Damon Davis, "Negrophilia" (2015) (courtesy the artist)

Damon Davis, “Negrophilia” (2015) (courtesy the artist)

ST. LOUIS — What does accountability look like in a world where no one is accountable? I recently attended an artist talk by Kelley Walker, a New York-based artist who has had an illustrious career, showing his work all over the world so far. I had heard about his show at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and the type of work I would be seeing; Walker uses KING magazine covers featuring Black women and iconic Civil Rights-era photos in his work. He smears chocolate and toothpaste on the images and rotates them. Some of the titles of his work are “White Michael Jackson” and “Black Star Press.” So, knowing this, going to this artist talk, I just knew that this guy (this white guy) would have some sort of critical analysis around using such traumatizing material. Especially in 2016, when we are in a full-fledged rebirth of the Civil Rights movement; especially in St. Louis, the epicenter of this movement sparked by the Ferguson rebellion for the death of Michael Brown two years ago. Kelley Walker uses images of Black men and women to say something; but Walker doesn’t know what that “something” is.

I sat in the audience listening to this man meander on and on to the crowd, interjecting the occasional art term like “form” or “color,” but never once giving the slightest explanation for why he used over-sexualized images of Black women and traumatic images of Black men being brutalized by police and dogs. As I listened to him talk, I started to realize why people in my family think art isn’t for them and that it was a bad decision for me to become a professional artist. This guy is why the art world is viewed as classist and not for people of color, working class people, and why you hear brilliant people say things like, “I’m not an art person, I just don’t get it” — because there is nothing to get in art by people like Walker. This under-planned, poorly executed, elementary level artwork that uses Black women and men as props and controversy starters is over-intellectualized by classist, utterly inept, pompous, and clueless curator types. The world of art gets no more white and privileged than this.

Once the meandering stopped, it was time for questions and answers. Customarily, in a Q&A, an audience member asks a question and then the artist answers it. The Kelley Walker Q&A went a little differently. Not a single one of the questions asked ever got answered by the artist, no matter who was asking it or what it was about. High school art class questions, like “Who is your audience?,” were met with: “I don’t know.” “Why do you call these works paintings, when they are photographs?” was met with: “I’m tired of repeating myself.” One question that went unasked was: did the curator Jeffrey Uslip explain the process of a Q&A session to Walker? Who knows. Other Black artists beside myself were in the audience. A colleague, Kahlil Irving, asked, in reference to the images of Black women and men: “Why did you chose those particular images?” Walker’s response was something to the effect of, “I only use an image of one Black person in this show, and I will let you decide which image that is.” When Irving replied, “You didn’t answer my question,” he was told: “Yes, I did.” This childish display only escalated when I posed my question. I asked: “Why would you bring this stuff here given the racial climate of St. Louis and America, and I hear you constantly talk about capitalism as a part of your work but you don’t mention what role race and sex plays in it?” This infuriated Walker. He said things like, “Aren’t we all capitalizing of someone?” and “Who is toothpaste hurting?” This adult man threw a tantrum because normal people who had lived through scenes like the ones he chose to use for “aesthetics” were asking for some explanation. I am a professional artist. I make work that is controversial. I stand by everything I make because I think it through thoroughly before I release anything to the public. I also know going into an artist talk that I will more than likely be asked difficult questions. Walker did none of these things in preparation for this show. He was arrogant and disrespectful to a crowd of people, and paid by an institution to do so.

It is time for a new standard. People can no longer be allowed to exploit, demean, and disrespect a community and its history. Walker is the epitome of white male privilege, colonizing images of us that are either painful or sexual — both tantalizing to his audience — and then, when confronted, cowering and hiding behind artistic expression and his right as an artist to not be censored.

