Friday, November 30, 2012

The Unfortunate Side Effect of Political Correctness

While claiming they have no interest in seeing Ken Johnson censured, the authors of the petition titled "Open Letter to The New York Times" are informally doing just that via their campaign. 

Until now I've stayed away from this slow boiling controversy, not having had much time to read the original reviews by Mr. Johnson that stirred up accusations of racism and misogyny, but I do feel strongly that the only defensible response to speech one dislikes is a convincing counter-argument. Demands that the publisher of such speech "acknowledge and address this editorial lapse and the broader issues raised by these texts"  ring too much for my taste of demands to "Tell me, have you stopped beating your wife yet?" 

The framing of the publishing of the reviews as an "editorial lapse" does not truly call for an honest and open dialog about the issues raised. The implication is that Johnson was wrong, not that his point is debatable. Such implications are not compatible with honest dialog.

Now I've read the petition and I do think it has the potential to open up a very interesting discussion, so I thank its authors, but what I find troubling myself about the petition is how selective its presentation of Mr. Johnson's actual words was. The petition reads:

In his review of “Now Dig This!” Mr. Johnson starts with the claim that “Black artists didn't invent assemblage.” Instead, he states that black artists appropriated the form from white artists who developed it. Both these statements attack a straw man; no historian, artist or curator has ever made a claim that anyone, black or white, “invented” assemblage. In fact, assemblage has roots in many cultures and it is well documented that European and American Modernist artists borrowed heavily from African art in their use of the form. [emphasis mine]
But the review doesn't actually start with that sentence (“Black artists didn't invent assemblage.”); that sentence appears in the 6th paragraph to be exact. And that sentence is a lot less inflammatory when it's actually read in context. How the review actually starts is

There is a paradox at the heart of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” an exhibition at MoMA PS1 about black artists who lived and worked in Los Angeles during a time of revolutionary changes in art and society. It is not specifically addressed by the exhibition, which was organized by Kellie Jones, a Columbia University art historian, and had its debut at the Hammer Museum last year as part of the Californian extravaganza “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980.” But I think it goes some way toward explaining why so few black artists have been embraced by the predominantly white high-end art world. It has to do with the relationship of black artists to Modernist tradition and the differences between the lives of blacks and whites in this country. [emphasis mine]
Further down, Mr. Johnson gets to the heart of why he viewed the exhibition through this perceived paradox:
According to Ms. Jones’s catalog essay, Mr. Purifoy has said that the Watts calamity made him an artist. He and the fellow assemblagists John T. Riddle Jr. and John Outterbridge began to make sculptures using rubble and detritus left in the aftermath of the riots. Ms. Jones writes, “Purifoy, John Riddle and John Outterbridge reinterpreted Watts as a discursive force, emblematic of both uncompromising energy and willful re-creation, using the artistic currency of assemblage.” Herein lies the paradox. 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. For these artists assemblage was an expression of freedom from conservative aesthetics and parochial social mores. 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.
This was a necessary (if, again debatable) observation for Johnson to bring his readers to his more important point:
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.
I happen to believe Political Correctness plays an important role in the American experience. There is no doubt that the playing field has not been level for most people from perceived "minorities," and Political Correctness is a good tool for pointing that out when the "majority" players refuse to accept their advantage. But Political Correctness is only a tool toward the goal of a more level playing field; it's not an end in and of itself. It must eventually give way. At some point, for a true level playing field to ever exist, we must all be able to speak openly about how things look from our vantage point, with equal protection and equal opportunity under the law in doing so. If any minority remains a protected class, for whom others feel compelled to soften their criticisms where they wouldn't toward members of another class, that protected minority isn't actually yet equal because they're being condescended to. In his review, Mr. Johnson clearly acknowledged the social advantages white artists had over black artists in the 1960s :
The most violent episode of civil unrest in the city’s history up to that time happened in the predominantly poor and black neighborhood of Watts in August 1965. So Mr. Edwards’s sculpture can be read as a metaphor for the struggle of black people to break through barriers that have kept them down in America.
To me, that gives him license to then move the dialog further along. 

Indeed, to me his review reads as a much-needed attempt to move the dialog about race, and in particular advantages/disadvantages for artists based on their race, past the everyone-walking-on-egg-shells, condescending phase it seems stuck in. Others may disagree. Others may feel the disadvantages within the playing field still require a higher level of the ginger discussion I've personally grown bored with. I'm not learning anything new from the white-man-looking-at-art-created-by-non-white-artists box that Political Correctness has locked me in. If I make errors in my judgement of art because of this desire to respond to it more openly from my own experience, again, the best and only defensible response, in my opinion is a convincing counter-argument. Petitions to demand my knuckles be rapped or some other such public humiliation would seem beneath the art world to me.


Anonymous Malin said...

I generally agree with you, although I also understand why people have taken offense at Johnson's words: they aren't particularly eloquent. I think he shares your opinion of "everyone-walking-on-egg-shells", but it is somewhat problematic when a white, middle aged man expresses this point of view.
That said, I find it more important (and this is something I think the petition writers have completely missed) that since the PS1 show deals with a specific time period and its events and politics, it deserves to be looked at in a historical light - something Johnson clearly isn't willing to do. Identity politics was very much an issue between 1960-1980 and that fact should be considered in a critique of this show to be fully understood.
Much more on point is Holland Cotter's piece from yesterday's NYTimes ( ) that addresses Thelma Golden's statement that the artists in this show are "post-black": Cotter is fully aware of how complicated this issue is for the very reasons you mention above, and he's making room for that complication in a both thoughtful and thought provoking way.

