TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT February 1999

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

To the Editor:
A few months ago I sent you a letter responding to Andrew Hultkrans’s wicked little article on LA art schools [“Surf and Turf,” Summer ’98]. As director of CalArts’ Program in Fine Arts, I was anxious to add my observations to the public debate. But unfortunately, you decided not to run it. I am writing this letter to protest your decision.

In my letter, I criticized Hultkrans for his sloppy journalism. His uncritical reliance on Charles Ray, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, and Richard Hertz helped advance the idea that Art Center and UCLA are the hottest art schools in the country, replacing CalArts, a once great school whose recent emphasis on politically correct art precipitated its declining reputation.

I asked, Why would Gilbert-Rolfe and Hertz try to injure CalArts’ reputation? I decided it was because they were getting old and they needed to do something to restore their youth. Perhaps they felt that by eulogizing CalArts they would immortalize themselves. But then I asked the second obvious question: Why would they use race and gender as the cause of its decline? This required a sober response. In today’s world it’s an easy, no-risk accusation. Matters of race and sex are easy to erase in our new-found conservative art-world Utopia, a world that tells me that there is no such thing as race; and there might be sex, but only the part that allows us to get laid. Race and gender have been neutralized by the term “politically correct.” This term has become the red scare of the ’90s, causing people to run for cover at its mere mention. I call it a “trap door” phrase. Any issue that is placed on top of it disappears.

But in my letter I took a “have you no shame” approach and questioned the propriety of discrediting a school because it is sensitive to race and gender, especially from individuals who have demonstrated their insensitivity to such interests. Additionally, I remarked that the programs that the accusers represent employ a dearth of women and minorities among their regular faculty. I also pointed out that at CalArts women make up a serious majority of our regular faculty, and we have three African Americans among the permanent ranks. I further noted that although we are the only one of the three institutions discussed in the article that is sensitive to race and gender in its hiring practices and curriculum, we nevertheless graduate artists whose interests are as diverse as artists anywhere. As a demonstration of this I listed fifteen artists who graduated between 1985 and 1988. Among them were Rachel Lachowicz, Cathie Opie, Liz Lamer, Richard Hawkins, Larry Johnson, and Nayland Blake.

When this letter was not printed, I initially felt fine about it because the responses that were printed uncovered many important flaws in Hultkrans’s highly partisan account. But later I found myself becoming outraged and frustrated. I don’t want to be misunderstood regarding my continuing outrage; it is not due to the fact that my letter was not printed, at least it is not that alone. It is more complex than that. My outrage is over a principle. Of the various letters your editorial staff selected to print, not one directly addressed the issues of race and gender. Since these were the central issues in my letter, I regarded its exclusion as simply another effort to silence a whining minority.

The editors at Artforum are highly sophisticated readers, which is why I cannot understand how you missed the implications of your action; by not including any letter that challenged the article’s dismissal of race, you also dismissed race as part of the debate, repeating the very shortcoming of Hultkrans’s article. Because good journalism demands it, you should have required that Hultkrans determine Hertz’s and Gilbert-Rolfe’s sensitivity to minority concerns. When I pointed out their insensitivity in my letter, you should have taken notice and given it the same attention that you gave some of the issues that you saw fit to print, such as Artforum’s ignominy because it has ignored Paul McCarthy, or the complaint that UCLA students are not dope addicts who spend their time partying to ear-numbing heavy metal music.

But perhaps I am being too harsh. What about Ronald Jones’s report on the debate at Harvard on art and race? [“Crimson Herring,” Sept. ’88]. Doesn’t this demonstrate that you are not silencing race? Although I thought Jones did a fine job, a subtle form of silencing nevertheless took place. A minority writer would have raised the issues in a different way. For example, as Jones reported, the conference addressed an accusation that Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and others used black stereotypes in their work, and this accounts for their popularity with the mainstream art world. Jones attempted to support their work by citing Anselm Kiefer, whose earlier investigations into German consciousness constituted a legitimating precedent for these artists’ provocative explorations into multivalent and fragmented identities.

But as Lorraine O’Grady said in her subsequent letter to the editor, what Kiefer did is different from the efforts of these young artists. In my view, their works articulate a postcolonial subjectivity; Kiefer’s “sein and dasein” is not postcolonial. Someone with my perspective would not have compared Kiefer to Walker or Ligon because to do so would perpetuate the old slave mentality by revising the historical record to fit a colonialist fiction.

