BY Reed McConnell in Books , Opinion | 26 MAY 23

Johanna Hedva's ‘Your Love is Not Good’ Tackles Art's Power Dynamics

In the novel, the unnamed narrator reckons with the politics of race, desire and marginalization in galleries and institutions 

BY Reed McConnell in Books , Opinion | 26 MAY 23

Halfway through Johanna Hedva’s novel Your Love is Not Good (2023), the narrator – a half-white, half-Korean painter from Los Angeles – wakes up to news that a rising young Black artist, Iris Wells, has just launched a boycott of all major art institutions. Iris’s announcement is accompanied by a manifesto excoriating an art world that treats artists of colour like tokens, as well as the artists of colour who willingly participate in their own exploitation. Instead, she invites those artists to come together and ‘create an Emergency We’ – a coalition based on shared experiences of marginalization – by collectively refusing to show their work at major galleries and art fairs. By the time the narrator reads the call to action, a long list of artists have already signed the pledge.

The narrator finds herself flailing. She has work coming up in one of the art fairs on the list, and a solo show in one of the galleries, and for the first time in her life she can imagine what it might be like to crawl out of the hole of debt she has found herself in after two art school degrees. The narrator also knows that to ignore the boycott would be to lose the respect of her peers.

But her most recent paintings might already be seen as a betrayal. They constitute the most sellable work she has ever made, and feature a white model, Hanne, wearing all black and covered in flour in an attempt to explore – so the narrator says – ‘the failure of my desire for whiteness. It was about how all that I’ve hoped white women could do for me is why I’ve let them do so much to me.’ Even as she paints, the narrator knows that her mostly white collectors will ultimately see not a commentary on race, but a conventionally attractive white woman. Her show sells out, but its success comes at the cost of reinforcing the standard of white beauty that the paintings were meant to critique.

YLING book cover
Johanna Hedva, Your Love Is Not Good, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: And Other Stories 

The narrator keeps coming up against whiteness like a wall, from her relationship with her abusive white mother to Hanne’s indifference in the face of her sexual desire. The narrator’s personal world is, itself, not so white; the two most important people in her life are Yves, a Black painter who is her closest friend, and Alexandra, her half-Japanese gallerist. Her BFA years are characterized by a tortured romantic relationship with Zinat, a young Iranian woman, who becomes the model for many of her paintings. During this period she is startled to have classmates and professors tell her that by ‘relentlessly painting my own or other women’s nonwhite faces and bodies, I was doing something revolutionary.’ For her, the matter is simple: ‘it takes hours to paint a portrait, and this is who I wanted to spend hours looking at.’

As much as being a person of colour may constitute its own sort of neutrality for the narrator, the art world whose love she seeks grants complete neutrality to one type of figure only - white men. This is a world full of ‘mediocre white boys getting away with it,’ from the two young men at a party who have made careers selling rip-offs of Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning, to the successful performance artist known for carving the name of a woman who dumped him into his abdomen with a razorblade.

But white women are a close second. Hanne’s existence is ‘fixed, immovable at [its core].’ She is ‘entitled to it by right, through whiteness, money, purpose, belonging.’ What the narrator wants is, ultimately, this – to be ‘someone who feels she deserves to exist’ – and this longing is inextricable from her sexual desire for Hanne. Her queerness always butts up against race, and she is left without an answer to the perennial question of whether she wants to fuck the women she pursues or be them. She riffs on this constantly, calling Hanne her twin, remarking on how close ‘Hanne’ is to her own name.

Portrait of Johanna Hedva
Main image: Portrait of Johanna Hedva. Courtesy: And Other Stories; photograph: Ian Byers Gamber 

We might note that the narrator shares this affinity with her creator Johanna Hedva. Hedva too is a Korean American artist from Los Angeles with a studio art MFA who shows their art internationally. Yet Your Love is Not Good resists any attempts to read it as a work of autofiction. It is a gripping, tightly plotted novel characterized by a trenchant exploration of race, queer desire, and power dynamics in the art world; it is too deftly crafted to constitute mere autobiography. 

The questions animating Your Love… are pressing. Iris’s performance art pieces – blowing up and popping white balloons emblazoned with the faces of museum trustees, dressing up as a butler and grovelling in front of artists who have refused to join her boycott – recall the work of institutional critique artists like Andrea Fraser and Fred Wilson, who have been highlighting the regressive power structures of art institutions for several decades. Iris’s interventions also evoke recent protests and unionization efforts by museum workers (including those at the New Museum), actions that force us to ask how we might leverage what power we have to make change in a fundamentally unjust society. Your Love… serves as an urgent and unyielding meditation on this question, irresistible not because it reproduces conventional figurations of beauty, but because it so deliberately does not.

Johanna Hedva's Your Love is Not Good is published by And Other Stories 

Main image: Portrait of Johanna Hedva. Courtesy: And Other Stories; photograph: Ian Byers Gamber 

Reed McConnell is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Chicago and fiction editor at Chicago Review. Her writing has appeared in Cabinet, The Baffler, The Point, and Public Books, among other publications.