Category Archives: criticism

Transcending compensation.

Some thoughts from Jack Zipes to keep you pacified (compensated! Hah!) until the next post:

“Folk tales were often censored and outlawed during the early phase of the bourgeoisie’s rise to power because of their fantastic components which encouraged imaginative play and free exploration were hostile to capitalist rationalization and the Protestant ethos. Once the bourgeoisie’s power was firmly established, the tales were no longer considered immoral and dangerous, but their publication and distribution for children were actually encouraged toward the end of the the nineteenth century. The tales took on a compensatory function for children and adults alike who experienced nothing but the frustration of their imaginations in society. Within the framework of a capitalist socioeconomic system the tales became a safety valve for adults and children and acted to pacify the discontents. Like other forms of fantastic literature – and it is significant that science fiction rises also at the end of the nineteenth century – the tales no longer served their original purpose of clarifying social and natural phenomena but became forms of refuge and escape in that they made up for what people could not realize in society. This does not mean that the radical content of the imaginative symbols in folk tales and other forms of fantastic literature had been completely distilled. As Herbert Marcuse has suggested, ‘the truth[sic] value of imagination relates not only to the past but also to the future: the forms of freedom and happiness which it invokes claim to deliver the historical reality. In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by the reality principle, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of phantasy.’ Still, the question remains as to how to make the artistic forms conceived by the imagination operative in society. In other words, how can the imagination and imaginative literature transcend compensation?”

Breaking the Magic Spell (1979), Jack Zipes, pg. 174


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Alessandro Busci at Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art

Last month I saw a show of Alessandro Busci‘s paintings at the Mark Wolfe Contemporary Art. Each of Busci’s paintings featured “train depots, service stations, power plants, and airports”. The enamel palettes used were vivid, usually limited to the brown chemical rainbows over iron panels, thrillingly lurid red paint, near-pure white, and an empty middle gray — now applied thickly, now diluted outward giving the impression of water and light on a runway.

Busci’s paintings speak to the part of industrialization that hard, dehumanizing, and sometimes bloody. In other ways, his paintings act as a paean to the great seductive joys of mass-production. There is a beauty to mass-production — the sense of a sudden rush of material wealth — but also a fear and latent violence, as it always seems in danger of growing into a Goliath, both cruel and easily toppled by its own great girth.

Unfortunately those amazing airport and factory paintings were shown in the wretchedly over-designed Mark Wolfe gallery. The gallery space juxtaposes a slick design aesthetic with raw cement pillars. It’s cold in a way that makes me breathy with claustrophobia. The Mark Wolfe gallery belies Busci’s paintings. While the “raw” space speaks to a similar appreciation of industrial design, the application of that design unwittingly implies a total lack of comprehension of the genealogy of the industrial aesthetic.

For these reasons the entire gallery space put me on edge, which might be considered a feat of architecture and design if the subtext (exotification of raw utilitarian architecture) didn’t distract so much from the artwork displayed.

In that setting Busci’s hauntingly beautiful chemical-and-metal paintings — which, given their color and the spontaneous yet sinuous application of paint seemed an homage to the blunt violence of industry — seem almost like mockeries of themselves. The paintings are inherently effective and powerful; and, unlike the gallery, they are infused with a sense of the history and psychological gravity of utilitarian architecture. However, when juxtaposed with the Mark Wolfe space, the paintings are subsumed and hence trivialized.

Busci’s paintings are wonderful but I would prefer to see them in more fitting space.

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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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Popular text / popular persepctive.

“A text is popular if it resonates with readers. For a text to be popular, its message must fit the discourses used by readers to make sense of their experiences. A popular text reassures the readers that their worldviews (discourses) are meaningful. The satisfaction of consuming popular culture is that of being reassured that one’s interpretation of the world is congruent with that of others.” –The Production of Culture: Media and the Urban Arts (Diana Crane), page 94

Being reassured of the congruency of one’s world view is not the same as being happy about that world view, or gaining any sort of real easement for internal conflict. It’s more like someone saying, “You’ll never be able to fight it, so don’t try,” when what you really want to hear is, “It’s going to be okay.”

Popular is not the same as loved, and reassurance is not the same as genuine security.

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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. 29,50thsaltz,69293,31.html


Filed under art, controversy, criticism