Category Archives: controversy

Two great series on Racialicious.

Directing attention to these two series on Racialicious, both written by Latoya Peterson:

Debunking Myths about Statutory Rape, Race and Class:

Part One/Part Two/Part Three

This series does a great job challenging the stereotypes that young girls who dress in a ‘slutty’ manner deserve to be sexually harassed and abused; that men have an overwhelming ‘biological preference’ for a younger-looking girl; that a majority of statutory rape cases are simply young women ‘tricking’ older men into having sex with them by lying about their age; and that rich and/or white men do not sexually harass younger girls. The articles are well-considered and draw on anecdotal evidence. The comments are quite interesting and deepen the dialog.

Has Class Trumped Race? (an ongoing series):

Part One/Part Two/Part Three

This series explores the meaning of class privilege, successfully macerating a massive subject into moderately-sized portions of text. Once again, the comments enrich the original texts; both Latoya and the commenters take on with nuanced questions such as, “Do you think that the material aspect of privilege is more important or the access aspect of privilege?,” willingly discussing the ways in which entitlement and privilege interact, and commenting on the ways in which class privilege and white privilege (or lack thereof) interact. The posts and comments also seek to answer the eponymous question: “Has class [privilege] trumped race [privilege]?” The answer is complex, debatable, and open-ended.

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In Defense of JT LeRoy

Everyone reading this blog probably already knows the story: a 15-year-old boy named J.T. LeRoy who has suffered a life of physical and sexual abuse, been neglected and deprived, worked as a prostitute, and been on and off drugs, emerges into intense fame after the publication of his collections of short stories, all popularly considered to be semi-autobiographical. A few years and many friendships with celebrities later, it’s revealed that the 15-year-old boy doesn’t really exist. In fact, he’s the alter-ego of a 40-year-old woman named Laura Albert.

Scandal and mud-slinging ensue. Laura Albert is denounced by The New York Times, not to mention the many authors and movie stars who assisted her ascension to literary fame. Many of those people are angry that they were lied to. They feel betrayed – and understandably so.

But what about Laura’s reading public? I admit, I was once amongst the dewy-eyed fans who packed into overpriced bookstores, wine bars, etcetera to hear minor stars read the reclusive author’s work. I trembled with excitement when I saw an androgynous boy in a blond wig and sunglasses sitting on the stairs (J.T. LeRoy was known for showing up at his own readings “in disguise” and watching). Laura Albert’s Warholian combination of shyness and desire for acknowledgement birthed J.T. LeRoy. I longed to be noticed by LeRoy in a similar withdrawn manner (although I adored him, I never once wrote him a fan letter).

Maybe that’s why I’m not upset by Albert’s ruse – I can understand the feeling of “[being] completely ignored and disregarded and disdained.” That total feeling of invisibility and loneliness wells out of some lack of safety deep inside, like a night when the wind is up and no one is outside, like the concrete slab of clouds in the sky will suck you up and trap you. Sounds crazy, right? I suspect that feeling of an internal vacuum drives a lot of people – not just Laura Albert, but also Hans Christian Anderson and the aforementioned Andy Warhol (to name a couple off the top of my head). I’ve felt that way. But I also fear visibility.

This is the sort of catch-22 that seems to have birthed JT LeRoy.

However, it may be unfair to ask you to be sympathetic to Laura Albert’s cause on those grounds. Laura Albert was and is a mess, I agree. But I also think that whether she’s a mess isn’t really my business (much less in my control), so I’ll reiterate what has been said repeatedly, endlessly, not about Laura Albert but about her writing: the books were marketed as fiction. The books were marketed as fiction. The books were marketed as fiction. Fiction fiction fiction! When asked if they were autobiographical, LeRoy would always insist that they drew on his experiences abstractly. He never suggested that the stories were verbatim, or to be taken literally. The public simply inferred it, and LeRoy/Albert never denied the rumors.

The rumors were never denied because there was some truth to them. Whatever Albert may not be (male, young, living on the street), she has obviously been through some kind of hell – enough so to write short stories that can be acutely joyful and painful to read.

