When I go look at art, I don’t read the descriptive text until I’ve decided the work merits my attention. The creations have got to stand on their own (in my subjective assessment) before I spend any time learning about the artist.
That’s why I missed the footnote about Jimmie Durham. The artist, who has a retrospective at the Walker Art Center, identifies as Cherokee. On the wall of the gallery there’s short paragraph below the introduction to the exhibit:
Note: While Durham self-identifies as Cherokee, he is not recognized by any of the three Cherokee Nations, which as sovereign nations determine their own citizenship. We recognize that there are Cherokee artists and scholars who reject Durham’s claims of Cherokee ancestry.
Talk about burying the lede.
The gallery footnote absolutely shifted my perception of the work. I found it all appealing on first blush, but the truth of his identity made his claim to be Cherokee feel like a self-granted license to appropriate — and it greatly undermined my appreciation of the work. I’d have called it wry and well constructed but upon further research into the artist’s background, it all felt stolen.
Every day I post and write about Native artists. That’s my job, and something I love doing since there are so many compelling Native artists whom the world should know about. But the ignore-him-and-he’ll-go-away approach has not worked or done anything to stanch the steady flow of articles, essays, and books positioning Jimmie Durham not just as a Native American, but the Native artist that the rest of us would do well to emulate.
In January, Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum launched an ambitious traveling retrospective, “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” which just opened at the Walker and will continue to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Remai Modern. I waited and hoped for someone else to voice a protest, but finally James Luna (Luiseño), Nancy Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache), and myself all realized we had to speak up.
The Whitney Museum was recently the center of a protest about the work of painter Dana Schultz when the museum chose to exhibit a painting of Emmet Till. The artist, who is white, claimed license to paint Till — a black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi — as a figure that represents the pain of all mothers who have lost a child. Black families, artists, and activists begged to differ.
Durham’s retrospective is scheduled to go the Whitney next.
There’s Adley Penner, a West Oakland musician who lives in a shed with Styrofoam walls. There’s also Theo Williams, of the musical group Sambafunk!, who was drumming at Lake Merritt one day when a man approached and asked if they had a permit, pulled the drumsticks from his hands, and called the police. And then there’s writer Tara Marsden, who ditched a full-time job at a tech company in San Francisco and moved across the bay to focus on her art — but now struggles financially and has had to move five times in recent years.
In a sprawling essay at Guernica, writer and journalist Katherina Grace Thomas turns a lens on the three years Nina Simone spent in Liberia in the mid-1970s. Thomas paints a portrait of the nation before its Civil War, teeming with opulence and possibility. Black Americans like Simone, as well was artists and political leaders from newly independent countries in Africa, flocked to Liberia to exchange ideas and enjoy the high life at late-night discotheques.
At the start of the summer I turned down an invitation from a friend to see a play in Manhattan called 3/Fifths. Written and produced by James Scruggs, a black man, featuring a mostly black cast, 3/Fifths is a work of interactive theater that immerses its audience in a dystopian theme park called SupremacyLand. The actors mill about the stage wearing mammy costumes or blackface. They tie ropes into nooses and stand behind prison bars while encouraging the audience to join in on race-themed carnival games. The goal is, to me, straightforward satire, and 3/Fifths seems earnest enough. Theater-goers can experience what it feels like to walk around in a heightened, racially-charged world with the hope they can connect the dots between past and present horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.
I didn’t really feel like spending an evening like that. Living as a black woman in the aftermath of the presidential election, unable to block out the news cycle of police shootings, acquittals, and assaults, my nervous system is frayed enough by new and old wounds. I’m in my thirties with a job, student debt, dreams still on the horizon, aging parents, family spread out all over the country, and a niece about to go to college. I don’t need a simulacrum of my experiences to understand what’s at stake.
The use of satire and comedy to have difficult conversations about race has a long history and isn’t problematic in and of itself. Kara Walker does it in silhouette and sculpture; playwright Branden Jacob-Jenkins did it in his play An Octoroon; Ishmael Reed has done it in his novels; Dave Chappelle became a household name doing it. It’s just that on the day of the invitation I was feeling exhausted, more in need of fun and laughter than anything else. When I declined, I said something to my friend like, “Take me to the show the playwright makes about black joy.”
Just a couple of months before, I learned of the visual artist Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, then on display at the Whitney Biennial, from the writer and artist Hannah Black’s widely-circulated open letter to the curators, which was co-signed by 47 artists, curators, and critics. I knew of Black’s work from an essay she wrote in the White Review that touched on Brandy’s 2002 album Full Moon. Brandy is probably one of the most important American pop vocalists of the past thirty years, and is underappreciated in the mainstream. Black’s piece treated Brandy’s work with the care I felt she deserved, so I felt a sense of trust in Black’s approach to black aesthetics. In her letter, Black demands the removal of Schutz’s painting, an abstraction of a 1955 photograph of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till in his coffin at his funeral. His bludgeoned, disfigured face is rendered in impressionistic brush strokes.
