Articles

You Said What? A Week of PC Blunders

by Claire Breukel on August 24, 2011

Putting my head in places it probably shouldn't be.

BERN, SWITZERLAND —  This has been a week of blunders.

At an art conference in Switzerland a debate began amongst fellow participants about the content of a drawing, which could either be considered bad taste or ironic. The conversation expanded to talk about politics in South Africa, more specifically the demographics of voting, which resulted in the comment “but most of the people who voted for that political party were non-white”. What had been intended from the speaker was to say, “not white.” This may appear as a minor letter error however this discrepancy is critical. As part of the language adopted by the old Apartheid regime, the term “non-white” implies that everyone else, no matter what racial orientation is “other” compared to the position of being white. Certainly, an honest mistake however the look on my fellow participants face gave me insight how it must feel to be a black South African subjected to years of inappropriate terminology.

Following this in last week’s Hyperallergic post, “Artist Residencies in the Developing World,” I had used the term “third world” instead of “developing world,” or more precisely I wrote: “Is being an artist-in-residence in a third-world country akin to being a participant on the Survivor television series?”

Indicative of my, at times, flippant sense of humor, I had appropriated the term “third world” to be mimetic of the implied persecution. I was corrected, and rightly so, by a reader who pointed out that “third world” is condescending, as it suggests a hierarchy within the regions of the world.

These faux pas got me thinking that I should be more PC cognizant.

My response to a popular retro illustration.

The term “politically correct” or PC entered the public consciousness in the late 1970s. Since then, it has found its place in politics and most forms of public press, with the arts being no exception. As our collective consciousness changes so too have the terms we choose to describe art. Within developing world, for example, “tribal art” is considered an acceptable term, however “indigenous art” is a big no-no. So too are “primitive art” and “naïve art,” two terms traditionally used to explain artists without formal training, and that are now considered pejoratives. Instead, one term I have encountered on my travels to Jamaica is “intuitive art” which was coined by the curator David Boxer at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and that I felt expressed a positive and respectful overtone to art with a less formal quality.

How them does one begin to negotiate the territories of a grandiose term like African Art? This, for me, feels terrifying as the term encompasses Art from Africa’s history, artist from all races and cultures making contemporary work in Africa and the African diaspora.

A Kardashian wearing a provocative designer T-shirt (via imeanwhat.com)

I came across www.blackartdepot.com, which I had hoped would provide clarity, but in actuality this was a further blunder in to language obscurity. This website has two main sections “A Black Art Gallery” which initially I thought may include paintings and sculpture all made in the color black, but instead was described to encompass “collections of Black Art prints and posters by famous and emerging ethnic artists.” The second was a section for African American Art described as, “collections of African American art prints and posters by your favorite ethnic artists.” What is the distinction between the two? Perhaps one section is for artists who are Black but not from America and the other for artists who are African American, or better yet these two sections could have been created to cater to artists to find their own self-proclamation.

My flippant humor kicked in and this reminded me of a sports commentator who had called a non-American Black runner an “African-American.”

This also reminded me of a time a colleague looked at me lying in the sun and called me “melanin impoverished” — this was a wonderfully humorous take on political correctness. I love this humor. I love pushing the envelope and challenging preconceptions. But how far is too far?

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