FRAMING, OR, WHAT ARE THE STAKES?: (Black) Artists, (Black) Audiences
Imagine that you are a person. A person indelibly marked by history, which is to say, a black person. A person who, regardless of age, gender, class, or disposition, cannot enter a room, open your mouth, watch a movie, read a book, buy an outfit, drive a car, reach into your pocket, have emotions, or stroll down the street without history preceding you, which is to say, a person living while black. A person who can’t do any of those things without history preceding them, but who still likely can’t imagine ever wanting to be white. 1 If you are this person, or if you are attempting to imagine yourself as this person, now imagine walking into L&M Arts, a blue-chip gallery on New York’s Upper East Side, in early 2007. It is a brisk day. Icy blue skies overhead, harsh winter sunshine, not a cloud in sight. You are here for David & Chie Hammons. 2 You enter a large, empty front room, with an imposing staircase spiraling upward on the left. In the next room, you find five fulllength fur coats settled on headless dress forms. They are opulent, plush, expensive: mink, fox, chinchilla. Upstairs, a sixth: the lone wolf. They wear the mark of the artists, their strike, singe, paint, stain, dye, burn, and sear. These luxurious pelts have been sullied, their affect thrown into question. Marked as such, they become hostile, accusatory. Don’t they? Suddenly, they are more than coats, more than commodities on display. They are spring-loaded barbs, aiming for a throat. Any throat? No, probably not. Not any throat. Whose throat, then, you wonder? (Figs. 1-4.)
The transmutation of coat into painting achieved through these physical gestures activates something larger than the action itself: audience specificity.3 Who you are when you walk into that gallery, or any gallery, impacts your understanding of, and relationship to, what you see there, as does who you perceive yourself to be—or are perceived to be—in relation to that gallery and what it represents. Similarly, as who you are affects these relations of understanding and affinity, so too does who the artist is. 4 This is self-evident and always true. Audiences—and artists—are a messy bunch; there is no singular audience or viewer identity, just as there is no singular artist identity. However, the construction of these categories has often occurred in collusion with the constructions of certain other categories—race, class, and gender, for example. Hence, the “typical” gallery attendee, and presumed audience for a work in that gallery, has traditionally been constructed as white and wealthy—gender not necessarily specified. The “typical” artist has traditionally been constructed as white and male—class not necessarily specified. What happens, then, when the viewer and/or artist do not fit this schematic? When, perhaps, his or her race, class, and/or gender diverge from this perceived norm? When he or she is a person, marked by history, not only living, but art-making and art-viewing, while black?
Until fairly recently in the history of art, this has not been an issue that the discipline has felt the need to contend with, despite the continued existence of black artists and audiences. 5 Emerging in tandem with broader struggles for black liberation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, African-American artists and audiences have persistently agitated for representation and inclusion, as well as acknowledgment of their contributions to American culture at large. The pursuit of the twinned goals of representation and inclusion, meant to produce equality of both presence and consideration, has somewhat produced the former, but has been deficient for the latter. These goals have also been pursued beyond the arts, with similarly inadequate results. The mere fact of increased numbers (i.e. representation) within flawed structures (i.e. inclusion) has not, and cannot, produce the substantive societal change desired. At all levels, these goals have proven to be simultaneously empty and loaded—a truly double-edged sword. In the larger context, their pursuit and co-opting by both liberal and neoliberal ideologies have left us in a desolate cul-de-sac where multiculturalism and diversity, color-blindness and post-raciality, are” the buzz words of our national discussions and negotiations around race, yet by almost all measures Americans remain “two societies, separate and unequal,” neither color-blind nor post-race. 6 Representation and inclusion are now largely deflated, hollow signifiers, serving to elide and conceal structural inequalities. As historian Nikhil Pal Singh describes this impasse, “Race now means racism, especially when it is used to define or defend the interests of a minority community.” 7 There is little space for real, paradigm-shifting conversations around race beyond the binary; any articulation of that lack, or the still evident lacks in American society, is deemed divisive and a distraction by dominant culture.
