New York

Focus: “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art”

Whitney Museum of American Art

In the Whitney the women do not
come and go
Talking of Hopper or Rothko

THE WOMEN WHO CIRCULATE most prominently at the Whitney these days are its daring curators: the ’93 Biennial, spearheaded by Elisabeth Sussman, and “Black Male,” curated by Thelma Golden, are the most visible signs of a change at the museum. Indeed the controversy surrounding such shows has defined the public perception that the museum’s collective mind is set on a revisionary course.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?

With this question T. S. Eliot turned his anxious doppelgänger J. Alfred Prufrock into an agent of the avant-garde, a universal icon of high Modernism. As Whitney director David Ross and his colleagues steer the flagship of “American” art through the squalls of the culture wars, they interrogate a deeply rooted legacy of that Modernist heritage—what Eliot defined as art’s “impersonality.” The notion of impersonality rests on the assumption that artistic value is transmitted through the “immanence” of tradition. Cultural judgment, in this reading, is the self-regulating activity of a deeply ingrained core or canon that defies time; its invisibility at any particular moment is only the sign of its subterranean vigilance across time, tradition, and history. Pioneering a questioning of the assumptions of a national canon within the museum, Ross has inspired his colleagues to interrupt the esthetic norms of impersonality and to face the material and ideological constraints that define questions of “taste” and “quality.”

Impersonality locates the esthetic realm in a kind of sublime of the synchronous. As Robert Hughes describes it in a discussion of literature (intended as a paradigm for art) in The Culture of Complaint, it consists of a “sense of quality, of style, of measure [that] is not an imposition . . . from the domain of class, race or gender. It lives independently of group stereotypes. Every writer carries in his or her mind an invisible tribunal of dead writers, whose appointment is an imaginative act and not merely a browbeaten response to some notion of authority.”l In this sense impersonality endorses the “new” (or, for that matter, the domain of difference) by placing it within a cultural continuum, in a process of evaluation that attempts to assimilate and homogenize the cultural disjunctions and contradictions through which “minority” subjects experience their historical disadvantage and articulate their aspirations. Such a regulation of difference at the national level complements the “unlocated” cosmopolitanism inherent in the international style of Modernist tradition.

Without grasping the importance of the invisible tribunal of “impersonality” it becomes difficult to understand the negative judgments that have greeted the Whitney’s innovative if sometimes tentative attempts to change the demographic definition, and the communitarian consensus, around what it means to represent the art of the Americas. Why does Hughes consider the artistic prerogatives of class, race, and gender to be no more than the cultures of complaint? Why does Hilton Kramer continue to perceive the Whitney—and the “Black Male” exhibition in particular—as “completely irrelevant for the artists and those among the public who continue to be more interested in artistic quality than in political outreach”?2

These attempts to protect and purify the domain of esthetic pleasure and instruction by casting the representation of social difference into the spheres of political theory and therapy constitute a misguided mission, however valiantly and vitriolically undertaken. Class, race, and gender, like the affective affiliations established within youth cultures through new technological, media, and music networks, are social realities that can no longer be assigned only to the perverse hermeneuts of post-Structuralism, or to the cabals of ideological curators and tendentious art-theorists. What are often called the “politics of identity” or “politics of difference” represent the emergence of artistic and social communities whose icons of identification are founded not on the consensual themes of national solidarity but on social differentiation. And Hughes himself part recognizes the underlying conditions for such a recasting of the domains of art and culture when he diagnoses “the profoundly unsettled state of American culture, the crises of cultural identity that come with the dissolution of the binary world held in place for forty years by the left and right jaws of the Cold War’s iron clamp.”3

More than any comparable art institution, the Whitney has attempted to face these crises of cultural identity by turning conceptual controversy into serious curatorial projects. It has not, in the main, been adequately appreciated—or productively criticized—because there is a failure to understand its overarching agenda: to turn a national museum from a celebratory space into an interrogative institution. There is a growing understanding at the Whitney that the sinews of social bonding are now embedded in political affiliations and affective links within a more subversive, less consensual sense of civic community. The public sphere is negotiated through a more direct affiliation between soi-disant “minority” issues (problematically located within the national domain) and the transnational cultural terrain: the ethics of ecological movements force a global perspective; a rethinking of the issues of race becomes part of a postcolonial rereading of the history of modernity; the agendas of sexuality are seen to relate as much to the international body politics of AIDS as to questions of laboring, working bodies within the social classes; and the global phenomenon of migrant labor and economic refugees is transforming debates around the organic composition of “national” capital and its political boundaries. It is in this wider context that Golden’s focus on the stereotype of the “black male” must be read as an intervention in the esthetics and social ethics of Modernist “impersonality.”

