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Detail of Edmund de Waal’s ‘white’ installation in the Royal Academy library (screenshot via Vimeo)

LONDON — white, Edmund de Waal’s intervention at the Royal Academy (RA) library, is a wonder. The artist has placed pale, whitish objects, including some of his own sensuously simple vessels, among the gray and brown furnishings and vintage leather bindings of the library’s intimate rooms. I loved looking at them.

But, perhaps because I’m an American, I was also vexed by de Waal’s seeming ignorance of the privilege that allows him to probe his own ideas about whiteness without considering race. I was disappointed that this otherwise intelligent man could fail to acknowledge the benefits of his white life — benefits that place him in a position to do this project. And I was befuddled that this blind spot remains unacknowledged in any of his writings, at least to my knowledge.

Meissen cup from de Waal’s personal collection, on view in ‘white’ (all images courtesy the Royal Academy of Arts unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

For better or worse, I was impatient even before entering the library, thanks to a flurry of incidents too trivial to detail. As such, I was inclined to quibble. De Waal’s inclusion of a John Cage score made me think only of how interesting it would have been to borrow the notorious “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” by Cage’s friend Robert Rauschenberg, instead. From there I disputed his choice of a darkly bound, nine-volume edition of Tristram Shandy, which is notorious for its solid-black page; better, I thought, to have included a dummy — a blank-paged codex — so that the idea and dimensions of a printed book could be assessed as a void.

Once I began agreeing or disagreeing with de Waal’s choices, I started digging into the reasons why he had been permitted to take on such a project, which involves borrowing precious objects and then installing them in a space not normally open to the public.

One remains indisputable: de Waal is a successful ceramist and a keenly sensitive, creative thinker. But success often stems from a privilege that’s rooted in gender, race, and socioeconomic class, as Linda Nochlin and other critical thinkers have taught us. If you’re British that indisputably means being white, male, and at least upper-middle class, and having enjoyed the richly textured cultural milieu that class inhabits.

Edmund Arthur Lowndes de Waal has had the luxury of working with clay since he was five years old, and with white clay since he was ten. What has developed into a widely publicized obsession with whiteness was enabled by an affluent, cosmopolitan family life that gave him the resources and security needed to explore it. His father, of Dutch stock, was Dean of Canterbury Cathedral. His mother’s family amassed a fortune from oil and banking, but as Jews lost everything to the Nazis.

“The Hare with Amber Eyes,” one of the netsuke inherited by de Waal

In his bestselling, award-winning 2010 book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal addressed his mother’s family’s illustrious history and told of the marvelous collection of netsuke that was part of that heritage. In a recently published excerpt from his new book, The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, de Waal ponders the Nazi obsession with whiteness and with porcelain, and writes about Jewish prisoners at Dachau who created porcelain objects — the white of the clay contrasted with the black coal used to cremate the thousands who were killed. Yet he fails to make any connection between Nazi claims of Aryan and white superiority and the realities of white supremacism as they play out in even the most democratic societies. I have no sense that he sees a link between the success he has earned, the privileged milieu within which he has earned it, and his own white, male identity.

His essay in the exquisitely white brochure for the RA intervention serves as an example. De Waal writes:

White is aura. White is a staging post to look at the world from. White is not neutral; it forces other colours to reveal themselves. It moralizes—it is clean when nothing else is clean …
I have spent my life thinking about white.

How can he obsess about whiteness without ever linking it to race, and without implicating himself as a beneficiary of that racial identity? How can he state that white “forces other colours to reveal themselves” without realizing that whiteness imposes difference on every other skin color? Perhaps obsession simply breeds myopia.

It’s for the best, then, that de Waal’s shortsighted subjectivity isn’t overtly expressed in the RA installation or in his ceramic works, but only through his verbal commentaries. I realized that if I stopped reading I could simply savor the privilege of viewing his deft placement of objects, which were culled from public and private collections from around the UK and beyond. Yes, they testify to de Waal’s privileged access, but they also share it with visitors. And some of their placements are especially inspired, including a full-scale Ai Weiwei marble lantern rakishly lounging on a shelf, a mesmerizing, pre-Islamic Arabian stele off by itself in a corner, and a scrumptious little oil painting by Giorgio Morandi nestled amid the books.

View of the Royal Academy library (photo by Benedict Johnson)

At their best, de Waal’s interventions call attention to themselves as well as to their secluded, intimate surroundings, without seeming at all out of place. Instead, they evoke that vaguely surreal Western tradition of acquisition and display known as the cabinet of curiosities. In doing so, they also reflect both the humanism and the colonialism of the RA and other, similar Western cultural institutions.

The tensions generated by white extend so far beyond de Waal’s commentary that they create a cohesive installation which outdoes him. Artist’s statements can leave ample room for visitors’ own experiences; de Waal’s instead precludes dimensions of reality that simply must not be ignored. By all means, visit white and prepare to enjoy the experience. But take the artist’s commentary with a grain of (white?) salt.

white: a project by Edmund de Waal continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (The Library and Print Room, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through January 3, 2016. Visitors must book tickets with timed entry in advance.

