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Installation detail from "Kara Walker: Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress," at the Studio Museum in Harlem


Installation detail from "Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress"


Installation detail from "Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress"


Kara Walker
Beats Me
2001



General Defeat


They Say Water Represents the Subconscious in Dreams


Untitled I
2001



"Hunting Scene"
detail from "Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress"
Kara Walker's Cakewalk
by Donald Kuspit


"Kara Walker: Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress," July 16-Sept. 28, 2003, at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, New York, N.Y. 10027

Kara Walker's wall works are a kind of cakewalk -- "a musical promenade of black American origin with the prize of a cake awarded to couples who demonstrated the most intricate or imaginative dance figures and steps," according to the dictionary.

They certainly take the cake for imaginative brilliance and strutting wit, but what's the ideological point, beyond the fancy art footwork, for doing a cakewalk these days? The civil rights surge of the 1960s has passed into history. Prejudice remains -- against Asians, Jews, women and gays as well as blacks -- and, these days, perhaps most of all against heterosexual white males, but there's no special pleading on their behalf.

The daunting task of social integration remains unfinished, and is likely to remain unfinished, considering the regressive need for scapegoats and human hostility in general. But the place of blacks in American society has changed for the better -- Colin Powell, Condolezza Rice and the heads of Coca Cola and AOL suggest as much (they seem more than establishment tokens) -- however many problems remain for them.

And for every other minority: and who isnt a minority these days of social fragmentation, conflict and incoherence? Thus, Walker's mural -- and the clever "footnotes" that accompany it on small index cards on the wall across the way (many rather arch, even stilted jokes) -- with its plantation-imagery, has a socially retardataire feel, for all its irony. The images of blacks and whites -- all the figures in the mural are pitch black silhouettes, adding an ironical twist to its "black" humor and minstrel show look -- seem peculiarly quaint, whatever the morbid atmosphere generated by the intense blackness, which seems even more exhibitionistic and confrontational than the subtly nightmarish "figures of fun."

Walker's work is certainly high drama, weirdly tragicomic, with a deft narrative twist, but it has less to do with social reality than black rage, resentment and bitterness. The mural suggests a futile attempt -- or is it a deliberate refusal? -- to come to terms with past history, suggesting that there is a regressive dimension to the sense of being a victim.

Walker seems obsessed with the past, as though to preclude a vision of the future, perhaps because it is a generalized American future rather than a specifically black one. Is she holding on to black difference in defiant fear of American sameness (which is more of a myth than reality)?

Oddly enough, it is because of this obsession that she seems to turn black suffering into a parody of itself, unwittingly reinforcing the stereotypes she parodies. Paradoxically, the means she uses to subvert the representation of blacks seems to reify it.

I am suggesting that Walker's art is much more interesting for what it tells us about her psyche than for its ideology -- its political correctness, filtered through intellectually correct irony -- and much more important for what it tells us about Walker's artistic cunning than for what it tells us about her in-your-face "attitude."

Walker's mural is, perhaps first and foremost, a surreal dream picture, enigmatic and absurd however burdened by populist clichs. It is not the dream Martin Luther King had, but of private suffering -- more generally human than particularly black -- given a public veneer. The mural treads, with surefooted ingenuity, the tight wire between abstraction and representation.

It is a kind of magic lantern show -- an ironically old-fashioned slice of filmic life, as it were. It is meticulously executed directly on the wall, and as flat as the wall, like a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, giving it a transience -- it will be painted out after the exhibition -- which confirms its dreamlike character, and the index cards are incidental language pieces, executed with an old-fashioned typewriter, it seems, unwittingly suggesting Walker's regressive, obsolete ideology.

The installation as a whole is a kind of pastiche spectacle -- a theater of the absurd, in which the spectator, standing in the center, is assaulted by a buckshot of texts and overwhelmed by the big screen-size image. The change in scale, medium and import is disorienting, adding to the sense of victimization: one is forced to identify with blacks -- forced into their position. The figures and jokes are amusing however macabre, and the installation as a whole is moralizing, and meant to instruct us in the social truth by provoking painful emotions.

But I have to say I experienced no pity and terror -- no catharsis despite the stressful drama -- nor did I feel particularly enlightened with new insights into the situation or mentality of black America, if there is any single situation or frame of mind that defines it (doubtful).

I am suggesting that Walker's work is an ideological failure and intellectually inadequate, and hardly as subversive as it pretends to be, but an artistic success, integrating, with postmodern verve, familiar modernist modes of art, to exciting new effect. She puts modernism to new use, giving it a fresh sense of expressive and esthetic purpose, showing that the artistic past can be changed, and come to real life, however much dead social history cannot be.

But her work, however artistically eloquent, remains haunted by T. W. Adorno's dialectical view of the jazz performer:

It is well known that jazz is characterized by its syncopated rhythm, thus by a displacement which inserts apparent beats within the regular measures, comparable to the intentionally clumsy stumbling of the eccentric clown, familiar enough from the American film comedies. A helpless, powerless subject is presented, one that is ridiculous in his expressive impulses. Now the formula of jazz is this, that precisely by virtue of his weakness and helplessness this subject represented by the irregular rhythms adapts himself to the regularity of the total process, and because he, so to speak, confesses his own impotence, he is accepted into the collective and rewarded by it. Jazz projects the schema of identification: in return for the individual erasing himself and acknowledging his own nullity, he can vicariously take part in the power and the glory of the collective to which he is bound by this spell. [T.W. Adorno, "Sociology of Art and Music," Aspects of Sociology, Boston: Beacon, 1972, p. 113].
Ironically, the relentless, intimidating, assertive blackness of Walker's work seems to represent this self-erasure and nullity. The imperious blackness is the abyss of history, internalized by suffering -- black or otherwise -- and as such an ironical source and marker of identity.

Identity politics art is ultimately about the failure of identity, for if identity is defined entirely in terms of collective history and ideological oppression, it is a confession of self-alienation.


DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.