Can Art Change the Future for Racial and Ethnic Identity? A Roundtable Conversation

The Art Genome Project
Sep 8, 2015 1:33PM

To steal a quote from curator and writer Ryan Wong, one of our roundtable’s participants, “in the art world, there is a deep resistance to acknowledging race and racial construction as a reality.” On Thursday, July 9, 2015, Wong (curator and writer), Jessica Lynne (founder of ARTS.BLACK), Anuradha Vikram (curator and writer) and Ellen Tani (a contributor to The Art Genome Project) met virtually to dive into the complex connections and histories of racial identity and the art world, of racial difference and the art institution.

This is The Art Genome Project’s first-ever virtual roundtable, the flagship of a series of discussions we hope will provide an opportunity to gain insight from artists and thought leaders on a range of aesthetic and art historical topics. With these roundtables we aim to expand the conversation beyond the scope of categories that make up The Art Genome Project, instructive as these may be (see, for example, our categories for art related to Racial and Ethnic Identity, Intersectionality, or Afrofuturism). 

Our participants and moderator from left to right: Anuradha Vikram, Jessica Lynne, Ryan Wong and Ellen Tani.

Since the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and a seemingly continuous stream of unarmed African American men who have died in “officer-involved shootings,” the violent consequences of an unresolved history of race relations have largely defined the past two years of public discourse in the United States, crystallized most poignantly in the efforts of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Of the countless lenses we’ve adopted for this nationwide racial reckoning, art is one we might not typically think of.

How can art help us make sense of these complex histories? The short answer is that the visual—what we see—matters: one need only consider the prominent role in recent debates played by photographs of the Ferguson riots, cell phone footage of police and civilian encounters, or symbols like the Confederate Flag. There is of course a precedent for understanding the tumultuous events of the day surrounding race and ethnicity through art. Take, for example, the work highlighted in the Brooklyn Museum’s recent “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” or Swiss-artist Pamela Rosenkranz’s massive installation visualizing Northern Europe’s racial homogeneity at this year’s Venice Biennale.

For the long answer, we turn to our participants, who help us work through the relationship between museums, art history, and the social realities of racial prejudice and identity today. Given the complexities of identity in a global era—the boundlessness of individual diasporic and transcultural identities—how does contemporary art challenge our institutions and art history? How do we respond to artists who appropriate from groups regularly underrepresented in the mainstream art world? And what is the potential of art to impact the way we view and address racial and ethnic identity here and globally?

What follows is an edited version of the conversation, moderated by Tani.

Byron Kim’s Synecdoche (1991-present)   

ET: Could you each identify a specific artwork that has influenced your writing practice or has impacted the way you think about race and ethnic identity in visual culture?  

RW:  I have two. The first is kind of a classic, Byron Kim’s Synecdoche (1991-present) included in the ’93 Whitney Biennial. It’s a grid of over 400 painted squares, each of which match someone’s skin tone. For me it’s a very dramatic piece and an elegant idea that explodes the false duality we’re often given: that art that deals with race can’t be conceptual or can’t be minimalist or can’t be engaged with other formal qualities. The second piece is by the artist Dread Scott, On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (  ), a performance in which he took on the role of a ’60s civil rights demonstrator and placed himself in front of a firehose. It was an extremely powerful piece because it coincided with the demonstrations in Ferguson and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although he’d been planning it for months, the piece would have been prescient at any time in the last 50 years because of the state of race relations in America. It broke down that barrier between what is past and what is living.

JL: I had my first encounter with bell hooks’s book Art on My Mind in college. In it, she analyzes a photograph by Lorna SimpsonWaterbearerIt was one of the first photos that I remember emotionally responding to and the first time I came to think about the ways in which art criticism could serve some type of political purpose. When I think about that photograph, it represents a moment when I think my consciousness was raised. As cliché as it sounds, that’s an artwork that will always remind me of how I came to this research and this practice.

AV: I’ve found it valuable to learn about what it means to be contemporary outside of the places that dominate that discourse. Inhotim, a museum in Brazil, was very influential for me as a different cultural paradigm. It was built with the Neo-Concretists—Brazilian conceptual artists—at its center, both physically and art historically. The historical narrative is framed by Brazil, and non-Brazilian artists are integrated with respect to the ideas that were established by that generation of Brazilian artists. The work of these artists, particularly Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, has been really important to me in terms of dealing with the social and the ephemeral. But in general, I’ve been very informed by various kinds of conceptual and postconceptual work of the ’60s and ’70s, from the proponents of Arte Povera to artists like David Hammons, who use everyday materials to talk about the experience of people who don’t have power in the system. It’s really important to me to try and understand how that can be explained.

