Reactor

Critical Problems: The New York Times, Race, and Gender

by Kyle Chayka on November 27, 2012

Portrait of Ken Johnson by Phong Bui (Image via Brooklyn Rail)

Is it just me, or has art writing hit a little bit of a rough patch lately? Sociologist and erstwhile art writer Sarah Thornton announced she was quitting market reporting with a listicle sendoff of why writing in the art world sucks, and eminent critic Dave Hickey signaled his retirement from the field with similar acidity. Now, a few verbal missteps by New York Times art critic Ken Johnson have triggered accusations of buried racism and sexism.

The controversy, discussed by artist and Paper Monument editor Dushko Petrovich on Facebook, is outlined in a new online petition. The petition cites Johnson’s review of Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 at MoMA PS1, in which he wrote, “Black artists didn’t invent assemblage.” Johnson divides between the work of white modernists and the politics of black artists. He represents the “empathy gap” of white viewers as a reason why “so few black artists have been embraced by the predominantly white high-end art world.” That is, aside from David Hammons, who makes work “you don’t have to be black to feel,” a difficult line to swallow.

The embarrassing Times article creates a false distinction between artists working in an open playing field, freely interacting, adopting, and appropriating from each other. It ignores the difficulties black artists have faced and fails to adequately consider the inherent politics of art viewing.

To his credit, Johnson has been discussing the article on his own Facebook page, noting that, “I can see how my statement that ‘Black artists did not invent assemblage’ taken out of context seems needlessly provocative,” and explaining that his argument was drawn from the exhibition’s own catalog.

Unfortunately, Johnson also had a faux-pas in his preview for The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His pithy blurb is almost unbearably snide; one wonders which editor let this one pass by. Johnson starts, “the day that any woman earns the big bucks that men like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst rake in is still a long way off,” which is bad enough. But then he follows that with the insistent question, might the inequities of the market “also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?” Women do not “tend” to make any particular type of artwork. One also hopes that the market isn’t the only determinant of an artist’s value — while they command high prices, Hirst and Koons aren’t exactly artistic role models for anyone anymore.

Alice Neel, “Claudia Bach Pregnant” (1975) (Image via pafa.org)

Johnson’s writing reads “as validations of stubborn inequities,” the petition argues. In this case, I’m inclined to agree. Johnson doesn’t question, he simply reinforces the structural inequality of the art world with vague, suggestive rhetoric.

Responding to Dave Hickey’s letter of resignation from the art world in which he bemoaned the fact that critics have become “courtiers” to collectors, the Financial Times’s Jackie Wullschlager writes that art is now simply “a refuge for surplus funds and a bid for status in a globally competitive world.” Collectors (and galleries alike) have little time for connoisseurship. This state of affairs means that critics and reporters like Ken Johnson, who enjoy the luxury of a decent salary and a stable job, have all the more responsibility to think through what they write and set an example for readers and other art writers alike. Unfortunately, the Times writer wasn’t up to that task.

Observer columnist, collector, and gallery owner Adam Lindemann’s response to Sarah Thornton’s goodbye letter might be an example of what a less formalized or responsible world of art writing would look like. His sarcastic rejoinder (which was not, in fact, published by the Observer) states that he enjoys the oligarchs and dictators who form the highest end of the market “if they are buying what I am selling,” which is one of the yuckier statements in recent memory. Lindemann doesn’t care “if I’m not cool because it’s no longer ‘cool’ to be cool.” Lindemann’s gallery, Venus over Manhattan, certainly demonstrates a sense of connoisseurship at times, but this piece of writing doesn’t.

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  • Chicken_Fingers

    I’d rather be more charitable to Mr. Johnson. Even decontextualized the comments don’t appear ipso facto racist or sexist. I have seen him use a feminist hermeneutic in other reviews when it appeared almost unnecessary. I would file these criticisms of the critic under ‘liberals eating their children’ rather than bias unmasked.

    • Daniel Larkin

      Chicen Fingers, I agree with you in the sense that the self-rigetous witch hunt tone of some of the responses to Johnson has been frustrating. He’s not a bigoted person out to wreck the lives of women and black people.

      But I do think it is important to acknowledge that his words ignited rage in the hearts of people and that rage comes from a real place. It was not the best choice of words and I don’t think he meant what he said.

      But these mistakes are now a chance for us to to ask ourselves…”well, ok, what are the concepts at work in this phrase that make it inflammatory despite the intentions of its author?” And that conversation can all help us to better understand the nuances within these very hard questions of race and gender.

