Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Topic Is Race; the Art Is Fearless
(see article below)

...A good article, a kind of primer of the "racial" (not to say Black) art scene.
There is a very interesting point that continues to surface in the article -- and in the real world.

The more we talk about erasing, or ignoring "race' as a relevant category, the more it becomes a factor in our lives. On the other hand, the more of a big deal we make of it, the more it becomes clear that it doesn't deserve all that importance. Even the art that sets out to explore/exploit this contradiction gets caught up in it.

This has been with us for a long time, even when it was not being intended or consciously thought about. I have often thought about how Duke Ellington, whose highest compliment for anything was that it was "beyond category" and who saw himself as a producer of a kind of universal world music (which he was) actually became one of the most eloquent spokespersons (musically) for African American culture specifically. (His very artful piece on "Madame Zajj" even goes so far as to suggest that the Black music of North America stands in a special place, compared to that from other parts of the African World.)

Paul Robeson (whose birthday is tomorrow, 4/9), on the other hand, often portrayed himself as a voice of African America, being the son of a man who escaped from slavery and all, but turned out in reality to be the voice of the global working class, singing traditional songs from many cultures, ad singing in multiple languages.
Ultimately, I guess it all comes down to what people in the Far East call yin and yang; everything exists because of its opposite. The only reason that there is a word for cold is that hot exists.

If there were no "evil," there would not even be a concept of "good." The more we tell someone close, "I love you," the more we raise the specter that the opposite also exists, the possibility of not loving. The things that have no opposites have no words, and therefore do not even exist in conscious thought. That is what meditation is all about (and why it figures so prominently in the far East): being aware of what REALLY exists beyond the limiting tyranny of words, by silencing the internal dialogue.
This is also, by my calculation, what art is also all about (not only visual artifacts, but music -- notably "jazz," dance, etc.), reaching that inner and deeper truth that is universal to all humans, transcending cultural and language differences.

This is why African American Classical Music is so welcomed and understood in so many other places. Visual art has that capability also. (The influence of African art redefined European art, for example, which, in turn, under the influence of colonialism, reshaped the whole sense of art making globally: art as object/commodity for sale, for example, which, in ying-yang fashion, gave rise to the art-as-anti-commodity: conceptual and performance pieces that strive to break free of limitation but in so doing reinforce it by reminding us that it is there and it is powerful enough to spawn reactions and responses.)

Given this paradigm, it is easy to see how "race," a myth so powerful that it could turn an entire countr y into a cult around it, can be trap from which the artist makes stronger by striving to be free from it. (Remember those woven straw "Chinese handcuffs" from novelty shops and Cracker Jack boxes? The harder you tried to pull your fingers free, the tighter they got.)
This is the stuff that has fueled the unspoken-yet-loud debate between "Black artists" and "Artists who happen to be Black," which was all about something called Consciousness (at least depending on who is speaking and from which side), and now this latest iteration called "Post-Black" which -- Life imitates Art -- has come to fruition in the Obama presidential candidacy, raising that eternal question of the next generation to be traveling down this long, long road: "Are we there yet?" Obviously not.

Tyne Daly, the white actress who is married to Georg Stanford Brown and played in the "Cagney & Lacey" TV series was asked in a radio interview if she thought the country had progressed to the point where her "interracial" marriage did not really matter any more. Her answer was as classic as it was swift: "If we had, you wouldn't be asking me that question! Obama's vision and message has a resonance in the nation that hasn't been heard since Dr. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, but Dr. King's speech contained a metaphor which has yet to be addressed, when he said that America had written a check with its promise to be a land where "all men are created equal" but that check has been returned for "insufficient funds."

Yes, there is that thorny matter of Reparations for wrongs that have been done.
I, for one, am among the first to say that we would be making a grave error (for which neither Ancestors nor future generations would forgive us) if we equated Reparations with "funds," i.e. money, or even more precisely debt, a "substance" controlled by Central Banks and used very effectively as a means of global population control, as everyone dealing with the World Bank and IMF can attest. But the inappropriateness of currency and finance, over whose value we, the offended party, have no control and by which we can actually be controlled, does not negate the validity of our claim. (In any case, there is not enough money on the planet anyway.) Something more like Restorative Justice needs to come into play. That is all another story (but not a separate story). It is a part of what needs to be done to get us back to the REAL story.