ET: Thinking about these individual works and projects, what do you see as the relationship between art history, race, and visual culture?

AV: I think it’s too big a question to answer. That’s like asking, “how do you define human beings and things that they do?” There is a real resistance within the framework of art history to address anything modern and contemporary that has to do with cultural specificity or ethnic identity outside of the European experience.

ET: From my perspective, there’s almost a generational resistance among art historians to talking about race and ethnicity in the wake of the ’90s. Why is that?   

AV: Well, the contemporary academy, as it’s structured today, was created during the imperial period and continues to exist to protect and preserve those structures of power. I think that’s the main issue, more than any individual resistance to change. It’s the system itself that’s not prepared to change.

RW: To build off of that, in my conversations with art historians, critics, and others in the art world, there is a deep resistance to acknowledging race and racial construction as a reality; racial disparities as a reality; white supremacy as a reality. I think this is doubly ironic because, as you were mentioning, Anu, at the very instance that museums and the whole practice of art history was being founded in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, our modern racial hierarchies were being created.  

JL: When you asked the question the first word that came to my mind was antagonism. I think the relationship between race and visual culture is an antagonistic relationship that primarily serves the interests of the established canon.

In the art world, there is a deep resistance to acknowledging race and racial construction as a reality.

ET: Could that antagonism be a productive friction? I’m wondering if you can think of any projects that use that antagonism effectively?

AV: I think Franklin Sirmans has been doing incredible things at LACMA since he was appointed head of contemporary art; take their current exhibition of Noah Purifoy. As an artist, Purifoy asked these classic activist questions of whether art as protest, or art as politics, even belonged in the institutional world. That show speaks to how a museum that represents a diverse population, funded by taxpayer dollars from that population, can adjust its mandate as an encyclopedic museum (despite originating in these kinds of imperialist frameworks) in order to be more accessible to the people that it really should be serving. It’s always a conflict, it’s always a challenge; there are only a few institutions that are doing that consistently (the Brooklyn Museum, for example).

ET: I’m thinking about your location in L.A., where many artists who have been engaged with the avant-garde for decades are now just getting their due.

AV: That’s a little bit different. Living artists like Charles Gaines and Mark Bradford are being recognized but they’re not necessarily being historicized. Purifoy is 20 years senior to Charles Gaines and he’s no longer alive, so this is a pivotal moment for an artist—when they go from being a contemporary artist to being a historical artist. And how is that history written? It is very exciting to see a show like this where the history of a black artist is being written by a black curator and is happening in this institution, but it’s still a very fraught process.

This is a pivotal moment for an artist—when they go from being a contemporary artist to being a historical artist. And how is that history written? 

JL: Anu, you mentioned funding and how this process of historicization is fiscally supported and sustained… A part of me is asking: as much as it’s important to have the administrators inside the institutions (curators, registrars, etc.), how are we thinking about people in those organizations that are funding our arts and culture nonprofits?

RW: Yes. To build on this idea of who’s inside institutions, I do think we have to talk about race and class being very intertwined here, and how the idea of being a curator (until very recently in museum history) was essentially an aristocratic job. Major institutions were more or less untouched by a lot of the political and social upheavals over the last 50, 60, 70 years, and art history as a discipline is very much behind the rest of the world in that respect. So to have our eyes on the long view of how art history will be written, how museums accept or don’t accept certain artists, we’re absolutely going to have to talk about the curators, the museum directors, the funders, and all levels of these institutional practices.

My work as a critic is about creating “primary source documents”—a first pass at making history: looking at the current state of world history and seeing where art fits in.

ET: I want to get back to the distinction between contemporary and “historical” artists. How might we “flip the percentages,” to borrow Anu’s earlier term?

RW: From a personal standpoint, flipping the percentages and the canon are not personally that interesting to me. Big museums are going to collect what they’re going to collect. Right now, “protest art” and “activist art” have a sort of social cachet. What I’m really interested in is reaching communities that are engaged with this work—communities that are interested in social movement histories not as museum objects, but as living histories.

