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Installation view of the Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York); from left to right: Dicko Chan, “Untitled” (2018); Emerson Ricard, “Untitled” (2018); Simone Leigh, “Stick” (2019); Janiva Ellis, “Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet” (2019); Simone Leigh, “#8 Village Series” (2019) (photograph by Ron Amstutz)

The following is a tale of a clapback, and a consideration of how it might echo down through the discourse of art criticism. Artist Simone Leigh — whose work is currently on view at the High Line, and in a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in addition to being included in the Whitney Biennial — met the assessment by certain (unnamed) critics that the Whitney Biennial (and by extension, her art works) lacked any radicality with her own deliberate critique issued on Instagram. Essentially she told them off in a studied, pointed, and yet oblique way, such as when someone standing within earshot of you speaks disparagingly about something you’ve done without ever naming you. Nevertheless, there are enough clues for you to know who she is speaking about.

This reprimand resonated profoundly with Leigh’s followers. At the time of writing, 3,752 people had liked her Instagram post, which recounts a raft of people, political concerns, discourses, and historical events that Leigh implicitly draws on to make her work. In this post, the references she cites include Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, Negritude, Senghor, FESTAC 77, Independence architecture, Pauline Lumumba walking bare chested, Black Feminist Thought, Katherine Dunham, and the Herero Genocide. In closing, Leigh writes that any person (presumably a prominent art critic in this case) who does not have knowledge of these topics, “lack[s] the knowledge to recognize the radical gestures in my work.” The implication is that a lack of awareness of the conceptual and historical antecedents of Leigh’s work yields an inability to properly mount a critique of the work. This position Leigh stakes out makes some assumptions about art criticism that I disagree with — though these assumptions are not unwarranted.

I did some sleuthing here. Given that her post was written on May 16, the logical deduction is that she is referring to influential critics who published their biennial reviews before that date. Linda Yablonsky’s piece in The Art Newspaper Everything is good at the Whitney Biennial but nothing makes a difference,” published on May 14 feels like the most likely candidate. Leigh may also be referring to Paddy Johnson’s May 15th review published in The Observer, “Critique of Inequality Is Aimed in All Directions at the 2019 Whitney Biennial.” Tomashi Jackson, a Black woman artist also featured in the biennial, replied to Leigh’s post by calling out other critics who joined the chorus poo-pooing the biennial, saying that “one critic dismissed white supremacy as ‘a tired academic slogan’” (a reference to Deborah Solomon’s piece, “The Whitney Biennial Cops Out,” published on WNYC News on May 17).

Yablonsky’s piece is by far the most dismissive and scornful of all the pieces I’ve read (both before and after Leigh’s Instagram post). The critic, who has been writing about art for decades, claims that the biennial “doesn’t ruffle many feathers,” and despite the fact that “some artists in the show identify as activists, there are no revolutionaries among them.” A damning judgment that allows no response. The glaring problem with Yablonsky’s criticism is that she never explains what she means by “radical” or “radicality.” It’s a buzzword, and a shorthand way of signifying her supposedly astute, bona fide perspective. But for me — and I want to assume other readers — it’s not clear what these terms, in her usage, actually refer to.

With regard to Solomon’s comment on White supremacy: to be fair, what she claims in the audio portion that accompanies her article is that the museum’s  wall label describes Nicholas Galanin’s “White Noise, American Prayer Rug,” (2018) as an intended “critique of White supremacy.” The piece is a large knitted carpet mainly consisting of a field of black with a central design that mimics in blue and white threads the snow pattern typical to a television screen when it is on and no signal is being received. Solomon objects to this imposition of meaning, saying “The curators are making the mistake of telling us what to think about works of art … every work of art has to be about several things; it can’t be about one thing.” Her written piece, however, is more contentious, and claims that the wall text diminishes the work to “a slogan,” a bloodless rhetorical device by “strip[ing] it of its visual integrity and reduc[ing] it to a tired academic slogan.” Yet Solomon’s fatal mistake is in relegating white supremacy to the realm of academic ideas when many of those reading this will recognize the perditions of this system of social stratification and racialized violence in their own daily lives. Perhaps the wall text was inapt, and perhaps it did strip the work of its wider and more lyrical effects, but Solomon is reckless in minimizing the circumstances that impact the lives and material circumstances of Black people. White supremacy is never simply a slogan. If you don’t believe that then go find the graves and confront the corpses of Korryn Gaines, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Tamir RiceTrayvon Martin, and Renisha McBride.

