PRINT October 2002




To the Editor:

“Blubber-lips, hot-dog lips, Sambo lips. They used to call them ‘nigger lips’ in the South (and probably still do) . . . ”

I'm not sure how to respond to Jan Avgikos's parenthetical aside regarding southern tendencies toward the use of the term “nigger lips” in her review of the Ellen Gallagher show at the Drawing Center [Reviews, Summer 2002].

I can assure Avgikos that the word is uttered no more frequently (and certainly no less) south of the Mason-Dixon line than it is to the north. Does she really think racism is stronger in Memphis or Atlanta than it is in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles? It is 2002, and it is widely held that it is no longer legitimate to print stereotypical aspersions regarding Jews, Mexicans, African-Americans, homosexuals, etc. It apparently is still acceptable in the pages of Artforum to cast the people of the South as a bunch of “nigger lips”-uttering bigots. What's next? Maybe Avgikos will write in a Brice Marden review about toothless southerners, drunk on moonshine, having sex with their cousins by the light of a burning cross.

Hamlett Dobbins

Jan Avgikos responds:

If it matters, and I think does, I'm one of those “people of the South” you're rushing to defend—born and raised in Louisiana (which, on the map, is just a tad deeper than Tennessee). When I comment on the South and racism in the context of writing about art, I'm not just whistling Dixie. Where you get off as the self-anointed spokesperson for everyone born below the Mason-Dixon line escapes me, but let me congratulate you anyway, Hamlett, for stepping up to defend the honor of “the people of the South”—only, sorry, we don't need it.

Sounds to me you've got a bone to pick that has nothing to do with my writing or Ellen Gallagher's art. You're apparently so threatened about how the good people of the South come off in my review that you mistake a personal reminiscence for a totalizing point of view—even though I wrote nothing to suggest, even remotely, that all southerners are bigots. (As we know, however, the South can grow 'em pretty big.) You seem to miss the point entirely that I was recounting my own past experiences—as triggered by Ellen Gallagher's provocative art and her quite irreverent representation of the “race issue.” She startled and delighted me, and my impulse was to establish a first-person voice in response to the personal nature of the work.

You bring up another matter concerning the idea of what's “legitimate” and the sorts of languages, visual and verbal, that are “appropriate” to art. I would agree that in many instances in everyday life it is legitimate, necessary, and right to eschew the slang, the colorful and off-color remarks, the “common talk.” It's important that we, as a society, protect neutral discursive spaces in our schools, churches, governmental institutions, courts, and so forth.

Art, however, is different—and that includes the collaborative act of writing about art. I don't give a rat's ass for legitimacy—not the kind you promote, which would have artists and writers worrying about the impossibility of not offending anyone. Art is not a place for restraint, for decorum, for worrying about legitimacy, political correctness, or appropriateness. The sort of art I have in mind is not for children, not for the uninitiated—and maybe not for you, either. It doesn't exhibit well at shopping malls; it doesn't appeal to the pillars of the community or those whose persuasions match Jesse Helms's. It doesn't represent the status quo, the greatest common good, or the lowest common denominator. Art doesn't have to justify itself by being inspirational, edifying—or even right or true.

And, by the way, if we can't talk about real life in the pages of the magazine, then we can't begin to talk about art either.