Probing the Proper Grounds for Criticism in the Wake of the 2019 Whitney Biennial

In the wake of numerous critiques regarding the lack of perceived “radicality” in the Whitney Biennial, a critic analyzes the implications of artist Simone Leigh’s response.

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.

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I've seen some preliminary thoughts on the Biennial and concerns about radicality. I need to say that if you haven't read, not a single thing written by Saidiya Hartman or Hortense Spillers. And if you have no knowledge, never heard of Negritude or how it's related to surrealism. If you don't know who Senghor is or why he would have anything to do with art. If you never spent anytime figuring out who was and wasn't at FESTAC 77. If you have no idea what critical fabulation is. If you didn't know what I meant when I said In The Wake. If you never studied Independence architecture. If you don't know why Pauline Lumumba walked through the streets of Kinshasha bare breasted. If you have no idea who Katherine Dunham is or her scholarship, but yet you consider yourself well versed in the work and contributions of the woman she hired as a secretary, Maya Deren. If the words Black Feminist Thought bring absolutely zero concepts to mind. If the words "Dave the Potter" mean nothing to you. If you didn't ponder the signifigance of Sharifa's unruly kitchen when she embodied Uhura in my video and you don't even know what a kitchen is. If the words "Dogon statuary" conjurs nothing. If the only thing you know about Benin bronzes is that Europe stole them. If you casually use words like ethnic, exotic and tribal and you still think those are useful words. If you don't know what story I'm referring to when I talk about A Question of Power. If you thought I was being weird when I told you I was too busy sharpening my oyster knife. If you've never heard of the Herero Genocide. Then you lack the knowledge to recognize the radical gestures in my work. And that is why, instead of mentioning these things, I have politely said black women are my primary audience. #whitneybiennial

A post shared by Simone Leigh (@simoneyvetteleigh) on

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 off, 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 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 implications and to collectively constitute something we call the “public good,” which can be negatively impacted by our personal and private actions.

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.

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