Outakes From Making It: Race, Gender and Ethnicity in the Artworld
Leo Segedin | Print this essay
What might constitute 'minority' art? Do we mean any art produced by women, Blacks, Latinos or gays regardless of form and content? Is the mere fact of an artist's origin a significant factor in the artworld? Given that the training of most professional artists in this country is similar, to what extent can we say that there is an identifiable Black art, a women's art, etc? How does the artworld make such definitions? Who defines the essence of an artist's art? The artist? A group of artists with a social agenda? Critics and historians? For what purpose? Power? Are Black artists experts on Black art? On Blackness? The only ones? Are female artists the only experts on women's art? Who speaks for the artist?
Are there generally acceptable ideas about what constitutes aesthetic 'quality'? In American culture, would these ideas be considered Eurocentric, white, male, code words for exclusion of minorities? Does each minority cultural group have its own aesthetic, its own standards, its own criteria? If so, what might such cultural aesthetics be? What is 'quality' within the minority artworld? How do you rank or compare the quality of Michelangelo's David, a Karen Finley Performance and an African mask? Or should you?
Can you find a common aesthetic among the works of Black artists? Is such an aesthetic accessible only to Blacks or is it accessible to whites? Can it be taught to whites? If this aesthetic is accessible only to Blacks, what can whites get out of looking at Black art? How can art be educational, uplifting, lead to intergroup understanding if it is inaccessible to outsiders?
Who is qualified to teach about such issues? Can a white professor teach about Black art? Can a Black professor teach about Andy Warhol? Can either teach about Latino or Chinese art? Or about Michelangelo?
Are we to be concerned with what goes on in the professional artworld, with the world of the art museums, galleries, art history, critics and critical reviews, auctions, prices, grants, art schools, curricula, with issues of representation and exclusion? With how artists make a living?
Are we to be concerned with what goes on in cultural centers, with cultural expression and realization, with work which satisfies the needs of individual groups? What about the economics of cultural arts? Who buys?
Even if we accept race, gender or ethnicity as a defining commonality, do we mean that expression and culture are genetically or biologically determined, a racial or gender temperament?
Do we limit ourselves to the 'high' Fine Arts, such as painting and sculpture, which will give us one kind of art history, or do we include folk arts or the crafts and functional arts, which will give us another? If we mean the Fine Arts, minorities are poorly represented; if we include the 'minor arts', then the balance is different.
Do we mean art which has a particular identifying style, formal characteristics such as those of the Byzantines, the Chinese, or the Renaissance, then historically, there is no Black or female style in this country; there are those who argue that there is an African, formal, aesthetic heritage which did survive slavery as there is in Black music. There are those who are trying to create one by using African forms, but in surveying any art exhibition, it is generally impossible to distinguish Black art from any others. (There are many books about Black art, women's art and Latin American art, but although these books discuss the work of Black, female or Latino artists, beyond selecting them because of their genetic or cultural origins, most writers of such books can find no commonality, no single identifying characteristic with which to identify the art of such groups.
There are Latino styles which evolve out of Spanish, social-realist and Indian styles, but even here, it is hard to recognize them because of so much assimilation of mainstream artworld styles.
Do we mean art which has a special content, a particular subject matter and the feelings associated with it? There most certainly is a unique 'Black experience' - urban, inner city life, southern rural life, racial bias, exclusion, anger, resentment, etc. - and there certainly are female experiences which have not been part of the traditional content of the artworld, but 'outsider' artists can use the same subject matter.
Do we mean symbols and iconography? In painting, sculpture or, in the 'minor' arts, say, quilts? Metaphysics and philosophy or cultural values? Each context might give a different definition.
I will argue that the art of all cultural groups and individuals are based on myth; that all attempts to categorize art, especially those based on race and gender, are cultural constructs, that when they become articulated, they reflect ideological agendas. Race and gender cannot be the basis of an art style although social experiences caused by being Black or female can, of course, form the content of one's art. Ethnicity may create different issues as there are traditional ethnic styles which artists may use if they desire. The whole concept of race as something separate from culture develops out of 19th century European racism and imperialism (even though Blacks might believe it). (Appiah, In My Father's House, Chapt 1) It results in nationalist and racist notions of art in which each race has its own superior or inferior intrinsic characteristics. (Aryan art, 'degenerate' Jewish art) This notion of race is ultimately an ugly and destructive myth no matter who believes in it.
