Tuesday, June 30, 2009

an exclusive club

Unfortunately, I was only able to stay for the first couple of hours of Figurative Art Today: Between East and West—for the presentations by artist Iona Rozeal Brown and collector (and colleague, and friend) Henry Thaggert. I missed Allan DeSouza and Kristen Hileman, and the conversation all four panelists had with Phillips curator Vesela Sretenovic. It was a full day, and I couldn't take it all in.

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


Blogger Unknown said...

It seems lately that I cannot throw a proverbial rock and not hit a blog that is talking about this topic. From the number of and the depth present in these discussions, I would say Saltz has hit a big nerve. I posted a quote from this at Joanne Mattera's blog where a discussion is just beginning.


Reading this post created the mental image of suit clad white men in a tree house, one pointing and screaming, "They are getting close! Quick, pull up the ladder!" I have to wonder if the devaluing of the works of women and minorities is a by product of the heady "white men only" club of art days past (yes, I said past) or a more deeply held, historically oriented distaste for the works of women and minorities in general (all fields, not just art)?

Does the gender discrepancy also exist in the ranks of museum boards and executive staff? Most of the gallery directors I know and know of are women with the exception of 2 men.

Good post!

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always felt the states have been incredibly ahead in creating a fully integrated art world - I think globally, it can be challenging for women and blacks to be accepted by museums and galleries.

I understand the Woody Allen quote fully, but you have to contextualize Allen's quote within the plot of Annie Hall where he couched it. The point of Allen's comment is that he posits himself as an outsider, and acts from within that very conceit.

I think what iona and henry were trying to communicate is that they'd like to see an art world that is more fully integrated but well, I don't think it's actually a race issue at all. It's a class issue that has to do with the fact that there is also not a very large audience within the art world for the works of the said "marginalized artists," nor room for their politics, which, many times, goes unrewarded especially if those opinions are translated into artworks.

If you are wealthy and thus worldly, you don't need to be told what you already believe and willingly ignore. Let's not skirt around these issues by using race and gender as a spectre for the conditions of financial inequality that many of the upper middle and upper classes are willing to accept in exchange for their lifestyles.

12:05 PM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...


I introduced the Allen quote with the caveat that it's not exactly appropriate—and did so for the very reason you've pointed out. Apologies for not elaborating on that.

That said...I think we need to distinguish here between the art world that was being discussed at the panel and what a number of artist and collector friends have referred to as the circuit of "pride" collectors, i.e., African-Americans who buy black art strictly as an opportunity to celebrate their cultural heritage. These collectors typically choose objects and images from the realm of fine craft, not-so-fine craft, traditional art, avante garde gallery culture, outsider art--basically everywhere. There are lots of galleries that cater specifically to these collectors, who are interested, above all else, in images that are empowering, and telegraph a certain amount of skill, but make no particular argument about the forward movement of art generally.

Black artists and collectors who are explicitly interested in contemporary/avante-garde art and art discourse often take pains to distinguish themselves from this market. (Implicit in conversations about this circuit is a note of condescension, a feeling that a lot of this work is essentially ahistorical kitsch.)

In so doing: They are submitting themselves to a prevailing museum and gallery culture that is neither historically nor currently sympathetic to them. They are, as you say in mentioning Annie Hall, deliberately positioning themselves as outsiders--or at least stepping into the already well-defined role of a person not wanted in this particular club.

Granted, once they've entered this sphere they have little choice but to assume the role, thanks to their gender or the color of their skin—unless they can perform a certain sort of cultural amnesia or self-subtraction from their work.

I definitely don't mean to make light in saying all of this, nor am I intimating that the marginalization of these artists is self-imposed. I'm just saying that they are walking into a sphere predicated on white male privilege, and do so with their eyes open.