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Janet Tyson

Janet Tyson is an independent art historian, critic and artist. She lives and works in a semi-rural part of Michigan for about nine months a year, and in London for about three months a year.

9 replies on “An Oblivious but Ambitious Artistic Intervention in White”

  1. Dear Janet Tyson,

    Can we get rid of racial overtones coloring nearly everything? And can we please stop calling ourselves and others by what we are not? I don’t know any black or white people, no red ones, no yellow ones either. I do know a world of people whose skin color falls within a range of browns, a range of ‘pinks’ and tans, creams and some in-betweens. But let me ask: Who among us is the color of their skin?

    Yes, we are all a part of some cultural milieu. But ought we to hold anyone responsible for that into which he or she was born, whether of privileged ‘whitness’ or as the descendent of ‘black’ African participants in ‘black’ African slave trade? I think not. I don’t want anyone saying, “Your ‘black’ family sold my ‘black’ family into slavery.”

    If what comes out in your article as a predilection for stereotyping, and playing the cultural bias game, remember, sometimes white is merely white (cf. Freud).

    You know, when Alexander Calder bought his home in Connecticut, he had it painted black, not the ‘tradional’ white. What ought we to read into that? Note that I said “read into”, for that is what we would have to do. Otherwise, he simply had it painted black, a color he painted many of his stabiles. And what might we “READ into THAT”? Perhaps that ‘black’ is more stable, which it is, as it is that which persists (in all of us) since we came out of Africa. This sort of word play, I would suggest, has no end.

  2. In which the author explains why a Jewish artist needs to check his “white” privilege and find a way to shoehorn commentary on social constructs of whiteness into a phenomenological study that is meant to be universal, not political. The article isn’t criticism so much as dictation of a hypothetical, undermining the artist’s vision because it chose to engage a sort of metaphysic instead of a social critique of its own.

    Yes, Janet, it’s probably because you’re American. I’d love to see an exhibit that challenges social “whiteness” among those books, especially as it pertains to what is considered canon and how history has been represented and written. That isn’t this exhibit, and attempting to broach such a massive subject would probably have been (at least perceived as) hackneyed tokenism for a political position, not illuminating. De Waal chose right by approaching the fundamental aesthetic qualities of whiteness. In fact, doing so implicitly allows those so inclined to meditate on the more pathological associations with the color that have led to the Shoah and countless colonial atrocities and, at last, the cultural concepts of whiteness from continent to continent.

    By all means give us that meditation by extension. Let De Waal’s own meditations be the foundation for it. By telling us that we should take his with a grain of salt, you only sound oblivious in your own right.

  3. Janet, you don’t deserve a clear headed or understanding response. Anyone whos willing to complain about ‘a flurry of incidents too trivial to detail’ in an article about someones art, doesnt deserve a well thought out message. You instantly made the reader consider your mood and negated anything you said further. You were aparently in a bad mood, and it made for a bad article. I could barely make it through this headache inducing nightmare.

    I think ill write a post about this somewhere and list this under ‘a trivial incident’ that put me off my mood.

  4. The reviewer bangs on about privilege (itself surely one of the laziest critical handles of our age, with it’s clicking morality of who should be doing what), and then speaks about how De Waal’a family lost much to the Nazis. Odd.

    Plus, for a reviewer to be literally itemizing how an artist SHOULD have made their work, as she does in the first few paragraphs, speaks of the most astounding arrogance imaginable.

    A fundamentally poor review.

  5. Perhaps the artist’s point is that White is not white; or that white is not in fact White. Either way, De Waal seems to be concerned with the interplay of white with the other colour and luminosity – which seems to be an apposite concern for an artist.

    An “art critic” – however – who seems to believe that social criticism is the sole province of art; and is baffled that the colour white could somehow exist without the social constructions built around it by a racist system; and begins by letting us know how she would construct a particular piece of art – is something else all together.

    Perhaps you could take a walk in the snow – and consider that your own privilege and comfort has left you feeling a little guilty; and consider the fact that the snow doesn’t care, and will be resolutely white no matter what you and your ancestors might call yourselves. And the snow is quite beautiful in its whiteness and authenticity; while you might find a way to release yourself from Whiteness and falseness.

  6. What a racist. White is a color, a pigment. Caucasian refers to those descended from people who originally lived west of the Caucasian Mountains and developed a similar bone structure and a variety of skin colors due to isolation/breeding. There never was, and still isn’t, a common thought process. However, all were influenced by the Renaissance, which lead to a desire to learn and explore. Identifying people by color is ignorance.

  7. Good lord, is this what artistic reviewing is these days? If this is an example of “serious, playful and radical thinking about art in the world today” that you purport to embody, I’ll pass, thank you.

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