Though, at first glance, this conversation may not seem particularly germane to art or art history, in fact, representation and inclusion, and negotiations concerning them, have been central to the experience of many African-American artists. Consider Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), the first African-American artist to gain international renown. He emigrated permanently to France, in response to both the overt racism he encountered in America, and its shadow—the intimation that his skill was a racial anomaly, recognition always qualified by and tied to his race. This is to say that he would always be an exceptional entity: a black artist, never an artist.8 The condition of his inclusion and elevation was that he both represent his race, and be representative of his race, leaving no room for his own individual desires and intentions as an artist. This conundrum has impacted the careers and choices of many African-American artists, and it has certainly influenced the development of a critical discourse around the work such artists have produced—work sometimes described as “black art.”
Many scholars9 have addressed the tendency for critics and audiences to focus exclusively on the “biopolitical ‘fact of blackness’”10 in discussing the work of black artists, a tendency that, according to art historian Darby English, inhibits our understanding of “black art” and “limit[s] the significance of works assignable to black artists to what can be illuminated by reference to a work’s purportedly racial character.”11 In discussing the work of Romare Bearden , English asks, “In what ways might the fact of Romare Bearden’s blackness, aided by numerous readings whose combined effect suggests that the visual reproduction of blackness was his unchanging goal, have bent our vision of his art?”12 Using her own literary work as an example, Toni Morrison asks, “Other than melanin or subject matter, what, in fact, may make me a black writer? Other than my own ethnicity—what is going on in my work that makes me believe it is demonstrably inseparable from a cultural specificity that is Afro-American?”13 These questions guide us toward the conclusion that an artist’s “biopolitical ‘fact of blackness’” alone cannot and does not automatically tell us anything about the work he or she produces, either stylistically or conceptually. Although it is fairly obvious, it does not go without saying that any work created by any black artist will be “subsumed by an enforcing Afro-American presence,” though some is, and purposefully so.14 The questions posed by English and Morrison are ones of interpretation and comprehension, but also, critically, of omission: what have we—artists, historians, and audiences politically and aesthetically committed to the expansion of art histories and to the rightful inclusion of under-appreciated artists in “the canon”—missed, or ignored, in the work of black artists in the name of representation? Under what conditions and with what expectations have black artists been incorporated into “the canon” and what impact has the dangled carrot of inclusion had on the types of work produced by black artists, particularly at expectant and transformative historical moments? These are not matters of idle speculation, or even of redressing perceived wrongs. As Morrison tells us, “Canon building is empire building. Canon defense is national defense. Canon debate, whatever the terrain, nature and range . . . is the clash of cultures. And all the interests are vested.”15
Accepting that, indeed, all the interests are vested, I am concerned with how expectations of an appropriately racial mode of working may affect the work and careers of artists like David Hammons and Senga Nengudi. Starting in the late 1960s, each produced work deemed somehow inappropriate or antagonistic to social and political community-oriented goals, at the very moment that the cultural nationalist Black Arts Movement was flourishing. These black avant-garde artists moved in similar circles but had diverse practices and were received differently by their contemporaries. Committed to a practice of aesthetic, material experimentation both conceptual and political, they diverged significantly from the more prominent Black Arts Movement, whose adherents promoted a representational “black aesthetic” whose primary goal was the “generation of empowering, radicalizing images of Blackness that could counter the racism of the mass media and the mainstream institutions of arts and cultural criticism.”16 To be sure, this was, and is, immensely necessary work, and it raises important questions about the role and function of art and the artist in the world. Additionally, the efforts and achievements of the Black Arts Movement were in many ways integral to the building of the “cultural confidence” necessary for experimentation. I wholeheartedly agree with critic Greg Tate’s assessment that “avant-garde black art . . . owes a debt to the [cultural nationalists] for making so much noise about the mythic beauties of blackness that these artists could traffic in the ugly and mundane sides with just as much ardor,”17 but I can also see how such a prescriptive and utilitarian aesthetic might easily become repressive and stifling. While Maulana Karenga and other Black Arts Movement figures were correct to question the primacy of the “false doctrine of ‘art for art’s sake,’” and were perhaps fair in deeming only revolutionary black art that was (according to their view) “functional, collective, and committing,” their demand that “all art must reflect and support the Black Revolution” and their subsequent conclusion that “any art that does not discuss and contribute to the revolution is invalid” were hasty and narrow.18 In dictating that black artists may have freedom to do as they wished only insofar as that freedom did not infringe upon the ability of black people to be protected from “negative” content, they placed an undue burden on black artists, gave short shrift to the multiple and overlapping contexts occupied by both artists and audiences, and, by fiat, appointed themselves arbiters of culture, both “positive and negative.”
