Wilf Thust »Where is the Gaiety?« (1973)

Freya Field-Donovan
Edited by Clara Jo — Jun 15, 2021

Not all enclosures are restrictive. Some hold space for protection, for measured lessons, for the supervised experimentation that allows someone to set boundaries in themselves, and between themselves and others, for learning – having too much pleasure and pain, but then learning to temper both. Institutions can offer this; so can the home, friendships, various iterations of holding spaces and patterns within which relationships between oneself and the world are formed. Some of these are considered natural, like the childhood acquisition of movement and language, or social and sexual bonds. Others are seen as unnatural, like the various manmade institutions designed to administer the legal, political, and economic functions that reproduce society at large. The natural and the unnatural form one of the foundational binaries used to navigate the value and category of experience. Childhood, in its idealized form, is related to innocence. Innocence at its most simplified is metaphorically coded as natural, related as it is to a lack of experience, unqualified or unacculturated judgment, to the sweetness and virtue of simplicity. An un-innocent child is one who has seen too much, or knows too much about the adult world, about violence, cruelty, or complicity. These un-innocent childhoods are related to those administrative functionings. Having no access to resources, money, or formal education, legal and political institutions make those supposedly natural bonds and units harder to hold together.

In 1973 the filmmaker Wilf Thust made a work about an experiment in anti-authoritarian education. The film and the photo albums that make up the work are experiments in education themselves. By giving us the distance we need to see these workings, they teach us that pedagogy is a reproductive apparatus. Through the formal means that Thust chose, naturalized behaviors, attitudes, and social capacities are unpacked and denaturalized, and shown to be acquired through repetition and habit. The work teaches us that race and class unevenly distribute access to the value of innocence and to the intuitions that hold up this virtuous fantasy. We learn that we need to be able to have distance from our habits and attitudes to be able to recognize their historical dimension. We must give up our own fictions of innocence to stay open to learning. We must learn to denaturalize and renaturalize different habits of perception to create pedagogical environments that allow all people to feel themselves as both spontaneous and political beings.


Freya Field-Donovan is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Art department at University College London. Her Ph.D. is titled A Strange American Funeral and focuses on dance and technological reproduction in 1940s America