BY Naomi Beckwith in Opinion | 16 DEC 14
Featured in
Issue 168

The Sharp, White Background

Thoughts on race and art in the 21st century

BY Naomi Beckwith in Opinion | 16 DEC 14

Kara Walker, A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 2014. Courtesy Creative Time; photograph: Jason Wyche

When Hamza Walker curated ‘Black Is, Black Ain’t’ at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, in 2008, he attempted to negotiate the relationship between race, visual art and exhibition practices. When the catalogue for the show was finally published at the end of 2013, it offered much-needed context for the exhibition. The six-year interval was telling, however: between the show and the publication, the central terms for critical discourses around race had shifted in the art world. There was a time – that heady period of multiculturalism and identity politics, which began in the 1980s – when conversations around race were germane to contemporary art. The terms of those discussions – and the language Walker used in his exhibition – held sway over the way art was debated well into the new millennium. But recent turns in critical subject theory away from identity toward affect, relationality and a global context deeply complicated the way one could speak about any identity. In the midst of these shifts, Walker had an increasingly limited set of linguistic tools with which to discuss the exhibition’s artworks.

Even when identity politics were central to art-world discourse, those discussions couldn’t convincingly reconcile the language of politics with the language of aesthetics. For conservative critics and art historians, attempting to do so was heresy. Following the controversial ‘multicultural’ Whitney Biennial in 1993, curated by Thelma Golden and Elizabeth Sussman, even sympathetic critics remained unconvinced that the aesthetic could jibe with the political. The long-lasting effect of the ‘political’ label, coupled with a lack of terms with which one could analyze the effects of the socio-historical on aesthetic practice, left artists of colour (among others) in a critical vacuum. It is one thing to resist a socially embedded approach to art analysis (despite many good art historians doing so for decades), but the greatest problem facing art discourse now is that its political handicap extends from the art object to the art world itself. We lack a language to discuss the very art-world structures that prevent the development of more useful terms about race or other minority identities.

It should be no surprise then that, 21 years after Golden and Sussman’s Whitney Biennial, the 2014 edition had a whiff of déjà vu about it. Weeks before the show closed, apparently after discussions with Whitney Museum staff and curators, the collective HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican? (known as ‘the Yams’) pulled out of the exhibition. While anecdotally understood as a protest against the biennial’s inclusion of Joe Scanlan’s ‘Donelle Wolford’ project (a performance work featuring a fictional black female artist invented by Scanlan, who is a white male; 2000–ongoing), in an interview for Artnet, the Yams spoke openly about both their participation and their withdrawal as forms of protest against ‘the politics of white supremacy that make up the institution of the Whitney’. What followed was a mostly circular debate played out across multiple media platforms about the politics of Scanlan’s work and the ethics of free speech in museums. Setting aside the free-speech debate for a moment – which is precisely what the Yams seem to want to do in favour of having a frank discussion of their particular experience as participants in the biennial – the quote reveals two key points. Firstly, that the focus of the Yams’s work is more a form of institutional critique than a foregrounding of black identity and, secondly, the use of the term ‘white supremacy’ resuscitates language not heard since before the ‘multicultural’ 1980s and ’90s. The stridency of that expression seems especially harsh in the current moment of ‘post-racial’ rhetoric, yet by specifically calling out ‘white supremacy’, the Yams evoke systemic, institutional problems that seem to persist despite narratives of social progress. From the cultural nationalism of the 1960s Black Arts Movement (catalysed by writer LeRoi Jones, who called upon African American artists to create work that reflects and uplifts their respective communities) to the ‘post-black’ aesthetics of the new millennium, the art world was able to weave a progressive narrative of increasing complexity surrounding the work of artists of colour. But the return of the repressed term of ‘white supremacy’ is a step backwards.

Hank Willis Thomas, It’s About Time, 2006, exhibition view at ‘Black Is, Black Ain’t’, 2008, at the Renaissance Society, Chicago. Courtesy the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, and the Renaissance Society, Chicago; photograph: Tom Van Eynde

In her response to the biennial incident, Coco Fusco argued in The Brooklyn Rail that all artists face ‘a disadvantage when it comes to debating the cultural politics and historical legacies that inform the gestures they make – because they’ve been educated in the formalist hothouse of the art-school crit’. This ‘disadvantage’, according to Fusco, creates private conversations among groups balkanized by race, forced into the public realm during the biennial protest. What are those private conversations? For the Yams, in particular, it is the discussion of a set of micro-aggressions to which each member has been subjugated in the art world. In the Artnet interview they cite pedagogical oversight in the academy, unequal treatment in exhibitions, alienation and feeling caricatured as irrational and emotional. ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’ reads Glenn Ligon’s Untitled 1990 work, which quotes Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay, ‘How it feels to be colored me’. That statement stands as an apt metaphor for the conditions of the art world where both people and things are thrown against the background of the proverbial white cube. 

The Yams’s protest is an irruption of frustrations with institutional racism. It’s the sort of collective public action mirrored in the protests seen across the US against excessive, and often deadly, force against overwhelmingly black victims. (For the most recent, high-profile examples, see: Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson.) The excessive force is often justified by pathologizing black communities as violent enough to warrant militarized policing; in other words, it’s the victim’s fault. ‘White supremacy’s greatest trick is that it has convinced people that it exists always in other people, never in us,’ said writer and professor Junot Díaz in a 2012 interview for the Boston Review. Díaz has taken up the term ‘white supremacy’ in a series of recent writings and lectures, positing it as a system for replicating power that acts upon all social subjects, no matter what their race. ‘White supremacy’ is a key concept for other scholars as well. Rather than mere racial designations, in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s work, The Undercommons (2013), ‘white supremacy’ and ‘blackness’ are a set of ontological conditions designating a relationship to power and capital. And the ne plus ultra of white supremacy – slavery – looms large, once again, in academic criticism. Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman’s feminist scholarship posits that the terrors of slavery continued well after emancipation and still inform the way subjects engage in society today. Art historian Huey Copeland takes up these discussions in his work on the persistence of slavery as an enduring trope for contemporary artists.

Look no further than Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, a monumental installation shown in 2014 at the Domino Sugar factory in New York, which still lingers in almost every conversation I’ve had recently about art. (Documentation of the piece is on display at Walker’s show ‘Afterword’ at Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York, until 17 January.) A towering sphinx-like sculpture coated in sugar, Walker’s figure was one part nurturing mammy figure, one part naked vixen. Unfortunately, not all my conversations have been elevated, uncovering multiple blind spots in arguments about history, commerce, race and even the development of sculpture. Walker may have anticipated these blind spots; in her installation, slavery reappears not as an historic relic, but as a psycho-sexual fantasy sprung from the subconscious of contemporary neo-liberal capital. While it’s important not to privilege sociology when approaching a work of art, obviously art can hold history and information in its forms. A Subtlety foregrounded the exploitation of black bodies for wealth production in the US, a painful legacy that many people of any colour would rather leave repressed. But, by creating a monumental black deity, Walker also linked black bodies and their exploitation to the development of aesthetics, its forms and its prejudices: what we commonly call its ‘judgements’. I would argue that the judgments of the dominant art history constitute a sharp white background. While they shift with intellectual terminology, the experiences of the Yams and others underscore how these judgements are dependent upon social ideas that are more likely to repeat themselves in historical circles rather than march forward toward enlightenment. The art world’s still-active fantasies of an ahistorical space – a white cube untouched by the social strife outside it – will be continuously disrupted by a recurring nightmare of violence and exploitation until we all do some serious social work.

Naomi Beckwith is senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, USA.