JL: I’m also thinking about the ways in which we create multiple voices. I was recently talking to an artist, Kameelah Rasheed, about the ways history has been interpreted to be a linear entity, and I think that young curators of color are doing the work of crafting this nonlinear canon. They are interested in bringing to the forefront more aggressively contemporary artists of color who may not necessarily find themselves exhibited in larger museums. For me, this is equally as important and shouldn’t be ignored.  

AV: My work as a critic is about creating “primary source documents”—a first pass at making history: looking at the current state of world history and seeing where art fits in. For example, how does something like the recent controversy over artist Vanessa Place, who tweeted Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind (known for its overt racism), fit in with the politics of Black Lives Matter? How does someone like Charles Gaines fit in?

ET: In an ideal world, if you had unlimited resources and could put together your own institution, what would you do? How could museums better serve their audiences?

RW: As you pointed out, Ellen, we complain a lot about institutions. But I think what we’re really complaining about is the social realities that they reflect.  

AV: I would make a diaspora museum. As a South Asian in the U.S., we don’t have museums that are culturally specific and contemporary serving our community (I’m not black and I’m not Asian according to U.S. institutions, though it’s different in the U.K.), so I’ve had to figure out how to make another space and it’s an exciting challenge that’s part of what inspires me to stay engaged. What does an institution look like that is neither culturally specific nor pretending to be universal in a way that is homogenizing? Think about who our audiences are. Just look at a city like Los Angeles: people who are third-generation Chicano in L.A. have a cultural specificity that comes from having Mexican heritage, but they’re not Mexicans, and they have more in common with second-generation Koreans from L.A., in many ways, than they do with someone who was born in Chiapas. That is not something that museums know how to reflect yet.

We complain a lot about institutions. But I think what we’re really complaining about is the social realities that they reflect. 

ET: Jessica, I’m wondering if you could talk a little about the ARTS.BLACK blog and your relationship with audience as you imagine it to be, ideally.

JL: ARTS.BLACK launched in December 2014. For my co-editor and I, it came from the matter of who isn’t getting published. There are numerous instances of extremely problematic reviews in  the mainstream art press, such as recent press about Alma Thomas, which make us ask how these artists are written about. How would these reviews differ if written by an author who might reflect or share a certain background with Alma? We’re thinking primarily about criticality from writers who identify as black.

RW: One thing I really appreciate about ARTS.BLACK is that it defies the “culture of politeness” that pervades the art criticism world, a culture that doesn’t really address disagreements, especially around politics. Until very recently, you would never have another platform or another writer actually challenge such a problematic review and take that racism to task. This is a very new development and I think it’s really important. We do need to have difficult conversations; the culture of politeness in the art criticism world is just another way to silence voices that are not allowed.

I don’t mind telling you this is wrong, and then I also don’t mind showing you what a reasonable critique could look like.

ET: Jessica, in your widely cited article “Criticism’s Blackout,” you ask, “Where are all the Black arts critics?” You bring up the term “accountability,” which for me relates to what Ryan alluded to: the need for a system of checks and balances where, as a field of writers, we hold each other accountable for omissions and oversights (purposeful or accidental). This is not to suggest that culturally specific platforms like yours are watchdog organizations, but I do think it’s important to have a venue where this is a priority

JL: I actually like this word “watchdog.” The work of ARTS.BLACK is to say, all right, Blake Gopnik, or Jessica Dawson in the Village Voice, this was wrong, I don’t mind telling you this is wrong, and then I also don’t mind showing you what a reasonable critique could look like.

AV: We have right now a condition where everyone has a cultural agenda except for white people. And it’s very easy to dismiss us because relentlessly you hear again and again—Ryan mentioned a number of recent reviews that have been very problematic in terms of race—the backlash is always from predominantly white writers, curators, directors, and board members—people in positions of power who are very quick to dismiss any criticism as being motivated in some way by something impure or self-serving.

ET: Ryan, I really want to ask you about Joe Scanlan...

RW: During the last Whitney Biennial in 2014, Joe Scanlan, a white male artist, was critically acclaimed for his contribution, a performance piece where he was hiring and reproducing the images of black women to create a fictional artist named Donelle Woolford. My friend Angela Kim (who co-authored a piece in The New Inquiry also criticizing Scanlan) and I were joking that the only way this could turn out well is if Scanlan was himself a fiction, an invention. So in this piece for Hyperallergic, I played out that idea and wrote: “it’s time to put this project to rest: I created Joe Scanlan.” And of course this idea has some truth to it, in that whiteness is a fiction and masculinity is a fiction. The many insecurities and strange ideas that Scanlan held in order to conceive this project are absolutely worth examining: he talked about how he made the piece because he felt that artists of color were somehow getting an unfair advantage in the art world since they were becoming “trendy” in the late ’90s/early 2000s. So the piece was really an attempt to poke a hole in that logic, and to poke a hole into the psyche of the white male artist and see what was there.

