The Ken KontroversyNovember 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.
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).
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!
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.