The Ken Kontroversy

November 27th, 2012

Should the New York Times fire freelance art critic Ken Johnson?  Some people answer in the affirmative in signing a new petition, which attracted influencers like Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, and Robert Storr.  The petition will reach its goal of 1000 signatures.

Calculatrice en ligne: un chiffre rond, multiplier, diviser, soustraire, ajouter des numeros, tangente, sinus, cosinus, cotangente.

On October 26th, the NYT published Forged From the Fires of the 1960s, Ken Johnson’s review of Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles, at MoMA PS1.  On November 8th, the NYT published Mr. Johnson’s preview of The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World.

Forged argues that the Watts Riots of 1965 catalyzed some artists into a peer dialogue of expressed solidarity.  As evidence, he quotes exhibition curator Kellie Jones.  And among the first pieces a visitor encounters are a postcard for Angela Davis, Charles White’s Birmingham Totem, and David Hammons’ Afro Asian Eclipse (or Black China).

Ken Johnson in The Times Union

Johnson further argues that these artists innovated by purposefully appropriating assemblage to imbue it with content, rather than attempting to develop new forms.  Here are two examples: “[Melvin] 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” and “Mr. Riddle’s is about a particular population of people digging itself out of a real-world debacle.”  Mr. Johnson finds more virtue here than in formalist interpretations, but does not exclude formalist readings.

All reasonable, but Mr. Johnson kicks two tripwires.  Here is one: “Black artists did not invent assemblage.  In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp…”

And the other: “Thanks to white artists…assemblage was popular on the West Coast in the 1960s.”

It’s true that in its modern form, artists did develop assemblage, and those artists were white.   But together, these statements sound racially divisive – historically accurate or not.  Why note that black artists did not invent assemblage?  It adds little to the argument.  And why “thank” white artists?  Artists need attribution and credit, but not “thanks.”  All of this exacerbates the insufficiency of writing, “For these artists assemblage was an expression of freedom from conservative aesthetics and parochial social mores” and “It was the art of people who already were about as free as anyone could be.”  Schwitters was exiled!

Dale Brockman Davis, "Swept," 1970 (Blocker Collection, IMAGE: MoMA PS1).

Those are missteps, but the real controversy is in the closing.  “It divides viewers,” he writes, “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.”  Of course, you’d have to be a caveman to be oblivious to the struggle for black empowerment.  But this statement accommodates all kinds of identities, many of which share lifelong struggles.  Knowing that connection is the core of solidarity.  Nevertheless, “the black experience” goes unproven as primary experience for people who aren’t black, even with informed brains and warm hearts.  This view is skeletal in its pessimism, yet it produces a critical opinion that doesn’t call for getting sacked.  A role for artists to fulfill is to transpose realities, but Mr. Johnson doesn’t see that happening here.

The open letter correctly observes, “Rather than engage the historical work in the exhibition, Mr. Johnson states that he prefers the work of mostly contemporary black artists who have been widely validated, without acknowledging the social progress over the last 50 years that might allow for the next generation of artists to ‘complicate how we think about prejudice and stereotyping.’”

It continues, “In both pieces, Mr. Johnson suggests that a marginalized groups’ lack of success is due to their own failures and not those of the ‘predominantly white high-end art world.’ In doing so, his texts read as validations of stubborn inequities. Johnson replays stereotypes of inscrutable blackness and inadequate femininity in the guise of serious inquiry, but that inquiry never happens.”  -Actually, Mr. Johnson does single out sexism and the art world’s power to “embrace” and “lionize” – or not.  And both texts urge more inquiry.

Ken Johnson is not the best NYT art writer, and I wonder how his former teaching colleagues are responding.  And although controversy is vital, his mistakes here compromise the aspects of the greater questions.  Still, we shouldn’t silence him.  Better to see letters to the editor prominently featured or, more radically, another review from Roberta Smith or Holland Cotter.  No matter the outcome, debates about race, sex, power, and audiences will become more urgent in the coming crisis between museums and demographics.

UPDATE on 11/30/12: Anoka Faruqee, a co-author of the ipetitions text, has asked me to issue corrections to this blog post.  My central observations are accurate and there’s nothing to correct.  Still, I will change “The cover letter to the petition correctly observes” to “The open letter correctly observes”  and highlight the new words in red.  Ms. Faruqee states that her text constitutes an “open letter,” but not “a petition,” despite evidence to the contrary.