The real story, the true story, the deep story, the one that gets all hearts to beat in unison, the truth that is reached by "jazz" (AACM) and other real art forms, is the one that, by definition, recognizes all life as important, all babies as equally significant, all people as righteous heirs to the bounty of the earth, who are equally responsible not to be wasteful or disrespectful. Either we glorify that or we glorify disparity, and celebrate the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" watching multiple boob tubes in projects, prison cells, trailer parks and rural cabins without plumbing, gleefully showing off what bit of silly bling or overpriced sneakers we have been able to garner from the same sweat shop economy that will "come for us tomorrow."

The "Bankers' Manifesto" of 1898, for all we know, could be a contrived hoax, but even if it were, it is a dead-on accurate description of the way this country is being run, and by whom. The strategy of keeping the "common people" distracted with political issues that are of no consequence whatsoever, such as "race," has proven itself to be most effective. The fact that artists have bought into it adds to that effectiveness, but it is also a tribute to those artists that out of such madness they have been able to create, produce and perform real art, that succeeds in speaking to higher and deeper aspects of human existence as well. It does make one wonder, however, what greater things these artists might accomplish if they were actually, really "free within ourselves" (to use Langston Hughes' famous phrase in his own very insightful 1929 manifesto on this very question). So many of the artists of that Harlem Renaissance era had it so right. They so well understood that the essence and the beauty of being Black was being in possession of the wisdom that freed them (and us) from being essentialized as only Black in a world where the categories of "White" and "Black" existed for no other reason than to enforce, reinforce and perpetuate systematic disparity and inequality. (There was no reason to be "Separate" other than to be "UNequal.")

"Race," in the tradition of African (Black) wisdom could only mean the whole human race. Paul Robeson, in his own most famous quote (his epitaph, in fact, at Fernwood Cemetery), said it all: "The artist must elect to fight for slavery or for freedom. I have made my decision. I had no choice." I strive to live by that.

A luta continua,



March 30, 2008

The Topic Is Race; the Art Is Fearless

IN the 1970s the African-American artist Adrian Piper donned an Afro wig and a fake mustache and prowled the streets of various cities in the scowling, muttering guise of the Mythic Being, a performance-art version of a prevailing stereotype, the black male as a mugger, hustler, gangsta.

In the photographs that resulted you can see what she was up to. In an era when some politicians and much of the popular press seemed to be stoking racial fear, she was turning fear into farce � but serious, and disturbing, farce, intended to punch a hole in pervasive fictions while acknowledging their power.

Recently a new kind of Mythic Being arrived on the scene, the very opposite of the one Ms. Piper introduced some 30 years ago. He doesn�t mutter; he wears business suits; he smiles. He is by descent half black African, half white American. His name is Barack Obama.

On the rancorous subject of the country�s racial history he isn�t antagonistic; he speaks of reconciliation, of laying down arms, of moving on, of closure. He is presenting himself as a 21st-century postracial leader, with a vision of a color-blind, or color-embracing, world to come.

Campaigning politicians talk solutions; artists talk problems. Politics deals in goals and initiatives; art, or at least interesting art, in a language of doubt and nuance. This has always been true when the subject is race. And when it is, art is often ahead of the political news curve, and heading in a contrary direction.

In a recent solo debut at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in Chelsea a young artist named Rashid Johnson created a fictional secret society of African-American intellectuals, a cross between Mensa and the Masons. At first uplift seemed to be the theme. The installation was framed by a sculpture resembling giant cross hairs. Or was it a microscope lens, or a telescope�s? The interpretive choice was yours. So was the decision to stay or run. Here was art beyond old hot-button statements, steering clear of easy condemnations and endorsements. But are artists like Mr. Johnson making �black� art? Political art? Identity art? There are no answers, or at least no unambiguous ones.

Since Ms. Piper�s Mythical Being went stalking in the 1970s � a time when black militants and blaxploitation movies reveled in racial difference � artists have steadily challenged prevailing constructs about race.

As multiculturalism entered mainstream institutions in the 1980s, the black conceptualist David Hammons stayed outdoors, selling snowballs on a downtown Manhattan sidewalk. And when, in the 1990s, Robert Colescott was selected as the first African-American to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, he brought paintings of figures with mismatched racial features and skin tones, political parables hard to parse.

At the turn of the present millennium, with the art market bubbling up and the vogue for identity politics on the wane, William Pope.L � the self-described �friendliest black artist in America� � belly-crawled his way up Broadway, the Great White Way, in a Superman outfit, and ate copies of The Wall Street Journal.