While the exchange of words was happening between Walker and I, the exhibition’s curator, Jeffrey Uslip, stepped in. “I think I can explain what Kelley is saying,” he interjected. I replied, “You didn’t make the work, he did.” Uslip didn’t give a clear answer either, and in other contexts he has praised Walker for his analysis of race, gender, and modern culture. So, an institution of this stature brings in an artist who can’t even tell me why he rotated an image to give it “new meaning,” and then the curator has the nerve to try to shield him. There is no deeper meaning behind the work other than Walker’s obsession with Black people and culture. He gets on stages all over the world and spews meaningless chatter at audiences of insulated, wealthy white people who just nod their heads in agreement to ignorance.

I am a proponent of free speech and artistic license; I sample, I collage, I build upon ideas. What I am not a fan of is carelessness, exploitation, and lies. How this man has been able to build a successful career and never be challenged by someone from my community escapes me. But here, in tiny, uncultured, uneducated St. Louis, lives a community of people who aren’t standing for this charade any longer. If you don’t respect your audience, if you don’t even know who your audience is, you don’t deserve one. Institutions have to hold artists accountable for how they approach the work and how they treat their patrons, and if an institution can’t, it needs the be held accountable for its negligence.

Black people in America are treated as commodities and targets, never human beings that deserve the slightest amount of dignity or respect for the trials that this country has and continues to put us through. Art is the most powerful thing in the world. Mass media and art were among the Nazis’ most coveted tools. Now, what if I took pictures from the Holocaust and smeared cream cheese on them and threw them in a frame, and then told you it was a critique of capitalism and an exercise in color and the form of the contemporary modernist landscape? Then the guy who hired me tried to spin what I just told you into a profound analysis about race and anti-semitism? And all this was happening at an art gallery in Germany, not far from the site of a concentration camp. What would the world say? Nothing, because THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN. I charge everyone who cares about art and culture to hold us all accountable — the artists, the curators, and the institutions. I also would like to personally extend an invitation to Walker — and anyone else — to come to my artist talk at MoCADA on October 22. He can hold me accountable. That is the only way we grow as a society and a profession.

Selections from Damon Davis‘s Negrophilia series are on view at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (80 Hanson Place, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) through November 4. He will participate in “What We Do Now,” an artist talk on October 22.

82 replies on “In the Face of White Male Privilege Run Amok, a Plea for Artistic Responsibility”

  1. The work sounds awful, aesthetically, conceptually and politically, but to whom exactly are artists supposed to be responsible? Who gets to make that call? The offended? In which case bye bye Mapplethorpe, bye bye Serrano. It’s also very difficult to embrace a critique that compares the subject to the Nazis – that’s just lazy.

    1. There are important differences between Mr. Davis’s protest (along with very many of his colleagues) and the campaigns against the artists you name. Mapplethorpe documented the gay subculture to which he belonged; the photographer’s critics on the far right sought to exclude gays from American culture, campaigning against art institutions that showed that and similar work and trying to defund the National Endowment for Arts for their support of galleries that showed his art. Mr. Walker uses images of African-Americans — “black bodies” — as convenient subjects (or objects) for his own brand of cultural criticism. The protestors here I think are responding viscerally to the appearance of their surrogate selves being exploited for Mr. Walker’s success, in images that demean them specifically.

      1. I don’t think the political right and risk-averse funding bodies are overly concerned with the nuances involved and public institutions don’t really have the luxury of picking and choosing because of the contested nature of funding and public space. In response they become more conservative across the board.
        You haven’t tackled Serrano, probably because that’s exactly the sort of ambiguous artwork that this discourse, without a lot of caution and context, makes vulnerable.
        The curator is clearly answerable for not managing this sh*tshow properly. I am not saying this isn’t terrible art, nor am I saying that the staff weren’t absolutely right to protest and walk out, I’m saying that the above article is dangerously simplistic for assuming that the issue takes place in a vacuum when it really is part of a huge and complicates web of art world and institutional politics and needs to be discussed in that context.

