The Artifa[ctuals]: New Online Publication Examines Contemporary Culture and Politics in America
Posted on September. 19. 2020
By Christopher Atamian
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
NEW YORK — In early August, the Fresno-based writer and thinker Aris Janigian founded The Artifa[ctuals].com, a new and welcome addition to the sometimes paralyzingly simplistic discussions on culture in contemporary America. Race, class, politics and free speech are some of the topics that have already graced its pages and which promise to challenge, encourage debate and often provoke. Janigian is best-known as the author of five novels, including Riverbig (2009), This Angelic Land (2012) and most recently, Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach (2019). The latter may be seen as a prelude to his current undertaking, as it wittily deconstructs the world of politically correct academia.
Janigian’s most recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, A History of My White Privilege, looks at the term “white privilege” through the lens of his own Armenian immigrant family history. The piece garnered kudos in many circles and also angered some who see it as a concession to the right. Also to be found currently at The Artifa[ctuals].com: a wonderful drawing titled Policing Free Speech by cartoonist Lucine Kasbarian, some fun, raw poetry by California Beat Poet Laureate Rich Ferguson and a Jenny Zhang recap from eater.com that looks at some of the remarkable reasons behind the cancellation of this year’s James Beard Awards. I sat down with Janigian recently to discuss his new publication, the aforementioned essay and his desire to move the conversation in America past the present status quo.
Atamian: Your mission statement partly reads “The Artifa[ctuals] is a group of writers and artists who believe that illiberality and hive mentality menace our democracy and Western Civilization itself. In the spirit of the Large Hadron Collider our aim is to create a “collision space” (as opposed to a “safe space”) for critical thought and artistic expression.” Can you comment on this?
Janigian: I think the mission statement is pretty self-explanatory, but I would encourage people to read our Manifesto in order to get a richer sense of our project.ADVERTISMENT
Get the Mirror in your inbox:
Atamian: Artifactuals — artifacts — are defined as “denoting or relating to an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest,” as in items found perhaps in a time capsule by our descendants far down the road in time or conversely cultural artifacts that may have belonged to our ancestors, such as the famous 5,500 year-old shoe found in an Armenian cave a few years back. The term has an anthropological and everyday meaning to it, am I right?
Janigian: “Artifa[ctuals]. The first part of that word is supposed to an ironic twist on the word “Antifa.” Aside from that, an artifact has multiple meanings, it can move in several directions at once. In our Manifesto, it alludes to the “trace” left behind after the collision of particles in the Large Hadron Collider. That artifact of the collision, physicists hope, will provide a window onto the fundamental nature of the physical universe; we hope to get a glimpse into the fundamental nature of the human universe.
Atamian: Aris, aren’t there other publications that have similar concern to yours? Did you see a vacuum to be filled?
Janigian: There is nothing that I know of like The Artifa[ctuals] today. Every literary/arts magazine in America must pass some ideologically-correct litmus test to survive the twitter terrorists. I’ve discovered that there is more ideological conformity among poets, novelists and visual artists than there is even among, say, engineers, to show how monotone and herd-like the artistic community has become. Such a shame. Of course, many of them are part of the same academic club or begging to get into it, where one risks getting fired or not hired for suggesting, for example, that a white novelist has every right to create a black protagonist for a story. There are excellent places like Quillette or Areo, and increasingly The Atlantic, where you can find essays that push back against identity politics and political correctness, but they are mostly written in an academic tone and you won’t find any poets in their pages. We write as artists, and so our tone is more ironic, playful, willing to confront. To give you a sense, we have a regular post that we call “Auto-Da-Fe of the Day,” where we feature the most obscene instance of self-humiliation and public penance in the name of so-called “Social Justice” that we can find in the news that day.
Janigian: The only things the founders have in common is our commitment to building a venue where artists can do their thing without fear. The five founding members are hardly in unanimity politically. The Trump-Biden divide does not divide us, because we all believe that the longer term threat to our country is the willingness of many intellectuals and artists to side with identity politics activists in limiting freedom of expression and thought. We all live in Fresno and one of us, Mark Arax, would be familiar to readers of this newspaper.
Atamian: Who is on your roster of contributors and do you welcome outside contributions? Who would you like to see contributing and whom would you like to reach out to in this sense?