Today, as Mr. Obama pitches the hugely attractive prospect of a postracial society, artists have, as usual, already been there, surveyed the terrain and sent back skeptical, though hope-tinged, reports. And you can read those reports in art all around New York this spring, in retrospective surveys like �Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution� currently at the P.S 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, in the up-to-the-minute sampler that is the 2008 Whitney Biennial, in gallery shows in Chelsea and beyond, and in the plethora of art fairs clinging like barnacles to the Armory Show on Pier 94 this weekend.

�Wack!� is a good place to trace a postracial impulse in art going back decades. Ms. Piper is one of the few African-American artists in the show, along with Howardena Pindell and Lorraine O�Grady. All three began their careers with abstract work, at one time the form of black art most acceptable to white institutions, but went on to address race aggressively.

In a 1980 performance video, �Free, White and 21,� Ms. Pindell wore whiteface to deliver a scathing rebuke of art-world racism. In the same year Ms. O�Grady introduced an alter ego named �Mlle Bourgeoise Noire� who, dressed in a beauty-queen gown sewn from white formal gloves, crashed museum openings to protest all-white shows. A few years later Ms. Piper, who is light skinned, began to selectively distribute a printed calling card at similar social events. It read:

Dear Friend,

I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are not black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.

I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.

Sincerely yours,

Adrian Margaret Smith Piper

Although these artists� careers took dissimilar directions, in at least some of their work from the �70s and �80s they all approached race, whiteness as well as blackness, as a creative medium. Race is treated as a form of performance; an identity that could, within limits, be worn or put aside; and as a diagnostic tool to investigate social values and pathologies.

Ms. Piper�s take on race as a form of creative nonfiction has had a powerful influence on two generations of African-Americans who, like Mr. Obama, didn�t experience the civil rights movement firsthand, and who share a cosmopolitan attitude toward race. In 2001 that attitude found corner-turning expression in �Freestyle,� an exhibition organized at the Studio Museum in Harlem by its director, Thelma Golden.

When Ms. Golden and her friend the artist Glenn Ligon called the 28 young American artists �postblack,� it made news. It was a big moment. If she wasn�t the first to use the term, she was the first to apply it to a group of artists who, she wrote, were �adamant about not being labeled �black� artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.�

The work ranged from mural-size images of police helicopters painted with hair pomade by Kori Newkirk, who lives in Los Angeles, to computer-assisted geometric abstract painting by the New York artist Louis Cameron. Mr, Newkirk�s work came with specific if indirect ethnic references; Mr. Cameron�s did not. Although �black� in the Studio Museum context, they would lose their racial associations in an ethnically neutral institution like the Museum of Modern Art.

Ethnically neutral? That�s just a code-term for white, the no-color, the everything-color. For whiteness is as much � or as little � a racial category as blackness, though it is rarely acknowledged as such wherever it is the dominant, default ethnicity. Whiteness is yet another part of the postracial story. Like blackness, it has become a complicated subject for art. And few have explored it more forcefully and intimately than Nayland Blake.

Mr. Blake, 48, is the child of a black father and a white mother. In various performance pieces since the 1990s he has dressed up as a giant rabbit, partly as a reference to Br�er Rabbit of Joel Chandler Harris�s Uncle Remus stories, a wily animal who speaks in Southern black dialect and who survives capture by moving fast and against expectations.

In 2001 Mr. Blake appeared in a video with another artist, AA Bronson. Each had his face slathered with cake frosting, chocolate in Mr. Blake�s case, vanilla in Mr. Bronson�s. When then two men exchanged a long kiss, the colors, and presumably the flavors, began to blend. Shared love, the implication was, dissolves distinctions between �black� and �white,� which, as racial categories, are cosmetic, superficial.

As categories they are also explosive. In 1984, when Mr. Hammons painted a poster of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian and exhibited it outdoors in Washington, the piece was trashed by a group of African-American men. Mr, Hammons intended the portrait, �How Ya Like Me Now,� as a comment on the paltry white support for Mr. Jackson�s presidential bid that year. Those who attacked it assumed the image was intended as an insult to Mr. Jackson.

More recently, when Kara Walker cut out paper silhouettes of fantasy slave narratives, with characters � black and white alike � inflicting mutual violence, she attracted censure from some black artists. At least some of those objecting had personal roots in the civil rights years and an investment in art as a vehicle for racial pride, social protest and spiritual solace.

