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by Alan Moore
|"Situation Critical: African American Writers on African American Artists," a symposium held at the Museum of Modern Art, on Mar. 16, 1999.
Last month, four African American art writers -- David Driskell, Judith Wilson, Richard J. Powell and Calvin Reid -- participated in a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art. Titled "Situation Critical," the event was sponsored by the Friends of Education, a museum group devoted to raising funds for MoMA purchases of African American art. Contemporary curator Robert Storr served as moderator of the panel. As it began, he noted that such events served to "educate this museum" about issues of concern to the black arts community as well as allow MoMA to network within that community.
The key question, as Storr announced during questioning, was why so few African Americans had taken up art journalism, especially since it seems that artists of color have been making headway in showing their work in museums and galleries.
Judith Wilson began by questioning the symposium title, saying it pointed to an "ideological swamp." Why link African American critics so directly to African American art? Is the African American critic's perspective crucial to the reception of African American art? Does the critic's privileged access to black visual culture make up for his or her position on the institutional margins?
Wilson, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, used to write for the Village Voice. When she left in 1981 to pursue graduate work, no writer of color on art replaced her. The mainstream media's indifference to African American art is deeply entrenched. What she called the "critical monochroming" of the art magazines is more complicated. Now we have a plethora of artists of color and a dearth of nonwhite critics.
As fine examples of "raced art writing," Wilson pointed to Ann E. Gibson's work on little-known black painters in Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (Yale, 1997), and David Craven writing in the journal Third Text on Latin American modernism.
Calvin Reid, a writer for Art in America, described the moment he came to New York in the early 1980s as one in which the critical and academic establishment seemed focused on issues of racial identity and Americanness, things he'd studied at Howard University. Many good African American artists were working, among whom he named Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Issues addressed by these artists were percolating into the work of others, like David Wojnarowicz, James Luna and Edgar Heap of Birds. Reid began his own magazine, 108 Review, during the East Village gallery boom as "a platform for uncredentialed artists."
Reid spoke easily about his attraction to criticism, how he had started his journal since he found himself living with people who talked incessantly about art. "We didn't want to let it go to waste,'' he said, so we started the journal.
"I was always just as interested," Reid said, "in why I didn't like something as in why I did." The social world attached to writing about art in New York attracted him. As an artist, it's a way of getting attention for yourself.
Richard J. Powell, a professor at Duke University and author of Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (Thames & Hudson World of Art series, 1997), said that what loomed large for him this night was the Museum of Modern Art itself. He recalled how Louise Dahl Wolf, then editor of Harper's Bazaar, came upon a William Edmondson carving in Atlanta. She wanted to put him in the magazine, but couldn't do it. "So she did the next best thing, she got him a show at MoMA."
From that "golden moment" in 1937, which begins the wider visibility of African American art within the culture, Powell has remained sensible of "the challenge of black accomplishment" -- that is, of the other hard-working career artists who didn't have the opportunity that was given the self-taught carver Edmondson. Artists who worked hard and followed the game plan, like William H. Johnson, didn't get shown. (Johnson was exhibited at the Whitney in 1991, long after his death.)
Black art represents the "challenge of black subjectivity" to white culture, which must then recognize that "someone black is in the world." Powell recalled the 1984 symposium around the "'Primitivism' in Modern Art" exhibition at MoMA, where a prominent art historian said he didn't care what the tribal objects meant to the people who made them, he only cared about how the European artists had used them as formal examples.
When Powell suggested some historical exhibitions to a curator in a Paris cafe, he was told, "We're not really interested in that. We're interested in what's happening now." Powell ascribes this to the fear of dealing with the past in a way that might show a different, less comfortable history of the modern.
David Driskell, professor emeritus of art at the University of Maryland, spoke from his longer perspective. African American artists are the last to be written about in the mainstream media, he said, and when they are the treatment is sensationalized or sentimentalized. When mainstream writers write about underrepresented artists, he said, they tend to look for a sensational angle, as in the frequent stories about black outsider artists whose work is neglected during their lifetimes and then exploited by a white art establishment after their deaths.
