an exclusive club
Iona shed light on her lifelong, mostly failed search for positive depictions of black women, and how that search has made, for her, the thought of not addressing the figure in her work seem impossible. Iona showed images of her art that were familiar to me--ganguro youths, Japanese teens who attempt to emulate hip-hop fashion in unlikely and shocking ways, going so far as to paint or dye their faces in what amounts to blackface, rendered in a ukiyo-e style. She also showed images of invented figures she calls hoochie-putti—what appear to be demon spirits made entirely from pale breasts and butts, and shrouded with long, stringy hair extensions. Even more disturbing than these were video clips Brown showed of Japanese women trying to turn themselves into outlandishly amplified versions of hip-hop stereotypes, scantily-clad, and showing off hyper-sexualized dance moves.
Henry’s talk relied on a novel conceit. The title for his talk: Was Andy Warhol Black? (Spoiler alert: He was not.)
Henry did make a fairly compelling case for Andy Warhol’s game-changing career as basically laying the groundwork for the re-introduction of all sorts of images and narratives that had been marginalized up to that point by the rise of abstraction, formalism, and the belief in universal values for visual expression. After Warhol, popular images, crass consumer culture, consumer products, movie stars, all of it could find its way into serious art and elite institutions. So, Henry asked, why not art about the African-American experience, too?
At one point, Henry quoted artist, philosopher, and rabble-rouser Adrian Piper. I can’t find the exact quote, but Piper basically said that abstraction and formalism led directly to the suppression of black cultural heritage…and that, whenever women or minorities move in significant numbers into any avenue of cultural production, that type of work necessarily becomes devalued, and the establishment moves their party somewhere else.
Now, whether or not you accept Henry's premise, or Piper’s description of systematic institutional exclusion, this thought does lead to an unanswered question, one that I would’ve loved to hear Iona or Henry address.
All of the standards of museum and gallery culture—the pristine white walls of the room that’s equal parts scientific laboratory, mausoleum, and shopping mall; the reliance on artificial light and huge expanses of space between works in order to isolate them as specimens, out of any context; the continued dependence on the long shadow of the canon, of works of white males that still serve as a measuring stick for considering all future works—all of these continue to place new art in an ideologically loaded frame, one that still enforces a high modern, universalist idea of art. (I'm obviously thinking about Brian O'Doherty here.)
This is true despite all of the self-examination and public hand wringing done by contemporary museum professionals, who usually acknowledge that women and blacks are still not represented in any significant numbers in their collections—but seem powerless to do much about that fact. Read, for example, this fantastic conversation between Jerry Saltz and MoMA's chief curator of Painting and Sculpture, Ann Temkin (thanks, Edward, for reprinting this).
Which leads me to ask: If the art establishment really does, as Piper suggests, tend to turn away from women or blacks…and if it still relies on the standards of an earlier era, privileging heroic male painting and sculpture, and the standards of presentation that support that sort of work…then why should women or people of color bother looking for approval or acceptance from said establishment? Is the whole game essentially poisoned, regardless of the self-awareness or self-criticality of curators and directors now?
And if museums like MoMA, as Saltz suggested, are heading for obsolescence because of their inability to change fast enough...do underrepresented artists need to go somewhere else?
Where would that be?
All of which, appropriately or not, makes me think of Woody Allen, quoting Groucho Marx: "I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member."
Pictured: iona rozeal brown, all falls down, 2008