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For weeks, I have been preoccupied with the brilliantly crafted tweets of freelance food and wine writer Tammie Teclemariam, who has been fueling, supporting, and live-tweeting reckonings in food media since early June. Her early grand slam, tweeted alongside a 2004 photo of now-former Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport in brown face (two anonymous sources sent her the photo, which the editor allegedly kept on his desk),1 read: “I don’t know why Adam Rapoport doesn’t just write about Puerto Rican food for @bonappetit himself!!!”2 Hours later, Rapaport—who, according multiple accounts, nurtured a toxic, discriminatory culture at the publication—had resigned. But perhaps my favorite tweet came after Teclemariam’s tweets contributed to the resignation of Los Angeles Times food section editor Peter Meehan: “I’m so glad the real journalism can start now that everyone is running their mouth.”3 In its glib concision, her tweet underscored the ideal aim of many recent so-called media call-outs: to expose, and hopefully excise, a toxicity that narrows, stifles, and handicaps writing about culture—the importance of which has been underscored by the ongoing uprisings against violent systemic racism.
Not everyone appreciates that tweets like Teclemariam’s have sway. As I write this, controversy and backlash are growing around what is now known as “The Letter.” Published by Harper’s Magazine, it was signed by luminaries such as Ian Buruma (who was forced to resign from the New York Review of Books after commissioning an essay from a disgraced radio host that disclosed his side of an alleged sexual assault4) and Bari Weiss (the former op-ed writer and editor at the New York Times, who alleged in her frustrated resignation letter that “Twitter has become [the Times’] ultimate editor”5). The Harper’s letter hoists responsibility on social media for a number of recent reckonings, bemoaning the current “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”6 Mostly, the signatories seem worried about their own power to continue saying what they want in legacy media amidst these social media outlets—and about the rising influence of once underrecognized writers, who can now make the powerful fall with 280 characters. But many writers voice their frustrations that Twitter is used as a last resort. New York Times digital storytelling editor Jamal Jordan pointed this out, tweeting that: “For many black journalists, the only real editorial power we have is potentially embarrassing our institutions on Twitter.” He added, “Not at all a toxic setup.”7
In art media, my own niche field, there have been relatively few call-outs, even on social media (although the same cannot be said for museums). But we could use a reckoning of our own. In art, as with writing in most other cultural fields, the voices of BIPOC writers are not adequately supported often or widely enough. This results in an insidiously—often offensively—stifled mainstream discourse about art’s readings, effects, and possibilities. As has been pointed out often in recent months (and before), those of us who are white have a responsibility to hold our own field accountable for its often-unbearable and un-/under-addressed white privilege, especially if we also want a discourse that is lively, open, incisive, responsive, and informed by bases of knowledge as deep and wide as possible.
In May, just two days before George Floyd’s murder, which marked the start of still-ongoing anti-racist uprisings, the New York Times’ co-chief art critic Roberta Smith gave an Instagram Live talk with the Donald Judd Foundation. Near the end, she was asked about the writers who influence her. She acknowledged her debt to Judd himself, and said she regularly reads the works of longtime New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, as well as her husband of 28 years, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. I thought of the limits of such a small echo chamber of influential white critics after seeing prominent white male art writers attempt, in egregiously out-of-touch ways, to engage conversations of the moment—Jerry Saltz tweeted that he liked the writers of the Old Testament8 and the Egyptian Book of the Dead after a colleague prompted followers to comment with their favorite Black art writers and thinkers;9 another critic—who deleted his tweet shortly after posting it—compared time spent in front of Andy Warhol screen tests to the time George Floyd spent pinned beneath his killer’s knee. Both critics, I believe, consider themselves progressive, and on the right side of history—but as Saidiya Hartman pointed out in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), purportedly good intentions have a long history of re-inscribing subjugation10 (or as Ta-Nehisi Coates put it: “the problem with good intentions is that they don’t accept true responsibility”11).