However, these arguments may fail to elicit your sympathy. After all, LeRoy/Albert spent years coyly courting celebrity and soliciting fame.

The books have been attacked because writing of the quality Albert produced is (supposedly) less impressive from someone in their forties than it is from a young street kid. However, sidestepping all debate of literary merit, I’d like to suggest that the books had another value: they were, in some ways, for some people, therapeutic. Not for everyone, certainly. Maybe for some people they were triggering. For others, they seemed silly (I have several friends who would roll their eyes at any mention of LeRoy’s work). However, for some people – especially trauma survivors who had experienced a certain inexplicable type of psychological mangling – the books resonated. They made intrinsic, intuitive sense out of the internal feeling that the wall between sanity and nonsense – or sickness – was broken. To me, and some others I talked to, it felt like someone had written about things we knew – the way trauma twists instinct so that it bends away from self-preservation and toward self-destruction. Albert wasn’t writing down our own experiences – the events of the stories were far worse than anything I ever experienced – but the settings, the descriptions of emotions and tastes and personalities – were pitched with an uncanny perfection.

Other authors – Mary Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper – have written about abuse and lasting trauma with delicacy and a similar dark humor, but no one articulated it quite like J.T. No one was quite so good at writing characters who were both sympathetic and sickening. In Laura Albert’s words, “the characters in JT LeRoy’s books…strive for goodness, even in a world where all their experience contradicts this. I feel that this desire is essential to my story as well. When I would reach a point where I wanted to commit suicide, something gave me hope.”

The stories were and are hopeful. They suggested that even from the dregs of the most awful repeated abuse, a writer could emerge. And they still tell that hopeful story – after all, Laura Albert survived – damaged, maybe, but intact enough to get the story out.

The stories also described, subtly, that abuse could be confused with love, and that children and adolescents could mix up their desire to be loved with their willingness to (in Albert’s words) “serve.” They suggested, that these confusions could be overcome, that in time one could make enough sense of them to write them all down using vivid description. The stories reminded traumatized people that their trauma wasn’t unspeakable and that trauma could escape their bodies if they just gave it vent. Moreover, Albert’s writing showed that even the worst events and people could be seen with wryness and humor, even sympathy.

Or at least, that’s how the stories made me feel.

Yes, LeRoy/Albert’s writing was overwrought, but the experiences described were distressing enough to warrant such a literary style. I no longer feel the intense attachment to J.T. LeRoy/Laura Albert’s books that I once did. However, my feelings didn’t change because of an alteration in the author’s identity. My need for the books lessened because I begin to work through my own trauma. LeRoy/Albert’s books helped me to talk about the trauma I experienced, and get it out. Now I know it’s not unspeakable, and I feel safe much more of the time. I don’t long for the acceptance of ephemeral celebrities as much as I once did (although I admit that I have yet to fully overcome the shameful-seeming Warholian urge). I owe a part of my ability to speak about trauma and to let it subside to Laura Albert’s books. For me, and perhaps for some of the other people who her books imprinted, that means quite a lot more than any public identity hoax.

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Challenging views of sexuality in contemporary culture.

“For more than ten years I was in a nonmonogamous relationship with a black man committed to nonsexist behavior in almost every aspect of daily life–the major exception being the bedroom. I accepted my partner’s insistence that his sexual desires be met in any circumstance where I had made sexual overtures (kissing, caressing, and so on). Hence ours was not a relationship in which I felt free to initiate sexual play without going forward and engaging in coitus. Often I felt compelled to engage in sexual intercourse when I did not want to.

“In my fantasies, I dreamed of being with a male who would fully respect my body rights, my right to say ‘no,’ my freedom not to proceed in any sexual activity that I did not desire even if I initially felt that I wanted to be sexual. When I left this relationship, I was determined to choose male partners who could respect a woman’s right to say ‘no,’ irrespective of the circumstance.