For Yablonsky, the problem is that her references and her antecedents go unexamined. When she speaks of “radicality,” is she comparing the works in the Biennial to precedents such as the Mono-ha movement? Or to Pipilotti Rist? Or to Tehching Hsieh, or to the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition? Or perhaps she is referring generally to the radicality of the late 1960s, often represented by the May 1968 revolts in France that almost brought the country’s economy to its knees. In the United States, this iconoclastic spirit impelled by the Anti-war Movement and Civil Rights Movement, reverberated through artistic practice and spurred previously unheard of approaches to art making, exhibitions, and events in both Europe and the US for example Harlem’s Kamoinge collective, which was formed in 1963 to nurture, recognize and promote the work of Black photographers. From that point, through to perhaps the 1980s, the emphasis in the discourse around contemporary art production was on flouting rules previously imposed by canonical art history, testing and probing social and political mores, challenging received ideas around how to view, read, and comprehend aesthetic production. For a moment, in certain specific spaces, for example the artists who created a visual identity for the Black Panther Party, the arts joined hands with truly revolutionary, progressive, and comprehensive ambitions. They were radical insofar as these practices sought to change social and political relations, that is to say, how we live every day.

I cannot tell from Yablonksy’s piece whether she appreciates that radicality in the arts has always already been aestheticized. The term “radicality” is fetishized as a stand in for social change that cannot be undone or rolled back later. The Civil Rights Movement cost the loss of teeth, limbs, and blood; it costs jobs, public humiliation, exile, and lives many of which might have blossomed into greater beauty. Truly radical action costs much more than artists (or anyone associated with the arts scene) typically can or are willing to give. From what I understand, the most radical political and social revolution in the US occurred during the Civil Rights Movement, which structurally changed our social relations. Our personal and private lives are now widely understood to have political import and to collectively constitute something we call the “public good,” which the government is responsible for preserving.

It may be that Yablonsky assumes that aesthetic production can do the work of social and political movements. No evidence in the historical record has shown me that it can. We are symbol using creatures, but we are also creatures of blood and bone, and of social relationships, and in our history no profound change has come about until we have made each other deeply uncomfortable in all aspects of our lives — at church, at public parks, at lunch counters and restaurants, at schools and courthouses — uncomfortable enough to change the ways we behave. But again, this is mostly speculation on Yablonsky’s definition of the term, because she doesn’t define it in her own words.

Installation view of Simone Leigh at the Whitney Biennial (photo by the author)

Yablonsky does not mention the problem of Whitney board trustee Warren B. Kanders, the CEO of Safariland, whose products are used to terrorize and hurt migrants and protestors at the US-Mexico border and in the contested lands expropriated by Israel from Palestinians, but both Johnson and Solomon do. Solomon writes:

The Biennial would have been stronger if the museum had tossed Kanders off its board on opening day. The show tries, to judge from the curators’ statements, to confront the injustices of the past and to imagine a better future. But how can we take that goal seriously when the Whitney refuses to stand up to acts of hypocrisy and ethical malfeasance within its own board room? (WNYC News)

This suggests that the show is not radical enough because it hasn’t brought about a change in the makeup of the Whitney’s board. This attitude is unrealistic, and also short sighted. Removing Kanders won’t structurally change the governance of the Whitney Museum, how it cultivates its communities or serves them. He is himself symbolic. This is not to say he shouldn’t be removed; I think he should be, along with all board members of public institutions when these trustees profit from human misery. Having such profiteers hold posts in institutions that ostensibly serve the public is fundamentally incompatible with this mission. But Kanders’s removal would only be radical in symbolic terms. It would not change the behavior of patrons, visitors, curators, artists, and concerned people at the Whitney — unless his removal starts a movement, as in the way that the museum world has slowly but surely begun divesting itself of any involvement with the Sackler family, which has reaped exorbitant profit from a global opiod crisis. Unless the overall governance of the museum also changed, removing Kanders would merely be symbolic.

