New York

Screenshot of American Artist’s Looted, 2020–. Online project.

Screenshot of American Artist’s Looted, 2020–. Online project.

American Artist

Whitney Museum of American Art

“Should the theft of sneakers and computers, or shattered windows, graffiti, or broken locks become our obsession when black people are being killed before our eyes, when the police are bashing the heads of protesters and tear-gassing people during a viral pandemic that can cause respiratory illness?” This question, posed by historian Robin D. G. Kelley in a June 2020 op-ed for the New York Times, cut straight to the meaning of the word loot. The title of the essay was written as a question: “What Kind of Society Values Property over Black Lives?” The answer: American. Yet we might have (finally) hit a tipping point. Even ex–Whitney Museum of American Art trustee Warren Kanders divested his defense company, Safariland, of its various “crowd-control solutions,” such as tear gas, about a week after law enforcement officers used the chemical weapon to clear away Black Lives Matter protesters outside the boarded-up Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, in order to allow President Donald Trump to stage a photo op in front of the building’s parish house while holding a bible.

By July, it felt timely to witness the premiere of the web project Looted, 2020–, by the anonymous American Artist, particularly because it was commissioned by the Whitney—an institution that, like the luxury stores surrounding it, had boarded up its ground-floor windows. Exhibited only during the diurnal rhythms of New York’s sunrise and sunset each day for thirty seconds at a time, Looted replaces all of the images on Whitney.org—including more than twenty-five thousand works from the collection—with pictures of textured plywood. During this brief interval, the website’s background changes to black from white, and all the text fades to gray.

The press release for the project calls this “an act of both redaction and refusal,” yet its brevity on the site, as part of the museum’s “Sunrise/Sunset” series, pushes Looted into a restrictive framework. Forward motion and real change will require work beyond redaction and refusal. It will take abolition. That kind of revolution seems to more accurately reflect the artist’s ongoing scrutiny of race in the United States, including their legal name change to insist, as they say, “on blackness as descriptive of an American artist.” For someone who puts so much energy and determination into their art and its presentation, American Artist seems to have made this project too fast, too fleeting. What if Looted were more permanent, more forcefully and obdurately present each time one landed on the site? I know I’m probably thinking too big, but had the artist been given greater license to interfere with the institution, the statement WE STAND WITH BLACK COMMUNITIES—posted near the top of the museum’s home page when the piece debuted and during the months of social unrest that followed—would have felt a lot more powerful.

Still, as ephemeral as it is, Looted successfully prompts viewers to reflect on why our broken republic is so morally outraged by pillaging. If we actually studied our history, we would recognize that the country was built on it—on the robbing of Indigenous lands and on the forced repatriation and enslavement of Africans. If we cared more about culture, we would acknowledge that our cherished museums are full of stolen art and artifacts—some of which are now being returned, rightfully, to their places of origin. But what ultimately grips the vast majority of property-owning white Americans (especially via right-wing accounts of the looting) is that “crime becomes the story,” as Kelley writes. A clear and objective analysis of long-standing systemic prejudice and violence continues to be considerably less important than inflaming racial antipathy—and that, sadly, is the oldest story in the book.