  2. What makes this self-promo piece embarrassing is not the blatant self-aggrandizing nature of it, but the fact that Mr. Davis is without equivocation demanding kitsch be delivered in place of art. Not only does he insist museums deliver him kitsch, but artists should be held responsible when not making kitsch themselves.

    1. Damon Davis’ argument is coherent and clearly well thought out. I have no idea what his work looks like, but I doubt it is kitsch. Most of the kitsch devoted to the African American culture is produced by white racists: lawn jockeys, aunt Jemima, and other tired and abhorrent clichés. Mr. Davis and any African American artist can exhibit these objects as cultural artifacts of repression and ridicule w/o censure, as examples of negative examples of white kitsch in the hands of a white artist. These same objects presented by a white artist would have the same affect as Kelley Walker’s , only the ludicrous artspeak would be full of “cultural signifers’

      1. I wrote a lengthy response to a question posed to me elsewhere on this thread and it was deleted (I think “detected as spam”). So I can’t spend much time responding here other than to just disagree and claim that Mr. Davis’ argument is shot through with ignorance on many levels, not only about art but about the art world and how it operates.

  3. “People can no longer be allowed to exploit, demean, and disrespect a community and its history”

    This is a plea for fascism. If you take issue with an idea, then by all means challenge it. But this notion of accountability is no different from the kind of ridiculous censorship practiced in the Islamic word. No idea, culture, political system, or public figure should be exempt from critique if one truly values a free society.

    1. Seriously? Obviously he’s challenging the artwork; what the idea behind the artwork is nearly impossible to tell. According to the gallery literature, the art destabilizes this and reorients that. What my eyes tell me is that images of black bodies, extracted from the media, are scaled up and digitally defaced with substitute ejaculate and excrement. I have to assume that this is intentional provocation. I commend Mr. Davis for responding to it so civilly.

      1. Perhaps you missed this part “People can no longer be allowed to…”. Under whose authority exactly? And who determines acceptable discourse?

        1. I doubt he intends to chop off hands of offenders. I easily read that quote as “People can no longer be allowed to insult whole classes of people and not have to answer to it.” Try it out. It’s not that hard. One phenomenon I cannot think of an instance of is any artist calling for the censorship of another artist. I don’t believe that is the case here. If you think that it is, I assure you that Mr. Walker’s success ensures that his work will continue to be widely seen.

          1. So as per my argument above, a gallery can’t show a Serrano “Piss Christ” because that will offend Christians. There really isn’t an easy way of picking and choosing without seriously undermining the whole and it’s intellectually dishonest to say there is.

          2. Most Christians are born into Christian families and communities and if they’re still Christians after the fact then they most certainly and with absolute conviction do no believe they have a choice. Don’t be so disingenuous.

          3. He could describe himself as Spongebob Squarepants and it wouldn’t matter. People respond to an image as if it’s the thing itself, no matter how often you tell them “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

        2. I don’t think he’s arguing for censorship, he’s arguing for changes/expansion in the subjectivity that determines how art is exhibited or judged. And the question of “whose authority” or who determines discourse is a big part of it since art tends to be a publically visible thing which is accepted as meaningful but is determined by wealthy people or institutions. You could argue that curation, and even awareness of artists from whom to curate, is a form of economically based censorship, and that the author is arguing for a more democratic form of curation. Think about how much more narrow the representation of black people is as people within mainstream American media and I think it’s pretty obvious why he’s offended by this…

          1. It’s the kind of subtle distinction that the First Amendment doesn’t really deal with well and ultimately that’s the guideline public institutions have to work with. Some curatorial responsibility is required to know when to hold and when to fold, but the law is a blunt instrument and can be wielded by anyone.

          2. I agree with this. Ultimately , concepts like “censorship” and “accountability” are red-herrings. What the author is, or should be arguing is “access.” Enough access for familiarity to permit the usual forms of distinction between good and bad art. The “blackface” art the author is discussing is obviously bad but can’t be seen as that by some audiences because either they don’t know what they’re looking at for lack of familiarity with the real thing, or are willfully avoiding seriously viewing the real art by black artists that they do see. Why accuse the author of arguing for “censorship” when he is understandably expressing indignation?