Afrocentricism as an effort to establish the superiority of a Black racial culture, the notion that there is a Black African art style, perhaps originating in Egypt, which can be traced to Black American art is therefore poorly conceived. It is probably the result, or at least, can be correlated with the degeneration of Black urban culture and a felt need to create an identifying, self respecting value system. The same goes for the idea that there is a genetically based female style, a unique female sensibility evident in the art of women. There is a difference between the idea of searching for ones roots in one's real life experiences and creating roots by falsifying history or genetics. This does not mean that one can't use art forms used by one's ancestors, but one also can use any sources one wants to rather than one has to or which can be suppressed. Are perceived characteristics in women's art culturally or biologically determined? Are there natural tendencies which have been depreciated, imposed by a male culture, but which should be respected? Imposed styles, as implied by the idea of a national art, are not authentic. Cassatt, Faulkner and Bearden are authentic, use authentic roots; Judy Chicago, Donaldson and Africobra try to create styles; are they authentic?
The notion of a common African cultural heritage for American Black artists is also mythic. Even if we ignore the arbitrary political divisions imposed during colonial times and the prejudicial myth of 'tribes', Africa remains "divided into hundreds of different nationalities and ethnic groups, of greatly varying size and with great differences in culture and values." "Over 1000 languages are spoken in Africa" divided into four large language groups. (Cultural Atlas of Africa, ed by Jocelyn Murray, p 24) The major common languages might be English and French, spoken by a small minority of government and literary elites. Only recently has a literature in African languages begun to appear. (Appiah) The only possible common cultural form might be the imposed religions of Christianity and Islam, certainly not African in origin. The myth of a unifying Afrocentric culture is no more valid than the myth of a unifying Eurocentric culture (witness what is occurring in eastern Europe, for example.) The contrasting colors and "jampacked and jelly-tight" compositions, emphasized by Jeff Donaldson' Africobra and Douglas', African-American aesthetic might be found in the fabrics of the Asante and the Masai, but not in Botswanna. (Appiah, p. 4) The artists claiming such aesthetics as their own cannot trace their roots back to the Asante or the Masai. All artists want identity, to be recognized, to find their roots, but the effort to create a Black or a female aesthetic does not come out cultural experience or traditional art forms, but as a compensation for rejection and invisibility. Claims of aesthetic difference justifies anxiety, fear of competing. (Steele, p 160.)
The arts of all cultural groups are based on the belief that there are certain 'right' ways of making things, but any attempt to impose these ways on artists, of judging the authenticity, the correctness, the 'quality', of their artwork by the extent to which they demonstrate such characteristics is a form of coercion more than it is a matter of demonstrating 'solidarity'. It is one thing for Douglas to search for common characteristics among Black artists; it is another for him to judge the 'Blackness' of such artists by using his determinations as criteria.
During the last several years, Black attitudes toward the idea of a Black art range all the way from denial to genetic, cultural, historical and political justification.
Jacob Lawrence (quoted in The Afro-American Artist, p 280) says:
Black art is art that has a particular form that is recognized as being 'Black' - regardless of content.
Hale Woodruff (ibid) claims that "There is something in black art which is absent in the work of other people". On the other hand, the militant artist, Hughie Lee-Smith writes that Black art is an art that:
derives its inspiration and sustenance from the struggle of Black people for economic, social and cultural power; an art which reflects, celebrates, and interprets that struggle in a stylistic manner which is meaningful to the Afro-American community and members of other oppressed minorities.
Edmund P. Gaither, in 1970, curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists (quoted in Contemporary Black Artists in America, p 11) stated that:
Black art is a didactic form arising from a strong nationalistic base and characterized by its commitment to a) use the past and its heroes to inspire heroic and revolutionary ideals and b) use recent political and social events to teach recognition, control and extermination of the 'enemy' and c) to project the future which the nation can anticipate after the struggle is won.
Most extreme was the Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party in 1970, commanding:
...all progressive artists to take up their paints and brushes in one hand and their gun in the other...bridges, buildings, electric plants, believes that the black African visual heritage has not been completely submerged in this country pipelines, all of the Fascist American empire must be blown up in our pictures.
