John Edmonds, “Tête de Femme” (2018) archival pigment photograph; 30h x 24w inches, 76.20h x 60.96w cm; edition of 3 + 2AP (courtesy the artist and Company, New York)

Wandering around an upstate New York farm last weekend, when I finally found a sliver of Wi-Fi, I noticed that my colleagues were sharing an online New York Times Opinion article, “The Dominance of the White Male Critic.” I am a Black art critic who has not yet “made it.” I publish a self-funded, independent site titled Arcade Project. My problem has always been funding, and thus this passage spoke to me: “Outlets led by people of color should get the venture capital and philanthropic support they have always deserved but rarely received.”

Venture Capital is most often an unattainable goal for a Black woman in any industry. I have been afraid to even want it, much less say the above sentence out loud — until last weekend. I finally felt that I had been heard. I understood why people were sharing the article and cheering.

Meanwhile, in McCarren Park, Kurt McVey read the article on his Twitter feed and felt forced to drop his current assignment and write a response. Noah Becker, of Whitehot Magazine, decided to give McVey a platform for his reactionary rant, “Kill Your Darlings: The End of the White Ally.” The 35-year-old freelance critic saw the call for older, White male critics to take a seat, to make room for marginalized, younger critics of color, as a personal attack and a threat to his livelihood. He posited himself as an ally but chose to make the Times article all about himself. Allyship ends when the “ally” in question centers himself in the struggle. An authentic ally knows when to take a seat and listen and does not wave his hands in the air, screaming, “What about me?”

The selection of Man Ray’s racially charged “Noire et blanche” (1926), added insult to injury. The choice of this image seemed to be made in response to the image, “Tête de Femme” by John Edmonds (2018). The Edmonds image was created in response to the modernist primitivism of Man Ray’s photograph. McVey’s and Becker’s decision to include the image in the Whitehot Magazine article was either consciously racist or willfully ignorant. Wendy A. Grossman and Steven Manford in “Unmasking Man Ray’s Noire et blanche” published in the American Art Journal in 2006, assert that, “Inflected with Social Darwinism, this textual framing of Man Ray’s photograph implicated Noire et blanche in pseudo-scientific racial theories of the time.

The editorial caption that accompanied the Man Ray image (originally titled “Visage de nacre et masque d’” [Mother-of-pearl face and ebony mask]) in a 1926 issue of Vogue magazine implies a juxtaposition of the modern European represented by the living model, Kiki de Montparnasse, and the African primitive who is trapped in time, represented by the Baule-style mask.

Face of a woman, calm transparent egg straining to shake off the thick head of hair through which she remains bound to primitive nature. It is through women that the evolution of the species to a place full of mystery will be accomplished. Sometimes plaintive, she returns with a feeling of curiosity and dread to one of the stages through which she has passed, perhaps before becoming today the evolved white creature.

Man Ray, “Noire et Blanche” (by Tim Evanson from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, USA – Kiki Noire et Blanche – Man Ray, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I see the selection of the Man Ray image for McVey’s article as a diet-racist slap in the face. The image of John Edmonds’s “Tête de Femme” (2018) published in the Times article, part of the series Tribe, subverts Man Ray’s racially charged imagery, reclaiming the African mask from European modernist primitivism by juxtaposing it with a contemporary Black model. Loring Knoblach, in his Collector Daily review of the monograph, John Edmonds, Higher states:

In the original 1926 image, Kiki of Montparnasse poses holding an African mask close to her face, the paleness of her own visage contrasting sharply with the darkness of the mask. While the tones are opposite, the styling is similar, her hair slicked down and her lips reduced to a small pucker, just like the mask. Edmonds clearly wants to re-envision this image, and his works for the Tribe series variously pose male and female models with African masks and get up close to hair in tight weaves or braids. When seen as a series, the pictures feel like a reclamation, a firm statement that the comparison that is of interest isn’t the white woman and the savage, but black people and the symbols of their heritage.

I have White male allies who have more education and experience than McVey. White male critics have joined the conversation without centering themselves — such as Maurice Berger and William J. Simmons — and have committed themselves to a lifetime of scholarship about, and the support of, art by artists of color. I need an ally who can listen to critics of color without feeling threatened, without lashing out at people he claims to support.

No one owes Kurt McVey a seat at the table or an invitation to the party, especially given that he lacks the formal education and training in art historical practice that critics of color must achieve to be taken seriously. White male art critics who have gone through the educational pipeline can still achieve success in their field without studying critical race theory. For this reason, they are often unable to read work by artists of color unless this work is loudly didactic.