    2. jcl, in the featured comment, eloquently explains why this isn’t censorship (or, as you suggest, a plea for fascism):

      “To everyone comparing this to censorship ~ censorship occurs when
      structures of power silence marginalized perspectives. This is about
      marginalized perspectives that have been coopted and misrepresented by a
      white artist in a public institution of power.”

      1. The First Amendment doesn’t recognise the difference, and the reason that no one suggests re-writing it to do so is that such facile tinkering, even for the best of intentions, would undermine the whole. The more conditions you apply, the more corrupt and unworkable the whole becomes and the lawyers will pick apart the carcass. It might not be intended as censorship, but it’s an argument that can easily be co-opted into censorship.

  4. Thank you Damon Davis for raising this discussion.

    The responsibility lies with the artist and supporting institutions to explain how this is not a continuation of the history of white people profiting from the appropriation of black experience.

    To everyone comparing this to censorship ~ censorship occurs when structures of power silence marginalized perspectives. This is about marginalized perspectives that have been coopted and misrepresented by a white artist in a public institution of power.

    Kelley Walker is free to make whatever he wants at home, but it is unclear why we would be publicly celebrating and granting such cultural and financial value to this work at this time.

    1. Censorship is any attempt to suppress unacceptable views, period. A structural interpretation is convenient for activists at the moment. Under your interpretation, the moment those voices are no longer marginalized, they are then engaged in active censorship.

  5. Kelley Walker was born in Georgia, and went to college in Tennessee and Arizona.

    I’m guessing he’s just a dyed-in-the-wool racist who only lives in New York because that’s where the dumb money is. If he tried to make a living in the South he’d probably be stuck painting Confederate tableaux on pickup trucks.

      1. NYC has racists and racism, of course, but Walker hasn’t been indoctrinated into police attitudes towards POC. Unless maybe his father was a cop.

    1. This writer is not so certain that Kelley Walker is “a dyed-in-the-wool racist” as much as a naive white guy attempting to latch onto to what he believes is a hot topic and thus assume for himself and his ‘art’ a veneer of social relevance. Unfortunately it is readily apparent that he sorely lacks both a solidly informed rationale and an adequately developed visual lexicon for expressing it.

    2. You are obviously not from the South, and have no clue about the artists that are here. If you did, you’d have never made that statement, because you would KNOW. I’m a contract instructor at the university where he got his BFA. UTK’s printmaking dept. is regularly rated one of the top 3 in the country. UTK did not teach him that. What can be frustrating is we have the diversity here, and a hell of a lot of amazing artists that get overlooked and dismissed nationally and internationally because of the perpetuation of absurd and outdated stereotypes of this region by people from other places whose experience of “The South” is Florida. Northern curators need to do what the staff of Crystal Bridges did when they curated “State of the Art”. They went on an exhaustive state-by-state studio visit tour. They did not bypass half of the country like most curators from the north systematically do.

  6. The kind of inauthentic work being discussed by the author could only receive institutional, critical, and audience support in a moment when, like the present, there is not enough work by black and other under-represented artists about themselves exhibited in “mainstream” locations. Most people still can’t tell good from bad, true from false. When critical mass is finally achieved, we can be sure that authentic art will drive inauthentic art out — and arguments of “responsibility” and “freedom of expresson” will be equally irrelevant. The kind of work the author discusses here will fall by the wayside because it is BAD ART. “Blackface” art is a plague that can’t disappear too quickly. And in the rare cases where it may survive because it is actually good art, let’s hope we’ll have a public developed that can deal with the complexity of that.

  7. Let individuals viewing the art create their own opinion…not others demanding or deciding what “is carelessness, exploitation, and lies.” Next thing you know the government is setting up another “standards” committee to censor what their agenda wants censored.
    Bad art is bad art…let me see the art, let me decide…..not you….or others.