Still, the problem with the critique that Simone Leigh puts forward is that it comes quite close to acting as another kind of gate keeping. Of the roughly 24 topics she mentions — which are, for me, quite recherché bodies of knowledge — I am conversant with only about nine, that is, less than half, and I make my living primarily as an art critic. There are many valid responses to art, and their validity, I argue, rests on being truly engaged with the work, with taking it seriously, with quieting the other voices that surround the encounter so that one can hear what the work has to say. One useful approach to art criticism is to become conversant with the history of the object’s making, its allusions to particular discourses, canons, and historical circumstances, or with the artist’s biography and concerns. Another is a more phenomenological one, which gives space to the viewer who may come to the work with naiveté, just as I did the first time I set foot inside an art museum. Despite my lack of knowledge, the work spoke to me and still keeps speaking. This phenomenological approach asks the question of how this work rewards my attention. It asks: What is now possible that wasn’t before the encounter with this object or experience? If the arts community doesn’t regard this response as valid, then it is justly accused of constructing itself to be an elitist enclave.

The danger here is that Leigh might cordon off her work from general critical assessment by in essence claiming that it exceeds the grasp of those who haven’t read the canons she’s read. And thus Leigh or other artists might take up the position that any critique that issues from outside their province of knowledge is invalid. Leigh ends her address by saying that in the past, “instead of mentioning these things, I have politely said black women are my primary audience.” But I wonder how may Black women would be conversant with the topics she’s mentioned, and of what class and upbringing? While these critics may be mistaken or only partially correct, Leigh’s statement ventures toward trying to make art that is critically bulletproof. It shouldn’t be. Art making should be vulnerable. It should be subject to failure and mis-recognition and summary dismissal by those who are unconcerned with the artist’s concerns and in turn, can also be revelatory to those who do share these concerns. Art should allow for mistakes because it is the most powerful and most open field of semiotic play we have available to us. It doesn’t need to be beholden to any notion of radicality. It just needs to be.

Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor and managing editor of the Sunday Edition for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on...

8 replies on “Probing the Proper Grounds for Criticism in the Wake of the 2019 Whitney Biennial”

  1. I enjoyed reading this article, and thank the author for writing it. I agree with much in principle. In this particular case, I would also add that Simone Leigh’s tweet can be read as a kind of artist statement (as opposed to a list of texts and historical events that someone must know to approach all the works in the Whitney Biennial, for instance). I don’t know Leigh’s work as a curator or scholar would, but I can recognize that much of what is referenced in the tweet is the bedrock and foundation for the work itself. And, in my opinion, although it shouldn’t be necessary to understand this artistic foundation completely to appreciate the work (agreeing with the “phenomenological approach” noted in the article. And personally I feel I can have some appreciative experience of Leigh’s work without this foundational knowledge), a person will more deeply appreciate the work if they have a fuller understanding of it. I also understand how the artist would want, in an ideal world, for art writers and art historians to have some working knowledge of the art’s foundation before approaching the work critically.

  2. The notion that any kind of statement by an artist about her or his work as being some type of roadmap is highly overrated as well as an inexact science. Phenomenology is always the thing that pushes the work forward into existence. It crystallizes everything for the artist as well as the viewer particularly in work that is so much about looking.

  3. Very interesting…but from what I can tell, Leigh was not cordoning her work off from criticism or assessment. She was addressing the specific criticism that her work was not radical, which was made in an offhanded manner, as this article points out. It seems that she was pointing out that to even know what is radical, you have to have some root knowledge of what is being addressed and how. Although I was not familiar with most of the references she made in her post, when I looked them up it became very clear that if her work was drawing from/referencing those things, they were ALL about radicality. And it also seems pretty radical not to cater to white-centered sensibilities surrounding radicality.

