Besides the fact that I find Kara Walker’s most famous pieces to be, at best, salacious, the reckless tone of Walker’s statement about her upcoming solo show and a related New York Times article by Blake Gopnik bothered me because it presumes that her audience is incapable of critical thinking and finding its own meaning in her work. The article’s original title was “Kara Walker: Art Can’t Solve the Nation’s Racial Problems”; it has since been changed to the softer, “Kara Walker, ‘Tired of Standing Up,’ Promises Art, Not Answers.” The initial title placed art in a false binary, implying that it can either save us from the stupidity of racism or it cannot. What it needed to do — and what the new title and entire ensuing article failed to do — was to consider how can art help shape our ideas and be a force in how we relate to our past, present, and future; and in what way art can help us provide our own answers.
As a similarly othered Black woman artist, I can understand, to an extent, Walker’s frustration with being fetishized by a public that, for the most part, barely understands her. However, her words of futility are incredibly problematic at a time like this. We are being beaten and shot by police in our streets, maced and run over in white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, vilified for kneeling to the national anthem in arenas, and persecuted for our right to free speech and equality — the latter of which is, of course, not so different from the abuses that drove many of America’s first (white) immigrants to come here. Walker’s art and attitude, however, aren’t exactly changing with the times.
When she won the MacArthur “genius” grant in 1997, it was for her work’s unusual combination of shock value and scenery: her pieces illustrated the fluid landscapes of our history mixed with attention-grabbing perversion. However, fellow artist Betye Saar was the first to highlight the potential downsides of such a combination. Saar famously wrote in one of her letters denouncing Walker that she felt “a sense of betrayal at the hands of a black artist who obviously hated being black,” and was therefore, by extension, willing to also betray her womanhood. Despite such critiques, Walker’s success in our “post-racial” society became the cultural reparations that made up for all of the white-on-black brutality and subjugation featured in her artwork and in the news. However, it was retribution given on White America’s terms, and was, by design, incomplete.
The evolution of our self-representation matters. Saar and other second-wave feminist artists of color sought to use the pop culture tools of our oppression to reimagine and empower us to action. Walker’s work, in contrast, describes the beginning of the struggle’s cycle, rather than its desired end. She, with her twerking sphinx, burnt sugar babies, and fellating Negresses, turns this pain into a twisted cartoon version of a reality that white Americans first perpetuated and still eagerly buy into. However, instead of gratitude for being celebrated and being seen, she indicates in the statement accompanying her new show that “being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche” is a burden she has no desire to carry, even though she put it on her own back.
The Times article and statement made the rounds on social media, causing the controversy that Walker had anticipated, all the while subtly discouraging young artists (whom she sometimes teaches at Rutgers, where she is the Tepper Chair in the visual arts program) from fighting the ongoing whitelash to the Obama years. In sum, the titles, article, and statement all negate the self-revelatory power of art. You can poison anything in five seconds, and such lack of awareness of that risk is simply irresponsible.
Perhaps Walker feels pressured to copy the work that her mentors, collectors, and dealers like in order to stay commercially successful — a common trap for famous artists. Overwhelmingly white elites have always dictated to one degree or another the look of “Black” art, despite having no right to tell her or anyone else what “Black” means. Her claim of not having answers makes no sense because, to put it metaphorically, art is a scene, not a sermon. Why create work that directly ties into the historical and social impact of racism, yet belittle our right to analyze how her art is a meaningful response to it? It’s manipulative and a contradiction in logic.
The coherent passages of Walker’s statement — like the line “groups of white (male) supremacist goons who flaunt … race purity with … impressive displays of perpetrator-as-victim sociopathy” — read like she was fearful of white supremacy’s ability to ignore her, while being oddly dismissive of the people who actually won’t. This contrast in treatment ignores the reality that her core audience needs her as a hero — though it doesn’t need her permission to anoint her as such — and will support her even when she can no longer stand up for herself.
If Walker is so tired of standing up, then she can just take a seat. Relax a little. Complaining about being a role model brings her attention, and I respect that hustle, but it’s becoming predictable and potentially destructive to artists of all colors who struggle alongside and look up to her. Instead, Walker can change her direction and justify it to us because, well, she can. She’s the most famous Black artist in America, so why not start acting like it? She’s well within her rights to just up and say: “Well, I’m going to paint happy little trees right now because this political climate is stressing me out and folks need to look at something beautiful for a change.” Either way, she’ll still get all the criticism and attention to which she’s grown accustomed.
Maybe promoting the idea of empowerment through self-care would be the most radical thing she could ever say. Instead, she stays silent by repeating what she’s always said before: she hates that she’s expected to say it and she can’t provide the meaning that people have always been able to provide for themselves. While she is busy painting herself as a martyr, somebody else is waiting to stand up in her place.