PRINT Summer 1998


“Black Like Who?”

THE BAR-B-Q AT HARVARD was unexpectedly juicy. Delectable pulled pork, tangy ribs, and luscious chicken—with all the fixin’s—were served up beneath the pious eyes of those ethereal Northern European portal sculptures that have presided for generations over the serene proceedings within a hall named for Adolphus Busch, just off Harvard Yard. This piquant supper followed an edgy panel discussion titled “Black Like Who?,” one of several arranged by Ellen Phelan, James Cuno, Glenn Ligon, and Karen Dalton for the two-day conference “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke” (after Ralph Ellison), which was intended to incite discussion over the growing use of racist clichés in ostensibly progressive visual art. Indeed, there was enough high-caliber tension in Busch Hall that, as Cuno, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Museums, raised his glass to those assembled, he could only hope such a stereotypical carte du jour would not turn the stomachs of his dinner guests. Of course, there are things in this life that are just hard to swallow, including the dose of bitter medicine served up these last days. For this feast of extract of Harvard—between slaw and sauce—the centerpiece of conversation was as fixed as the menu: “What happens when you dine and identify with the oppressor?”

The Harvard summit baldly excavated the ugliest of resentments, and at a moment marked by the withering life of affirmative action on certain upscale campuses. But this conclave was more than just a droning academic rehearsal of antagonisms between the races. The “discussions” Phelan ingeniously symphonized carved open a heretofore cloistered polemic between young and old in the black art community itself and ended up showcasing private disagreements of the ilk you regret stumbling onto but then strain to overhear. It was apparent that the elders would be forced to confront celebrated images of pickaninnies and dripping watermelon, a form of culture they regard as too removed from the largesse of the Movement. If white folks were aware of the row, we had no idea of its magnitude—an ignorance that spoke volumes about how segregated the art world remains (and verified the real effect of multiculturalism in the academy as hovering a few degrees above zero). Artist and veteran figure within the black art community Betye Saar’s now infamous letter, put in circulation last year when Kara Walker’s MacArthur Award was announced, raised the question of how the community should react to whites subsidizing an “evil culture” of black self-degradation. Contemplating just how Walker, whose exhibition of stereotypical silhouettes at Harvard coincided with the panel discussion, should be skewered (as a racist? a sexist? both?) is, it turns out, only the tip of an animosity that runs low and wide inside the community.

Sitting in the sober, no-frills Norton Lecture Hall at the Fogg Art Museum, the audience for “Black Like Who?” comprised a set of racial demographics as uncommon as the evening’s panel was blustery: hordes of white faces were about to witness black-on-black culture war. Before the assembled crowd, long-established artists and historians, including Saar, Florence Ladd, and Edmund Barry Gaither, publicly diminished the accomplishments of Walker, Ligon, Lorna Simpson, and others, bewailing that they merely represent one more round of pageants sponsored by the art world and its plantation mentality. This earlier generation, guided by moral values honed during the civil rights movement, called on younger blacks to account for themselves when they did not use content that “restored dignity” and affirmed “black personhood.” Their otherwise respectful offspring seemed to be more than a little embarrassed by how out of it the heads of the family acted, and at least a little irked by the spectacle.

Emotions and righteous passion were way out of joint. Betye Saar was stoic and unflinching. “Coon art” was the only flavor naturally tasteful to the white art establishment, she declared, tying herself to the legacy of James Baldwin and his powerful description of black domestics stealing money that white homeowners expected them to take because it served to reinforce the white’s superiority and the black’s degradation. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute, however, reframed the work of Walker and Michael Ray Charles as “neo–coon art.” He proclaimed in a recent interview: “Only the visually illiterate could mistake [these artists’] postmodern critique as realistic portrayals and that is the difference between the racist original and the postmodern, anti-racist parody that characterizes this genre.” Peter Schjeldahl, who has lately joined Harvard’s adjunct faculty, graciously pointed out how some elders came into focus during the panels as little more than begrudging of Walker’s fresh MacArthur. There was as well an especially unwelcome line of questioning from an audience member, a mountain-man type who waited patiently at the open mike until his turn came. He wondered if Mammy, Uncle Tom, Step N’ Fetch It, and Sambo were candid enough to capture the shiftless character of all blacks. One should remember that Ted Kaczynski received his education at Harvard too.