    I didn’t read her post at all as saying her work or anyone’s should be critically bulletproof. From my read, she was saying this particular criticism regarding radicality was poorly informed and was coming from a white-centered viewpoint, which tends to dismiss the perspectives and history of people of color. This doesn’t negate the “phenomenological approach”, but criticizing work for not being radical is not a phenomenological approach. It purports to KNOW something about history and culture, enough to speak on whether something is challenging or not. If someone is going to take this stance, isn’t there a responsibility to have deeper knowledge?

    I don’t see this as elitist because she’s not saying someone like me who didn’t have this knowledge couldn’t still walk in and have meaningful impressions and reactions. However, I would not presume to walk in and make sweeping pronouncements based on knowledge I did not have. Plus this is something that people of color deal with all the time, the default assumption that the “correct” set of knowledge is white-centered. So even though my specific experience and knowledge may differ from Leigh’s (I’m Asian American), I can somewhat feel where she’s coming from and think her response was 100% on point.

    1. Hi Cindy,

      Thanks for this. I want to respond with a couple of points: 1. You write: “she was saying this particular criticism regarding radicality was poorly informed and was coming from a white-centered viewpoint, which tends to dismiss the perspectives and history of people of color.” Where does she say this, or even imply this? I don’t see this in her text. Rather, I see a list of putatively radical topics that very few people on the planet will be conversant with and she says she draws on these bodies of knowledge. I don’t see how the point of view of the other critics she is soto voce taking to task is “white centered.” If this is an implication of what Leigh wrote, I’m asking how you read that. She does not say the word “white” in her post as far as I know.
      2. I was not suggesting that the critics Solomon, Yablonsky or Johnson were taking a phenomenological approach. I am merely saying that this is a valid way to conduct art criticism. Earlier in my piece I had already dismantled the wishy-washy notion of radicality Yablonsky and Solomon put forward. And yes, if someone takes that stance, they should have deeper knowledge of the artists’ practices.
      3. You write: “Plus this is something that people of color deal with all the time, the default assumption that the ‘correct’ set of knowledge is white-centered.” Who makes this assumption? I don’t and the people I work with do not. And most of the people I’m close to in the art scene do not. It sounds a bit like you expect that to happen, or spend time in places where that’s normative. That’s not normative for everyone.

      S.

      1. Hi Seph,

        Thanks for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully!

        I’m going to group together my responses to points #1 and 3, since they’re related…
        You may be fortunate in your personal interactions, but I would say that American and Western society in general assumes a default white-centered set of knowledge or views, and based on Leigh’s comments, I imagine she would agree? Although she doesn’t come right out and say the word “white”, from what I can tell, EVERY single reference she lists out in the post is about African-American or African (i.e. black) history, literature, academic thought, or culture. This mere fact says something to me – with each successive example she rattles off, she’s compiling a list meant to drive home a point. While it may be true that few people are conversant with the topics she lists, they’re not esoteric in the way that, say, mechanisms for pigmentation in beetle exoskeletons is – perhaps one could argue that if education in history, literature, philosophy, etc. were not so white-centered, more of us might actually know those references, among many others.

        Then on top of all that, she goes on to say, “if you casually use words like ethnic, exotic and tribal and you still think those are useful words.” This was the clincher for me, why I wrote what I did – these expressions exemplify how in our dominant culture, the default is a white-centered view of culture and society, and all else is deemed “other” — “ethnic” (as if everyone didn’t have an ethnicity), “exotic” (my personal favorite, as an Asian person), or “tribal” (I’m not even going to unpack this one). Her entire post is pointing out that her work is based on a different set of knowledge and history, centered on experiences of black people, that the critic would need to know to “recognize the radical gestures” in her work.

        And not being able or willing to download all of this specific information to a viewer, she “politely” says that black women are her primary audience, de-centering the often predominantly white audience for art shows. This word “politely” made my ears prick up too, because from what I understand it’s quite loaded for many black women. Her entire post was, as you said, a clapback, but even so, still quite restrained. So no, she does not mention the word “white”, which could trigger responses from people, but to me, the subtext is there throughout. And if you read the responses to her post, a number of people bring up issues surrounding the dominant white culture, so I’m not the only one who saw this subtext. I think you are right to bring up class and upbringing though.