Not a petition


Still not a petition
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8 Responses to “The Ken Kontroversy”

  1. Anoka Faruqee says:

    Just to clarify, the open letter to the New York Times does not ask for the resignation of Ken Johnson, nor is it a personal attack on him. Perhaps one or two of its signers have suggested otherwise in a comments area, but those are the views of a few individuals, similar to this comments section where I make make my post. The open letter asks the New York Times to publicly acknowledge and address the problems with Ken Johnson’s arguments.

  2. Michael says:

    Anoka, thank you for responding to clarify the open letter. Many comments among the petition’s signatures call for Ken Johnson to get fired or replaced, as you’ve noted, and I pasted a few below. But it isn’t my view that the petition itself calls for his resignation.

    “Ken Johnson needs to be fired for his horrifically irresponsible, poor, lazy racist and misogynist writing. Hire one of the thousands of writers who could bring intelligence, insight and respect to the NY Times Arts section.”
    “There are a lot of outstanding underemployed art writers out there. Dear NYT, please get rid of this one as soon as possible.”
    “Find someone who’s not so invested in keeping the barbarians from the gates–find somebody who can interpret the contemporary art scene rather than serve as an apologist for it.”

  3. Anoka Faruqee says:

    Hi Michael, Thanks for your response. I think your overall analysis of the situation and the open letter is strong and measured. However, I just want to point out that focusing on the comments of just a few angry signers among almost 800 signatures, in your opening sentence, might lead some readers to think that the open letter itself , which I signed, calls for Ken Johnson’s resignation. In my opinion, those few hateful comments by signers should remain at the periphery of this conversation, and don’t deserve highlighting. If you don’t mind me speaking more broadly to the entire situation here, not specifically to your post, which I found mostly measured; I have been deeply saddened by some in the media and a large number of individuals who trivialize this conversation with their polarizing, name calling comments. It’s unfair and counterproductive to call Ken Johnson a racist. It’s unfair and counterproductive to call the open letter a witch hunt, which another blog does. If people can’t respectfully disagree in public about the possible interpretations of a text, without everyone turning the conversation into a blood bath, than we really are doomed. If each of us can’t begin to examine and bridge the very empathy gap that Ken Johnson names, than I give up, and I’ll go back to being silent.

  4. Michael says:

    Anoka, I agree with much of what you said. The open letter and petition don’t constitute a witch hunt. And Ken Johnson is not “a racist.” I also agree that my opening sentence might mislead readers in a hurry; and the “fire Ken” comments look marginal. But my sentence is accurate. Beyond that, I am interested in the challenging space between calling for resignation and calling for review. The letter clearly calls for the latter, but it first reached me via a facebook post urging the former. In my opinion, clarity depends on comments like yours – and some of those who signed the petition.

  5. Continuing Education Blog » Blog Archive » The Ken Kontroversy, Cont. says:

    […] Send stories, links & tips to $(function() { stopScroller(); }); « The Ken Kontroversy […]

  6. Continuing Education Blog » Blog Archive » Ken Kontroversy, Cont. says:

    […] Send stories, links & tips to $(function() { stopScroller(); }); « The Ken Kontroversy […]

  7. Anoka Faruqee says:

    Hi Michael, Thanks for making the change from “cover letter” to “open letter.” I was concerned that “cover letter” implied that the comments, that you quite opaquely refer to in your second sentence, and which are the views of individual signers, were part of the views of the open letter. Further, the open letter is administered by a website called “ipetition” which places the word petition all around the document. Maybe someone should start a site called “iopenletter?” However, the distinction between petition and open letter is embodied in the content of the letter. A petition generally calls for a specific concrete act such as to propose a ballot initiate or to call for someone’s firing. Given that the letter presents rather a set of arguments and asks for a public response from the Times, it’s more appropriate to call is an open letter. I agree that the framing of the letter strikes the wrong tone, and in the end framing does matter. Perhaps you are making that specific criticism? If so, I appreciate and agree with it. Though as our previous comments and correspondence indicate, I find your opening sentences unfortunate and dishonest. They may be “correct” in the letter of the law, but not so in the spirit.

  8. Continuing Education Blog » Blog Archive » Ken Kontroversy, 3rd Ed. says:

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