“Black artists didn’t invent assemblage.” That statement, and others like it, written by The New York Times art critic Ken Johnson, has provoked the ire of fellow critics, artists, and Times readers alike. His remarks about two recent exhibitions, Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980 and The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World have exploded into a tirade across Facebook—with complaints lodged by Kara Walker and Jerry Saltz among others—and now, an anonymous group has gone so far as to petition the Times to “acknowledge and address this editorial lapse and the broader issues raised by these texts.” So, what are these broader issues, and problems, if any?
The main problem Johnson identifies in Now Dig This!, at PS1, is that it divides its viewers by not being relatable enough to those who don’t share the experience of being black in 1960s Los Angeles:
If I am right that most of the work in “Now Dig This!” promotes solidarity, then this poses a problem for its audience. It divides viewers between those who, because of their life experiences, will identify with the struggle for black empowerment, and others for whom the black experience remains more a matter of conjecture. Those who identify may tend to respond favorably to what those viewing from a more distanced perspective may regard as social realist clichés, like the defiant fist.
In other words, without knowing what it’s like to live in Black America, we can’t identify with work that speaks directly to and from Black America. To be fair, Johnson points to some of the assemblage in the show as a generic framework on which to hang meaning; associated with Dada, it reads as playful, but in this show, it represents the suffering of oppression. For examples of artists who manage to communicate without relying on shared experience, he points to artists like Kara Walker and Hennessy Youngman who “complicate how we think about prejudice and stereotyping”, but through a “Hammonsian mode,” speaking to the highly abstracted contemporary art viewer rather than to a specific community of flesh-and-blood victims of oppression.
But what’s so offensive to the petition-writers is the idea that black art needs to be mediated for the white viewer; art, after all, is always in the position of having to mediate an experience for someone else, and complaining about the art’s distance from the viewer negates the potential to engage with its point of view. He identifies David Hammons’ works as the most worthwhile contribution, depicting Hammons as a “Duchampian trickster who toys in surprising ways with signifiers of black culture…on both sides of the racial divide.” But is “Duchampian” really a quality that moves us any closer to a truly black view? And would Duchamp be likewise understandable to someone from a different “more distanced perspective”—i.e., who doesn’t share a background in contemporary art? Johnson himself infers that the art world strongly aligns with a “covert solidarity of liberal white folks.” Does this not reinforce the very logic that’s keeping non-white folks out of the museums?
Moreover, Johnson believes that the exhibition’s paradox rests with a problem of the Modernist tradition: “Herein lies the paradox. Black artists did not invent assemblage,” he writes before moving on to explain the two lineages of assemblage to have emerged during the 20th century: first, the formalist European tradition, and then in the 1960s a more socially-engaged West Coast practice, which would be appropriated, in Johnson’s words, by the emerging social justice movements of the time. It’s unclear why a lack of “invention” makes this a paradox; there’s no paradox in noting that assemblage has been used across time and place.
The best artists Johnson finds in the show, like Hammons, must continue to toe the line between Duchamp and a social realist like Romare Bearden in order to be recognized in the mainstream art world. Johnson didn’t start this embrace of minority artists only when they fit neatly into a Modernist tradition, but he doesn’t disparage it either.
A little over a week after the publication of that review, Johnson struck a nerve yet again with a 118-word preview of The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He suggested that women’s lack of recognition in the art world might have something to do with “the art they tend to make”:
Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market. But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make? Anyone with a theory about that will have a good opportunity to test it at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where “THE FEMALE GAZE: WOMEN ARTISTS MAKING THEIR WORLD,” a show of works by about 150 women, opens on Saturday.
It’s been brought to my attention that there has been some discussion of what I wrote about “Now Dig This!” at PS 1 elsewhere on Facebook. Some people were offended by it. Some perceive what I wrote as racist. One particular point of contention has to do with assemblage…I can see how my statement that “Black artists did not invent assemblage” taken out of context seems needlessly provocative. My overall point, however, I think is consistent with Ms. Jones’s [Kellie Jones, the exhibition’s curator] description of the historical and social milieu in which black sculptors were working in Los Angeles in the 1960s.
Fair dues to Johnson— we won’t always be able to understand work that speaks by and from a different perspective. His complaint about the black experience could just as easily be applied to the experience of the 60’s generation, or a protest show, or Minimalism. That’s why we have curators who provide the social and historical framework which is sometimes required to fully understand a work of art.
Expanding the boundaries of what needs to be explained and what can be implied is an important project for art today if it wants to expand its audience, which is predominantly white even as the white majority in the United States dissipates. Attempting to introduce white visitors to art they find irrelevant isn’t a flaw in Dig This!, but rather an inversion of the normal state of attempting to introduce black visitors to art they find irrelevant. Rather than wondering at the size of the gap between how white visitors and black visitors view Dig This!, we should be looking at what can be done—and what has been done, by curator Kellie Jones—to shrink it.