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

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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