Black Lives Matter in the Arts

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The Robert E. Lee Memorial on Monument Avenue in Richmond on June 3. Courtesy WRIC-TV.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to reflect on fairness and cultural representation in the arts, and on my own failings in this arena as an arts writer.

They are difficult things to come to terms with, not just because they require unforgiving confrontations with my sense of identity as a basically benign and civically responsible person, but because of the way I perceive art. I’ve always believed that one of art’s greatest assets is its capacity to transcend the immediacy of social and political climates.

Ironically, that idea was the basis of my last column. There, I upheld visual art as a light in the darkness of the pandemic, as a form of expression that can take us beyond our given moment. I quoted Braque, who said: “The painter lives through the age. But his work depends too much on the past for him to accommodate the changes of the hour.”

Some readers mistook this for “escapism.” But what I was trying to impart had more to do with art as a collective artifact of humankind’s pursuit of beauty.

This isn’t to say that fine art cannot be political or politicized, but it’s generally not what it does best and there are other forms — music, theater, literature, film — that do it far more effectively.

I write about museum exhibitions in Washington, usually ones developed by the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art. It would be easy to hold social responsibility at a distance in my work, since I can only cover what they put out. But it’s now being suggested that my fidelity to these institutions is itself an act of white privilege (I’m white, by the way), because their systems of operation favor white elites and uphold white supremacy.

This is true, of course. Museums spend sickening amounts of time, money and labor courting their wealthy, white donors. (To momentarily defend them, this is sort of what nonprofits receiving insufficient government support have to do to make art freely available to the public.)

However, this quickly becomes complicated. Because art has always — and with very few exceptions — been a privilege of the rich and the culturally dominant classes. It is as true now as it was in ancient China.

The point is that I was wrong. At this moment, art in America isn’t transcending anything. It is mired in the same oppressive systems that methodically obstruct and destroy African American lives, just as the Pyramids of Giza were built on my ancestors’ broken backs.

Art in America is simply accountable for this. As am I. As are you, fellow Georgetowners. And maybe that’s unfair — but maybe that’s the point. We need to accept some burden of moral culpability in our country’s systemic oppression of BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, People Of Color — and low-income communities.

I am still struggling to understand art’s role in all of this. I would not want the arena of fine art to be overtaken by allegories of present-day social narratives. But the way we talk about art in America needs to evolve beyond constraints of the European tradition.

I don’t think that the metric of selecting art for exhibition should be the color of its maker’s skin, yet there needs to be more of an effort to promote work by BIPOC communities — today and throughout history.

I have certainly failed in many capacities to address issues of social inequity in the arts. However, I have always done my best to cover exhibitions highlighting work by BIPOC artists. For better or worse, I never thought much about the ethics of covering them. If it’s a good show, I want to write about it.

I’ve always been more interested in art’s formal qualities than anything else, and I hope that, for the most part, this is a good thing. Writing about Sam Gilliam or Kerry James Marshall is the same for me as writing about van Gogh. That the artists are Black is only relevant to the degree that it informs the work. You can’t talk about Marshall’s work without talking about racial injustice in America. But I’ve spoken to and written about Gilliam a few times, and — without taking away from his groundbreaking accomplishments as an African American artist — his racial identity has never seemed particularly relevant.

I also missed some important exhibitions. I still haven’t forgiven myself for missing “Black Out: Silhouettes” at the National Portrait Gallery, and I haven’t formally reviewed the fine-art collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

None of this is to flout my accomplishments, but rather to wonder out loud what more I could do. My coverage of any exhibition featuring BIPOC artists has never come from a sense of duty to racial justice. Rarely did it enter my mind that any of these exhibitions were more or less deserving of coverage than any other — with certain exceptions, like “Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project,” at the National Gallery of Art, where the show’s sociopolitical significance overrode my ambivalence toward the formal quality of the actual art on view. (What I mean is: It was clearly important work in that moment to commemorate the 1963 Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, but I was less compelled by its aesthetic qualities.)

It’s an open question. I would welcome your emails and comments.

I will end with two thoughts at the intersection of art and our new era of civil rights activism. First, the graffiti in which protestors have enveloped the Confederate monuments along Monument Avenue in Richmond has transformed these symbols of oppression into visually arresting and gut-wrenchingly powerful works of art. If the statues do not get taken down, I think they should be opened permanently to tagging.

Second, when I saw the words BLACK LIVES MATTER lighting up 16th Street in an aerial photograph, my first thought was, “That looks like a Barbara Kruger!” I also thought about Glenn Ligon. It looks like a (very good) piece of conceptual art by emerging artist Muriel Bowser, and I was almost as interested in its formal properties as in its political audacity. Someone needs to write about how radically awesome it looks.

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