Driskell wrote the classic Two Centuries of Black American Art (L.A. County Museum of Art, 1976), and recently edited African American Aesthetics: A Postmodernist View (Smithsonian, 1995).
Few black writers are invited to write for mainstream journals, he said. Rarely do we get the pleasure of picking up a Sunday paper to read a review of a black artist by a black critic, a text by someone who could bring analytic and historical understanding to the work of an artist of stature, like sculptor Elizabeth Catlett.
In discussion, Judith Wilson said that she did not see the diversity of culture today reflected in mainstream journals. Too many white writers, Richard Powell said, don't do their homework on black artists.
The problem, Rob Storr commented, was that while there were more exhibitions of African American artists being done, there were fewer venues in which to write about them. Wilson remarked that while opportunities had increased for curators and scholars, the same was not true for critics, what Storr called the "blue collar" reviewers.
Storr asked the panel, how do you write for a general audience about something that is "in school." As an example of such an issue, Storr cited Kara Walker's use of derogatory stereotypes in her work.
Driskell remarked that the artist is a free individual, but the question to ask is, is the greater good served by this work? I'd try to look at it from the point of view of what I want my audience to learn, he noted.
Wilson said that as a critic she did not spend time on what she didn't like. As a historian, however, she felt comfortable writing about work she didn't like but which is significant. The use and abuse of stereotypical imagery, Powell said, would be valuable if it would help to uproot "visual racism" in America, which still hasn't happened yet.
You're constantly wrestling with a sense of responsibility in writing, Calvin Reid said, which you put against the fascination that draws you to art to begin with. The international art world is always on the move, always looking for new subjects.
There is a lack of awareness that the African American art world embraces broad differences of opinion, Storr observed.
George Preston of City College argued from the audience that the key questions to be confronted are indifference towards and acknowledgment of black achievement by mainstream media. Visual language is more elusive than literature and more intellectualized, so these issues can be evaded. Barry Johnson, another audience member, said, "What you see, what you hear is us." The basis of all modern art is black art, he claimed.
A woman asked what is the utility of the category "African American art"? Judith Wilson said it conflates race as a category with culture, so it is innately problematic. "We haven't sorted this out yet."
A young man asked, simply, "What's it gonna take?" After some flustered moments, the questioner alluded to the black British critical movement known as cultural studies, which includes writers like Stuart Hall, Homi Bhabha, and Kobena Mercer. Why have we no forums, he asked, to contest the growing conservative climate?
Wilson replied by briefly sketching an intellectual social history. She explained that British critics are more responsive to social conditions because, despite "Thatcherism," the country has more venues to express critical views. In the United States, on-the-ground political events in the 1960s generated intellectual responses. But in the long run, with our state arts councils and the National Endowment, we had a mechanism that wasn't as responsive as in Britain.
Richard Powell then responded to the question, "What's it gonna take?" by saying that we need to work towards visual literacy. The west's cherished Enlightenment occurs at the height of the slave trade, and the intensely political derogatory imaging of Africans. "We need education to hip us to the visual strategies that have been used to oppress us."
David Driskell concluded by alluding to Ralph Ellison's novel The Invisible Man. "We shouldn't have to assault the mainstream media. We're here, we're dissatisfied. You're going to have to penetrate the structure," he said. Just as Martin Luther King, Jr., used to place maids in the houses of the elite to spy, so we'll need people in strategic places.
"I think I was here ten years ago at a symposium on this same subject," Driskell claimed, "and I dare anyone to say things have changed. With culture we need to strategize."
Storr said he thought things had changed. The questions around African American art no longer depended on a social movement to be raised, which, once the tide of protest has passed, sink into the sand.
ALAN MOORE is a New York art historian and critic.
The exhibition "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities," begins its lengthy national tour at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Mar. 17-July 11, 1999.
The show subsequently travels to the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Mass.; Howard University Gallery of Art with the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; Clark Atlanta University Art Collections with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta; North Carolina Central University Art Museum with Duke University Museum of Art and the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University in Durham, N.C.; Fisk University Art Galleries with the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tenn.; Hampton University Art Museum with the Chrysler Museum in Hampton, Va.
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