The Critic as Activist: Thoughts on Race, Voice, and Agency in the Art World
It’s been more than 100 days since most of America learned about a small town outside of St. Louis, MO called Ferguson, and many more since a cell phone video went viral of a man dying from having his throat and chest crushed while being restrained by police on Staten Island. While Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s names have received the most attention in the popular press, there were many more Black people killed by law enforcement officials this year, a phenomenon that is not new or that unusual. It wasn’t just that “the block was hot” this summer, but it seemed like the entire nation suddenly felt the heat. Each time another racial injustice was revealed this year, it became more difficult to claim with sincerity that we are living in a post-racial America, or that race doesn’t have as much impact in daily life as it once did.
I know in the art world, it can feel like we aren’t really supposed to talk about this race stuff, but in 2014, it’s been really difficult to avoid the topic. There was the YAMS Collective controversy during the Whitney Biennial, discussions of how to critique the new Latin American wunderkind without bringing up Basquiat, a questionable exhibition in London, and an art dealer defending the exploitative work of an artist by saying there are worse things to be upset over… like global warming. Was it easier to report on and critique those and similar incidents because they were such blatant examples of racism? Why has finding words to discuss the aftermath and recent “non-indictment indictments” in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown been more difficult?
I’ve struggled with writing something that said everything I wanted to say about the images the media used to tell the story of Michael Brown’s death and its aftermath too. How do art critics talk about the framing of all Ferguson protesters as rioters and looters, the visual absence of Officer Wilson, the ghost of the deceased Brown, and the use of racially coded language like “thug”? Why do we even need to speak up? In art, we critics — unless our last names are Davis, Cotter, or Saltz — don’t always have the freedom to talk about race in concrete terms for fear of accusations that we lack objectivity or may be employing our “race card” — whatever that is — or worse. None of us want to be dismissed as crazy or hysterical, people who have nothing better to do than stir up the pot and keep sleeping dogs from lying down. Besides, isn’t art free from all of those social constructs like race and gender or economic limitations…?
Lived experience tells me that we have a lot of work to do, and that there is much at stake. Responses to the media treatment of Brown like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, where social media users paired photographs of flattering images like a yearbook portrait with something fault-finding, such as an impulsively misguided selfie to highlight the news media’s polarizing and oversimplified portrayal of black youths, is devastatingly real. If one of the roles of criticism is to reflect on the contemporary cultural moment and spark thoughtful conversations about how we experience the world, examining the visual culture associated with current events matters. Imagine how the language of critique might shift or how the range of voices and topics heard might expand if more art critics didn’t consider their primary role as that of quality control for good taste. Art objects and images have value in the world beyond their aesthetics. Objects and images help us interpret the world and give it meaning. The things we make reflect the way we see. What if we spoke of the visual language of respectability politics in these officer-involved shootings? What if we critiqued that?
There is a long and sordid history of tension between police and Black communities, a history that stretches back to the plantation overseer. So much of law enforcement practice in the U.S. has been about managing the autonomy, self-determination, and individual freedoms in a society; so much about Black community life in the U.S. has been about fighting to reclaim those same rights from those who would like to take them.
The most morally repressed and vile among us maintain the belief that people are generally hard-wired to do good. Police are supposed to protect and help the citizenry, and each time one of their number does something to shatter that assumption, most of us are still taken aback. Overgrown bullies and would-be sociopaths do not become police officers, right? Is that why CNN looped that video of Mike Brown at the corner store allegedly stealing even though the video had not yet been authenticated? It is sadly ironic that 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, during which the police and local Klu Klux Klan members colluded to cover up the murder of three Civil Rights workers, two of whom were White northerners.
Art critics are preoccupied with the connections between words and images and their connotations. We study, research, posit, analyze, reflect, and conjure, all in search of meaning. We know that while images are visual, they are emotive. We also understand that the way we see is different depending on how we feel or what’s happening around us. The events that seemed to culminate around Ferguson appeared so ripe for our critical eyes, but it’s been hard to fix our gaze there. Some of us may think it doesn’t concern us — that this isn’t about art — but we’re wrong.
Something about this cultural moment jolted our collective “we” to action. Americans are talking with strangers about the way they live their lives and we’re struggling to understand how others might experience the world. Art is a powerful tool for increasing understanding and bridging seemingly “un-bridgeable” gaps. As protests across the country continue, I’m hoping the art world isn’t caught sleeping again, but instead, makes room for more of its practitioners and participants to add critical perspective to the tidal change the entire world seeks. If art is who we are when no one else is looking, perhaps criticism can help reveal even more of what’s been hidden in the dark.