In the weeks after George Floyd’s killing, mainstream art writers and critics—especially the small handful with full-time jobs that actually pay their bills—did not demonstrate much interest in responsibility. Or perhaps, they demonstrated how ill-equipped a rarified art world—which continues to indulge its own elitism while giving lip service towards politics of inclusion—is for meeting moments like this one. Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post tried for relevance with an essay on how we should leave the pedestals behind after Confederate monuments are toppled (“vacant plinths can mean anything”12). The New Yorker’s Schjeldahl wrote about Edward Hopper and solitude.13 Sebastian Smee, also of the Washington Post, contemplated artist Mark Bradford’s “heightened consciousness”—specifically the aerial views he takes of urban landscapes—and ended with the unhelpful thought that maybe even if we “try to relate to and converse with one another,” nothing will change.14 Smee and other white legacy media critics seemed to suggest that power dynamics may be too hard to change—and in doing so, they’ve refrained from implicating themselves in taking a role in shifting them.
White critics abdicating responsibility leaves the burden of advocating for change to fall mostly on people of color, as it often has before. In 2019, an essay by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, published in the New York Times’ op-ed (rather than arts) section, called for moving “away from anointing a talented two or three critics of color and toward kaleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste.”15 They wrote, “We need a rigorous, rollicking culture coverage that’s uncoupled from class and credentials.”16 The wording—“rigorous, rollicking… kaleidoscopic”—was as energizing as it was exacting.
The 2019 Whitney Biennial was still up when Méndez Berry and Yang published their essay. The ensuing reviews (by mostly white writers) demonstrated a skepticism that in part reflected the reviewers’ own inability to relate to the broad range of perspectives and experiences that informed the artworks included. (Notably, the show included a majority BIPOC artists, unlike previous Whitney Biennials) At WNYC, Deborah Solomon called white supremacy a “tired academic slogan,” referring to a wall label accompanying artist Nicholas Galanin’s tapestry White Noise, American Prayer Rug (2018).17 The rug depicts static on a TV screen, which the artist has said is about “whiteness based on more than complexion” (e.g. “capitalism, blind belief,” and the protection of power).18 Galanin and other artists exhibited took to Instagram to challenge such reviews—what Galanin called “lazy assertions”19—that were founded in a misunderstanding of artists whose experiences and motivations were unfamiliar to the critics writing about them. “To be sure, people of color did review the [Biennial],” wrote Méndez Berry and Yang, but less visibly, creating “a dynamic shaped by the perception that the opinions of people of color are not universal.” For the writers, “this matters because culture is a battleground where some narratives win and others lose.”20 One critic, Aria Dean, who wrote about the show for X-TRA, pointed to this very battleground, calling the Biennial, and its attendant controversies, “an opportunity not only to proceed with a stronger sense of ethics in practice but also to reevaluate what it is that we want from art, and what it can give us.”21
Méndez Berry and Yang generously gave the critical establishment pointers to help it change. Among them: “mainstream and independent outlets must pay critics a living wage and reject business models that don’t”; BIPOC-run publications must receive venture and philanthropic capital; “old-school white critics ought to step aside” for the “writers of color who have been holding court in small publications and online for years.”22 The article has been oft-quoted, in part because too few other articles puncturing white critical dominance in art have received such prominent placement, before or since its publication. The authors meanwhile continue to enact the change they called for. Critical Minded, the initiative they helped found in 2017, aims to support critics of color financially and through mentorship, offering its first grant to help BIPOC writers during the pandemic. Critics Hua Hsu of the New Yorker and Jessica Lynne, the co-founder and editor of ARTS.BLACK—a publication of art criticism from Black perspectives—sit on the governance board.
But, as the recent, out-of-touch writing by major (white) critics has demonstrated, little has visibly changed at prominent mainstream outlets. And while the most generative course of action is undoubtedly following Critical Minded’s lead and supporting the writers already doing the work needed to change the field, there is also value in pointing out the shortcomings of major platforms, whether that means naming their critical oversight or acknowledging our conditioned reliance upon their authority.
