of people facing injustice. Recognizing the political potential in expressing these legally repressed emotions, even if such expressions might meet hostile audiences, Murray elaborates on the differing nuances of these potentials in her five profiles.

Murray is at her best when she focuses her analysis on specific legal cases to exemplify what she means when she implores lawyers to work with artivists to inform their own legal analyses. It is in her profile of Brown, a founding member of the anti-gentrification arts collective Blights Out in New Orleans, where Murray’s project to intertwine legal discourse with artistic criticism truly shines. After the City of New Orleans auctioned off several hundred properties in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Mid-City, Brown launched Live Action Painting (2015), in which she invited local Black artists to set up easels in front of blighted Mid-City houses to “engage in dialogue with residents and meditate on the sensory experience of blight” as a foil for the influx of “non-local white folks ‘swarming’ the neighborhood with cameras.” Murray uses Brown’s artivism to launch a novel critique against the ruling that left many post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleaners destitute: St. Bernard Parish Government v. United States (2018), which held that inaction by the government cannot give rise to claims for compensation under the Takings Clause of the US Constitution. Murray uses Live Action Painting as well as other works of Brown to analyze the doctrine of “acts of omissions” in American property law with regards to constitutional takings, making a case that the government unconstitutionally “took” property by mismanaging the stormwater infrastructure that caused the devastating flooding of Black neighborhoods during the hurricane.

The poetic language of art and the logical language of law come together beautifully in this section. Art can expose otherwise unnameable realities; it can reveal, and Murray shows just how potent an artivist critique of specific legal holdings can be by pointing out apparent intentions behind legal omissions. She does this in the other four profiles as well, pulling from these artivists a wide and intersectional analysis of a broad swath of American law, including antidiscrimination, asylum, contract, disability, housing, immigration, and labor law. Perhaps only animal law and securities law remain sheltered from Murray’s piercing pen (although I am sure that, if tasked, she could drum up some artworks to pierce those veils as well).

The startling efficacy of Murray’s critique and her production of a potentially workable theory lead me to truly question—if not bombastically reject—Plato’s insistence on the futility of art, its perverse goals, and how it deserves no space in a just society. Instead of fearing the other as a corrupting or twisted force, Murray allows for artists and lawyers to see each other more clearly as two creative professions that can share one essential goal, although through vastly different media. Both seek to create something beautiful out of the chaos of life. But while lawyers may have mastery over the formal language of law to make their case for justice sound Platonically beautiful, many others only have use of their bodies and surroundings to present their experiences as their evidence, their pleas for justice dressed up in little more than cathartic cries and charcoal.

Both fields also draw their power from the public gaze to validate their creations. For instance, in her profile of Carrie Mae Weems’s photo series From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96), Murray highlights the way legal threats, if confronted through moral stances made by brave artivists who invoke public judgment, may give way to more liberated and creative futures for all. The weight public morality holds in the game of law matters but, Murray suggests, may still allow it to fail, as exemplified by her profile of Young Joon Kwak’s leadership of the queer arts collective Mutant Salon. When a nation’s morality is turning against LGBTQIA+ people, cathartic appeals to the public for support against discrimination may flop. Still, Murray says, it is best that artivists and lawyers collaborate toward achieving their mutual goal of establishing justice for all. Although we may fail, we still make each other beautiful.

Murray’s book made me think that theaters of law may actually even be the natural home for art, that perhaps the goal of lawyers and artivists is to become the other, perpetually. Is there any better place for an artwork other than the court of law, where art and law can confront and better each other through the vibrant tensions that arise across their borders? As Nietzsche says, man-as-artist is in his most natural state when he is strictly bound by his thousandfold laws, when he obeys, in moments of inspiration, those thousandfold laws that ridicule all external laws precisely on the grounds of their hardness and precision. The advent of an artivist in a democratic court of law, cathartically appealing to these thousandfold natural laws in principled defiance of unjust legal rules, can spur democratic legal innovation à la Antigone, forcing judges and juries into an interpretive position that brings their rulings closer to delivering on our legal system’s much-heralded promise of “justice for all.”

