The Unfortunate Side Effect of Political Correctness
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.