I have earned my seat at the table though sometimes having fallen short. I was the only Black student in the art history department at UCLA in the early 1990s. I was the only Black student in my MA program at the University of Leiden in the early 2010s. My White male advisor discouraged me from pursuing a path of study that began with Deborah Willis’s analysis of the Louis Agassiz Slave Daguerreotypes in her book, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History. The images, owned by Harvard University, are the subject of a lawsuit over who should own the images of enslaved Africans. These images were the precursor of the contemporary mugshot. My advisor told me that identity politics were currently out of style and that I should not focus on race. This was in the Netherlands, a nation where blackface is still a holiday tradition.

I have also watched younger, White, less-qualified people secure employment in galleries where I don’t present the desired “look.” I don’t owe anything to a mediocre White male who has not achieved the requisite level of art historical scholarship and has, I believe, coasted on his privilege. I don’t owe him a seat at the table, a pat on the back, or even a “thank you.”

Noah Becker, the publisher of Whitehot Magazine, has been a friend, mentor, and a colleague. He has advised me on Arcade Project, and I have written for Whitehot Magazine. I represent an artist, Elizabeth Axtman, who is included in a group show he is co-curating this month. But Becker’s decision to publish McVey’s article has left me feeling not only angry, but also hurt and disappointed. Becker offered to pay me to write a rebuttal in Whitehot Magazine, but I no longer trust him or his judgment as a publisher. I am now wary of being associated with his brand.

I have used the byline MC Stevens to appear race and gender neutral to readers. I’m done with that. My name is Melva Charlene Stevens. I am a 49-year-old Black, female art critic, and I have no idea who Megan Thee Stallion is either.

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19 replies on “When White “Allies” Go Wrong”

  1. Your truth is freedom! We are the most educated group of American citizens, you have a target audience. You need not look for a ride “Sistah” you got wing’s, continue to soar on your wings freely…

  2. Good for you, the old art goat bleating his woes, whilst really not considering anything further than his own ego. Boo to the magazine for letting him loose, it sort of smacks of cheap journalistic tricks to me, a goading article and to choose the Man Ray image to accompany, that is beyond careless, there’s no joined up thinking, no rounded thought at all. You are right to feel as you do and to speak out!

  3. On top of it, McVey is a truly awful writer, and appears barely able to compose a proper sentence. Enough with the parentheses! This guy got invited to sit at any table? His article is barely intelligible.

  4. Enjoyed your take on this subject. Read the Op-ed piece in the NY Times. Thanks for the link to McVey’s article. Yes, it sounds like he took it personally, but then again, you might see where he might think that he was being accused of being a racist and was being asked to stop doing what he does. That seemed to be the hook of the Op-ed piece. Race and identity is quite a topic in contemporary art these days.

  5. This is an excellent educational article. I read this piece with great interest and, yet again, faced my ignorance on the ubiquitous and insidious effects of racism in, well, everything. As a practicing maker of things art critics will never notice, I haven’t thought of art criticism since my graduate studies in painting and drawing where art history was my favorite academic study. I hope this article is read and shared throughout the art world.

    Thank you, Ms. Stevens. In my humble opinion you have definitely “made it.” Now I want to read everything you have written and about every artist you support. It also reawakened in me the desire to think more critically about art and its makers, including my own. At 74, I am thrilled to encounter thinkers like you so that I may continue to be educated.

  6. I hope you will write the rebuttal, and ignore the brand associations. I don’t like “one strike” rules in any context. No one is owed a seat at the table; we all have a seat at the table. That includes Becker and McVey. Not because they are right in their analysis or position, but because disengaging or claiming preeminence because of one’s identity alone is just perpetuating the same game with different players. I would like to see the game itself changed. A general call for a certain group to “step aside” seems to set up an unfortunate dynamic. There needs to be more space, and more pay, for more voices. And, making this criticism is a nod to the power that people of color in general are gaining. By acknowledging that, perhaps we can make new, more inclusive and robust structures, institutions, and stop relying on existing establishment to give meaning or reward.

    1. You say “one strike” rules, but it seems apparent that the author is speaking to centuries of white supremacist oppression.

  7. Oh, Melva-not-MC, so many years ago in “business” my boss told me to sign with just my first initial as nobody would take a Katy seriously . . . and then there were the incoming calls for “Ken” and “Keith” . . . I’m so sorry that patriarchal racial selfishness still governs, and I applaud your bravery “coming out” as a female of color in the world of written word . . . I vacillate in signing my artwork, tending lately just to use my surname, but I think you’ve moved me toward putting Kate back on her canvas. Thank you for your strong words!