Janigian: We welcome everyone to our community, and we believe that many people share our values and our cause, though they are afraid to say so in public. I’ve had a handful of writers already tell me that they would love to write for us except they believe they’d jeopardize their jobs. One of our regular contributors is using a pseudonym. With that said, if you have something provocative to say in an artistically compelling way, we are here to take a look.
Atamian: One of the sections on your site is called “Hostis Publicus,” which of course is Latin for “public enemy.” In it you list a surprising number of prominent professors and executives of all stripes who have been cancelled or fired for making supposedly racist or sexist comments and the like. Every right-thinking person agrees that rape, harassment and racism are terrible things. How did we get from the very fine intentions of BLM and people who justifiably want to see a diverse workforce to what looks like an outright witch hunt at times?
Janigian: These things don’t happen overnight. The foundation was laid in academia, but there are many factors that accelerated this catastrophically anti-American state of affairs. Some naïve observers believe that life will magically go back to normal when, for instance, Trump gets booted out of office, but I don’t think so. The movement that we are watching unfold today has little to do with liberal values just because it ostensibly sides with the oppressed.
Here is one factor that might help answer your question: censoriousness and cruelty is what happens when you cede power to children. Up until the present, children were in the background, nearly voiceless. In the public realm debate and exchange, within the bounds of certain rules, occurred among adults. Today children—both literally and figuratively—the impulsive, impatient, punitive, insecure and strangely imperious, those needing affirmation day and night, in a word, the neurotic–are increasingly running the show; what I like to call, Lord of the Fleas. When you are neurotic, feelings take on the gravity of truth, even received wisdom. There are predatory economic reasons for this novel reality, as well: mere children are now “taste makers” and “influencers,” on Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and all the rest. They make other people, and sometimes themselves, lots of money.
Atamian: In your essay A History of My White Privilege, reprinted on The Artifa[ctuals].com from the liberal Los Angeles Review of Books, you take issue with the blanket term “white privilege.” This can be misconstrued I think, as not empathizing with the cause of other groups who, like Armenians, have been discriminated against and continue to face difficult times. Would you like to address this?
Janigian: How empathy has become a political concept is an interesting discussion, but, let’s take it in the simplest terms for the time being: in that essay, I’m asking people to empathize with me, or rather my history. To not assume things about me just because I am white, if there is such a thing as “white” at all. Dig deep enough into anyone’s personal history, especially in America, a country of immigrants, and you will find some agonizing family story right below the surface.
I am trained as a social scientist, and I can tell you for certain that “white privilege,” is not a scientific concept; it is completely unavailable to empirical testing. Rather, “white privilege” evokes a reality, a reality that is an assemblage of religion, history, politics, geography, and economics. In this way it is less a concept than a story, or a scene that has been produced and that we’ve been compelled, even educated to see: a scene where the white person is located somewhere special, doing something special, owning something more, and the POC is located elsewhere, barred from doing things, owning less, deserving more. All I’m doing in that essay is complicating the scene. Ideology exploits the scene, art complicates it. The fact that the essay was mainly condemned by fellow “artists” goes a long way in telling how infantile and anti-art the art world has become, another reason for founding The Artifa[ctuals].
Atamian: Voltaire once wrote — and here I may be slightly paraphrasing a famous quote: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Shouldn’t that be the spirit that reigns in America — or any democracy? I think that by challenging people on contemporary commonplaces you are doing American society a good turn. So Aris, thank you for your service.
Janigian: Thank you, and I might add one other thing. Armenians are in a special position to see life from multiple points of view. That is the aim of The Artifa[ctuals] and what art’s ultimate aim should be. Armenians are an in-between people, neither white nor colored, neither Catholic nor Protestant, neither European nor Middle Eastern; we hold on to our culture and yet are assimilated wherever we land; we have a deep cultural memory yet possess an intense drive to transcend the past. As we’ve weaved our way forward we’ve added our own extraordinary patterns onto the fabric of history. This is a long way of saying: it’s no accident that The Artifa[ctuals] has two Armenian founding members and that it’s located in William Saroyan’s home town of Fresno, in between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Visit www.theartifactuals.com to read Janigian’s essay as well as those by other leading writers.