Ken Johnson’s Burden
and by Deshawn Dumas, David Carrier, Deven Golden, Diane Thodos, Tobey Crockett, Greg Lindquist, Sandra Sider and Joan Waltemath
In an attempt to censor the critic Ken Johnson, an anonymously penned “open letter,” actually a petition directed to Johnson’s employer, The New York Times, is posted on iPetition.com where more than 1500 have signed it. The charge made against him is serious: in a review of an exhibition of mostly black L.A. artists, “Now Dig This!”—currently at P.S. 1—as well as in a preview squib about a women’s art show in Philadelphia, Johnson is said to have compared “women and African-American artists to white male artists, only to find them lacking.” Did he?
The P.S. 1 review is of a show clearly meant as a historical exhibition, defined by a period and a place. The show as presented at P.S. 1 is significantly different from the one seen at the Hammer Museum in L.A., however, where it was one component of a huge historical survey, “Pacific Standard Time”; in New York, it is, in effect, a showcase for black artists and some fellow travelers on the West Coast. Johnson admires, at the beginning and end of his review, works by the two best-regarded artists in the exhibition, Melvin Edwards and David Hammons (who also are given pride of place by the P.S. 1 curators). In the middle, he asks, in effect, what is it about the rest of these artists that has been an obstacle to their success and wider appreciation of their art?
Anonymous Petitioner states that Johnson “starts with” the claim that “Black artists didn’t invent assemblage”—a remark that actually comes seven paragraphs into Johnson’s review, after a respectful and informative description of a sculpture by Edwards and mention of the artists in the show who responded to the Watts riots of 1965. Wherever it appeared, this seems to have been the flash point for readers, and it certainly seems like a provocative statement if taken out of context, as Johnson has since acknowledged. The assemblage remark is a lead-in, however, to a passage whose point is not to naively assert white artists’ priority in artistic discovery, as Anonymous Petitioner supposes, but to set up a subsequent observation about form and content. It appears paradoxical, Johnson thinks, that a genre of art associated with Dadaists and other artists aiming to liberate themselves from conservative aesthetics and social mores would be adopted by artists of the mid-1960s attempting to express a sense of solidarity with their community. (One might draw a parallel in the adoption by committed artists of the 1970s and ’80s of the pristine forms of ’60s Minimalism as vehicles for political content.)
It does not follow from this paradox (if it is one) that black artists adapting a widely practiced art form of the time (William Seitz’s Art of Assemblage show was seen at MoMA in 1961) are in any sense inferior to their white contemporaries. What troubles Johnson, and this concern has found expression in other of his reviews, is that focusing on a specific “race” (or gender or sexual orientation or even nationality in some circumstances) may result in excluding or alienating viewers not part of that group.
I think that some of Johnson’s critical comments misfire; for example, he imagines that those with a “distanced perspective” would interpret the grasping hand of John Riddle’s Untitled (Fist) as a social realist cliché of a defiant raised fist, where I would expect reasonably sensitive viewers to see it in a more nuanced way, as evoking resistance certainly, but also aspiration and suffering. But if that and other remarks seem wrongheaded to me, I can simply disagree with him; I don’t need to threaten his livelihood by petitioning his employer.
As an editor who has worked with Johnson on a book project, I’m going to claim a modicum of insight into his concerns as a critic and thinker. I believe the central issue for him, whether it concerns an individual viewer, an artist, or the audience for art, is expanding one’s mind and removing obstacles to shared experience. His questions, if I may reframe them, seem to be: Has identity politics in art, and the consequent splintering of audiences, erected barriers that limit our capacity to understand or empathize with work by artists who are of another class, “race,” religion, and so on? And have these barriers marginalized and impeded the careers of some artists who turned inward to their communities, in “solidarity” as Ken puts it, but who fail to also engage effectively—in however ironic or challenging a way—the larger art audience?