  8. the more obsessed about race the art is, the more racist the artist proves to be in my opinion.
    or is this not true?

    1. Not true.

      Racism: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

  9. YES ^^ 100% 🎯🎯🎯
    I look forward to centering, amplifying, and following your work from here on out, Melva Charlene Stevens. The art world needs your art criticism.

    And Whitehot Magazine? Go take antiracism courses and please reread Melva Charlene Stevens’ dead-on article until you get it. You/r mag aren’t owed a seat at the table either. Defending the white male supremacy status quo in 2019 is definitionally the opposite of the artistic avant garde. It’s full on reactionary. Any art magazine than isn’t at the vanguard of ideas situated in contemporary culture (which, newsflash, isn’t white!) is not an art magazine of relevance. I cannot urge you strongly enough to PAUSE long and hard until you have done significant work on seeing your role in causing public harm to Black and brown people. Causing harm will not be tolerated. Do better.

    (Bare minimum starting point: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo)

    1. This needs to be shared throughout the art world. Let’s start at the graduate degree level. I too will be following Ms. Melva Charlene Stevens, waiting on your Ted Talk!

  10. In the Man Ray picture, Kiki appears to be asleep while the African mask represents a conscious spirit or possibly a dream — it is not asleep but active. Therefore, it is the ‘Black’ being which is in charge and the ‘White’ being which is passive and subordinate — if one must put things in political terms, which seems to be the urgent desire here. Such a contrast would comport with the high value placed on the African aesthetic by European artists in the period in which Man Ray made the picture.

    I don’t think Man Ray actually thought this way; he seems more shamanistic and less analytical than that. But shamanism doesn’t seem to get articles published or good jobs at galleries, museums, and academic institutions. So we get what the ruling class likes and pays for with the money they take from us. They do seem to like to get the proles fighting one another.

    The quoted material from Vogue (I assume it’s from Vogue) is very odd in this regard: it is exactly opposite the most natural and reasonable interpretation of the picture which I conveniently give above. Unfortunately most of the critical article assigning the work to ‘social Darwinism’ (!) is paywalled and closed to non-elite schmucks like me so I can’t comment on it. Otherwise we might have some fun with it.

    But instead I suppose we all must continue to ‘throw each dream / into the ditch of what it means.’

    Fortunately I know nothing about this McVey character, but it is no surprise to find someone like that hanging out and twitting in the heart of hipsterville.

  11. I can’t stop laughing at McVey’s article… it’s unreadable. Exhibit A:

    As I walked through the park the day after the Fourth of July, a tweet, sent out this past May by art critic (Is he ever really objectively critical of art made by artists of color, which he writes about rather exclusively, or just the white male patriarchy?) Antwaun Sargent, referenced at the top of the aforementioned article, banged around my big white male head:

    “ ‘It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a renaissance in black artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored black artists for decades?’ the art critic Antwaun Sargent tweeted in May.”

    Quotes on quotes on quotes. He places his unnecessary parenthetical asides in the most awkward, confusing place possible when he goes on a rant about a critic whose name he hasn’t even mentioned yet. And then he repeats the part about Sargent tweeting in May. A bored high school student could do a better job at proofreading. Exhibit B:

    As a hard working, still hustling, pitching every day, sing for my supper freelancer, I also want a super-cool, consistent, fancy, salaried staff job with full benefits. I want to be an art critic or arts and culture journalist with his name emblazoned on a worthy masthead, but should a talented, currently staffed writer, one who’s done quality work for years, have to quit before they or their editors feel that’s appropriate, and starve for me to get it, just because they’re currently the race and or gender of a presumed patriarchal, macro-cultural antagonist worthy of Berry and Yang’s overt Marxist antagonism?

    Holy run-on sentences, Batman! Sorry my dude, you gotta learn how to write BEFORE you get a salaried writer job. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  12. why does alignment with institutions controlled by the corporate state, which academia is, have to be some sort of prerequisite for being taken seriously professionally? this does not sound like freedom to me.

  13. Man Ray is having a blast somehere. People are still talking about his photograph and riffing off of it. I am beginning to understand why I am not able to see this image in the same way as a critic of color might. But to me, the African mask seems to be alive while the white girl is asleep. Is she dreaming about Africa? Does she feel protected by the mask enough to sleep so soundly. Or is this simply a still life with a white “mannequin”?

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