    P.S. – The editor uses the words “White Male Privilege” in the title. I do not see any reference to this broad-brushed stereotype about a group of people in the essay. Why put it in the title?

    (Lets hope the author is not trying to use this art exhibition to further his own artistic career to obtain exhibition opportunities, etc…….)

    1. How about this section:
      “Walker is the epitome of white male privilege, colonizing images of us
      that are either painful or sexual — both tantalizing to his audience —
      and then, when confronted, cowering and hiding behind artistic
      expression and his right as an artist to not be censored.”

      1. If the artist was Black would anyone be criticizing this art? Is the real problem that the artist is white? Are only Black people allowed to make art about Blacks? Can artists only create art about people of their own race?

        1. It’s not about who can do what. If you actually read the article above, you’ll learn that the author is commenting on the fact that Walker Does Not Have An Answer for Why he’s using the images he is.

          “…this guy (this white guy) would have some sort of critical analysis
          around using such traumatizing material. Especially in 2016, when we are in a full-fledged rebirth of the Civil Rights movement; especially in St. Louis, the epicenter of this movement sparked by the Ferguson rebellion for the death of Michael Brown two years ago. Kelley Walker uses images of Black men and women to say something; but Walker doesn’t know what that “something” is.”

    1. Unless the work is didactic kitsch safe for the least initiated viewer, yes, it would be criticized. Here are some early reactions to Kara Walker

      “I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.”

      –Betye Saar, African American artist, in PBS series I’ll Make Me a World, 1999.

      “What is troubling and complicates the matter is that Walker’s words in published interviews mock African Americans and Africans…She has said things such as ‘All black people in America want to be slaves a little bit.’…Walker consciously or unconsciously seems to be catering to the bestial fantasies about blacks created by white supremacy and racism.”

      –Howardena Pindell, African American artist, at the Johannesburg Biennale, October 1997.

      1. So did/does Kara Walker (black female artist) get away with this type of art because of “White Male Privilege Run Amok” as the author is trying to promote this stereotype?

        1. From the quotes above it looks as if Kara Walker is not “getting away with” anything. She is being questioned and challenged just as this while male artist is. However I’ll bet you she has better answers than he does.

          1. Those reactions to Kara Walker are almost two decades old. She was carried through by white people (there are not many black art critics); Jerry Saltz championed her work at that time. No, Kara does not have much to say about her work. I’ve seen her interviewed and met her in person. She even claims she is not a political artist. So there you go.

          2. “All black people in America want to be slaves a little bit.” -Kara Walker

            Imagine if this white guy Kelley Walker said that.

  8. Blah, blah, blah. Art has to be art first. Anything else: politics, gender, whatever is superfluous. The work of art is the vehicle and not the other way around. Just because “you care” doesn’t mean the work has any aesthetic value. ”after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.” Adorno, ”Cultural Criticism and Society” (1949). Compassion is the most one can hope for.

    1. That’s not remotely what Adorno meant. The full paragraph runs:
      “The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation.”
      He was talking about creating art as part of the cultural philosophy that ultimately created the Holocaust, not making art about or in response to it.

  9. Walker gets hundreds of thousands of dollars for his images that exploit sexualized and brutalized black bodies, and about 40k for his other “art.” So he has plenty of reasoning behind his work: $$$$$$$$$$. He’s just taking his place in the long line of white guys who filter black power and pain for consumption by capitalism. From Josef Conrad to Elvis to the Rolling Stones to Vanilla Ice to Enimen. @CAMSTL could have brought in any number of black artists with authentic experience as their “racially charged” subject matter but they went with a white douche wad from a fat cat gallery like Paula Cooper. It’s the kind of cash register symbiosis that runs the world, and is impossible to dismantle, especially when no one even acknowledges it. Uslip, the curator of the show, is on record as saying he is “100% invested” in Walker. Here’s hoping his investment goes South.