The “look” of Golden’s show plays on the repeated visual encounter with the black male: stereotyped, masqueraded, camouflaged, deconstructed, edified, vilified—Robert Mapplethorpe, Lyle Ashton Harris, Adrian Piper, Danny Tisdale, Robert Arneson. These invisible or toovisible men, made apparent here through baroquely layered icons of black personae, jar with the value placed on abstraction and minimalism in many of the languages of the Modernist avant-garde. This overrepresentation of the black body in the gallery space also turns into an ironic comment on the racial and sexual paranoia that defines the public sphere of contemporary American society. As the sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote recently, “There is a perception that . . . the public doesn’t relate to the black males. That the consumers would rather not have to deal with the black males.”4 By forcing the spectator to confront the black male as image, icon, artwork—in the context of a national museum—Golden exposes a certain collusion between the “impersonalist” sense of esthetic quality—its invisible tribunaland the production of the viewer as a pluralist national subject whose sense of cultural diversity is built on strategic evasions and exclusions.

To be considered authentically “American” in this sense, the subjects of Hughes’ “domain of class, race or gender” would have to be part of a celebratory assimilationist narrative, acknowledged only for the cultural diversity that they represent. To propose that the historical experiences underlying those communities of difference may produce intimations of social belonging that are antagonistic, and alternative, to the pluralist and assimilationist aspiration attracts the rapid (and vapid) criticism that one is a propagator of sentimental cultural victimage. Yet by giving visual presence to the group stereotype and focusing on those who are publicly deauthorized (pace Hughes), “Black Male” succeeds in disturbing the measure of “quality” invested in the “invisible tribunal” of dead writers and artists who authorize the imaginative act. The stereotype is itself a kind of living death—a revenant of social and psychic ressentiment, a specter of our fears and forbidden pleasures, a defensive shield in the place where a society needs a mirror for (self) reflection.

Is there an invisible tribunal of quality, a measured style, for those subjects of art and society who have been rendered socially invisible or marginal? The physical design of “Black Male” attempts an answer to this question. Golden has divided the space to reflect the symbolic colors of the black nationalist flag: red (blood), black (body), green (ancestry/growth). In the show itself, she writes, red contests negative stereotypes, black figures the phenomenology and psychopathology of blackness, and green celebrates an expanded visual vocabulary for the significations of masculinity. This revisionary narrative attempts to transform the very space—social, visual, institutional—in which the black male stereotype functions.

The critical edge of this exhibition design is best displayed in contrast to that great icon of the Whitney, one of its most celebrated and visited images—Jasper Johns’ Three Flags of 1958. Johns plays with the dimensions of the American flag to hint at the arbitrariness of its symbolic and signifying structure. This turns the foundational sign of Americanness into a perspectival and contingent icon of nationality and plays on the artifice of nationality. Golden, on the other hand, by structuring the very ground of the gallery to fashion the black nationalist flag as an integral motif, is making it the ambition of her show to stake a claim in the earth; to reterritorialize a space of representation inhabited by the group stereotype; and to recover the frail possibility of a shared public sphere by confronting urban fear, racial fantasy, and sexual anxiety. No visitor to “Black Male” can fail to notice that the show is attracting a large audience, and a diverse one in age and ethnicity.

The impact of “Black Male” lies in its concentration on the “space” of the stereotype. The show opens up possibilities for inverting the space of stereotypy by placing, for instance, Mapplethorpe’s spare penile inscapes (Untitled, 1981) back-to-back with Lyle Ashton Harris’ awkward, ambivalent “tutu” turns (Constructs #11, 1989). It ironizes the strategies of stereotypical “framing” with a number of works-Robert Colescott’s George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from American History, 1975, for example, which replaces George Washington with the Afro-American inventor George Washington Carver. And it uses stereotypes to interrogate the institutional practice of the museum itself, where the often black museum guard or attendant is the visible, vigilant protector of the work on show but is himself deemed invisible, unseeing—like Fred Wilson’s headless figures in Guarded View, 1991. As an essay in the representational values and vicissitudes of the stereotype in contemporary American art, “Black Male” makes a signal contribution.

The limits of the exhibition’s success are tied up with the fate of the stereotype as a formal structure of representation. As an organizing principle, the stereotype has its snares, as I realized when a black male museum attendant who had worked the show four times gave me his view: “These images . . . these stereotypes leave out too much. As a black man I have other important, ordinary histories—I have other lives too.” Despite the useful deconstructive project of “Black Male,” in an important aspect the show is afflicted with a kind of stasis: it gets mired in the visual logic of stereotypical identification.

