Open Letter to The New York Times:
The recent writing of art critic Ken Johnson troubles us. His October 25th review of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” and his November 8th preview of “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World,”present ill-informed arguments.Using irresponsiblegeneralities, Johnson compares women and African-American artiststo white male artists, only to find them lacking.
In his review of “Now Dig This!” Mr. Johnson starts with the claim that “Black artists didn't invent assemblage.” Instead, he states that black artists appropriated the form from white artists who developed it.Both these statements attack a straw man; nohistorian, artist or curator has ever made a claim that anyone, black or white, “invented” assemblage.In fact, assemblage has roots in many cultures and it is well documented that European and American Modernist artists borrowed heavily from African art in their use of the form.
Mr. Johnson organizes his review around an oversimplified opposition between the apolitical, “deracinated” work of white artists and the political, “parochial” work of black artists. He claims that white European artists, such as those of Cubism, Surrealism and Dada, who “were as free as anyone could be,” were only playfully messing around with aesthetic conventions.The aesthetic play of assemblage “took on a different complexion,” to use Mr. Johnson’s unfortunate turn of phrase, when black artists politicized the form. But he ignores both the extreme political unrest in Europe at the time and the ideological motivations of these artistic movements. What was DaDa if not a response to the social psychosis and industrialized mass murder of WWI?
The article also ignores that the exhibition includes the work of both black and white American artists to present a cross-pollination and commonality of ideas. All of these oversights have the effect of distorting and dismissing the work of black artists in the exhibition, which according to Johnson, “will divide viewers between those who, because of their life experiences, will identify with the struggle for black empowerment, and others for whom the black experience remains more a matter of conjecture.” Mr. Johnson’s argument hinges on this empathy gap of white viewers as an explanation of “why so few black artists have been embraced by the predominantly white high-end art world,” but he places the burden to transcend racial divisions on black artists, not on white viewers. Of the thirty-two artists in the show, only David Hammons receives praise—for making work “you don't have to be black to feel.”
Rather than engage the historical work in the exhibition, Mr. Johnson states that he prefers the work of mostly contemporary black artists who have been widely validated, without acknowledging the social progress over the last 50 years that might allow for the next generation of artists to “complicate how we think about prejudice and stereotyping.”
Mr. Johnson frames “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World” in similar terms: “The day that any woman earns the big bucks that men like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst rake in is still a long way off. Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market. But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?” His text brackets the real impact of sexism and leaves us only with an insinuating question. There is no explanation of “the nature of the art that women tend to make.” The reader is only left with the sense that women's art is a problem, somehow.
In both pieces, Mr. Johnson suggests that a marginalized groups’ lack of success is due to their own failures and not those of the “predominantly white high-end art world.” In doing so, his texts read as validations of stubborn inequities. Johnson replays stereotypes of inscrutable blackness and inadequate femininity in the guise of serious inquiry, but that inquiry never happens.
The writing in these articles is below the editorial standards typical of the New York Times. We ask that theTimesacknowledge and address this editorial lapse and the broader issues raised by these texts.