  10. I have seen, over the past decade, an increasing number of white artists that choose only, as subject, ethnicities and races other than their own. The typical reason I think is that they think it will get more notice in an era searching for diversity? The work is, mostly, respectful and sincere, at least- unlike Walker. One guy, who actually won a huge award (I’m not saying where), actually passed himself off as a black activist. When he walked his white butt up on stage to get the award, the huge crowd, who had cheered the other award winners, went utterly silent. It was a great WTF moment.
    The worst example I’ve seen was a photographer who did what I call “poverty safaris” (like Walker Evans did in Appalachia). They seek out the most extreme, make it look even more desperate, and ignore the rest. They condemn a community to a false reality this way. This photographer (From NY) chose poor black communities in the deep south. I asked him why he had never chosen, as subject matter, his own extremely distinct immigrant neighborhood he grew up in as a subject for a series? He became angry and just said “never”. I figured, AHA! He doesn’t want to “market” (exploit) his own community in this way. He wants to stand on the high podium.
    Good article!

    1. See John Waters’ film “Pecker” for a little of that. Concerns a young photographer who documents his own poor white neighborhood in Baltimore, then gets utterly flummoxed by the New York arterati who ogle his “exotic” subjects.

  11. Why does this article feature a photo of the author’s work instead of a photo of Kelley Walker’s- the work being discussed?

  12. What Kelley Walker should have done when asked about the meaning behind his paintings was tell the truth: he has a “black body fetish” that he’s working out through his work and manipulating those images are the surrogate for his secret desire and obsession for wanting to manipulate and control actual black bodies. His work has found a niche with wealthy collectors with the same desires. The galleries that represent him operate as procurers. He and the galleries get rich and the collector’s fetish is satisfied as well. Cha-ching!…and everyone in that little microcosm is happy. His work would have been more “authentic” if he would have just said that.

    1. Frankly, Ms. Stout, this writer does not believe that Mr. Walker’s interest in “Black Bodies” runs that deep. I do however believe that his interest is more shallowly motivated by the desire to appear to be socially ‘hip’ to issues of “Black” identity with a goal of exploiting that identity within the context of current issues of race for his personal gain.
      I do agree with you, had his work been openly rationalized [by the artist] as an exploration of his own fetishized interest in “actual black bodies” it might be a much more interesting (not to mention a more honest one as well) concept; though, in my observation the form of that expression would have to be much better conceived and realized than that which we see in this body of work.
      On the other hand, in regard to Damon Davis, by inserting his own [Davis’] work (i.e. Negrophilia Exhibition) into his op ed piece above, might we not justifiably assert that he [Davis] is simply marketing black outrage for his personal gain?
      I am not making this an absolute claim, however, in so doing Davis blurs the divide between sincere moral outrage and self-promotion.

      1. I agree with you…Davis’s argument would have held more weight if he would have left the mention of his own work out of it. Also, what you said about Walker’s work being more shallowly motivated could be another way of looking at it: Walker’s presenting black bodies in a controversial way is getting him the attention he wants, period. It’s a shameless and cheap approach, but an effective method in today’s shallow “art world” that’s driven by cash instead of substance.

        1. I thought Davis’s argument needed some sort of example to illustrate it, and his own work (which I went to look at) served that function well enough. However, the sort of thing people like Walker do may not be worth even that much effort. We live in an time when art has been bureaucratized, and someone who knows how to manipulate the bureaucracy gets grants and museum exposure and others don’t.

          1. Purposely “manipulating” the message is exactly what is the issue in Davis’ use of his own images to support his argument. It becomes a matter of fabricating supporting evidence as opposed to the preferred presenting of precedents researched with appropriate due diligence.
            One cannot manufacture evidence and then present it as authentic validation. Scholarship demands more and rightly so.