To focus the question more acutely: why is it that David Hammons’s Bag Lady in Flight, praised by Johnson, is so thrilling and affecting? Is it because this riff on Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase adds humanity to Duchamp’s abstraction, leveraging our shared familiarity with that icon as it simultaneously draws from Hammons’s artistic and social identities? Or is it simply that the grease-stained shopping bags from which Hammons’s “bag lady” is constructed firmly root her in the street reality of the homeless even as her spirit, and ours, is made to soar? CHRISTOPHER LYON
The exclusionary rhetoric of a formalist critique
Ken Johnson deserves “whistle blower status” whether or not he intended his review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles to expose art world pathology. By writing that ““the art of black solidarity gets less traction because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity,” Johnson attempts to lift the race out of art’s ghetto by providing a template or map to guide black artists into the sanctifying “light” of Duchampian mischief and away from the disenchantment of social mores.
“Formally, you have a dialogue between stasis and dynamism, and psychologically, between reason and feeling” Johnson writes. “Such dualities would be enough on which to base judgment and interpretation were this a piece by, say, the white junk sculptor Richard Stankiewicz. But it makes a difference to know that Mr. Edwards is African-American…”
It seems that Johnson is saying when an artwork contains general and formal binaries such as reason vs. feeling or stasis vs. dynamism, there is enough information to make a decision. But when information is too complex or there is too much of it, Johnson and the high-end art world are unable to interrupt it. Therefore, when Johnson speaks of the “‘white’ high-end art world”, his own comments seem to negate the mental or conceptual sophistication of this art world in favor of the sort of sophistication that can be assumed due to proximity with money.
“Herein lies the paradox,” he continues. “Black artists did not invent assemblage. In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg. It did not come out of anything like the centuries-long black American experience of being viewed and treated as essentially inferior to white people. It was the art of people who already were about as free as anyone could be.”
Since when do people or groups of people have to invent a motif or mode of artistic production in order to have the right to use it? Picasso did not invent African or Iberian masks nor did he use this cultural iconography in relation to its historical/cultural precedent. It should go without saying that Western art has appropriated from Asian, Islam, etc. Herein lies the (real) paradox, that Johnson is seemingly arguing for the integrity or respect of modernist customs and traditions. His formalist interpretation of them must be obeyed even though as an epoch Western Modernism appropriated and transformed cultural signs and symbols at will.
Furthermore, Johnson’s totalizing analogy between white men and untrammeled freedom, beyond his essentialism that disregards war, sexual orientation, cultural and material determination, his words speak to a colonialist mind frame. Colonialism is based on control and domination, the subjection of one group of people by another group. This dominance can often lead to the disregard or denial of humanity/voice/perspective of the colonized group. This denial grants the colonizer permission to employ systematic violence not only physical and psychic but cultural as well. The displacement of a group’s culture allows the colonizers to use “newly discovered” cultural currency as they sees fit. Johnson views a black artist’s use of assemblage as a transgression of “white” cultural heritage. Therefore this misappropriation doubles as an inversion of historical power relation’s in regards to the colonized and the colonizer.
My biggest concern with Johnson’s approach is that it devalues black art made decades ago by applying the exclusionary rhetoric of a formalist critique to artists who cared little for Greenbergian discourse working in a milieu of political and cultural upheaval. Not to mention the fact in 2012 – the year in which we and presumably Ken Johnson live – black art, unequivocally, can no longer be essentialized.
And by the way, Robert Rauchenberg was part Native American. DESHAWN DUMAS
The Mandarin Mentality
Ken Johnson seems fond of the term “mandarin” in his reviews, and his critical opinions indicate that he himself may be a somewhat conservative and reactionary art journalist, who evidently trivializes women and simplifies minority aesthetics. But before we insist that any publication for which he writes should castigate Johnson for voicing his opinions, let’s think about possible implications of that demand. Should any publication bow to such hostility, what would prevent the editors from agreeing to censor writers with other points of view, should the Huffington Post or a similar juggernaut scream loudly enough? Our First Amendment deserves to be respected. Anyone has the right to complain about a critic, but in this country no one has the right to silence that person. As for Ken Johnson, whose writing informs me quite a bit more than it annoys me, the man does love art and has dedicated his career to teaching and art criticism. Just because his art politics may be old-fashioned is no reason to throw out the baby with the bath water. We also might note how much enlightening discussion has resulted from two of his recent reviews, however offensive they may be. SANDRA SIDER
Judged in Fair Ways
We art writers love binary oppositions. But they can cause trouble. Johnson’s review of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” makes a distinction between social interpretations, which suit the African-Americans in this exhibition and art historical accounts, which are the way to describe their white peers. Question that opposition, and his analysis falls apart. Was Robert Rauschenberg, one of Johnson’s white artists, someone who was “about as free as anyone could be”?