        Regarding your point #2:
        I totally understand that you weren’t saying that those critics took a phenomenological approach, and I agree that it’s a valid way to conduct art criticism – I probably should have been clearer in what I wrote! I just don’t really see how what Leigh was saying tries in any way to negate a phenomenological approach, since she was addressing a very specific criticism regarding radicality. While, as you say, art making should be “subject to failure and mis-recognition and summary dismissal by those who are unconcerned with the artist’s concerns and in turn, can also be revelatory to those who do share these concerns”, doesn’t Leigh also have the right to respond, to challenge a summary dismissal that would seem to come from a point of view of “white gaze”? Especially since her work seems to be about decentering this point of view and putting a focus on black feminism, which in itself seems like a radical act. Others in the show would probably see radicality in a different way.

        Cindy

      2. Hi Seph,

        Thanks for taking the time to answer so thoughtfully!

        I’m going to group together my responses to points #1 and 3, since they’re related… You may be fortunate in your interactions, but I would say that American and Western society in general assumes a default white-centered set of knowledge or views, and based on Leigh’s comments, I imagine she would agree. Although she doesn’t come right out and say the word “white”, from what I can tell, EVERY single reference she lists out in the post is about African-American or African (i.e. black) history, literature, academic thought, or culture. This mere fact says something to me – with each successive example she rattles off, she’s compiling a list meant to drive home a point. While it may be true that few people are conversant with the topics she lists, they’re not esoteric in the way that, say, mechanisms for pigmentation in beetle exoskeletons is – perhaps one could argue that if education in history, literature, philosophy, etc. were not so white-centered, more of us might actually know those references, among many others.

        Then on top of all that, she goes on to say, “if you casually use words like ethnic, exotic and tribal and you still think those are useful words.” This was the clincher for me, why I wrote what I did – these expressions exemplify how in our dominant culture, the default is a white-centered view of culture and society, and all else is deemed “other” — “ethnic” (as if everyone didn’t have an ethnicity), “exotic” (my personal favorite, as an Asian person), or “tribal” (I’m not even going to unpack this one). Her entire post is pointing out that her work is based on a different set of knowledge and history, centered on experiences of black people, that the critic would need to know to “recognize the radical gestures” in her work.

        And not being able or willing to download all of this specific information to a viewer, she “politely” says that black women are her primary audience, de-centering the often predominantly white audience for art shows. This word “politely” made my ears prick up too, because from what I understand it’s quite a loaded term for many black women. Her entire post was, as you said, a clapback, but even so, still quite restrained. So no, she does not mention the word “white”, which could trigger responses from people, but to me, the subtext is there throughout. And if you read the responses to her post, a number of people bring up issues surrounding the dominant white culture, so I’m not the only one who saw this subtext.

        Regarding your point #2: I totally understand that you weren’t saying that those critics took a phenomenological approach, and I agree that it’s a valid way to conduct art criticism – I probably should have been clearer in what I wrote! I just don’t really see how what Leigh was saying tries in any way to negate a phenomenological approach, since she was addressing a very specific criticism regarding radicality. It’s reasonable to say that the work should be compelling enough with or without knowledge of the historical/literary/cultural backdrop she refers to, and I don’t see her objecting to this notion in her post.

  4. I really appreciated this article. A sentence I will copy and keep: a piece of artwork should leave me, the viewer, with the question, “What is now possible that wasn’t before the encounter with this object or experience?” That’s the criterion I’m going to use in the future in my viewing of activist/political/change-oriented/whatever one calls it artwork.

  5. Virtue signaling through the appropriation of historically radical milestones is not a proxy for personal radicalism.

    The practice of art must not become little more than a creative exercise whose vernacular is constrained to identity politics. Is the show being reduced to esoteric book reports? Or is this one of those “mirror, mirror on the wall – who is the smartest [most radical] artist of them all” inventories of perpetually festering cultural grievances? ‘Tiresome’ may be the most generous critique of the search for radicalism in the work of artists.

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