In this week’s New Yorker, Hilton Als offers a boilerplate summary of the controversy surrounding the transgressive, antebellum-inspired silhouettes of Kara Walker, whose traveling retrospective opens at the Whitney Museum next week. Framed by descriptions of the more lurid of Walker’s tropes (a baby pierced by a sword, a black man fellating himself), Als’ argument summarizes a familiar discussion going back to Richard Wright’s murderer Bigger Thomas in Native Son: does the fruit of Walker’s driven id justify itself as critique, or should it be censored as demeaning the dignity of African-Americans?
It perhaps begs the question that OJ Simpson was arrested again recently, the New York Knicks were the subject of a successful harassment suit by a black woman, and Puffy Combs is advertising a new line of clothes with a phallic rape motif in the print ads. In other words, the train has left the station and it is not exactly bound for glory. Kara is just a passenger.
But Als’ regurgitation of liberal angst conceals the real questions observers should be asking about Walker’s work, such as, "Who buys this stuff and why?" Of course, the answer is, "The same white, affluent, liberal ’bien pensants’ who read the New Yorker." Walker’s signature silhouette motif is especially sly because its transgression sneaks up on the viewer through the shadowy beauty of her line. Nevertheless, the collector’s desire for these images conceals and reveals some ugly truths.
Have you ever known a Baby Boomer? What distinguishes him or her is a self-imposed guilt at the state of the world coupled with specific wanton materialism. The Boomer’s guilt is assuaged by the past. Surely, slavery was a bad thing and the Boomer is righteously enraged by it, in the rearview mirror, of course. But can anyone doubt the truth that, swept away by material desire, the Boomer’s substitute for true emotion as symbolized by the ads for watches and other gewgaws in, say, the New Yorker, that said Boomer would probably have stood aside that auction block in the 1840s showing off his shiny new "possessions"? That Walker tickles this unspoken reality, the Id in her Boomer buyers, is part of her peculiar genius.
There is also something more universal in Kara’s shadows that links her to Sade, Céline and Mapplethorpe, the desire to concretize the forbidden in her own mind, for all the world to see. The specificity of slavery is thus incidental to her wider desire: the concentration camps, Russian serfdom and the subsequent gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda and the Sudan could all substitute. Indeed, Walker’s injection of sex into horror is the injection of life.
Universally, Kara reminds us that the state of Man is the state of sin and does not necessarily eliminate celebration as a possibility. Bosch and Blake agreed with her, and she is, transcending even race, their worthy successor.
"Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love" premiered at the Walker Art Center, Feb. 17-May 13, 2007, and now appears at the Whitney Museum, Oct. 11, 2007-Feb. 3, 2008, and the Hammer Museum, Feb. 17-May 11, 2008.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).