There was not, and is not, any singular method for the accomplishment of the Black Arts Movement’s goals, and more pressingly, these are not the only appropriate goals for the creation of art. Speaking to art historian Kellie Jones about this period and the reception of Nengudi and her work, Hammons has said, “This was the Sixties. No one would even speak to her because we were all doing political art. She couldn’t relate. She wouldn’t even show around other Black artists her work was so ‘outrageously’ abstract. Senga came to New York and still no one would deal with her because she wasn’t doing ‘Black Art.’”19 This comment is illustrative of the dominant mindset of the period and the concrete issues of career-development and exposure it could create for some artists. The rejection of Nengudi for her “outrageously” abstract and nonrepresentational tendencies is evidence of a strain of conservatism in the ways black artists, and especially black female artists, were encouraged or discouraged by the tastemakers of the day to be radical in their creative practice. According to literary critic Addison Gayle, the salient question for the black critic of 1971 was not how beautiful a work of art was, but “how much more beautiful [the work of art had] made the life of a single black man? How far [had] the work gone in transforming an American Negro into an African-American or black man?”20 The black woman does not enter the conversation, and neither does the notion that black men are not monoliths. Nengudi’s work—for example, the Water Composition series (1970), described as pedestals topped with “colored water in plastic bags,”21 and the R.S.V.P. series (1975-ongoing), biomorphic sculptures made from discarded pantyhose—is conceptually rigorous, informed by the junk art or assemblage aesthetic more common among her black contemporaries, the material and temporal experimentations of Minimalist and Conceptual artists such as Eva Hesse and Allan Kaprow, and community-based practices and goals. (Figs. 5-7.) And while Hammons’s work, particularly in early pieces like Injustice Case (1970), does often align with the “black aesthetic,” it just as often does not, though this has not hindered his success. (Fig. 8.) If Nengudi is rejected, while Hammons is embraced, how, then, does the idea that there are appropriate and inappropriate sources of inspiration, modes of working, and objects of concern for black artists affect these artists and their work, and how does it affect the development of a critical discourse around avant-garde black art?
In 1934, Romare Bearden harshly criticized black artists for their “timidity,” “mere rehashings,” and “hackneyed and uninspired” work, concluding that their development had been hindered by a lack of valid and engaged criticism, supportive institutions, a guiding ideology or social philosophy, and most importantly, an “appreciative critical audience.”22 He could also have added that they were hindered by the double bind of their role and position in American culture. First articulated as “double consciousness” (though clearly not first felt or acknowledged) by W.E.B. Du Bois, variations on this metaphor of duality tend to appear frequently in discussions of blackness. In a fundamental sense, this notion of the unreconciled, and sometimes irreconcilable, “two-ness” inherent to the experience of being both African and American is a thread running through much subsequent scholarship and creative production relating to the black experience in America.23 It is discernible, albeit taken up in varying guises and manners, in discussions of black particularity, black representation and inclusion/exclusion, the retention of signs of Africa across the diaspora, post-raciality, etc. It is no great surprise that this metaphor has proven so resonant; it is particularly evocative in part because it is so successful in capturing one of the greatest contradictions of the black experience in America—namely, in but not of. This contradiction is clearly evident in the experience of black artists, particularly those working “outrageously.” The crux of the issue is the oscillation between black particularity and black desires for inclusion in the mainstream. By this I mean, for example, the embrace and/or rejection of the labeling of art made by black artists as “black art,” or the attempt to situate “white” aesthetic practices as belonging equally to black artists, while still maintaining a positive sense of separateness.24 These negotiations have generally been framed as a binary: either we are past or “against race,”25 or we are essentialist cultural nationalists. Neither position is productive; neither adequately serves the interests and needs of black artists or their work. Similarly, the restriction of acceptable modes of working based on the race of artist and audience is both counterproductive and counterintuitive. It reduces us, artist and audience, negates our critical capacity, our “aesthetic