For years I have argued that Kiefer is a white artist who was allowed to investigate German identity and history as it relates to a German consciousness and get away with it. But minority artists before him who attempted such an exploration of black identity were rebuked. In spite of this, issues of complex or fragmented identities were explored and developed by blacks as far back as DuBois, Fanon, Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and as recently as Toni Morrison. Visual artists like David Hammons, Mel Edwards, John Outterbridge, and the little-known Fred Brown did not produce a postcolonial subjectivity in their ’60s work, but they did predate Kiefer’s investigation of “man as a subject of history.” The paradoxical problem raised by Kiefer, the German as an autochthonous being or a historical construction, was an issue raised by black artists concerning their identity long ago.

My purpose in referring to the Jones article is to demonstrate how subtly race can be excluded, even with the best of intentions, and perhaps raise consciousness so that you might be more sensitive to other similar situations that will undoubtably cross your desk in the future.

Charles Gaines
Director, Program in Fine Arts
California Institute of the Arts
Los Angeles

Editor’s response:
Andrew Hultkrans’s article on the state of Los Angeles art schools drew a voluminous response from readers. Unfortuately, space is dear in our letters section. We thank everyone who passionately weighed in on Hultkrans’s essay, and regret that we were only able to publish a sample of the letters we received.

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FRANK VIEWS

To the Editor:
I am astounded by the countless messages in our environment—messages promoted by big-name companies, Hollywood stars, and other trendsetters—that I encounter on a daily basis. Advertisers are looking for ever more innovative ways to drum messages into people’s minds. At least judging by Thomas Frank’s article “Blasters of Deceit,” [Sept. ’98], we seem to be wising up to what is rapidly becoming a part of the average person’s reality. If this is true and people are getting smarter, why are careers in advertising shooting up, and becoming hotter by the minute? I don’t remember life without commercials, magazines, and billboards, and until I actually became a part of the business and saw the other side of this industry, I was swept away by the messages, as I assume most people are. Perhaps our getting wise means becoming aware of this problem.

One of the biggest concerns here should be the kind of society that we are creating for our children, who don’t know that they are part of a complex system of propaganda even as they buy into it. Children see these nonstop commercials, look at the strikingly designed packages of products,and feel deprived when they don’t get what they want. These messages go as far as causing youngsters to hurt themselves or each other out of jealousy or envy. Who wins here? The victor is the advertising agencies and the makers of the product. They get their profits, while innocent children are damaged by the media.

Frank’s article raises important issues that consumers should think about, questions about our notions of decency and our expectations as rational human beings. We need to understand the difference between the reality we live in and the kind of reality the media projects. Perhaps Frank’s column can make us aware that we need to get our priorities straight, so we can focus on more important issues than which of the eight hundred brands of shampoo on the market is the best or hippest.

Jenny Kriheli
New York

To the Editor:
Your September Slant column, filled with Thomas Frank’s “Blasters of Deceit,” stayed with me like a badly digested meal. Mr. Frank’s critical pose toward advertising media inverts and adopts the very voice employed by that media. If this is intentional, then he is merely a cynic royally echoing the sophisticated wise-guy stance used by Madison Avenue. If it is unintentional, then the power wielded by advertising media is even more insidious than Mr. Frank suggests. In either case, the process of globalizing consumer culture should be feared.

Frank indicates that the populace has been “aroused against fakeness” and that the marketers “exalt . . . the audience’s skepticism.” He knows that advertising media capitalize on that skepticismin the manipulation of the public. Frank also acknowledges the new wave of media columns and the “proliferation of media and advertising critics” and that this criticism simply serves to “fuel the machine.” This legitimating pose of critique winds up “serving the industry as a gratis focus group.”

Here’s the problem. There seems to be no idea that cannot be subverted to the processes of profit. Frank seems to point to the fact that the very act of writing a critical column about advertising legitimates it as a serious object of critical study: It accelerates the public’s acceptance of the media and aids the effectiveness of these media. On the other hand, the goals of advertising media are also advanced by a lack of critical examination. Like any process unheeded, the business of creating consumer desire would expand its parameters to include everyone and everything. This, I feel, would be at the expense of deep culture: art, literature, performance. Frank’s column can do nothing but further the concerns of advertising media while the writer’s understanding of this convoluted process remains ineffective in containing it as an object of critical study. Speaking to this issue aids the forces named. To not deal with it in print or otherwise is to set it free.

I feel like I’m living in an Escher print: neither going up or down nor knowing why each is the same in spite of my attempts to orient myself. Thomas Frank is similarly trapped. Society will pay dearly if it continues to grow ever more confused about wants and needs. Culture will become the thin veneer of slick advertising. Everything will be business as usual if the public remains complicit in reducing life to buying and selling.

Albert John Mulder
New York