“Years passed before I found a partner who respected those rights in a feminist manner, with whom I made a mutual covenant that neither of us would ever engage in any sexual act that we did not desire to participate in. I was elated. With this partner I felt free and safe. I felt that I could choose not to have sex without worrying that this choice would alienate or anger my partner. Though most women were impressed that I had found such a partner, they doubted that this could be a chosen commitment to female freedom on any man’s part; they raised suspicious questions. Braggin’ about him to girlfriends and acquaintances, I was often told, ‘Girl, you betta be careful. Dude might be gay.’ I also begin to feel doubts. Nothing about the way this dude behaved was familiar. His was not the usual ‘dick-thing’ masculinity that had aroused feeligns of pleasure and danger in me for most of my erotic life. While I liked his alternative behavior, I felt a loss of control–the kind that we experience when we are no longer acting within the socialized framework of both acceptable and familiar heterosexual behavior. I worried that he did not find me really desirable. Then I asked myself whether aggressive emphasis on his desire, on his need for ‘the pussy’ would have reassured me. It seemed to me, then, that I needed to rethink the nature of female heterosexual eroticism, particularly in relation to black culture.

“Critically interrogating my responses, I confronted the reality that despite all my years of opposing patriarchy, I had no fully questioned or transformed the structure of my desire. By allowing my erotic desire to still be determined to any extent by conventional sexist constructions, I was acting in complicity with patriarchal thinking. Resisting patriarchy ultimately meant that I had to reconstruct myself as a heterosexual, desiring subject in a manner that would make it possible for me to be fully aroused by male behavior that was not phallocentric. In basic terms, I had to learn how to be sexual with a man in a context where his pleasure and his hard-on is decentered and mutual pleasure is centered instead. That meant learning how to enjoy being with a male partner who could be sexual without viewing coitus as the ultimate expression of desire.

“Talking with women of varying ages and ethnicities about this issue, I am more convinced than ever that women who engage in sexual acts with male partners must not only interrogate the nature of the masculinity we desire, we must also actively construct radically new ways to think and feel as desiring subjects. By shaping our eroticism in way that repudiate phallocentrism, we oppose rape culture. Whether this alters sexist male behavior is not the point. A woman who wants to engage in erotic acts with a man without reinscribing sexism will be much more likely to avoid or reject situations in which she might be victimized. By refusing to function within the heterosexist framework that condones male erotic domination of women, females would be actively disempowering patriarchy.

“Without a doubt, our collective, conscious refusal to act in any way that would make us complicit in the perpetuation of rape culture within the sphere of sexual relations would undermine the structure. Concurrently, when heterosexual women are no longer attracted to macho men, the message sent to men would at least be consistent and clear. That would be a major intervention in the overall effort to transform rape culture.” “Seduced By Violence No More,” from Outlaw Culture (bell hooks), pages 131-133 (italics mine)

The above quote not only succinctly articulates widespread cultural contradiction; it also emphasizes possible transformations in individual perception of sexuality. While bell hooks is writing about women and women’s transformation, the overall content, and, in particular, the italicized section, also addresses a male concern that Andrew has told me about many times: the heterosexual concentration on male erection and, more importantly, male ejaculation.

Andrew has spoken many times about how this creates unnecessary male performance anxiety around sex, because oftentimes both male and female attention in so focused on the penis. Both erection and ejaculation are seen as signs of sexual ability.

Culturally, there is a widespread belief that a man who does not do these things is not properly masculine. Simultaneously, the cultural lack of male erection and/or ejaculation threatens women, who have frequently believe that their desirability is predicated upon male erection and ejaculation. The idea that one could “be sexual without viewing coitus as the ultimate expression of desire” is considered culturally ridiculous, even ludicrous. It’s assumed that if one is sexual without viewing penetration as the ultimate expression of desire, that one is sexually defective in some way – unable to perform, or otherwise lacking a proper hormonal balance.

Even as I write this, I feel the need to justify my writing by explaining that “of course I enjoy penetration,” lest anyone mistake me for a lesser or defective (heterosexual) sexual being.

The irony is that anxiety and violence do not inherently contribute to better sex. This is not to say that sex, or sexual acts, must be all white lace, flowers, and sweetness, only that there are many other possibilities, ones that cast aside constrictive and sometimes brutal gender roles.

