When White “Allies” Go Wrong

No one owes Kurt McVey a seat at the table or an invitation to the party, and the Man Ray image selected for his fragile white male rant points to why.

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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