Johnson’s second opposition, 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” is equally problematic. Surely many people who are not black identify with the African-American struggle for empowerment.
Johnson’s review of “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World” asserts that “the nature of the art that women tend to make” might explain the marginal position of women in the art world. What kinds of art do women make? In the recent exhibition of abstract painting at the Hunger College/Times Square Gallery, for example there were many female painters.
Why did Johnson’s reviews inspired such a response? His comments, as I read them are about how the art market works. Distinguishing between the ways that black and female artists choose to respond to that market, he really is criticizing the way that people in the art market respond to art dealing with race and gender. Because of the history of racism and sexism, and because of obvious present inequalities it’s very important that African-American and female artists be judged in fair ways. And so it would be a good thing to continue this discussion, looking at a broader range of examples. DAVID CARRIER
Important Questions Left in the Background
Two things can be unequivocally said about racism and sexism in our culture – they are horrible, and they still exist to far too great an extent. Reading Ken Johnson’s review of “Now Dig This!” my take away was that it was attempting a subtle criticism aimed at the community of overwhelmingly white collectors. That is, if many of the artists in the exhibition were under-appreciated, the fault lay more with the art power network than with the art. Admittedly, this could have been more clearly stated – one wonders if the editor could have done more. But conversely, the rather lukewarm argument presented by Johnson is typical of writers attempting to present an indictment of the power broker structure within a newspaper of the power brokers. Clearly, the petition writers came away with an opposite reading, and precisely because of the imprecise and couched language used by Johnson, and his editor, one cannot convincingly argue that the petition writers are incorrect. The same, I think, can be said of Johnson’s short piece on “The Female Gaze”. I read it thinking he was attempting to stir up interest in another large group exhibition, making a bit of controversy by questioning his own assertion of sexism in the art world. Again, the petition writers not unreasonably took the opposite reading. Pushing this reading into an on-line petition, however, evokes for me unpleasant memories of bad graduate art school critiques, wherein one person would make an assertion about the nature of a work, and rather than question that assertion, everyone would just pile on. Groupthink and preemptory judgment replacing wider analysis for nearly all present. In the case at hand, social networking in the form of a petition becomes a ferocious multiplier. So we are asked to sign a petition against a critic who has offered decades of valid commentary and who has often carried the banner of those on the outside. Meanwhile, the important questions being raised – who gets to decide what is art and how those empowered to make those decisions effect what we get to see – remain to an unsatisfactory degree in the background. DEVEN GOLDEN
Editing Down of Art History
Regarding Johnson’s comment on his review of “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles” he states “Black artists did not invent assemblage” – a matter that historian Kellie Jones does not imply from her catalog quote stating the artists were simply “using the artistic currency of the time.” Johnson further mires himself in controversy by adding that assemblage was developed by “white artists” who were “about as free as anyone could be.” Yet Dadaism was a critical part of the invention of assemblage (as was collage, Futurism, etc.), with messages steeped in anarchism and scathing social commentary following WWI. If you include this Dadaist history what does Johnson’s statement about “being free” mean within a war torn European society that was given to elements of instability and corruption (think Weimar)? This socially critical element seems to be something that numerous artists in “Now Dig This!” admired. Johnson’s editing down of art history and use of language seems tailored to be reactionary to dichotomies articulated by political correctness to begin with – and ends up circumscribing a double fault. Art History, and the depth of historical consciousness implicit in it, is richer and more complex than either the narrowing language of politically correct theory, or Johnson’s partial and insensitive reaction to it. DIANE THODOS
Picking Up the Gauntlet
At best insensitive and biased, Ken Johnson’s remarks about black and female artists only serve to reveal his own limits as a thinking person. But the “Open Letter” is interesting. On the surface, the letter critiques Johnson’s writings as sub par for the New York Times and requests that he be brought to task. But behind the polite palaver about editorial standards, a more substantive complaint is implied about the nature of criticism itself: who is determining value and on what basis?