Take for instance, the decades-end article Roberta Smith penned for the New York Times in late 2019, called “A Sea Change in the Art World, Made by Black Creators.” In it, she highlighted her own “life-changing realization” that “many artists” should not exhibit everything they make.23 She learned this from the controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial and contested for turning Black death into spectacle. Smith credited artist and writer Hannah Black’s open letter with starting the controversy, writing that she was “grateful for the extremeness of [Black’s] stance” even if she did not wholly “agree.”24 By framing Black as the sole, “extreme” instigator, she reduced the collective power of a conversation that Black had, in fact, entered with many others. Smith’s gratefulness thus read as indirect condescension, as if the controversy’s value was in widening (white) people’s horizons—not an uncommon perspective. (Consider an anecdote from Kimberly Drew’s concise, compelling new book, This is What I Know About Art, in which a college art history class discussion on artist Coco Fusco devolves into a white guilt confessional, rather than a thoughtful exploration of Fusco’s work. Later, Drew’s professor tells her she shouldn’t have taken art history if she wanted to be in conversation with other students of color.25)
Others, especially non-white critics, who wrote about the Dana Schutz controversy have treated it differently. In her book Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts (2018), Aruna D’Souza acknowledges that Black’s letter “was just one of many interventions and statements,” quoting numerous others made on social media. D’Souza also framed the protests as not over who can show what (i.e., whether Schutz had a right to represent Till’s murdered body), but over “the curatorial decisions that gave [Schutz] a platform, while denying others the same opportunity.”26 Similarly, in his Artforum review of the 2017 Biennial, Tobi Haslett framed the failures as a curatorial obsession with topicality for its own sake, which resulted in “an inevitably flailing exhibition, a massive, splashing sea broken in places by reefs of good work.”27 He gave most space to this “good work,” like that of Deanna Lawson and Henry Taylor, relegating discussion of Schutz’s painting to a quick sentence at the end.
The question of who and what receives attention came up in coverage of artist Dread Scott’s Slave Rebellion Reenactment in November 2019—the performance was a reimagining of the German Coast Uprising of 1811 outside New Orleans. Two Guardian reporters followed the reenactors, live-tweeting and updating articles as the two-day performance progressed. Their reporting was fine on the surface, but in its celebratory approach to a performance about a history of racism, it failed to question assumptions (an “untold story,” as one Guardian subhead called the uprising, disregarding those who had known the story for generations). In an essay for Burnaway, as part of the publication’s series of reflections by Black writers on Scott’s Reenactment, editor-at-large Kristina Kay Robinson noted the imbalanced fixation of one Guardian journalist on the sole instance of white death portrayed. The journalist interviewed the white actor, playing a plantation owner, about his family lore and feelings. Watching this fixation on this man’s good intentions and desire for redemption led Robinson to question the intentional omission of Black death from the performance:
So while the performance avoided unnecessary depictions of the brutal deaths of Black people, another kind of violence was invented. I wondered, as I followed the coverage of the reenactment, for whose benefit and comfort had the violence visited upon us actually been omitted?28
Robinson also challenged the notion that the uprising’s history had been unknown or untold. Her grandmother was born in Reserve, Louisiana, the site of the former Belle Point Plantation, where many of the uprising’s participants were enslaved. Belle Point Plantation later became home to a rubber plant that has poisoned residents of the surrounding area (the cancer rate is nearly 50 times the national average). Unlike many journalists, Robinson considered the Reenactment in relation to the ongoing effects of violence in the same geography.
The whiteness of mainstream art media results in whitewashed conversations—not just when it comes to writing about BIPOC artists, though the whitewashing is often most apparent in these instances. This must change, but as we push for this change, we also need to shift attention and resources toward those already writing criticism outside the field’s exclusionary hierarchies and oriented toward a more horizontal critical future. Jessica Lynne called for a kind of “horizontally” oriented space in her recent, eloquently searching essay, “Criticism is Not Static: A black feminist perspective,” asking, “What does criticism look like when we reject the myth that it can only manifest itself in certain ways?”29 The future of art writing is best served by questioning its stasis—a top-down critical hierarchy, where the embedded few are given ample visibility, while others try to exert their power in the limited space of a tweet. And if we want to engage in more expansive, inquisitive, and thus representative conversations around art, we need to look to those already imagining and realizing a more horizontal and reciprocal form of criticism, where platforms not only welcome, but seek out and give space to a rollicking discourse.
Catherine Wagley writes about art and visual culture in Los Angeles.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 21.