Joe Scanlan is the artist who supposedly teaches at Yale and Princeton Universities, and whose Donelle Woolford project was one of the major framing works of this year’s Whitney Biennial. As intended, the project has set off a healthy and robust debate about the realities of race, class, and gender privilege within the art world, culminating in the decision of the Yams Collective to withdraw from the Biennial.
Now that the Whitney Biennial is over and the critical debate around it has subsided, I feel it’s time to put this project to rest: I created Joe Scanlan.
The idea for Joe Scanlan came a few years ago when I became interested in the presence of straight white men within the art world. In so many other realms straight white men are deprived of social and political ‘authenticity’: look at the white appropriation of black music from blues to hip hop, the white idolization of black athletes, or the apotheosis of white politics (Bill Clinton) resting in black folksiness. In the art world, however, the discourse around art produced by straight white men often casts them as singular and generative geniuses.
This struck me as a curiosity. I wondered what it would be like to create a figure that, through a practice of what I’d like to term “willful white male idiocy,” could not only point to, but also test the limits of and explode the boundaries of straight white male positionality within the art world. Could such a project, were it successful, help to undo some of the myth of the white male genius (and its corollary: the ghettoized queer, female, poor, colored “political” artist) we have inherited from European modernism?
The test was a simple one: to create an artist whose work was, on its surface, blatantly racist, but to wrap it well enough in the language of contemporary art theory and willful white idiocy to grant it the status of genius. I admit the technique was a bit heavy-handed, but the extremity of its contradiction is, I believe, what allowed the project to continue for so long. The language of contemporary art theory served to legitimate this practice within art discourses, while the willful white idiocy served to make critics and theorists trust its intention. This became particularly poignant, as the purpose of the piece was to call into question the very idea of artistic intention as a shield from criticism.
The first important artwork by the fictional Scanlan used the quintessential symbol of white cultural violence in America: blackface. With the piece “Self Portrait (Pay Dirt)” (2003), I had Scanlan execute an unmistakable act of blackface under the guise of a project about commerce, the elements, chemistry, growth, etc. To my surprise, no major critic made anything of the grinning portrait. It was accepted within major academic and arts institutions.
And so, Donelle Woolford was born. After many conversations with straight white men in the art world (some of them knowing collaborators and some of them unwitting ones), I began to theorize a way to express white supremacy, privilege, and violence through a project in which the white male artist simultaneously tries to cast himself in the best possible light. By having Scanlan literally invent a black female character, we produced an intense friction between the artist, who embodies privilege, and the marginalized body he invents. All of this, of course, ultimately served the career and conceptual gain of the former.
I was certainly surprised to see how long it took for the Joe Scanlan/Donelle Woolford project to be identified as racist. At first, I thought this was a failure of the project itself. The name Donelle Woolford was taken from a black football player whom Scanlan admired as a child (because of his need to seek ‘realness’ in black athletes’ bodies). The various women who played Woolford were interchangeable, defined only by their race and gender. I couldn’t have imagined that such blatant gestures would go unnoticed. I can only attribute this delay to the fact that, for many years, the project existed within the most elite discursive spaces of the art world, which are fundamentally hostile or indifferent towards women and people of color.
I was relieved, finally, to see the increased attention the Whitney Biennial brought to the Donelle Woolford project, under whose name we were able to ‘submit’ Scanlan’s ‘work.’ As artist Coco Fusco would rightly point out later, the ensuing debate brought to reality the Scanlan character’s “castration fantasy about white male erasure” at the hands of a newly empowered group of younger, politically savvy artists and critics who read the works not from Scanlan’s vantage point, but as women of color.
This discourse, and Scanlan’s responses to it, were the apex and ‘punchline’ of my project. We needed to be prepared with a response strategy, so we set a few guiding rules for Scanlan’s willful white male idiocy to reveal itself in his responses:
- Scanlan chooses to remain ignorant of the history and context for his own work, especially with regard to representations of and violence against black bodies in America. See, for example, his admitted ignorance of Glenn Ligon’s work.
- Scanlan never admits wrongdoing, let alone apologizes.
- Scanlan rehashes classic defensive positions of willful idiocy from the past that remove the ‘problem’ from himself. This includes versions of: “some viewers/participants weren’t offended”; “you don’t understand the work”; and “I’m sorry if you were offended.” This rule was in part for comic effect.
The first delicate salvo came from white male writer Jeremy Sigler, who was able to make motions towards but not puncture Scanlan’s white male idiocy in BOMB Magazine. Sigler attempted to dismantle the Scanlan character, but within the language of supposedly neutral — aka male European modernist — contemporary art.