Ms. Walker, whose work skirts any such overt commitments, was accused of pandering to a white art market with an appetite for images of black abjection. She was called, in effect, a sellout to her race.

In a television interview a few weeks ago, before he formed plans to deliver his speech on race, Mr. Obama defended his practice of backing off from discussion of race in his campaign. He said it was no longer a useful subject in the national dialogue; we�re over it, or should be.

But in fact it can be extremely useful. There is no question that his public profile has been enhanced by his Philadelphia address, even if the political fallout in terms of votes has yet to be gauged.

Race can certainly be used to sell art too, and the results can be also be unpredictable. As with politics, timing is crucial.

In 1992 the white artist team Pruitt-Early (Rob Pruitt and Walter Early) presented a gallery exhibition called �The Red Black Green Red White and Blue Project.� Its theme was the marketing of African-American pop culture, with an installation of black-power posters, dashiki cloth and tapes of soul music bought in Harlem.

What might, at a later time or with different content, have been seen as a somewhat dated consumerist critique proved to be a public relations disaster. The artists were widely condemned as racist and all but disappeared from the art world.

Eight years later, with the cooling of identity politics, a show called �Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes and Rage� arrived, with no apparent critical component, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. An array of fashion images, videos and artifacts associated with stars like the Notorious B.I.G., Missy Elliott and Tupac Shakur, it was assumed to be a welcoming (if patronizing) gesture to the museum�s local African-American audience. Yet its appearance coincided with the general massive marketing of hip-hop culture to middle-class whites, a phenomenon that Mr. Pruitt and Mr. Early had been pointing to.

Were Pruitt-Early postblack artists ahead of their time, offering a new take on race, as a movable feast that collided with older, essentialist attitudes? If so, they would probably find plenty of company now in artists who stake out terrain both black and postblack, white and postwhite.

Mr. Pope.L (he who crawled up Broadway) does so with a posture of radical outsiderness that cancels bogus notions of racial or cultural essence. Basically he short-circuits the very concept of what an artist, black or white, �should� be. He smiles as he inches up the street on all fours; he uncomplainingly devours news of money he�ll never have. He paints murals with peanut butter and makes sculpture from Pop-Tarts, the stuff of welfare meals. In many ways his main subject would seem to be class, not race. Yet race is everywhere in his art.

He works with mostly white materials � mayonnaise, milk, flour � but he also runs the Black Factory, a mobile workshop-van equipped to transform any object, no matter what color, into a �black� object. How? By covering it with cheap black paint.

For a retrospective at the Maine College of Art in Portland in 2003, Mr. Pope.L presented a performance piece with the optimistic title �eRacism,� but that was entirely about race-based conflict. In a photograph in the show�s catalog, he has the word written in white on his bare black chest. Were he pale-skinned, it might have been all but invisible.

Whereas Mr. Pope.L has shaped himself into a distinctive racial presence, certain other artists of color are literally built from scratch. A Miami artists collective called BLCK, in the current Whitney Biennial, doesn�t really exist. The archival materials attributed to it documenting African American life in the 1960s is actually the creation of single artist: Adler Guerrier, who was born in Haiti in 1975.

Projects by Edgar Arceneaux, who is also in the biennial, have included imaginary visual jam sessions with the jazz visionary Sun Ra and the late Conceptual artist Sol Lewitt. Earlier in this art season, a white artist, Joe Scanlan, had a solo gallery show using the fictional persona of a black artist, Donelle Woolford. Ms. Woolford was awarded at least one appreciative review, suggesting that, in art at least, race can be independent of DNA.

The topic of race and blood has always been an inflammatory one in this country. Ms. Piper broached it in a 1988 video installation and delivered some bad news. Facing us through the camera, speaking with the soothing composure of a social worker or grief counselor, she said that, according to statistics, if we were white Americans, chances were very high that we carried at least some black blood. That was the legacy of slavery. She knew we would be upset. She was sorry. But was the truth. The piece was titled �Cornered.�

And are we upset? I�ll speak for myself; it�s not a question. Of course not. Which is a good thing, because the concept of race in America � the fraught fictions of whiteness and blackness� is not going away soon. It is still deep in our system. Whether it is or isn�t in our blood, it�s in our laws, our behavior, our institutions, our sensibilities, our dreams.

It�s also in our art, which, at its contrarian and ambiguous best, is always on the job, probing, resisting, questioning and traveling miles ahead down the road.



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