No, You Can’t Just Hang A Racist Image On A Wall And Call It ‘Art’
A few weeks ago, Cassia Herron and her partner Gerome Sutton went to Proof on Main, the restaurant at 21c, for a late lunch. The restaurant space is also an art installation created last summer by the artist duo “Fallen Fruit.”
Herron says she looked up from her meal and noticed several images.
“The most offensive one for me was the image of -- it was a caricature of a black man,” Herron says. “And he was being ridden by a white man and there was like a Confederate symbol, I think it was a flag in the corner.”
It was next to an illustration of black men in military uniforms and a portrait of what Herron describes as the “typical white Jesus.”
Herron says that yes, 21c is known for provocative work. There’s the 30-foot-tall “David” statue on their sidewalk, and recently, they showed Al Farrow’s “Wrath and Reverence,” a collection of religious iconography made out of firearms.
“But again, this was in the restaurant,” Herron says. “There was no signage, and it just seemed like it was part of the decoration.”
Herron isn’t sure the piece would have been displayed as it was if a person of color had been involved in the creation or installation process. And that idea is at the core of the public backlash against 21c and other galleries and artists around the country who've been accused of taking a cultural experience that isn’t their own and appropriating it under the guise of “art.”
The idea of white creators borrowing from cultures and experiences that aren’t theirs isn’t new. It reaches from music and theater to film and fashion to visual art. Think “Miss Saigon” or when designer Marc Jacobs had his models wear faux dreadlocks to his New York City Fashion Week Ready-To-Wear 2017 show. Or the Rolling Stones.
Sometimes this goes unnoticed, but right now we’re living in a time where the backgrounds of artists and arts leaders are significant, especially when it comes to telling stories about race.
Here in Louisville, it’s why the exhibition at 21c prompted public outcry, why a recent exhibition at the Carnegie Center in Southern Indiana called #BlackArtMatters was well-received, and why a piece at another Louisville gallery demonstrates just how much biography matters.
Telling Stories in ‘White Spaces’
“The Practices of Everyday Life,” up now in Proof, was created mostly with historic images and artifacts sourced from estates and archives in Kentucky. The purpose, according to Fallen Fruit, was to prompt discussion of public narratives told about the state.
At the request of the artists behind Fallen Fruit -- David Burns and Austin Young, who are both white -- the piece was replaced with a Civil War-era mirror. When I asked them for interviews, I was referred to an online statement made by 21c owner Steve Wilson, Burns and Young.
In it, they say they pulled the piece because there was a misunderstanding of its context and intent, so the artists wanted to be sensitive and amend the work. The statement read, in part:
One reason such a piece is threatening in a museum or gallery setting -- even when fully explained -- is that museums and galleries are still often considered overwhelmingly “white spaces,” a term coined by Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson.
Anderson explains in his research that after the Civil Rights Movement, even though African Americans had more social mobility, there were still spaces -- neighborhoods, schools, workplaces -- that felt “off-limits.”
This isn’t just an academic term; in her 2015 speech at the dedication of the new Whitney Museum in New York City, Michelle Obama drew a line between museums and “white spaces.”
“You see, there are so many kids in this country who look at places like museums and concert halls and other cultural centers and they think to themselves, ‘well, that’s not a place for me,’” Obama said. “‘For someone who looks like me, for someone who comes from my neighborhood.’”
And one of the effects of museums and galleries remaining, in some ways, “white spaces” is that narratives affecting or about people of color aren’t told by members of those communities.
Scheherazade Tillet is a photographer and curator who exhibited her photography in #BlackArtMatters.
“I do believe white artists should be able to make -- well, it’s their history as well to be able to talk about issues of other races,” she says. “But I think that what can happen is that oftentimes people of color don’t have those choices to tell even their own stories, or to even tell other cultures' stories. So the equity isn’t there.”
That’s why Tillet says it was important that the exhibition at the Carnegie Center featured exclusively black artists, though it was organized by curator Daniel Pfalzgraf, who is white.