The forty-eight hours quickly became an intricate tracery of unrelenting inquests into moral responsibility and a disquisition into the evil that images do. And while this dim morass was tricky to navigate, the guiding question of this culture war came to light: Does the work of the present generation of black artists possess the necessary artistic and intellectual collateral to confront the anguish and harm done by racism? The prodigy of the question, of course, already assumes the answer—that younger black artists are more transgressive in terms of representational strategies than racial activism, and therefore ill-equipped, period.

Occasionally, between bickering, the scattered voices of younger black artists could be heard urging us to consider whether history’s register had perhaps so shifted that racial and cultural transgression had successfully merged, becoming a singularly radical option heretofore closed off to their elders by an earlier strain of racism. The implications are obvious: racial politics has changed since the formation of the Black Arts Movement in the ’60s and has sufficient momentum to reassign this old project to the status of a minor satellite of historical revivalism. When black art does not “affirm black personhood,” it no longer necessarily means that the community has been abandoned or that younger artists have cashed in their own identities. No one was willing to chance that racism did anything but continue to ballast the art world, or for that matter endure in the real one. Nevertheless, everything suggests that racism has become more complex than Jimmy Manye’s “Irish coffee problem”—black on the bottom, white on the top, and a sprinkling of black faces like cinnamon on the foam—would have it.

From where I sat, deep in the “snow-packed” section, it seemed the younger voices had fully absorbed the passion that fuels Cornel West’s reflection on exhausted modes of radicality. Rather than the escalation of radicality, as the rhetoric of activism usually demands, he describes how the transgression of authority and construction of alternatives must be thought of as reinventing the form of radicality. Those younger black artists at Harvard hold the faith that they have gone some distance toward the kind of righteous reinvention West calls for. And they have.

Admittedly, this is not a territory entirely uncharted, for German painter Anselm Kiefer has produced some awfully baneful images in the name of cultural, historical, and yes, racial transgression. While he has not always been upheld in that decision, he has been successful, at least, in reawakening meditation on one of history’s most pessimistic passages—but not by virtue of his images’ content. No, we all grasp how the Nazis understood themselves the rightful heirs to a rugged Germanic gallantry. Kiefer’s triumphant is in the seditious chemistry of a heroic/tragic form he unearthed as much as concocted, that mysteriously evil beauty and lead gray and maddening ambience he lent to his dread subject. Remember that when his work first appeared some of the initiated could not see it for what it was: the reinvention of form in a territory historically outlawed. Then the culture wars ensued.

My conclusions about the Harvard quarrels are not fully formed; nevertheless I know precisely when they began to gel. It was the moment when Carrie Mae Weems stood in the Norton Lecture Hall to proclaim Lorna Simpson neutral territory. Simpson would be spared the special inquisition that was in store for Ligon and Walker and even Whitney curator Thelma Golden. “Lorna turns her back on it [racist stereotypes],” Weems pronounced, “and takes care of herself.” With knowing grins the audience clapped softly, nodding to one another as do ambassadors or cardinals when they wish to lend tacit approval to something they know nothing about. It is true that, among Walker, Ligon, or David Hammons, Simpson’s imagery is the least caustic, but to believe she has unproblematically “turned her back” on the stereotypes is as reductive as to be convinced that Kiefer paints his pictures to celebrate Nazi mastery. Hearing that Simpson is absent where the evil of images is concerned is to hear a voice untethered to the contemporary context—a voice whose rhetoric about racism is so polished and inflexible that its risk of exposure to ideological defoliation is extreme. It will be forever true that, among others, Weems’ and Saar’s audacity shifted and fractured the very footing of racism, and in turn made room for Simpson, but also Walker, Ligon, and Hammons. The reinvention of radical modalities West longed for has in fact taken place. Certain fresh black voices possess refined beliefs in racial and cultural equality, and therefore the determination to dislodge the present position of the first-generation Black Arts Movement by cannibalizing Step N’ Fetch It, those big old’ red lips, kinky hair, and them fat white teeth—radically reinventing monstrous form to betray racism by its own hand. This is not audacity in the face of the founders; it is necessity.

Note: I will not bring this to an end without acknowledging how self-interested it could seem to shade black versions of a quickening transgression with a “pale—male-stale” endorsement. But in the wake created by the sinking of the Multi-Culti Academy, this may also be the time to agree on a new “Friend or Foe” sign to detect racism when it is not sitting out in the open. And it rarely is.

Ronald Jones is an artist represented in New York by Metro Pictures and Sonnabend. He is chair of the Division of Visual Arts and director of the Digital Media Center in the School of the Arts, Columbia University.