11/30/2012 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this is off topic a bit. But it would nice to see someone like Jay-Z open a Gallery for African American Artists anything he touches turns to gold. There is a huge untapped market of ball players and celebritys who could become art lovers if pushed in the right direction.

11/30/2012 12:57:00 PM  
Blogger William Villalongo said...

Holland Cotter does take "post-black" to task skillfully with no egg under his shoe, that I agree on. However, begins by saying that "there is a paradox at the heart of Now Dig This!" He finally gets to his point in saying "Here in lies the paradox, Black Artists did not invent Assemblage" As a whole this is his intro to his inquiry. He give context to this statement with a quote by Kellie Jones for sure, but read it again. She is stating two different things. One is the social context and the art form that these artist were attracted to. She does not equate them at all. She is not claiming invention on the part of these artists. Ken felt the need to put this in and as such it has a really condescending and cynical tone. He never gets to real inquiry at all. Which we state clearly in the letter. He presents one option for the reader as to why Black artists have challenges in the "white high-end artworld", which is that they don't make work right. He never comes down on the high-end artworld for its part in this equation. When we ask to address " the broader issues raised by these texts" we are talking about discussion. And I think it is totally fair to question the judgement here. The alternative for address from blogs like this never quite gets thought out. It sound something like "just be quiet about it" now that's pretty PC.

12/02/2012 11:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anoka Faruqee said...

Dear Mr. Winkelman,

Thank you for thoughtfully addressing and critiquing the arguments in the open letter to the New York Times. As one of the authors of the letter, I, too am saddened that an “unfortunate side effect” of the open letter, and the resulting polarizing chatter, could be that it stifles dialogue, not only for those who agree with Mr. Johnson, but also for those who disagree and for the many people who find themselves somewhere in between. I’m wondering how best to move forward in the dialogue: how to prevent my speech from silencing someone else’s and vice versa.

In the end framing matters, and, personally, I think the framing and tone of the letter could have been improved as you say. One point that I find central to Mr. Johnson’s argument is an all important empathy gap between viewers and producers; the cultural gulf that he names between white viewers and black artists is an observation that rings true on many levels. I do appreciate that Mr. Johnson names and observes this gap, but I had hoped for him to examine this gap with some rigor, rather than seeming only to accept it. Asking him to be more rigorous is not asking him to be more sensitive or walk on eggshells.

What I appreciate about your analysis is that you neither demonize the authors or the open letter or Ken Johnson. I have been dissapointed by some in the media and some individuals who trivialize this conversation with their polarizing and mean spirited comments. It’s unfair and counterproductive to call Ken Johnson a racist. It’s unfair and counterproductive to call the open letter a “witch hunt.” If people can’t respectfully disagree in public about the possible interpretations of a text, without everyone turning the conversation into an empty spectacle, then we really are doomed. If each of us can’t begin to examine and bridge the very empathy gap that Ken Johnson, to his credit, names, then I give up, and I’ll go back to being silent.

I also agree that it is not enough for us, the authors of the open letter, to say that we want an open dialogue; we have to begin to embody it. We have vigorously debated amongst ourselves what tone, framing and arguments was and is appropriate, hopefully forcing in each of us the same reflection of the subtle intertwining of style and substance that we are requesting of Mr. Johnson. The nature of the debate is imperfect and ongoing. I do hope Mr. Johnson’s efforts to raise these issues, and my efforts to respond critically, will not have been in vain, and will not have been forever stifled.


Anoka Faruqee

12/02/2012 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Zipthwung said...

So many scarecrows, so little time.... So much cultural activity lacks an offical or even unofficial name and power of naming is the power that is debatable. Assemblage art was not named by black people, and showing art in white cubes is arguably what makes art Art. You can level the playing field but Jesus will always be square 1. Now blow on my dice, baby needs some shoes.

12/04/2012 06:51:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Seems to me like this is a win, win, win situation.

The open letter writers join a long and rich history of artists critiquing the "institutions" of art reception. Although many of their points against Johnson, like he "…present ill-informed arguments. Using irresponsible generalities…" (Johnson's been writing art reviews and books for several decades now, so he's probably as informed as most), or he "organizes his review around an oversimplified opposition between the apolitical, 'deracinated' work of white artists and the political, 'parochial' work of black artists " ("simplification as rhetorical device?) , and "…no historian, artist or curator has ever made a claim that anyone, black or white, 'invented' assemblage." (google "invent assemblage" and check the Wiki article for this: "The origin of the artform dates to the cubist constructions of Pablo Picasso c. 1912-1914") read more like a slam at Johnson for not holding the PC party line, than what I see as his attempt a raising aesthetic questions through stating a widely held but dubious attitude.

Ken Johnson will no doubt be lauded or denounced by various sectors of the art world cognoscenti. With Dave Hickey's retirement we all need a grumpy white dude to tease.

And I got dragged over the pop-up adds for a play staring Ed Asner earning money for the struggling New York Times despite the fact that they published the writing in these articles which is "below the editorial standards" (nothing new here ether).

In the end, this gets to be some very impressive lines on resumes, and coin into corporate pockets. Hurray!

12/04/2012 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger Stagg said...

How quickly I forget how many times-clever lines on resume's equall coins in pockets !


12/12/2012 09:08:00 AM  

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