What better way to read Murray’s profile of Tanya Aguiñiga’s Metabolizing the Border (2018–20), in which Aguiñiga dressed herself in punishing wearables to walk along the US-Mexico border? “[S]he inhaled the border, she saw the world through the border, she heard the city through the border, she translated her womb through the border” and recognized that a border-space that is “constantly shifting,” both physically and legally (vis-à-vis fluctuating asylum policies), “helps us see that […] it is as if the law simply did not exist at all” at such border crossings. Border crossings, even those between professions, demand that an ethical observer also constantly shift and adjust to regain their footing and tap into their own empathy and thousandfold natural laws to stay present as a just actor.

Murray shows that a vibrant (although tense) marriage between art and law in theaters of law need not merely be an idealist’s pipe dream or a pervert’s objective, but may instead present our judges and juries with the greatest gift, even in Plato’s eyes: a vision of pure justice. The antagonism between art and law can indeed be put to productive and practical use without perverting either field, and by informing both, because it is in the artistic abyss of these border crossings where one can hear the pure cry for justice and liberation, an uncorrupted call for a just law that perhaps cannot be made anywhere else, and which cannot be met by anything other than legal authority. This antagonism may in fact propel all onlookers toward the quest for a justice unsullied and, in the process, yield beautiful principles ripe for jurisprudential application.

In this groundbreaking book, Murray ushers in a new era of legal and artistic production, to the benefit of both. She revives both discourses (which, over the past decades, have lost much credibility in a public that has increasingly determined both to be “for elites”) and opens them out from their insularity, imbuing them with a democratic sense of vitality, transparency, and rigor. In Murray’s deft hands, art is no longer impractical or sequestered in galleries for wayward audiences but has teeth in public courts of law as a potential mode to evoke beauty by informing the analysis of truth and justice itself. Likewise, law is no longer the opaque language of a walled-off profession but a field of inquiry that has as its democratic entry point a universal emotion: the desire for justice.

Intertwining the most beautiful aspects of each in a common struggle against their most unjust, We Make Each Other Beautiful inspires a new paradigm for thinking about art and law in the modern age, a paradigm that utilizes the long-repressed relationship between both fields in order to push them to their highest Platonic potential: the realization of beauty through the establishment of justice. After this book, no serious legal scholar can reassert Plato’s claim—that art has no value to the law—without reasonable skepticism, if not outright dismissal.

Artists and lawyers rejoice! A new discipline—that of “artivism”—has arrived upon our divided doorstep. It is our task to bring this fledgling into our offices and studios, because, unfortunately, Murray has only left it between our doors. Murray very nearly inaugurates a new movement in legal studies and art, but she needed to do more to make this a reality. After all, artivism will only have teeth in courts of law through granular legal production. The litmus test for a working praxis of law is its efficacy in court, but instead of producing model court documents, Murray instead relies heavily on artist interviews to make her case.

Murray could have presented a properly legal argument oriented towards a legal audience rather than a public audience, if only for just one section. She could even have drafted up mock examples of court documents, properly Bluebooked, to ground her thesis. Her profile of Drawn Together, the artist contract she drafted up with a collective along principles of community constitutionalism and property law, is a good example of the type of legal examples that would have supported her thesis, but I would have liked to see documents meant primarily for court proceedings: complaints, motions, responses, petitions, discovery filings, etc. These would have shown collaborating lawyers and artivists, for example, how to file artworks as evidence during discovery proceedings, or how art criticism can be drafted into appellate pleadings. Perhaps she could have drafted up a mock artivist complaint? This would have legitimated her otherwise well supported argument.

Due to this omission of her own, Murray leaves open a major unanswered question: how can artivism enter and function in American courts of law?

Even if lawyers and artists merely attempt to answer this question, the attempt alone will revitalize our long-maligned professions by opening us up to a deep well of jurisprudential creativity from which we may find tools to tackle the otherwise insurmountable problems that have blinded and deafened us to the cries for justice made by othered peoples. Murray leaves this more targeted work to other lawyers and artivists. It is my sincerest hope that we take up the gauntlet.

LARB Contributor

Ishani Chokshi is the founder of the Northwestern Law Journal des Refusés, an avant-garde journal of law for legal rejects inspired by the Paris Salon des Refusés. She works at a policy think tank and has also worked at civil rights clinics and nonprofit groups across the country. She is an artist and a lawyer who wages art upon law and holds a master’s in critical studies: aesthetics and politics from the California Institute of the Arts, a JD from the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and a BA in visual arts from Brown University.


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