Artistic License

Among the most pressing issues making America horrible on Independence Day was that the women who played for the United States soccer team were paid a mere fraction of what the men were paid, even though they were far more successful in their World Cup challenge. It was so horrible that the New York Times felt compelled to call it out as an example of America’s awfulness, the sexism permeating our society.

Except there is an actual reason for it, as is obvious to anyone not seeking an example of sexism. Women’s soccer isn’t nearly as popular as men’s soccer, doesn’t earn anywhere near the same money and, consequently, can’t pay what it doesn’t make. The problem isn’t sexist pay scales, but lack of public interest. Like it or not, you can’t force people to be fans of women’s soccer. People watch and attend the sporting events they prefer. They’re just not that into it.

That same problem affects art, and its relationship to race, as well. There have long been complaints that female and minority artists have been closed out of exhibitions, and therefore can’t get their work seen by the public. If the public can’t see it, they can’t love it. If their work isn’t seen because curators favor work by white male artists, then they have a strong argument. So the Whitney put on a show.

The curators were a black woman and a white woman, and a majority of the artists they featured were people of color. Half were women; many were young.

Their work was on the walls, but there remained a problem. Most of us know what we like, but tend to appreciate art more when we’re told it’s good and important. Let’s face it, art often eludes us groundlings. We don’t really get it unless someone tells us we should. And so we turn to art critics to bless the work so we know we’re supposed to “ooh” and “aah” over it.

“It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a renaissance in black artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored black artists for decades?” the art critic Antwaun Sargent tweeted in May.

As it turns out, the six most “respected” art critics in America are white.

When Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker described photographs by John Edmonds as “slang,” some readers wondered if he did so only because the artist and his subjects were black. After Deborah Solomon of WNYC called “white supremacy” a “tired academic slogan” in her positive review of the artist Nicholas Galanin’s “White Noise, American Prayer Rug,” he challenged her online.

But is this racism or just the inability of white art critics to understand black art?

“The problem is not that these critics lack some essential connection with the work of artists of color,” the art critic Aruna D’Souza said in an interview. “It’s that many of them simply are not familiar with the intellectual, conceptual and artistic ideas that underlie the work.”

On the one hand, it’s unclear what this means. Does one have to have either “some essential connection” or a familiarity with the conceptual ideas to decide whether the thing on the wall is good art, bad art or art at all? On the other hand, does the race of the reviewer change the value of their assessment?

To be sure, people of color did review the show. But their work was much less visible than that of the white reviewers, a dynamic shaped by the perception that the opinions of people of color are not universal.

This matters because culture is a battleground where some narratives win and others lose. Whether we believe someone should be locked in a cage or not is shaped by the stories we absorb about one another, and whether they’re disrupted or not. At a time when inequality and white supremacy are soaring, collective opinion is born at monuments, museums, screens and stages — well before it’s confirmed at the ballot box.

Whether the dominant art critics deserve to be more respected than any other art critic is beyond my pay grade. I have no clue why they hold sway, or why the ones whose voices are heard from the most prominent soapboxes are white. Maybe there is racism and sexism involved, or maybe they’re just the voices that stood out from the crowd.

But nobody is going to pay money to the Whitney to see art they don’t want to see because of competing narratives about whether someone should be locked in a cage. This leads, apparently, to the third tier of artistic racism, beyond the wall space and the critics’ voices: what people like to see.

Consider how this played out around the movie “Green Book.” When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, most of the reviewers heralded it as a heartwarming triumph over racism.

But two months later, when it started screening in movie theaters across America, black writers saw it as another trite example of the country’s insatiable appetite for white-savior narratives.

Movies are a little easier to absorb than works on a wall, and appreciation of the criticism of K. Austin Collins at Vanity Fair didn’t require much effort.

The example of “Green Book” shows how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on. We need culture writers who see and think from places of difference and who are willing to take unpopular positions so that ideas can evolve or die.

But was the popularity of the movie due to, or despite, culture warriors, or did people just like it? Maybe it was because of our country’s “insatiable appetite for white-savior narratives,” or maybe it was just a good movie. Whether it’s space on a museum’s wall, or zeroes on a soccer player’s paycheck or the inadequacy of every movie to include at least one marginalized lead character, the narratives aren’t going to get people to watch, go or pay. We do that because we want to. If you want prominence, stop complaining and make us want to.

14 thoughts on “Artistic License

  1. paleo

    “At a time when inequality and white supremacy are soaring”

    No, they aren’t. That narrative, along with Hitler!, is getting really tiresome.

    America is less racist than it’s ever been. You’re roughly my age (I think), so you’ve seen the progress across our lifetimes. And consider the progress from 60 years before our lives began until now. We’re at a stage where we’ve got to use stuff like this and “OMG, a white girl wore her hair in cornrows” and “OMG, a frat boy wore a sombrero” as examples of how racist we are. Back when we were young, “people liked a movie because it had a white savior narrative” would have ranked about #874,265 on the list of racist things you could point to.

    Is America completely without racism? No. Will it ever be? No. There are 330 million people here – and 7 billion on the planet – and inevitably, in populations that large there are going to be people of ill will. But crap like this isn’t helping. Show me something that’s really doing harm, and I’ll get mad about it and try to help fix it if I can. Otherwise, stuff like this is just making people tune out……

  2. Fubar

    Does one have to have either “some essential connection” or a familiarity with the conceptual ideas to decide whether the thing on the wall is good art, bad art or art at all?

  3. phv3773

    The Fine Arts are a bit like Classical Music, of interest only to small circle of devotees. Taking a wider view on the musical side, we see the huge successes of Motown and Hip Hop when the genres were accepted by the general audience. An artist in any genre is only going to have great success if his work appeals the many.

    I can remember complaints from years ago that Frank Rich had too much power as the Times theater critic, so, nothing new.

  4. Sacho

    “To be sure, people of color did review the show. But their work was much less visible than that of the white reviewers, a dynamic shaped by the perception that the opinions of people of color are not universal.”

    This is said negatively, but isn’t it their whole argument in reverse? If opinions of people of color are “universal”, why wouldn’t their art be? If their art is universal, why can’t it be understood and critiqued by them white folk? You can’t claim to be both universal and exceptional.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is a tacit expectation that black reviewers will promote black art based on black narratives. That may prove suspect, as I suspect that many black reviewers will demonstrate the same integrity as others and promote what’s good for no better reason than it’s good. And that would, I hope, be universal. To many people, particularly activists, damn their own with the soft prejudice of low expectations.

  5. David

    First, not to miss the point but because you mentioned soccer at the start, given the popularity of women’s world cup soccer, even though lower, is high enough that arguments similar to women’s tennis seem to make sense. Not saying professional soccer leagues need to pay the same, but US national team should.
    Second, if one thinks there should be more physicians, surgeons, lawyers, engineers, etc. of colour okay, but you need people to get the appropriate degrees and professional qualifications. Not that being a critic is as important nor has lives at risk, but I would hope that, among the few organizations actually paying critics something (not much I assume!), they look at qualifications other than skin colour such as having studied art or written about it – including unpaid on the Internet if someone wants to expose others to their ideas.

  6. B. McLeod

    The problem is that people who are wealthy but lack confidence in whether they themselves are anything but frauds have to have someone to tell them what art to like, and what wine to like, and what food to like, and what clothes to like, and what cars to like, and what movies to like. The whole thing is just a giant, “Emperor’s New Clothes” fiasco.

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