“I felt like a lot of it boiled down to histories and identities of people -- particularly African-American people -- and how they are being portrayed, how they present themselves, how other people are seeing them,” Pfalzgraf says. “How people are telling their stories, and how they get it right or wrong.”
Tillet says this is a big issue that was addressed in how #BlackArtMatters was presented.
“There is a real history, especially in the African-American community, of people telling our stories for us,” Tillet says. “Telling our history, using photography against us in negative portrayals. So we just haven’t had those choices to tell our own stories.”
This was one of Herron’s biggest problems with the image at 21c.
According to Chris Reitz, the gallery director and head of the Critical and Curatorial Studies program at the University of Louisville, there’s a long history of discussions about whether and why artist identity is important to consider when looking at their work.
“Let’s say around the 1960s, there was a great deal of concern within the realm of critical theory and approaches, not just art, but literature, any human cultural product that attempted to divorce the maker from the object,” Reitz says.
The idea, he says, is that we are all sort of like DJs, synthesizing material that we encounter in the world. We’re not the originators of anything; we just rearrange it. So as a viewer, you just need to know the culture and references that are being mixed together to derive and inform meaning.
“And that, in some ways, was freeing,” Reitz says. “It was a way to liberate analysis of artwork from biography. However, it was less liberating for artists who were not part of the dominant historical population that was producing and interpreting the artwork.”
The tension between these two viewpoints is still a constant.
Take this year’s Whitney Biennial -- a big art show in New York that features important, often up-and-coming American artists. Dana Schutz, who is a white woman, exhibited her painting “Open Casket,” which depicts the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered in 1955.
In an interview with the New Yorker, Schutz said of her decision to create “Open Casket:”
Protesters -- including performance artist Parker Bright, who is pictured above -- blocked the painting from view and demanded its removal from the Whitney because “the subject matter is not Schutz’s” and the experience of “black suffering” was not hers to profit from.
That tension over how artist biography informs the meaning of a piece is present in a show here in Louisville that’s stayed under the radar.
Ask Yourself These Questions
Of his current solo exhibition "Color" at the Tim Faulkner Gallery in Portland, artist Cletus Wilcox says he wants to reflect on the current “American cultural and political climate.”
The bulk of the show is highly abstract works that he says address topics like Jim Crow, “fourth-wave feminism” and how money affects politics. Then there’s a smaller series called “A Gift for Dandara dos Santos,” in memory of the Brazilian transgender woman who was tortured and killed in March.
According to Wilcox, he became interested in exploring these themes in his work because, as a gay man, he wants there to be a wider discussion of marginalization. He is also adamant about his work sparking “discussions,” not offering commentary on race, gender or orientation.
That is, until you see one of the final pieces in “Color.”
“And it’s really the only piece that was completely intentional and was way more focused, way more of a statement,” Wilcox says. “The general gist of it is the exploration into white privilege.”
The piece features a white sheet of paper bounded by an all-white frame.
“And it only consists of first-place ribbons that you only get when you run a race, with adhesive on paper,” Wilcox says. “If there is a statement where I’m speaking from my own personal life’s experience, it’s that.”
In his description, which hangs next to the artwork, Wilcox writes:
This is the only piece in Wilcox’s show that is outright asking viewers to consider the identity of the person who made it -- and in this case, it’s important.
How would you think about this piece if you thought it was created by a black artist?
What about when you learn that Wilcox is white?
Now, think back to 21c. What if a black curator had approved the inclusion of a racist artifact? If so, would it mean something different to you? Should that context have been apparent alongside the piece?
These are the questions many art professionals say should be asked in galleries and museums that are still referred to as “white spaces.”
And these are the questions Cassia Herron says she asked herself.
“It made me feel like I didn’t belong in the space,” Herron says. “In that space, I just kind of felt like, you know they didn’t think a black woman is going to see and consume their food and their art at the same time. They certainly didn’t have me in mind.”
Update: This article was updated to reflect that the performance art used to protest Dana Schutz's "Open Casket" was created by artist Parker Bright.