Schutz — a white woman born in 1976 in a suburb of Detroit, and educated at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Columbia University — does not own the subject matter, Black argues.
Although Schutz’s intention may be to present white shame, this shame is not correctly represented as a painting of a dead Black boy by a white artist — those non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material. The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights. The painting must go.
Black goes on to explain the reverence that black Americans have for Till.
Emmett Till’s name has circulated widely since his death. It has come to stand not only for Till himself but also for the mournability (to each other, if not to everyone) of people marked as disposable, for the weight so often given to a white woman’s word above a Black child’s comfort or survival, and for the injustice of anti-Black legal systems. Through his mother’s courage, Till was made available to Black people as an inspiration and warning.
It was, after all, Till’s grieving mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted her son’s remains be returned to Chicago after his lynching in Money, Mississippi and drowning in the Tallahatchie River. It was his mother who demanded his remains be displayed in an open casket during a funeral that was widely photographed. She wanted the world to “see what she had seen,” to bear witness to the horror, to grieve for her boy. Only the black publications Jet and the Chicago Defender published the photos. The image enraged and emboldened black folks, and it is considered among a long list of catalysts for the Civil Rights activism of the mid-twentieth century.
In “Getting In and Out,” Zadie Smith writes about the consumption of black pain for Harper’s by looking at Schutz’s painting and Jordan Peele’s film Get Out. Smith doesn’t mention Emmett Till much, and she doesn’t mention his mother, without whom we would have nothing to discuss. Smith never writes the words “Tallahatchie River,” nor does the word “Mississippi” appear. She says that Schutz’s painting didn’t provoke any profound feeling in her when she went to see it at the Biennial, and that doesn’t surprise me; it’s a mediocre painting, technically fine but emotionally removed. What surprises me about Smith’s essay is that she questions the “logic” and sentiment of Black’s letter, and writes it off as absurd. I found Black’s letter heartfelt. Its request that the “painting be destroyed and not entered into any market or museum” felt less important to me than her care for Emmett Till’s story, and the ongoing, present-day brutality against black bodies.
I think the conversation about race in America is a shared one, with multiple points of entry. In my mind pretty much anyone can talk about it, or make art about it, because everyone is somehow a part of it — impacted, implicated, or some combination therein. Race doesn’t really matter here in a straightforward sense. It’s too arbitrary a construction, as Smith painstakingly points out, and complicated by too many factors.
I was born in Memphis in the 1980s, so I am both a black American and southern. I remember the story of Till told to me as a child by adults who still used hushed voices. I went to integrated public schools, and then university on the east coast, and have a middle class life. I have always moved among blacks and whites, Latinx and Asians, and everybody else freely. My mother was also born in Memphis, but she remembers colored water fountains, trips to the zoo only on feeding days when there were no animals to see, swimming pools that were drained instead of integrated. Her sense of racial terror is at once more at the surface and deeper than mine—there are things she fears that I never will. She remembers Till’s lynching. My grandmother was born in the Mississippi Delta, picked cotton, and had a male cousin who was lynched. So the story of racial suffering is my grandmother’s even more than my mother’s or mine. We could go on like this, parsing out generational differences and class dynamics forever.
About Zadie Smith: I love her. I have considered her one of my favorite contemporary writers for at least a decade. In her third novel, On Beauty, she talks about American blackness in a way that doesn’t feel offensive or removed as if she thought us boorish. Her 2009 essay “Speaking in Tongues,” where she lets herself gush over Obama’s ability to code switch, and “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?” are two of my favorite pieces of writing of all time. Writing about her first encounter with Zora Neale Hurston’s book, I love how Smith is able to be her critical, writerly self, and still engage with her blackness, bringing all parts to the page to create this beautiful cohesive whole.
Fact is, I am a black woman, and a slither of this book goes straight into my soul, I suspect, for that reason. And though it is, to me, a mistake to say, “Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel,” it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem “extraliterary.” Those aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God that plumb so profoundly the ancient buildup of culture reside that is (for convience’s sake) called “Blackness” are the parts that my own “Blackness,” as far as it foes, cannot help but respond to personally. At fourteen I couldn’t find words (or words I liked) for the marvelous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of the speech…She is my sister and I love her.
But in the Harper’s essay, except in the places where she talks about the genius of Jordan Peele and the black artists at the Biennial whose work was overshadowed by the Schutz controversy, it doesn’t really feel like Smith is engaging in the subject matter with much care or heart. It disappointed me. I do not think it is because she is British-born and I am African American. She said in the piece that she assumed a transnational black identity when questioning herself about whether she was black enough to commemorate Till in a piece of art. I agree with parts of this. Blackness has long been a transnational project, a conversation that transverses and troubles national boundaries.