      Kyle, I think you did a great job showing the state of play with this debate.

      • Chicken_Fingers

        Mr. Johnson’s comments are unproblematic for me. I read in them allusions to biases that politically literate people already understand, not instantiations of those biases. Frankly, I would not engage in a conversation about race and gender with anyone who appears unwilling to suspend their rage, as you call it, long enough grasp “the nuances within these very hard questions.”

        I swapped a couple emails with Mr. Johnson not too long ago and think I expressed some views he found offensive. I concluded from that exchange that I would never be able to write criticism for the NYT with such urbanity that it never offends readers. Looks like he can’t either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alissagraceguzman Alissa Guzmán

    I’m not sure about this one Kyle, I actually think people’s overall response to both reviews is an overreaction. I read both of Johnson’s pieces (one of which was actually a very small blurb) and I don’t think his Now Dig This! review was racist when you read it in context, and you read what he actually wrote and not what one chooses to infer. I also don’t think his comment about the women’s show was sexist because I think he was begging a question a lot of people will ask of such a show, and left it up to viewers to decide and question.

    I’m am a bit wary of this trend of not misreading per se, but reading into something with your (general you) bias, as I’ve seen it popping up around the internet and elsewhere quite a lot. It’s a similar problem that I have with a lot of art critics who don’t see the work as it is in front of them but as they want it to be. That said, thanks for an article that made me think about all of this!

    • Severine7

      I agree here. I think it was a clunky choice of words but that he was actually posing questions instead of making racist or sexist declarations. The petition was written in a pious academic tone which, while being uber politically correct, often imagines a fantasy world in which everyone engages a work of art with a library of theory in their head. I feel like Johnson, while he should have confronted these prickly topics more elegantly, offers an earnest perspective that reflects what the majority of viewers (of all races and sexes) might think about when looking at these shows.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      I’m with you, Alissa—although I should say that I find the blurb about the Female Gaze show a bit troubling. But overall, I think there’s been an overreaction, or as they used in a headline at AFC, a bit of a witch hunt. Or maybe something about the format of the response—a petition—bothers me. It seems far more pointed, aggressive, and over-the-top than necessary.

      All that said, C-Monster has one of the most thoughtful responses that I’ve seen yet to the controversy. I recommend reading it. http://c-monster.net/blog1/2012/11/28/ken-johnson-kerfuffle/

  • Daniel Larkin

    Kyle, this was a great round-up of recent story lines in art writing. You’re right that we’ve hit a rough patch. Ken Johnson is well-intentioned. But good intentions also paved the road to hell. These are undeniable faux pas of language. Reflecting on them as a community is a chance for us to developed a more nuanced understanding of the race question. He’s a great writer. But he makes mistakes like everyone else.

  • Albert Rock

    To my mind, the problem with Ken Johnson’s article was not the line that has gained so much attention, but here:

    “If I am right that most of the work in “Now Dig This!” promotes
    solidarity, then this poses a problem for its audience. It divides
    viewers between those who, because of their life experiences, will
    identify with the struggle for black empowerment, and others for whom
    the black experience remains more a matter of conjecture. Those who
    identify may tend to respond favorably to what those viewing from a more
    distanced perspective may regard as social realist clichés, like the
    defiant fist.

    There are some black artists who finesse the difference, David Hammons
    being a brilliant example and, tellingly, the only artist in this show
    to be lionized by the mainstream art establishment. He is a Duchampian
    trickster who toys in surprising ways with signifiers of black culture,
    poetically unsettling entrenched representations of blackness on both
    sides of the racial divide.”

    In the first paragraph, he suggests that art produced by black people ultimately only speaks to black people and is inaccessible to non-black (read: white affluent) audiences. Identity politics=broken communication. Right-wing boilerplate.

    It remains plausible at this juncture that Johnson believes that black art can be just as good as white art and only believes that structural issues of racial segregation and misunderstanding prevent white people from recognizing its quality.

    BUT THEN, he goes on to lionize David Hammons for his “brilliant” ability to cross “the racial divide” and join the distinguished avant-garde tradition of “Duchampian tricksters.” So basically, Johnson elevates Hammons above all the other artists in the show because of his ability to transcend his black race and gain a universal (again, read: white) appeal.

    Johnson participates in the very racial politics he at first appears to merely diagnose. And that seems like some bullsh-t to me.

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