Indeed. While of course art critics do not set prices or directly profit from their critical activity per se, (indeed critics are the lowest paid entities in the entire economic system of the art world), to pretend that criticism is somehow pure and unrelated to the market is naïve and disingenuous. Reviews equal revenue, and the art world economy is still pinned to the Romantic idea of rare, and thus expensive, genius. But why, in a postmodern, post-feminist and postcolonial present, are we still investing in a societal notion that genius is rare and that art is best understood by the elite? The net result of this intellectual shell game is a strained set of relationships between the art critic, the art market, the artist and the audience for art.
Critics don’t like to hear that – it undercuts their role too deeply and exposes a conflict of interests between aesthetics and money, two arenas which ought to be distinct from one another but which clearly blend with wanton disregard in the contemporary art market. And in practical terms, who would pay for pure criticism if it did not support the matrix of museum patronage, gallery shows, magazine coverage, expensive production and graduate degrees?
The questions raised by the open letter lead inexorably to a critique of the entire art world economy and until critics are also willing, along with artists, to critique the roles of power and authority that underpin their paychecks, no one will be free of the dinosaur values that have been given voice of late by Ken Johnson and crew. There needs to be a truthful discussion about the actual nature of art, not as a product, not as a commodity, not as a symbol of power and status and certainly not as a vitiating discourse amongst a canon of the anointed, but as something of actual cultural value that is meaningful to everyone. That is the discussion that the open letter ultimately requires. Let us see who is willing to pick up this gauntlet and really critique the institutions. Looking at the re-writing of power relationships that are slowly taking place all over the globe, it is inevitable that this one will need to be rewritten as well. And frankly, it is way overdue. TOBEY CROCKETT
Opening the Reader’s Eyes
The purpose of criticism is to invent new paths of thinking, not to protect or conserve the same worn and trodden ones. Criticism is about developing new associations, synapses and constellations of meaning. If there is a so-called new coalition of voters post-Obama’s re-election, then there also should be a new coalition of criticism that is more democratic and culturally, aesthetically and ethnically diverse. Like “Where Are All the Women Artists at MoMA?” article by Jerry Saltz opened the museum’s eyes to their own biases, Johnson’s article ““Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” has opened his reader’s eyes to his own unchallenged biases. GREG LINDQUIST
The Issues are on the Table
Whether the general consensus determines that Ken Johnson is guilty or not and what he would be guilty of, clearly, the provocations of his recent reviews have generated a multitude of much needed exchanges. If the discussion can be maintained on the level set by the contributions of Bill Donovan, John Yau, Anoka Faruqee, and William Villalongo, to mention a few that were memorable in posts I read, there is a chance that significant change will come out of it. The Varnedoe/McEvilley argument was a similar moment; it gave us a new awareness of the “other” and shaped discourse afterwards.
The critical questions for me are:
First, should the same critique be leveled across the board to all works of art or should critical arguments be based on criteria that stem from how the works themselves set their own terms?
Second, does the notion of the avant guard still determine our reception of works of art by relegating to an inferior position those things that are not deemed to be “the first”? Can we develop an alternate model of equal persuasion?
Either of these questions could be extended into a full discussion, article or panel. They point to aspects of a crisis in criticism, a crisis that is full blown in response to the intensity of Johnson’s remarks. Yet must continue to allow the freedom for each of us to speak and represent our respective positions. Whether or not we agree, without a clear delineation of positions we have no place from which to argue.
As director of the Leroy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA where Ken Johnson will serve as Critic in Residence in the Spring, I can say, on a personal note, that the balance between sensitivity and incisive critique, which is charged with upholding standards, is a difficult one to strike.
If Johnson had erred on the side of sensitivity, could this much needed discussion have emerged? Let us make the most of it, it is a rare moment when the issues are on the table and there is something at stake. JOAN WALTEMATH