incarnate.” New methodologies are needed, ones that work simultaneously against critical (mis)readings of works of art by black artists informed solely by their race, particularly in regard to artists like Hammons and Nengudi whose work exceeds the bounds of “acceptable” modes of working, and the suggestion that discussions of race are either passé or inappropriate either to art history or the culture at large. As curator Naomi Beckwith asks, “If we re-situate work by black artists within a history of art rather than a social history, how could this reconfigure our understanding of the aesthetic and social dimensions of life?” To return to the gallery with Hammons and his furs, what else can be added to the somewhat facile reading of these pieces as a hostile and accusatory gesture, a barb aimed at a soft, white, wealthy throat by a black artist, a “bad guy”? Well, to pick just one possibility, perhaps the history of American abstract painting. They are abstract paintings, unusual in media and installation perhaps, but utterly and completely that. They are certainly hostile to the art market and its characters, as evidenced in the organization of the exhibition, but they are also a subtle experiment in material and form, and deeply engaged with art history. And if there was any doubt that this is an accurate reading of both these works and Hammons’s intentions, it was dispelled by a second exhibition at L&M Arts in early 2011, and a third at Mnuchin Gallery (formerly L&M Arts) in 2016 (Figs. 9-10.) Whose throat are the barbs aimed at, then? Maybe everyone’s.
Rujeko Hockley is the assistant curator of contemporary art a the Brooklyn Museum.
1 Here indebted to Daniel Joseph Martinez’s I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to be White (1993), an interactive piece included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial wherein visitors were given admission pins to wear that read fragments of the phrase “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.”
2 The exhibition was on view January 18-March 10, 2007.
3 Jerry Saltz, “Fur What It’s Worth,” The Village Voice, February 27, 2007.
4 Stuart Hall, “Introduction,” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Open University/ SAGE Publications, 1997).
5 See, for example, David C. Driskell, Two Centuries of Black American Art (New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976).
6 National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission), Report (New York: Bantam, 1968). Quoted in Nikhil Pal Singh, Black Is A Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 5.
7 Singh, 10.
8 Rexford Stead, “Introduction,” Two Centuries of Black American Art, 9.
9 See for example: Naomi Beckwith, 30 Seconds Off An Inch (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2009); Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007); Darby English, “Ralph Ellison’s Romare Bearden,” Romare Bearden: American Modernist, eds. Ruth Fine and Jacqueline Francis (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2011), 11-25; Kobena Mercer, “Black Art and the Burden of Representation,” Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions on Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994), 233-58; Kobena Mercer, “Tropes of the Grotesque in the Black Avant-Garde,” Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, ed. Kobena Mercer (Cambridge: Iniva/ MIT Press, 2007), 136-59;Toni Morrison, “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature,” The Black Feminist Reader, eds. Joy James and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000), 24-56; Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993).
16 Mike Sell, Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism: Approaching the Living Theatre, Happenings/Fluxus, and the Black Arts Movement (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 22.
17 Greg Tate, “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky Deke,” Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 200.
18 Ron Karenga, “Black Cultural Nationalism,” The Black Aesthetic, ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971), 31-37.
19 Quoted in Kellie Jones, “Black West: Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles,” EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 447.
20 Addison Gayle, “Introduction,” The Black Aesthetic, xxii. (Emphasis mine.)
21 Quoted in Jones, “Black West…” EyeMinded, 447.
22 Romare Bearden, “The Negro Artist and Modern Art,” Journal of Negro Life, December 1934, 371-72. Quoted in Driskell, Two Centuries…, 67.
23 W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1903).
24 As discussed by Daniel Widener, these ideological positions and oscillations, as well as the notion of an avant-garde, are marked by class and speak to long-running fissures along socioeconomic lines within black (art) communities. Daniel Widener, Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 10.
25 Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).