ET: I wanted to end with a quote that I pulled from an exhibition called “Ruffneck Constructivists,” which was curated in 2014 at the ICA Philadelphia by Kara Walker. It featured work by 11 artists, including William Pope.L, Arthur Jafa, Kendell Geers, and Deana Lawson. In the catalog she writes that “works in this show don’t communicate straight politics. They don’t agitate for social change or advocate solutions. Ruffneck constructivists take as a given that art doesn’t need to be told how to behave.” It highlights what we haven’t yet discussed, which is that when we enter the arena of racial politics there’s a way in which we expect artworks to behave a certain way, to address those politics. And on the flip side, we might ask whether or not there is some sort of freedom in not behaving a certain way in terms of what’s expected of you. Do any of you care to respond?

JL: I enjoyed that exhibition and, for me, this is a million-dollar existential question. I don’t know if the assumption that art should “behave” is ever going to go away, but personally, I think art is going to exist in multiplicities, and an artist should never have to assert some type of sociopolitical commentary through their work (although it’s my hope that artists do that). This relates to Michelle Wright’s recent Artforum essay on the physics of black art, in which she talks about what blackness writ large is—the tensions of existing within the hyphen, and how that affects one’s responsibility as a culture-maker.

But when art is really working, it draws you in through visual interest, through curiosity about who made it, what it’s doing, what it is, and it leads you to discover meaning in the work and in the world that you had never seen before.

RW: I agree. I think that, ideally, terms like activism and social change have expansive meanings, and the reason we have conversations like this is because issues of race are ultimately issues of power. What we’re trying to move towards is a world where the power dynamics don’t limit people, so that we’re not limited by race, we’re not limited by class and gender, but we’re actually able to express our fullest selves within those multiple identities. I think those are the stakes within a conversation like this.

AV: I’m not that interested in how art can be used to serve a concrete political end because there are other methodologies that are more effective for that purpose. Art is best suited to helping people broaden their understanding and worldview, and to think differently about everything. The art that engages me the most is the art whose politics are material or formal, and those politics ground the strategy for conveying its message. For example, the exhibition in 2011 for Pacific Standard Time, “Now Dig This!,” was such a great show in that way: it was about African-American artists in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s, but the politics of the show were much less about openly talking about conflict and disenfranchisement and much more about articulating these ideas through the forms of the work in incredibly powerful ways. Sometimes when you talk about these issues, people who are not prepared to have that conversation tend to shut down. But when art is really working, it draws you in through visual interest, through curiosity about who made it, what it’s doing, what it is, and it leads you to discover meaning in the work and in the world that you had never seen before.

Our participants in their own words:

Anuradha Vikram is a Los Angeles-based writer, curator, and educator.

Most of my work deals with the representation of diverse perspectives among artists, predominantly contemporary, but I also work in modern and increasingly early modern art history as well. In terms of how my work fits in with this conversation, my motivation is to flip the percentages of representation of the artists that I work with. Most large institutions work with 75% white artists and 25% artists of color, and I try to invert that ratio in my work.

Jessica Lynne is a Brooklyn-based writer and arts administrator.

I primarily have a development background, and am interested in conversations around equitable funding practices in the arts. As a writer, I’m invested primarily in the history of black art critics over time—a really big topic—which led to the creation of ARTS.BLACK, a platform for black art critics globally. In that work we are hoping to contribute an editorial perspective, new voices, and acknowledge black critics whose work has been historically excluded from the art historical canon.

Ryan Wong is a Brooklyn-based writer and exhibition organizer.

I work with Interference archive in Brooklyn to produce exhibitions focused on visual cultures of social movements—I see social movements as extremely productive times for artmaking and culture making. As an arts writer, I try to examine artwork in exhibition reviews and essays as a full political being myself, acknowledging topics like race, class, and gender and how these broad historical forces are inseparable from our understanding of works of art.

Ellen Tani recently received her PhD in Art History and is currently a curator based in the Portland, Maine, area. She has been a contributor to The Art Genome Project since 2013.

For any feedback on the roundtable or to contribute to the conversation, please send to [email protected] 

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019