So if comparisons to the conservative culture warriors of the ’90s are unhelpful and inaccurate, does history offer better guideposts for our present conversation? Yes, and they show that criticism of the art world did not always come from the right. Among the most productive but rarely made historical comparisons, noted
by Princeton professor Chika Okeke-Agulu discussing Durant in the Huffington Post
, is the 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art
. Organized by a white curator sympathetic to black marginalization, the exhibition was controversial in large part because it failed to include fine art made by African Americans—it was narrowly focused, instead, on documentary photographs of Harlem.
Enraged demonstrators picketed outside the museum. Before the show began, they called for it to be cancelled and for the curatorial ranks of the Met to be diversified, among other demands. But this protest did not elicit a major lawsuit; neither did it pit the religious right against the liberal left. Rather, it involved the unrepresented protesting their exclusion from institutional spaces and structures, other than in a form that was out of their control. (Ironically, the mayor at the time did successfully call for the removal of the catalogue for the exhibition, but only because Jewish groups criticized an essay within it for being anti-Semitic.)
Looking back at “Harlem on My Mind” is productive because, rather than provide a shortcut for dismissing today’s protests, it forces us to think about how criticisms of broader structural imbalances made in 1969 continue to be relevant. The fundamental demand for racial equality among the curatorial staff of New York’s major cultural institutions made in the ’60s and ’70s remains more or less unfulfilled. “Harlem on My Mind” is one notable reminder that the fight waged in the 1960s for equitable representation at major art institutions continues today.
Another historical moment worth recalling is an 1979 exhibition of white artist Donald Newman held at the non-profit, publicly funded New York gallery Artists Space
that used a racial slur for African Americans in its title. The work itself was not overtly racist, and the artist himself gave an equivocating justification, saying
, “My reasons for choosing that title are as complex as they are contradictory and given even the best of explanations they would remain unclear.”
An open letter signed
by artists that including
criticised the gallery for the “racist gesture,” saying “the appalling title is an abuse of the esthetic freedom artists allegedly enjoy in this society.” The activist group Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, the same group that protested the Met show, arranged for demonstrations outside the gallery
, among other actions. Met curator Lowery Sims criticized that the “blatant and unprovoked racial insult” had received “public tax dollars” from New York State. Artists Space apologized to the offended, while supporters of the gallery including Roberta Smith, Douglas Crimp, and others condemned racism in the art world but also pushed back at those seeking to “use government funding agencies as organs of censorship.”
On the surface, this broader debate much more clearly resembles those happening today. But the case is rarely cited. Looking back on these historical precedents, they show how complex the issues are, and continue to be; they don’t offer an easy way to dismiss deep criticisms of the art world, but rather demand engagement. Indeed, equating the debates of 2017 to those of the ’90s is not helpful because it does exactly the opposite: It shuts down debate.
Avoiding flawed comparisons doesn’t make the conversation any easier, but it at least makes it a conversation. There is clearly a difference between protesting absence from an institutional space, as happened with “Harlem on my Mind,” and the total prohibition against white people artistically engaging with the suffering caused by white supremacy (an end some believe that critics of Schutz advocate). Regardless, the events surrounding Scaffold, Open Casket, and other works are the continuation of an important dialogue over representation and appropriation—one that remains unsettled.
Some are disturbed by the idea that certain subjects would be closed off to certain people. Those who have adamantly opposed any calls to take down the artworks—but have embraced underlying critiques of inequality within the art world and, more fundamentally, the broader conversation around the issue—include artist
and L.A. Times
art writer Carolina A. Miranda, who wrote
, “I am here to engage a full palette of concepts and ideas, not just the ones that pertain to my identity.…let’s allow for the messiness and the mistakes.”
Breaking the comparison from the cultural struggles of today from those of the ’90s doesn’t necessarily mean you must alter your position as to whether Open Casket and other works that provoked outrage should be removed from view (let alone destroyed). But flatly equating the dynamics of the present to those of the original Culture Wars—without a consideration of the differing power structures at play—is a slippery slope. Doing so can provide an easy, sometimes disingenuous, way to sideline the crucial debate about institutional control and representation in the art world that continues to be raised in important way.