Tuesday, April 1, 2008
NYTimes.com: The Topic is Race; the Art is Fearless
The Topic Is Race; the Art Is Fearless
Published: March 30, 2008
IN the 1970s the African-American artist Adrian Piper donned an Afro wig and a fake mustache and prowled the streets of various cities in the scowling, muttering guise of the Mythic Being, a performance-art version of a prevailing stereotype, the black male as a mugger, hustler, gangsta.
In the photographs that resulted you can see what she was up to. In an era when some politicians and much of the popular press seemed to be stoking racial fear, she was turning fear into farce — but serious, and disturbing, farce, intended to punch a hole in pervasive fictions while acknowledging their power.
Recently a new kind of Mythic Being arrived on the scene, the very opposite of the one Ms. Piper introduced some 30 years ago. He doesn’t mutter; he wears business suits; he smiles. He is by descent half black African, half white American. His name is Barack Obama.
On the rancorous subject of the country’s racial history he isn’t antagonistic; he speaks of reconciliation, of laying down arms, of moving on, of closure. He is presenting himself as a 21st-century postracial leader, with a vision of a color-blind, or color-embracing, world to come.
Campaigning politicians talk solutions; artists talk problems. Politics deals in goals and initiatives; art, or at least interesting art, in a language of doubt and nuance. This has always been true when the subject is race. And when it is, art is often ahead of the political news curve, and heading in a contrary direction.
In a recent solo debut at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in Chelsea a young artist named Rashid Johnson created a fictional secret society of African-American intellectuals, a cross between Mensa and the Masons. At first uplift seemed to be the theme. The installation was framed by a sculpture resembling giant cross hairs. Or was it a microscope lens, or a telescope’s? The interpretive choice was yours. So was the decision to stay or run. Here was art beyond old hot-button statements, steering clear of easy condemnations and endorsements. But are artists like Mr. Johnson making “black” art? Political art? Identity art? There are no answers, or at least no unambiguous ones.
Since Ms. Piper’s Mythical Being went stalking in the 1970s — a time when black militants and blaxploitation movies reveled in racial difference — artists have steadily challenged prevailing constructs about race.
As multiculturalism entered mainstream institutions in the 1980s, the black conceptualist David Hammons stayed outdoors, selling snowballs on a downtown Manhattan sidewalk. And when, in the 1990s, Robert Colescott was selected as the first African-American to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, he brought paintings of figures with mismatched racial features and skin tones, political parables hard to parse.
At the turn of the present millennium, with the art market bubbling up and the vogue for identity politics on the wane, William Pope.L — the self-described “friendliest black artist in America” — belly-crawled his way up Broadway, the Great White Way, in a Superman outfit, and ate copies of The Wall Street Journal.
Today, as Mr. Obama pitches the hugely attractive prospect of a postracial society, artists have, as usual, already been there, surveyed the terrain and sent back skeptical, though hope-tinged, reports. And you can read those reports in art all around New York this spring, in retrospective surveys like “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” currently at the P.S 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, in the up-to-the-minute sampler that is the 2008 Whitney Biennial, in gallery shows in Chelsea and beyond, and in the plethora of art fairs clinging like barnacles to the Armory Show on Pier 94 this weekend.
“Wack!” is a good place to trace a postracial impulse in art going back decades. Ms. Piper is one of the few African-American artists in the show, along with Howardena Pindell and Lorraine O’Grady. All three began their careers with abstract work, at one time the form of black art most acceptable to white institutions, but went on to address race aggressively.
In a 1980 performance video, “Free, White and 21,” Ms. Pindell wore whiteface to deliver a scathing rebuke of art-world racism. In the same year Ms. O’Grady introduced an alter ego named “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire” who, dressed in a beauty-queen gown sewn from white formal gloves, crashed museum openings to protest all-white shows. A few years later Ms. Piper, who is light skinned, began to selectively distribute a printed calling card at similar social events. It read:
I am black. I am sure you did not realize this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark. In the past I have attempted to alert white people to my racial identity in advance. Unfortunately, this invariably causes them to react to me as pushy, manipulative or socially inappropriate. Therefore, my policy is to assume that white people do not make these remarks, even when they believe there are not black people present, and to distribute this card when they do.
I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.
Adrian Margaret Smith Piper
Although these artists’ careers took dissimilar directions, in at least some of their work from the ’70s and ’80s they all approached race, whiteness as well as blackness, as a creative medium. Race is treated as a form of performance; an identity that could, within limits, be worn or put aside; and as a diagnostic tool to investigate social values and pathologies.
Ms. Piper’s take on race as a form of creative nonfiction has had a powerful influence on two generations of African-Americans who, like Mr. Obama, didn’t experience the civil rights movement firsthand, and who share a cosmopolitan attitude toward race. In 2001 that attitude found corner-turning expression in “Freestyle,” an exhibition organized at the Studio Museum in Harlem by its director, Thelma Golden.
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All photos and text courtesy of NYTimes.com.