The Problematics of Black Representation

Interviewer: Do you consider yourself a painter or a black painter?

Basquiat: Oh I use lots of colors not just black.

I’m not a betting man, but I’ll wager $10 that 15 years ago the average MFA student would have been hard pressed to name 10 African-American artists contemporary or otherwise. Today, the task is much easier: 1. Julie Mehrutu, 2. Sanford Biggers, 3. Rahsid Johnson, 4. Kara Walker, 5. Mark Bradford, 6. David Leggett, . David Hammons, 8. Adrian Piper, 9. David Hammons, 10. Kerry James Marshall; and that’s not even including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Theaster Gates, Coco Fusco, and Kehinde Wiley, titans in their own right. The past 15 years have witnessed a sea change in the artworld. Black Artists have become more visible now than in any time in history. So what’s the problem?

Nine months ago a painting in the Whitney Bienniale sent shock waves through the artworld. Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmitt Till created a controversy that was immediate. The outrage from the black cultural elite, and the Whitney’s tone deaf response was a case study in “you had one job”, the failure for a major institution to meaningfully tap into the feelings of the people they claim to represent. Schutz defended her piece, and rightly so, and the Whitney defended Schutz, and rightly so. So what’s the problem?

About 6 years ago I was living in my hometown of Oak Ridge, TN. As I was out taking a stroll I decided to stop by the local art center and ask if I might submit some work. My response was “I’m sorry, we only show black art in October”. The rage shot through my body like a thunderbolt. Fast forward 5 years. I’m at a critique showing a large abstract painting and getting consistently negative feedback from one particular participant. At one point he asks, “what’s your motivation as an artist?” to which I respond “Being an African-American, I am expected to make art that deals with race, and I as an artist, I reject that” to which he replied “That’s what I want to see!” The problem with black art, is that it’s trapped in an echo chamber of self-referential subject matter. Nothing for the black artist exists outside of blackness. All other work is suspect. The expectation for black artists to “speak from their experience” keeps them in a gilded cage where almost nothing relevant to the broader art world comes in or goes out. That is the problem. Keeping black artists shackled to identity politics is nothing more than a manifestation of a genteel brand of racism, “you can live above me, but you can’t live next to me”.

And that’s where the ire of Schutz’s piece comes from, the perceived gentrification of black subject matter made even more ironic because it was part of a show meant to embrace multi-culturalism, tragic because the controversy diverted attention away from work in the show actually made by African-American artists. When a white artist wants to show solidarity with the black community, they shouldn’t be punished. Today one can name 10 black artists off the top of their head, but that’s only part of the battle thats been won. Why this phenomenon is peculiar to the visual arts is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the very concept of art has always been a European one, a concept that literally formed at the same time as racism was becoming theorized.

The notion that Europeans have the power to “name the world” through science, technology, philosophy, and yes art, and that “The Other” possesses only the power to name themself and their oppression. In the ancient story of Narcissus, Narcissus is so beautiful when Echo emerged to embrace him and was spurned she wilted away leaving nothing; her echo may be the fate of the black artist who dares approach the canon of western art history. Will the day of reckoning come when the Art World’s own specific brand of narcissistic cruelty will be revealed to them? Perhaps. Perhaps the critical mass of black artists, with more on the rise every day, will force the gatekeepers of culture to ask the questions that are too difficult for now. In the meantime, let us appreciate this art for what it is, and celebrate the battles that have been won to create a more just artworld attempting to live up to its highest ideals.

Spencer Hutchinson, Chicago Editor

Spencer Hutchinson is graduate from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). He is a student at the University of Chicago as well as a member of the Borderbend Arts Collective and is a founding member of Agitator Co-operative Gallery in West Town.
Since 2014 he has been working heavily with found objects in the conceptual/ neo-dada vein of artists such as David Hammons, Jasper Johns, Joseph Kosuth and Marcel Duchamp.
One of Hutchinson’s current ongoing projects is a serial piece called “I See My Light Come Shining” that focuses on issues pertaining to Black racial identity and social history through the use of sound and found objects. Spencer Hutchinson lives and works in Chicago.

Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 p 7

35 thoughts on “Speakeasy

  1. What a story! Do people think that black people see colours differently from white people? When an artist applies colours from his palette on the canvas, why should race be an issue or even considered? I don’t live in the States and find it all inconceivable and difficult to understand.
    I look forward to more of your writing.

    1. Racism is an incredibly powerful force in this country that dominates virtually every aspect of life. There are certain activities, aesthetics etc. that are considered “black” and “not-black” or “not black enough”. If you are in any way shape or form part African-American here, you and everything you do is considered second rate. For this reason, the American Art World has, in a sense, created an “Art Ghetto” for African-American artists. This is a field that is formalized and doggedly policed by both black and white taste makers.

      1. Hi Spencer,
        Thank you for your answer, but think that something’s profoundly wrong when even art is classified as black, not-black or not black enough. We should be talking about artists who work with colour, not skin colour. It can’t just be about prejudice; there’s got to be the financial aspect behind it all as there is with all aspects of capitalism. Is the white American Art World also afraid it hasn’t got the creative talent that comes from not having an easy life? I hope that New Art Examiner can make its contribution to changing this situation and outlook for artists who are African-American or part African-American.

        1. I agree. Art is about personal expression. And unlike Film, TV, Music and other forms of “Entrrtainmemt” The Fine Arts are treated in avrry rarified way. Let’s hope we can all do better to make not just “The Art World” but the World Itself a better place for everyone here

    2. Bigots see colors only in black or white, no in betweens; in the end, they are the true losers.

    1. I can’t track down his name, but in the film directed by Julian Schnabel and starring Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat he’s played by Christopher Walken. The only online documentation I have been able to find is drawn from the movie (which is where I heard the quote) and the Interviewer is referred to as “The Interviewer”.

  2. Sorry, but I’m a little confused. Is this an interview with Basquiat before his death in 1988? Or is Spencer the interviewee quoting “Basquiat: Oh I use lots of colors not just black.”?

      1. Now I get it; it’s a quote starting the article. It’s a great quote, and very appropriate, a perfect fit.

  3. Can you look at a painting and say, “That was done by a black, white, green, blue or yellow man?” No, of course you can’t. An artist is an artist, and only through the use of the colours from his palette can
    we see what the artist has inside himself, not from his skin colour, which should be totally irrelevant. However, I should have written him/her/itself for the gender fluidity issues that are taking on more and more importance now than skin colour. And yes, we need to ” appreciate this art for what it is, and celebrate the battles that have been won to create a more just artworld attempting to live up to its highest ideals.” I completely agree with you.

    1. Thank you. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are RULES in the Art World. Lines that should and should not be crossed that are racial and gender based in nature. I agree, but in my own practice have found that Black Subject Matter can be and is just as rewarding as all other subject matter, even more so now than it has probably ever been.

      1. Thank you Spencer for your answer. I think people are hungry for dialogue. Perhaps we have found the right platform for this with New Art Examiner’s comment area.
        You write, “there are RULES in the Art World. Lines that should and should not be crossed that are racial and gender based in nature.” The art world shouldn’t be limited or constrained in this way.
        Thank you also for your article and for giving us the possibility to read, examine and respond to these dramatic and unjust issues. Art should not be about justice, instead it is, even in 2018.

  4. More important than skin color are the geographical, religious and cultural influences of art – these three issues are what should come into play. Who cares if a work of art was made by a white or a black man? It’s the artwork that is under discussion and not the color of his (oh dear, her or also its) skin. I wonder when America will ever grow up and move on to more serious topics than skin color.

    1. Hi Phil,
      If you don’t live in the States, you can’t know. It is all absurd and it shouldn’t be so, but some people still play on the race issues in the art world.

      1. It hurt me to the core to read this and hope to read here articles by Spencer from Paris in the near future.

        1. Over the last few months I have talked to more and more African Americans who want to emigrate from the US to countries where they feel more accepted, some even citing that the current climate of racism is detrimental to their health. Is America really getting so bad that people feel they have to leave their own country?