It is just that the question is wrong. All human beings have rights, in my mind, to the vast array of human experiences. But why does it seem like everyone wants to mine black pain? When I think about work like Open Casket and 3/Fifths, what I wonder is whether there any rules, or any sense of decorum around our experiences. Does anyone pause before making this type of work, or have reverence for it? Do they consider who may be hurt or exhausted by it if it is rendered incompletely? What are the goals of the work? The work that the 1955 photographs of Emmet Till did in Jet is clearly different from the work Open Casket could do at the Whitney. I wonder, what is the point? I also wonder, what is sacred?
I don’t know why Smith seems so removed in her Harper’s piece. When she talks about the paranoia of blacks, an “indulgence” that Get Out exploits, or says that white people revile black bodies less in 2017 than they did a half century ago, I honestly don’t know what to think. I do not know what white folks in America think of me now — some times it feels like nothing and sometimes it feels like utter disdain. When I hear of a young black woman from my university waking up to bananas strung up on her campus with nooses, when I hear Diamond Reynolds crying “You just killed my boyfriend,” despite all of my attempts to avoid that footage, I know it isn’t as simple as love and happiness and friendship and being the “same people.” So when Hannah Black got together with a bunch of other art world folks to stage their intervention, I listened because it felt like care.
Zadie Smith is entitled to her experiences; her writerly exploration of race can be rendered how she feels it must and I will still think of her as my sister. But I wished she had engaged this subject matter with her heart. I needed her to think of the logic of Black’s letter from a place of shared pain, shared experiences, and shared anger. I needed her to really listen to it, before dismantling it.
Fear is as much of a medium for Philippe Petit as is balance, poise, and control in his high wire act. In his death-defying walks across the Grand Canyon and between the World Trade Center towers, Petit bent fear to his will. At Lapham’s Quarterly, Petit reflects on what a lifetime of fear has meant to his art, and how he has faced fear on the wire and off.
Before my high-wire walk across the Seine to the second story of the Eiffel Tower, the seven-hundred-yard-long inclined cable looked so steep, the shadow of fear so real, I worried. Had there been an error in rigging calculations? No. I had just forgotten how high were my expectations, how mad I was to have conceived such a project. On the spot I vanquished my anxiety by imagining the best outcome: my victorious last step above a cheering crowd of 250,000.
If imagination does not work, turn to the physical side of things. Give yourself a time-limit ultimatum: start counting! Yes, choose a number—not too high—and when you hear footsteps on your porch at three am, unfreeze your trepidation by whispering to yourself, “At ten, I open the door! One, two, three, four…”
A clever tool in the arsenal to destroy fear: if a nightmare taps you on the shoulder, do not turn around immediately expecting to be scared. Pause and expect more, exaggerate. Be ready to be very afraid, to scream in terror. The more delirious your expectation, the safer you will be when you see that reality is much less horrifying than what you had envisioned. Now turn around. See? It was not that bad—and you’re already smiling.
With the publication of two books and new gallery showings featuring photographer Diane Arbus, Hilton Als explores her work, writings, artistic motivation, and uncanny ability to capture on film the humanity of the “freaks” — the marginalized people — who were the subjects of her work. Read his piece at the New York Review of Books.
Arbus’s photographs were elegant, too—classically composed and cool—but they were on fire with what difference looked like and what it felt like as seen through the eyes of a straight Jewish girl whose power lay in her ability to be herself and not herself—different—all at once. The story she told with her camera was about shape-shifting: in order to understand difference one had to not only not dismiss it, but try to become it. “I don’t like to arrange things,” Arbus once said. “If I stand in front of something, instead of arranging it, I arrange myself.”
As Arbus went on, though, she became more and more interested in the drama of the self as it appeared not only to her through her lens (her magic portal) but to her subject. No visual artist of the twentieth century has described with more accuracy the enormous pride her characters, certainly in the early pictures, feel at having risked all to become themselves—selves they could not lock up, or hide, or resist being recorded despite the pain of being marginalized in their daily life.
Arbus made pictures that grew out of and described the loneliness we are all taught to be ashamed of and should try to “fix” through conventional connections—marriage, children, and so on.2 Arbus’s “I”—the eye behind her camera—was unabashed loneliness, looking to connect, if only because she understood what it felt like not to. She wanted to see the world whole, which meant seeing and accepting the fractures in those connections, too, along with all that could not be fixed. When she started taking pictures of drag queens and interracial couples, homosexuality was illegal, and miscegenation was still met with violence or derision.
