“Operation Tea Cup”, Watts Towers Arts Center, circa 1965. Photo Credit: Hammer Museum
Today I came across an essay by art critic Ken Johnson defending himself against a group who circulated a petition to the New York Times which called attention to two questionably written/edited reviews published by the paper. Johnson’s critical wound was re-opened last month when a fellow critic, David Levi Strauss, lambasted Johnson and used the issue as a case study in one of his graduate criticism courses. In today’s essay, Johnson attempted to claim the last word on the issue, and consequently opened Pandora’s box…again.
In Johnson’s original review for the show, “Now Dig This!” shown both in Los Angeles and at MOMA PS1, he was criticized for the critique’s racially charged content, “ill-informed arguments” and “irresponsible generalities”. In “Reading With One Eye Closed”, Johnson requests that readers review the original critique, the subsequent petition to the NY Times and the Strauss essay published in the March ed of Art in America. I took Johnson up on that challenge, and by all accounts I think he’s still wrong, both in tone and in content. I’ll start with content.
“Now Dig This!” chronicles the contributions of African-American artists between 1960-1980 in Los Angeles. The show overlays the sociopolitical environment that influenced the artists hailing from Los Angeles and artists that migrated to California after WWII. (During Black History Month, I highlighted some of the artists represented in the show including Fred Eversley and Betye Saar). Johnson’s original review of the show introduces his readers to the premise of his argument: there was a “paradox” in the show that underscores the dearth of black artists accepted by the “predominantly white high-end art world”. He then discusses one work in particular, briefly goes over the Watts Riots and then focuses on the medium of assemblage, which was an artistic form that was highlighted in the show. It is at this point where Johnson gets to his “paradox” and attempts to create a chasm between black forms of assemblage vs white forms of the same medium.
“Herein lies the paradox. Black artists did not invent assemblage. In its modern form it was developed by white artists like Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, Marcel Duchamp, David Smith and Robert Rauschenberg. For these artists assemblage was an expression of freedom from conservative aesthetics and parochial social mores. It did not come out of anything like the centuries-long black American experience of being viewed and treated as essentially inferior to white people.”
His critics railed against his assertion that “Blacks did not invent assemblage”, and Johnson defensively maintained that his quote was taken out of context. If the entire crux of his argument was that there is a paradox and he sets it up as such, he does not clearly deliver his point, rather he shrouds it behind a provocative statement. The petitioners were critiquing the defensive tone masked under coded offensive language during the rest of the piece (I’ll get to the tone in a minute).
My problem with Johnson’s argument is not that he said “Blacks did not invent assemblage”, rather his definition of assemblage is so narrowly defined that anyone deviating from his notion of the medium is an anathema to it. The paradox that Johnson attempts to characterize pits white assemblage as an “expression of freedom from conservative aesthetics” and “intellectual mischief-making” against black assemblage as a form of “social solidarity”. I think his premise is flawed. I ascribe to the Getty Museum’s view of assemblage as a critical practice rooted in the simple concept of transformation (taking a discarded object, transforming it and giving that object new meaning). These transformations are meant to challenge the conventions of art and society. Whether we are talking about “white” assemblage or “black” assemblage, I think the process is the same. Social solidarity is the byproduct of the above, it doesn’t replace it.
As for the tone, I read Johnson’s piece and was disturbed by the covert bias woven through the entire piece. He immediately marginalizes black artists by casting them as outsiders to the “high-end art world”. Critics focused on the “Blacks did not invent assemblage” line, but when it is followed by statements such as: “Thanks to white artists like…” It is not hard to see that Johnson is setting the table for an “us vs them” feast. He continues to run with his black assemblage as “social solidarity” argument by then stating that the show in itself creates a racial divide. If you are not black and cannot identify with any of the messages conveyed in the artists work, you are prone to disregard the importance of the work, in other words, <<pats head>> it’s not for you. (Actually the way I paraphrased that just now takes some of the sting out of Johnson’s comment, allow me quote it instead):
“If I am right that most of the work in “Now Dig This!” promotes solidarity, then this poses a problem for its audience. It divides 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 of a matter of conjecture. Those who identify may tend to respond favorably to what those viewing from a more distanced perspective may regard as social realist clichés, like the defiant fist.“
He then pivots in an attempt to come off a balanced by highlighting a black artist who has bridged the two disparate ends of his paradox. In reading Johnson’s description of one of the artist’s works (David Hammons’ “Bag Lady in Flight”), I cringed even further:
“It contains grease-stained brown shopping bags cut and folded into pleats fanning up and down like wings, the whole extending horizontally almost 10 feet. Pleats along the lower right edge bear triangles of nappy hair, forming a pattern like that of bird’s wing. It is an ancient notion that angels might reside in the most degraded of human forms…you don’t have to be black to feel that.”
In an age where black women are once again reclaiming their own notions of beauty by celebrating their natural hair, to see Johnson include “nappy hair” in a narrative that expresses the most degraded human forms, is a little disarming.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Ken Johnson probably thinks I am, but the fact that he is not willing to entertain criticism of his own work is disheartening. I am not opposed to him taking a critical eye at the art, but the tone set him down the wrong path. The conclusion he draws in his latest essay is that the petitioners are stifling criticism, and that’s not true, I don’t necessarily agree with those petitioners who labeled him as a racist. I will say that there is a lack of awareness displayed by him. I would have hoped that the first wave of criticism might have yielded some self-reflection and an willingness to entertain a dialog on this. Sadly I didn’t see this. Rather, we get a post-script titled “Reading with One Eye Closed”. This defensiveness leads me to conclude that anyone who disagrees with him either doesn’t get it or isn’t reading closely enough… That doesn’t encourage a positive or constructive discourse.
“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”