          1. Well…yes. Affirmative Action in college admissions was just over-turned by the Supreme Court. But we didn’t come this far just to come this far. I for one am staying, right here in Chicago. I’m finishing my coffee.

  5. Finally an international art magazine that talks about racial and gender issues, though I wouldn’t bind them together as they are two totally different aspects of the art world. It makes me ask why artists from Asia aren’t covered more in the western world, also suffering from racial bias due to their “yellow” palette or skin. This has to stop, at least in the art world today; art and any aesthetic interest should be above discrimination.

    If a magazine is international, like this one is, then it means that it is read globally and should reflect the interests of a global population and not just that of a western culture. The magazine should also examine the art scenes of Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East and not just what’s going on in the US and in Europe. What’s going on in the art world in these areas is equally important (and exciting) and should not be excluded from this context. Reading the comments, people don’t seem to be racist, but it would be nice if there were more of them. Where are the racists? I’m sure they too read New Art Examiner, but it looks like they don’t dare respond here.

    1. I will give you some East Asian Diasporic/National Artists to look at. Mariko Mori, Rikrit Tiravanija, Nam June Paik, Takashi Murakami and ofcourse Yoko Ono. China has its own thing going on as well.

    1. Hi Carey,
      I enjoyed this video, which I found intriguing, discovering that Spencer Hutchinson’s work has been shown abroad in Assisi and in Ravenna in Italy. I know he’s an art critic, but also an artist; I would like to know more about his work, but haven’t been able to find any more than this.

  6. It was lovely that the writer of this article took the time to answer so many people, nor does it happen today anywhere inside an art magazine that an established art critic and artist can be so available to his readers. Other writers also respond to comments on their articles here (to a lesser extent), which creates an unbelievable interaction more common to social networks. Perhaps this is what the New Art Examiner is about, or am I wrong? If it’s the “New” Art Examiner, it also has to examine art in a new way, and what better way than opening a dialogue with its readers.

  7. Anyone going to be in Baltimore on May 17? Does the New Art Examiner have anyone there?
    There’s going to be an exciting event at the Baltimore Museum of Art with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the Marvel Comic’s Black Panther series, in which he will have a conversation on the current cultural movement concerning “art, race, social justice, and imagining the future(s) we want.” Their website says that they will also put a video of the event online.

    1. Hi Taylor,
      Even more interesting is the auctioning off of artworks by Rauschenberg, Warhol and Kline in the Baltimore Museum of Art to buy works by women and Afro-Americans in order to better represent their 64% black community. I don’t know why they group women and Afro-Americans together, which I find someone strange, but at least it’s a move forward. This is thanks to the museums director, Christopher Bedford, who is organizing this disposal or deaccession of artworks.

      1. I find the phrase “Women & People of Color” disturbing. What they should say instead is White Women and non-White Men/Women of Color…or something.

  8. The new Black Classicists exhibition at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC reveals a totally different image of the role that black Africans had in ancient Greek art and literature, which did not portray racism. It’s thanks to exhibitions like this one that people’s misconceptions about the roots of our past can be illuminated and perhaps help the fight against prejudice so that we can open our boundaries that have blocked American society from evolving for far too long. Education is the key to eliminating discrimination.

    From a review of this exciting exhibition:
    “Derbew’s research focuses on the presence of black Africans in Greek art and literature. She traces the origins of her interest to reading the Aeneid as a child: the principal female character, Dido, is the powerful queen of Carthage. Surveying ancient art, she says, shows black people depicted as “stalwart soldiers, excellent archers, semi-divine people, and enslaved servants, to name a few”. But while black people held a variety of occupations and social positions in the ancient world, Derbew says, museums’ presentation of material that testifies to this is frequently hamstrung by contemporary prejudice. “It is important for [curators and scholars] to be constantly vigilant and actively fight against these negative assumptions in their quest to create responsible exhibits and scholarship,” she says. “Museum galleries have an important role in the task of contextualizing antiquity; they can shift people’s misconceptions of what antiquity looked like.”

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