Unless you’re a millionaire or a member of a royal family, you might not have heard of painter Ralph Wolfe Cowan, but if you’ve seen a picture of the Donald Trump portrait that hangs in Mar-a-Lago, you know his work. For Oxford American, Nicole Pasulka spent a weekend with the Maestro, visited Mar-a-Lago to see his handiwork in situ, and learned the basics of the kind of celebrity flattery that lets an artist charge a cool quarter-million per portrait.
When Cowan was a boy in Portsmouth, Virginia, his three brothers would go see cowboy movies on Saturdays. He chose the Technicolor musicals showing across the street instead. From an early age, he found that portraiture was the perfect way to combine his passions for painting and celebrity. “I used to love going to the movies and seeing Maureen O’Hara in all these pirate movies and the big ships,” he told me. “I said, one of these days I was going to grow up and meet all these people and paint their portraits—and I did.”
In the 1950s he painted Debbie Reynolds in casual attire and Liz Taylor in white silk pajamas. The three of them would hang out together in Miami Beach, Los Angeles, and New York City before Taylor ran off with Reynolds’s husband, Eddie Fisher. Cowan wanted to paint Betty Grable, but he says by the time he met her she couldn’t afford it. Elvis paid for his eight-foot-tall portrait with $10,000 in cash and carried it home before the paint was dry. When country singer Kenny Rogers was newly divorced and feeling unsexy, Cowan painted him in a coat that concealed his waistline “and I put a big dick down there,” he said.
In a revealing memoir piece at New York Magazine, Jerry Saltz — the magazine’s art critic — retraces his early years as an artist in 1970s Chicago (spolier alert: it didn’t work out). It’s a gripping read not just for artists and art lovers, but for anyone who’s ever grappled with the tricky interplay of productivity, mediocrity, and coming to terms with one’s own limitations. Despite his failure to build a career as an artist, I loved how absurdly (admirably?) ambitious his plans were for his magnum opus: composing 100 illustrated altarpieces for each of Dante’s Divine Comedy cantos, for a total of 10,000:
I began my “Inferno” project just before dawn on the Thursday before Easter 1975, because Maundy Thursday is when Dante’s story begins in the poem — lost in “the dark wood of error,” having strayed from the “true way.” I planned to finish on Easter, the same day Dante finished his own journey, in 1300. I would finish in 2000, by which time I would have made 100 opening-and-closing altarpieces for each of the 100 cantos of The Divine Comedy. The 10,000 finished altarpieces were supposed to represent an idea of the infinite and a way to set myself free. Why Dante? Especially as I barely read at all and didn’t believe in God? I think because The Divine Comedy, which is a gigantic organized allegorical system where every evil deed is punished in accord with the law of equal retribution and divine love, supplied me with the formulated structure I craved. The highly established internal architectonics, the almost primitive definitiveness, what Beckett called the “neatness of identification,” were psychological shelter and weapons of revenge for me. A way to right my own world, to grasp an order like that in the Bible: “all things by measure and number and weight.” Most of all, it was a vision of justice — the good being rewarded and the bad getting their punishments.
I never acted on my mother’s suggestion that I find a nice creative job, like in advertising, but then the job came to me anyway. An art-director friend called and said she was making a TV commercial for Barneys New York and she needed some words. Would I do it?
I didn’t hesitate for a second. Why not? What is the difference between art and advertising?
Quality? Clearly not. The only difference I could come up with for sure was the logo. I was an adman from that day forward, and somehow it gave me the resources to do what I thought was art—with a logo.
I had always been interested in the neutral zone, the DMZ of art and commerce, and now I was working there. It was a place where I could push the limits, mainly because I was so unfamiliar with the limits. Like Iggy, I didn’t feel like a sellout, I felt empowered. If you’re going to be a bad boy, be bad: like Bob Dylan talking to the computer in the IBM ad. Don’t tell me he wasn’t savoring the transgression of the whole thing.
At The Guardian, George Saunders reflects on his writing process. The magical, romantic notion where fully formed art leaps from the author’s brain on to the page? It dishonors the writer, the reader, and the work. In reality, it takes “hundreds of drafts” and “thousands of incremental adjustments” to form a story into a “hopeful thing.”
We often discuss art this way: the artist had something he “wanted to express”, and then he just, you know … expressed it. We buy into some version of the intentional fallacy: the notion that art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.
The actual process, in my experience, is much more mysterious and more of a pain in the ass to discuss truthfully.
How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.
The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?
The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.
And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.
Why do I feel this to be a hopeful thing? The way this pattern thrillingly completed itself? It may just be—almost surely is—a feature of the brain, the byproduct of any rigorous, iterative engagement in a thought system. But there is something wonderful in watching a figure emerge from the stone unsummoned, feeling the presence of something within you, the writer, and also beyond you – something consistent, wilful, and benevolent, that seems to have a plan, which seems to be: to lead you to your own higher ground.