As to the notion that this is all really just a question of class, I’m sympathetic to the argument, but I don’t accept that the relationship is that clear-cut. In my own experience, wealthy people active in the arts at least tend present a veneer of politically progressive attitudes—even if the accumulation of wealth that they’ve managed is itself, as you suggest, an inherently political act. I have met many fabulously wealthy people who delight in owning controversial objects. (We can argue whether or not the content of the work has any meaning or sting anymore once it's been consumed in this fashion...but without collectors or institutions we don't come to see or know the work, period.)

I really do think it’s more the power of narrative—a story that Alfred Barr put together on how and why modern art mattered that is so effective as to continue to be a springboard for all conversations on the avante garde, even as we shake our heads and admit how the old formulations aren’t necessarily useful anymore. They may not be, but we’ve built the whole teetering structure on top of them, so we keep eyeing them, teaching them, fitting everything to their contours.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Jeff (I am the previous poster). I agree that pointing out the types of collectors and types of artwork we're speaking about begins to deepen such arguments about 'widespread' acceptance of work by female and African American artists, but your argument below also seems to intuit that artists seeking success in the proverbial 'mainstream' art world, are literally "asking for it." (the marginalization they perceive of their cultural practices). It is almost as if you are less sympathetic towards them for wanting a wider audience - that that desire for integration detracts from their cultural authenticity. And that is why I think the issue of class has to be discussed here - mostly because authenticity is a market value these days, and it is an organizing class value - it marks the value of a piece of cheese made in France, an ear of corn from the States, a quilt made in the South, a new media artwork made in Germany.

There is an older argument, I think, couched within this whole mess about cultural purity - and distinguishing certain narratives over others that assigns those narratives value - which is sometimes empowering, and other times stomach-turningly eugenic. I don't quite know what the question is, but if I figure that out, I'll let you know.

It seems whenever I bring the issue of class up to someone working in the art world, they tend to deny it should be a factor in discussing how a collector or artist comes to appreciate or make artwork in their lives; I feel it is part of story we tend not to talk about. In my experience as an artist, I have found that artists make an incredibly strong effort to cover up their backgrounds in order to separate it from their aesthetic leanings - be they rich, middle class, or poor. Your origin does have a strong bearing on where you will end up in the art world. I have artists who came from well-to-do or fairly stable backgrounds literally hide it, lie about where they grew up, or emphasize different parts of their public narrative over others. The point is, there is general consensus in the art world that it is the only the art that matters, and it is better to remain invisible as an artist until the work is recognized and one does not have to worry about being pigeon-holed. That is the kind of behavior that is rewarded across the board.

Could that not be categorized as a form of social-climbing? Artists of every shape, form and color do try to augment their own narratives in a particular way that non-artists do not, that collectors or art appreciators rarely (or even care to?) understand. People in this country inherit money and money bestows awareness. Awareness and cultural empathy are not personal stances that one assumes as the result of a lack of life experiences and exposure to a diversity of narratives.

In saying that, I'd like to suggest you pick up Crispin Sartwell's "End of Story: Towards an Annihilation of Language and Narrative-" It is a creepy little book that will attempt to take you to the edge of our most prevalent organizing principles in storytelling then pull you back. Read it when you are in a humorous mood!

9:49 AM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...


Maybe I’m misconstruing what you’re saying here, but I think I have to take exception to your first paragraph: I am not less sympathetic to women or African-Americans who seek success in the contemporary art world, nor do I think that they are "asking for it.” It would seem to me that by this logic minorities would be advised to refrain from seeking success in any professional field whatsoever that has excluded them in the past--forget ever being senators, judges, university presidents, etc.

That said, I would certainly agree that anyone looking for authenticity in contemporary art is looking in the wrong place. Contemporary art, very generally speaking, relies on assumptions and stereotypes to understand the world. It acknowledges that conventions have a life and power that extends far beyond any authentic reality, no matter how discredited or divorced from that reality the have become.

The whole question of class and art is a sticky one. It does occur to me that many white male sculptors and painters I know are essentially indulging in working class fantasy—presenting themselves as rough customers, and presenting their studio practice as a sort of trade despite the fact that they hold advanced degrees from elite institutions, financial support from upper middle class families, etc.

8:01 AM  

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