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Kara Walker: Race, Sexuality, Fantasy, Irony, and Controversy in the Art World

First Impressions: What Kara Walker Has Meant to Me and Some of Her Admirers

When I first encountered Kara Walker’s art, I thought it was about revenge, specifically the revenge of a stereotype on a sinister caricature of history. The piece I viewed filled an entire circular room. It was comprised entirely of paper cut-outs and had a distinctly disjointed narrative. The use of the negative and stereotypical representations of Black figures appeared satirical as though to say, “Now imagine if these roles were filled – would you really like the consequences? I think not.” In some of the images, the fictional stereotypes received the abuse that once abetted their creation; in others, they enacted vengeance upon their creators. The entire piece was implicitly ironic and contradictory, and I was captivated by its paradoxes.

Some other critics have taken similar standpoints. Whereas well-known artist Betye Saar (who loathes Walker’s work) perceives nothing but negative stereotyping and the perpetuation of racist imagery, her daughter Allison Saar (also a professional artist) sees Walker’s work as an vital political statement, intentionally reminding its viewers that “racism is subtle and persistent” in the present day. Christina Elizabeth Sharpe (a journalist who has covered Walker’s past shows) suggests that Walker’s work implicates the viewer in ways that allow the dichotomy of Black/white to break down and resuscitate the corpse of a body of cultural imagery that refuses to stay buried regardless. Others have commented that Walker’s art is reflective of popular culture’s subconscious narrative, and that her work exposes the seedy underbelly of a falsely benign mainstream.

Second Thoughts: Negative Criticism of Walker‘s Work

The popularity of Walker’s paintings, prints, and paper cut-outs has generated a great deal of backlash, much of it in the form of criticism from other African-American artists. Her detractors claim that her use of the slave narrative is cavalier and her application of negative stereotypes works to enforce a false history in the minds of both Black and white viewers. Critics are also disturbed by Walker’s success in the mainstream art world as juxtaposed against the marginalization of most other Black artists. In fact, some critics suggest that Walker is intentionally seeking to reinforce negative stereotypes – knowing that they appeal to a sect of wealthy white art dealers – and thereby sacrificing her own history and culture in order to achieve success. Indeed, this last claim is difficult to refute: Walker is almost inexplicably popular within the mainstream art scene, which substantially favors negative images of African-Americans over positive images, neutral images, or even non-race-related images created by Black artists.

However, according to Walker, reinforcing negative stereotypes is not her intent. Instead she seeks to investigate the impact that fictional racist narratives have had on her own psyche and – ultimately – America’s cultural imagination. She attempts to explore the ways in which these stereotypes are acted out by both whites and Blacks in a contemporary context.

It seems unfair to blame Walker for her success when her control over who takes interest in her art is (necessarily) limited. At the same time, it can be argued that Walker has some responsibility to consider who may or may not view her work, and how or in what context that work is displayed; and it is unfortunate that she does not take more care to refute poor (and/or inaccurate) interpretations of her images. For example, I find Jerry Saltz’s November 1998 review of Walker’s work in the Village Voice a gross misinterpretation which has, unfortunately, not been refuted. In his review, Saltz insists that a female figure in one of Walker’s cut-outs – a caricature who particularly and quite obviously references Josephine Baker – is “sexy.” His comment is entirely serious, devoid of any irony. His observation stands in direct contradiction to Walker’s stated artistic purpose.

Similarly, some other white critics appear a bit too enthusiastic to extract reinforcement of their own beliefs from Walker’s narratives. The subtexts of their reviews often seem to say, “Look! We were right all along – Black people secretly enjoy our negative stereotyping.” However, the perspective of this group of oblivious and insulting critics appears to be in the minority.

There is something essentially unfortunate inherent in Walker’s work in that it is in some ways an act of self-flagellation. In an interview Walker states that many of her works are based upon a self-loathing of her own identity that was fostered over time and emerged from its latency when she moved to Georgia as an adolescent. In some ways, this confirms the critics: the work contains aspects of self-loathing. It is an expression of a cultural double-standard as filtered through one woman’s psyche.

Autobiography and/or Political Statement?

