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