In his “edgy conversation,” Sigler allowed the Scanlan character to cast the piece in the tradition of Cubism. As we expected, Sigler went on to discuss Woolford as “assemblage,” as “a courageous and very sensitive experiment,” and as “theater.” While he nodded to the possibility that Scanlan needed to see Woolford within the conversation of race in America, it was not his main line of inquiry, and he allowed the Scanlan character to follow the three rules above without trouble. Sigler also allowed Scanlan — and this stunned me — to not only admit that Woolford’s name was taken from a black football player, but to offer that athlete’s narrative as a metaphor for his own fortitude and struggle.
When the artist Micol Hebron posted the BOMB interview for discussion on her Facebook page, we saw an opportunity to reveal the extent of Scanlan’s willful idiocy in the conversation thread that followed. It was an exhausting and intentionally fruitless project: we had the Scanlan character post scores of lengthy messages both as Donelle Woolford and ‘himself.’ In excerpts to the left and below, you can see how the character contradicts himself, e.g. stating that diversity statistics don’t matter, then listing them, or understanding he is being accused of blackface but refusing to say the word, in order to preserve his willful idiocy. This was an ideal opportunity to play out the character’s castration fantasy: he would feel compelled to respond directly to his critics, knowing something was wrong but, in his idiocy, feeling powerless to solve it.
Another milestone in the project’s success was the widely circulated piece in The New Inquiry by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandilal criticizing the framework of the Whitney Biennial, with the Scanlan piece as a central symbol. Kim and Mackrandilal caught on to the fact that the Scanlan character’s racism was the project’s central component. Their observation that “We [in the elite art world] are more comfortable with white fantasies of the other than examining lived experience,” was, indeed, the reason the Woolford project had been so accepted in the art discourse. The piece was not only the first to see the project for what it was, but, more importantly, used it as a generative starting point to undo other such examples of aggressive white male violence in the art world with the hashtag and website #scanlaning.
Finally, the Scanlan/Donelle Woolford project forced the withdrawal of the Yams Collective from the Whitney Biennial. We decided to continue the Scanlan character’s willful idiocy in his response to the news. It was important, at this late stage, that he understand something was wrong but hold onto the belief that that something surely wasn’t him. I’ve annotated his response letter to show our strategy at work:
Dear Siena [sic],
I’m sorry to hear that HOWDOYOUSAYYAMEINAFRICAN [sic again! An obvious move, to be sure. But we thought it appropriately symbolic for Scanlan not to bother learning the spellings of their names.] has chosen to remove it’s [sic] work from the Biennial due to your finding the work of Donelle Woolford objectionable. I understand that the project is provocative and controversial, and I respect everyone’s right to react as they see fit for their own mind, their own body, and their own politics. [Scanlan indicates that you, as women and people of color, have objections and issues with politics. He doesn’t have issues with politics.]
I only want to say that the experiences I have had working on Donelle Woolford have been some of the most intellectually challenging and humanly rewarding experiences of my life, largely because it has required me to confront what I don’t know, come to grips with those limits, and work at pushing them, expanding them. [The most important thing was that he, Scanlan, learned something.] Not only as a white male artist, but as a human being. That confrontation, that learning experience, continues even now as I consider the weight and force of your actions. [He still doesn’t get it.]
I doubt I could change your mind about Donelle Woolford. [When he said “learning experience,” above, he really meant “teaching experience.”] But had you been witness to the years of rehearsals and discussions that Jennifer Kidwell, Abigail Ramsay, and I have engaged in — including the performance we are touring for the Biennial — I believe you would have a very different sense of the interpersonal relations involved, and the shared commitment that makes the narrative possible. [Alas, if only you understood the work. Did I mention two of my collaborators are black women?]
all the best,
It was not an easy letter to craft, nor was the withdrawal of Yams a heartening experience. It was a necessary fact that while no people in power suffered because of the project, young artists of color were forced to make a difficult and potentially damaging decision because they possess a political conscience that the Scanlan character did not.
I hope that by creating Scanlan, I was able to offer a touchstone: an extreme example of the willful idiocy that, when left unchecked, results in violence towards women and people of color in the art world and the world beyond. I hope this act of whiteface, as disturbing as it was, can also be seen with some levity now that it is over. And in offering the story behind this project, I would like readers to now be able to pity Joe Scanlan’s constructed worldview, to stop his violent actions (or those of others like him), and, ultimately, to dismantle him.
For roughly half an hour, art collectors had to consider a world in which they didn’t get that Alex Katz work.
From art fairs to alternative spaces that may not be on your radar, here’s a run-down of what to see (and eat and sip) in Miami. No NFTs, we promise.
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Join the New-York Historical Society on December 9 for a virtual conversation with Kellie Jones, Rujeko Hockley, and Cameron Shaw on the past, present, and future of Black art in the US.
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