The strategy of the stereotype, as a form of (mis)recognition, depends on staging the encounter with “otherness” in an airless space of fixed coordinates. No mutual movement is possible in that space, because relationships there are largely predictable or reactive: the discriminated subject is reduced to a projection, an overdetermined instance, while the perpetrator of the stereotype acts out only narcissistic anxiety and political paranoia. As I walked around “Black Male,” seeing so many images of isolated black men staring fixedly at me, I felt that despite the irony and the inversions, something of the rigor mortis of the stereotype had seeped into the show itself. Without quite knowing it, I too had been participating in the stereotype’s danse macabre.

One attempt to make up for this default, the obscure “context chamber” at the very back of the show, seems to me to offer too little too late. Maurice Berger, author of the texts in this calendar of black accomplishment, has attempted to make good use of the opportunity to provide “Black Male” with a historical narrative of hope and achievement, but I cannot imagine that the organizers provided him with a chance to deploy the curatorial and critical skills that he has demonstrated on other occasions. There are works in the show, however, that provide its own best critique, and a useful and sympathetic one. Breaking through the fixity that afflicts “Black Male,” these . works explore modes of personhood beyond the stereotypical. Their approach is not to ironize or invert the received image but to disturb the forms of recognition upon which the stereotype turns. And they achieve this by introducing a moment of undecidability, a movement of unrecognizability, that exceeds and undermines the more predictable scenarios of stereotypical recognition.

In Adrian Piper’s Four Intruders Plus Alarm Systems, 1980, and Carrie Mae Weems’ Untitled, from her “Kitchen Table Series” of 1990, the airless encounter between the ironized stereotype and the “half-knowing” spectator is replaced by a more complex invocation of the workings of social identification through image and text. These works far surpass the currently fashionable insistence on the dis-cursive construction of identity or reality (an insistence that, once conceded, does not amount to very much). In both of them the spectator is placed in an interstitial position, somewhere between the limits of the visual, imagistic encounter and the margins of a narrative text.

Piper’s installation stages a racist “event” between black male and white woman, but her complex enunciation of this stereotypical encounter goes beyond the anticipated, antagonistic racial binary. A slide projection of the faces of four black male “intruders” becomes the basis for the paranoid fantasy played out around the black male body. The threat of the black “eye,” the “pollution” of the black presence—an accompanying soundtrack restages these visual signs of immediate racist recognition to achieve a kind of dangerous, problematic dialogue between black masculinity and female sexuality. Piper moves us away from the familiar terrain of the politics of identity toward a more historical and cultural apprehension of questions of community posed across antagonistic, even incommensurable forms of difference. In the very structure of her installation Piper intensifies a social sense. As you enter the dark enclosure with other viewers in tow, and move between projections and narrative, you are imperceptibly constructing a wider communal response—even if you are now an intruder in someone else’s group fantasy.

Like Piper, Weems has a compelling ability to demonstrate communal and contextual issues in the intimacy of the private, domestic encounter. Her “Kitchen Table Series” turns photographs into phonographs through the text that accompanies her visuals, the two strains fusing in a a narrative that evokes a communal culture of jazz, ballad, and popular song: Billie Holiday, Gershwin, Cole Porter, Ellington, Aretha Franklin, and others. Weems’ kitchen is certainly not an unmediated space, as Golden suggests in her catalogue essay; it is a space where cultural mediation profoundly leavens the texture of everyday exchange. Weems gives us a feminist fable of love and power in which theoretical and political demands are underscored by erotic and affective desires. At the same time, her work bears poignant witness to the celebrations and also the casualties of the women’s movement of the last decade, as she tries to balance the historical commitment to community with the precarious survival of the self.

Both Carrie Mae Weems and Adrian Piper play off the conceptual against the communal, weave historical context into the subtle circulation of image and sign, reveal the anxious, antagonistic affiliations between the visual and the verbal, the sexual and the political. The dominating absence of such deftness of exchange between concept and context reduces the power of “Black Male,” despite the force of its individual images. As the Whitney attendant’s remark suggests, there is life outside and beyond the stereotype, even for its victims.

Homi Bhabha

NOTES

1. Robert Hughes, The Culture of Complaint, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 111.

2. Hilton Kramer, “Black Male’s Blackmail Raises Foucault’s Ghost,” The New York Observer, 21 November 1994, p. 25.

3. Hughes, p. 109.

4. William Julius Wilson, quoted in Bob Herbert, “Who Will Help the Black Man?,” New York Times Magazine, 4 December 1994, p. 76.