Walker has used some of her art to wage a kind of war against detractors. In a certain watercolor she lambastes Betye Saar in both the text and title of the piece. Simultaneously she displays pieces that have an autobiographical flavor, as in “Why I Like White Boys” (1998) – a piece which is a self-proclaimed reflection on her own struggles with interracial dating. Of this she says, “I want the viewer to feel as though they’ve just encountered a History (with a capital H) that they Never knew — only to discover that it is mostly my Own (and my attendant longings and imperfections) they have just experienced.”

However, Walker has stated that although she intends her work to provoke, her primary goal is not to create a shock-effect, but to foster dialog. Walker says that her work is satirical and ironic, intended as social commentary but not comedy.

Conclusion: Present and Future

Walker’s work can be read many ways, but it is clear from all her statements that her intent is a satirical portrayal of the history specific to the individual. It is also apparent that in Walker’s vernacular, the “individual” is imagined not only as the artist but also as the fictional historical other. Walker’s work is simultaneously political and fantastical; it has elements of both imagined and real American culture and history.

However, because Walker is one of only a handful of successful African-American “art stars” she is perceived as a mouthpiece for the Black community, although that role is ultimately not one that she claims or desires to play. Therefore, there is an inherent likelihood that some viewers will (mis)interpret her intimate, imagined histories literally. And there is, indeed, the risk of perpetuating negative stereotypes, which may appear less satirical to some than to others. Walker has been pigeonholed as a Black artist who uses her work to address race – even if her primary object is to confront a battery of issues, of which race is only one. When Walker is publicly interpreted as a one-dimensional, race-obsessed artist, she is made into a token figure, silenced and stripped of her own depth.

Were there more examples of popular African-American artists who produce a variety of images (positive stereotypes, political, abstract work, and art about virtually any topic including and besides race) it is likely that the controversy over Walker’s work would decrease. However, if Walker continues to be perceived (by outsiders) as representing the entire community of Black artists (most of whose work is vastly different in subject matter and style), she will be criticized and resented. Tokenization is, of course, not Walker’s goal in producing and showing art. Unfortunately, art and reality have collided, and what is left is a lot of rather interesting art made by an individual and a system that frequently perverts that individual’s intent.

In the future, it is imperative that viewers be given more choices and are exposed to a cornucopia African-American artists whose works speak about a diversity of topics. It would be refreshing to have access an array of narratives that play with the spectrum between real (historical, factual) and imagined (a-historical, fantasy). At present, Kara Walker is defining the spectrum – in fact, it often seems that she is the spectrum. It will be interesting to witness the responses of future artists to the issues Walker has raised, and how Walker herself will cope with the concepts and questions of her own artistic output.

Bibliography and Internet Resources

Falconer, Morgan. “Kara Walker: Tate Liverpool.” Art Monthly July/August 2004: p. 41
Falconer, Morgan. “Screen Time: Kara Walker.” Art Review February 2007: p. 30
Hixson, Kathryn. “Kara Walker.” New Art Examiner April 1997: p. 41-2
Isaak, Jo Anna (Editor). Looking Forward Looking Black. Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press, New York: 1999. Pages 6-7 and 38-43.
Leslie, Richard. “Racism in the art world: a report on a report.” New Art Examiner September 1997: p. 44-45
O‘Brien, Barbara. “Shadows and Stories: Kara Walker’s History.” Art New England December 2003/January 2004: p. 16-17
Subotnick, Ali. “Kara Walker.” Make: The Magazine of Women’s Art Issue 92 2002: p. 25-7
Unger, Miles. “Contested histories.” Art New England June/July 1998: p. 29

http://etd.gsu.edu/theses/available/etd-11302006202954/unrestricted/Searles_Erikka_200612_maed.pdf
http://www.moma.org/onlineprojects/conversations/trans_kwalker.html
http://collections.walkerart.org/item/object/7440
http://www.sikkemajenkinsco.com/karawalker_works.html
http://www.artnet.com/magazine_pre2000/reviews/wong/wong5-10-96.asp
http://blackbloggah.blogspot.com/2005/08/what-f-is-wrong-with-kara-walker.html
http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/02/20/karawalker/
http://www.villagevoice.com/specials/0543,50thsaltz,69293,31.html
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1285/is_n11_v28/ai_21248654/pg_1

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