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There are so many fault lines between art and politics, navigating them can feel dizzying and often futile. Conversations about identity politics, economics, heritage, corrective curating, and the broader issues of inclusion and exclusion are important but can be a drag on art itself, to the point where it can seem like the work vanishes behind real or imagined social mores. Such was the case with Ken Johnson’s review last fall in the New York Times of MoMA PS1’s Now Dig this! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960–1980 and the debate it engendered. The review spurned a lot of groaning about uninformed opinions and who constitute the “gatekeepers” of the art canon. A petition for the Times to reconcile this “editorial lapse” with its normally higher standard of writing was started as angry voices accumulated, gaining over 1,600 signatures.
Last night, the Brooklyn Museum responded to ongoing fray by hosting a panel discussion titled “Acts of Resistance and Inclusion in African American Art,” moderated by critic Rich Blint. The participants were artist William Villalongo and Ademola Olugebefola, artist and writer Mira Schor, and art historian Camara Holloway.
Blint fanned the discussion by opening with a hard-hitting clip from a Charlie Rose interview with Toni Morrison. In the excerpt, Morrison blasts the inherent dishonesty of race relations and suggests that there’s a “profound neurosis of race in America.” Blint agreed with Morrison, calling race relations “mutually impoverishing” and saying the clip brings into question how race functions in America, how people understand and respond to something based on cultural biases like Johnson’s.
William Villalongo transferred Morrison’s sentiments to Johnson’s review. “There is something fundamentally wrong with the position of this article,” he said. Camara Holloway agreed, calling Johnson’s position “old-fashioned” and “mid-century.”
The panel turned to the question of production, exhibition, and reception of artwork. “Getting on the wall” doesn’t necessarily mean inclusivity: why? Blint made a vital and welcome shift in his questioning when he suggested that the answer is somehow different now than it was in previous decades, turning what could be an anachronistic conversation into something more relevant. Acts of resistance or inclusion have traditionally been a response to specific social realities and movements, like the Civil Rights Movement or Women’s Liberation. The term “black art” was a way to categorize a certain artistic output and express solidarity, but this slowly fell apart as social barriers collapsed and artists became more interested in expressing their individual aesthetics. So why do we still using the label?
Villalongo suggested that it has to do with the marketability of “black art,” the notion that a minority artist is commodifiable. It’s a disquieting idea; how do we reconcile ideas of “post-blackness,” or the “disavowal of racial matter,” as Blint put it, with a market that capitalizes on the duality of art and activism, like critics filling a quota or affirmative action in art collecting?
Holloway and Mira Schor both discussed Johnson’s opposition to identity-based art, but pointed out that his review (and previous reviews) have only perpetuated it by “going soft because he’s afraid of offending,” in Schor’s words. She suggested that the exhibition should have been reviewed by another Times critic, Holland Cotter.
But Olugebefola made the best point when he said, “These artists, they know who they are. Some want to use that identity to break down barriers and some just want to make beautiful or interesting work.” There’s the potential of losing the experience of art by compartmentalizing it.
The discussion ended with an audience Q&A, which focused on who’s qualified to talk about art and the responsibilities a critic has to the work he reviews. The last question was particularly brilliant, concerning what a world without categorization would look like. Should there be exhibitions like Now Dig This! since they become problematic? Are spaces like A.I.R., an all-women gallery, becoming counterproductive? No one stepped up to answer this directly, but Olugbefola suggested that the discourse will always be changing, that there are “quantum leaps of consciousness,” and that, ultimately, shifts will be made in critical discourse that define both what resistance and inclusion look like and whether they’re necessary. The here-we-go-again of identity politics can be groan-worthy, but it’s a conversation worth having.
“Acts of Resistance and Inclusion in African American Art” took place at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) on February 21 at 7 pm.