          2. Hypothetically, yes, though this writer does not necessarily claim it. In so doing, Davis essentially asserts to speak for all Black artists using his work as example. It is analogous to my asserting my drawing of a teapot to represent all drawings of teapots by white male artists, sans supporting evidence and historic precedence, plus advertising my own exhibit as well.
            But due diligence requires more corroborating evidence and precedence.
            This writer believes that Davis makes a valid point; one which he undermines by his self promotion.

          3. I don’t think Davis is asserting that he speaks for all Black artists. I think he just wanted some examples to contrast with Walker’s exhibition, and his own work was at hand and adequate to the purpose. Do you think Walker’s stuff — a blowup of a skin mag casually smeared with toothpaste, for example — deserves a more lengthy, more scholarly critique? Even the artist apparently declined to offer one, at least until controversy arose and he changed his act. We’re not talking about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel here.

          4. But it is certainly not adequate to the purpose – not in regard to a valid critique. In effect, Davis compromises an otherwise valid argument by simply exploiting the exploited for the purpose of self-promotion. He did not only use his work to illustrate his point, he actually promotes his exhibit at the end of his op-ed.

    1. It does offend me. It’s bad art and badly contextualized. However I also realise the potential hot mess that comes when you try to create exceptions for the First Amendment

  13. Walker is supported by the Rubell collection. This collection breaks people down into groups by race and gender. The ’30 Americans’ show for example. Thr Rubell’s like it for whatever reason. It is pop meets racial division. They trying to stir the pot? Crazy that you bring up the Nazi’s in this article. The Nazi’s appropriated from Edward Bernays model of propaganda. Bernays was the first to use social justice as a means for mega corporations to profit from virtue signalling. Bernays hosted the first NAACP convention in Atlanta. Read ‘Organizing Chaos’ You are giving an artist talk at Mocada. Mocada is sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. This foundation bankrolled the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. F#$k this! Soros and the Rockefellers want black people screaming at broke ass white idiots and not them. Cream cheese Holocaust is not allowed for these reasons but kelly walker and going off on white privilege as the root of all problems is bankrolled by these people. Divide and conquer

  14. Censorship is censorship.. a slippery slope that usually hurts the marginalized more than the ‘oppressors’.. you do incredible disservice to artists including yourself by advocating a Red Scare mentality in that sphere. Not every artist is obsessed with social issues and owe you absolutely nothing.

    Way to be a full-on, intolerant racist!

    1. While I agree with you that calling for a closure of the show would be a dangerous form of censorship, surely this artist expressing their opinion in an article is completely fair? Under the ideas of free speech?

      1. Sure. It is. As is the right of people to disagree with his opinion. That’s kind of how it works.

  15. I think we will look back on this episode in the same way people look back on “Piss Christ”: an overblown cultural battle divorced from actual materialist aims and a silly attempt at censorship. Mr. Davis’s aims here will do nothing to stop actual material white privilege or police violence. It will only further the impression that activists are easily offended and antidemocratic.

    Furthermore, I, a black male, of a people who have been enslaved, raped, and murdered, who has seen the devastation wrought on my people by white supremacy, refuse to be offended by these images, because the diaspora has endured so much worse than some toothpaste smeared on a photo.

    My being offended does nothing to lessen the burdens placed on African-Americans. Hiding this art, shown in a privileged space, in an entirely different space from the statehouse, courthouse, and police station, will not undo the material damage that has be done to African-Americans.

    It is enough to call Kelley Walker’s work bad, because it is simply that: bad, empty art.

    1. I agree, mostly. I think it’s ok to be offended – that’s healthy. It’s ok to protest too – that’s a right. It’s ridiculous to demand the world be magically sanitized of difficult or problematic imagery because life is messy and doesn’t work like that, and when you do try to make it work like that you create structures that can be abused in horrible ways beyond the best intentions.

  16. Damon Davis writes, “I am a proponent of free speech and artistic license; I sample, I collage, I build upon ideas. What I am not a fan of is carelessness, exploitation, and lies.” He also states, “It is time for a new standard. People can no longer be allowed to exploit, demean, and disrespect a community and its history. Walker is the epitome of white male privilege, colonizing images of us that are either painful or sexual — both tantalizing to his audience — and then, when confronted, cowering and hiding behind artistic expression and his right as an artist to not be censored.”

    Damon Davis does not truly endorse Free Speech. In fact he is quite opposed to it. The truth is free speech can sting. Free speech time and time again is understood as the right to express oneself even at the cost of offending the most cherished beliefs and sensibilities of others.

    I noticed that Davis points out that Kelley Walker smears chocolate and toothpaste on magazine covers of black women and on iconic Civil Rights photos. This is understood as part of the offense. When Chris Ofili was attacked by conservatives and Catholics it was because he “smeared elephant dung all over the image of the Virgin Mary.” That claim was in fact false. Ofili strategically placed, sealed dung spheres on the painting and under it as props. Nevertheless, the grievances are similar. That is: sacred or revered image, desecrated in some way by smearing or using disrespectful materials: toothpaste, dung, chocolate. (brown, get it??) Damon is in camp with others who shut down expression. He feels his cause is just and his grievance worthy. But I have to say so did the right-wing Christians who wanted to shut down David Wojnarowicz for using images of gay porn in his art or ants crawling on a plastic statue of Jesus.

    1. I thought the toothpaste was a reference to that image criticizing toothpaste companies using advertisements with pictures of white women to sell toothpaste in Ebony magazine

  17. Firstly I would recommend people read this text on Kelly walker by Black artists Glenn Ligon

    I’m sorry I find this attitude by mainly Black people against the USE of images as bad as all censorship of IMAGES. Images are images in the Internet age. All Art is jpeg. To be so hysterical about cultural appropriation is naive at best. All humans have appropriated. The Internet platform everyone here is using wasn’t “invented” by all of us, we USE it. We APPROPRIATE it for OUR uses.

    I am very interested in Kelly Walker’s work BECAUSE it crosses boundaries. However Walker is not helping by being so evasive with his explanations. I suspect he doesn’t mind the PR and/or is interested in what happens in this debate. What I find most concerning about the Identity Art crowd is how easy, simplistic, authoritarian and vitriolic they are. Artists should make “problems” in the visual ream, that is an advanced artist’s job. Sure Walker is tainted by the money his work gets in resales but that’s The Market.

    Of course Walker was being provocative in his use of “black” imagery BUT that imagery is actually art related. The black female nude has been a subject for centuries and that form of magazine Walker appropriated has been going for some time AND the magazine is titled KING by the way, which is surely a reference to Martin Luther King. Similarly the images are the same scene as Warhol used in his 1960s Race Riots but taken by another photographer from a DIFFERENT angle. Get it?

    Sure the work may or not be good but that is not the point. Also remember the works in question are 10 years old and before Black Lives Matter. They are probably getting a run now because Walker’s generation is only now receiving institutional support.

    I understand the upset but I also think a lot of this has become a large part of the work.

  18. in 1989 Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was exhibited at a new York gallery.; this “work of art” consisted of a crucifix submerged in a container of urine. Serrano received $15,000 for his work from the taxpayer funded National Endowment for the Arts. In my country (Ireland) Christians in the United States who protested against the award of public money for the work, were described as “fascists” by our chief liberal newspaper the Irish Times. I see that protesters against the current Kelley Walker exhibition are being treated with a lot more sympathy my the media – even though the exhibits hardly descend to the obscene level of Serraro’s work. Can anyone explain why this is?

  19. Dear Damon-

    Thank you so much for your piece. I am just now reading about this event/controversy, and your article brought the experience home beautifully. If I would have been in NYC yesterday (10/22) I would have come to your talk for the opportunity to meet you and thank you in person. Meantime, I send my thanks and best wishes from the west coast.


    Michael Shaw
    Artist, and host of The Conversation Art Podcast

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