Jeff Donaldson, one of the founders of AfriCobra in 1970, a group of Black artists which affirms Black racial identity, argues for an art based on African imagery. He said (in The New Art Examiner, March, 90) that Africobra art is derived from:
...the broad concurrences in symbiology and in ideology that one finds in a wide range of imagery from countries throughout the continent. We eclectically selected certain symbols, certain visual ideas, certain compositional techniques, certain color organizational schemes, that we saw in African Art...(and also) a high level of spirituality which is in concert with traditional African art."
But, on the other hand, speaking about Black culture, Henry Lois Gates, Jr. wrote (Foreword, Greg Tate, p 13):
The traditional failing in black criticism has been to accept a dichotomy between a bland universalism and a parochial black nationalism and then side with one or the other. ... (but) culture, Afro-American culture in particular, is never a matter of either-or.
Malcomb Bailey, rejects the idea that there is a Black art. He writes (quoted in Contemporary Black Artists in America, p 11):
...there is no definition of black art. It is absurd to take a group of painters, whose various works and concepts differ, and categorize this group as exponents of black art just because of their skin color.
And Raymond Saunders asserts (ibid):
Racial hang-ups are extraneous to art. No artist can afford to let them obscure what runs through all art - the living root and the ever-growing aesthetic record of human spiritual and intellectual experience...
Barbara Chase (in CBAA) says "nobody should attempt to limit artists in their response to the world". Tom Lloyd (in AAA) asks rhetorically, "What is white art?" and Lois Mailou Jones (in AAA) writes that Black art is merely a "name given to work done by Black artists in an effort to bring about an awareness that Black artists exist."
Many minority artists feel free to borrow from any formal or subject sources, not just those limited to their own origins. The great artist, Romaire Bearden, even though he was most concerned with Black issues, utilized what ever intrigued him, European, Asian as well as African and American art forms. Successful Black mainstream artist, Sam Gilliam told Black students in the early 70s, "Take what you can and make it your own." (NAE Feb-Mar, 92, p 4, letter from Bruce Robinson)
But, historically, because of racial discrimination in this country during the last century many good Black artists who painted in mainstream styles, were never recognized, were forced to go into exile in Europe and in the 20th century, women, whose work was also just like everyone else's and who had been previously acknowledged, disappeared from the art literature. There may have been 'Old Masters', but there certainly were no 'Old Mistresses'.(Parker and Pollack, "Old Mistresses", NY: Pantheon, 1981) During the early 70s, much revisionist art history was written establishing that Black and women artists had existed, that they were as good as anyone else, or if they weren't, it was because they were not allowed to receive the required art education and did not have the necessary kinds of support. Linda Nochlin wrote, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?", Germaine Greer wrote,"The Obstacle Course" the Whitney exhibited a show called "Contemporary Black Artists in America" and since then, literally hundreds of books, articles and exhibitions have attempted to correct the record. As late as 1988, it was necessary to prove that even though they had been ignored by traditional American historians and critics, artists of Latin and Hispanic American origin made fundamental contributions to mainstream modern American art history.
Not all minority artists who wanted to become part of the establishment, felt that they had to paint what traditional white men painted. Minorities had their own unique experiences which they felt were legitimate content for their art. Blacks, like Bearden, focused on rural experiences in the South and urban experiences in Harlem, Jacob Lawrence on Southern rural experience, slavery and Emancipation, more contemporary artists, on the civil rights, Black rage, even revolution. Women wanted to make art about the experience of giving birth, raising children, relations with men and other personal experiences inaccessible to men. Hispanics had a tradition of making images of family life, religion, political causes. These kinds of concerns give one kind of meaning to the idea of a 'search for roots'. It is a search for, an exploration of, one's actual experiences in one's own life in his or her culture.
There is a long African tradition (or, more accurately, in spite of the argument that there is a commonality to all African cultures, many African traditions) in sculpture, metalwork and weaving, The making of sculpture, for the most part, was suppressed during slavery, but wood and metal working skills were utilized by slave masters. Some folk traditions in fabric design and jewelry making) did survive. (Donaldson). In the years following Emancipation, Black artists tried to become mainstream American artists. They studied, when they were allowed to, at traditional art schools, painted the same subject matter, used the same techniques and aesthetics, often with the financial support of white patrons. Virulent white racism forced many of them the become expatriates. In the 20s, in the post-WWI Jim Crow America, the arts were the only area apparently not proscribed. "No exclusionary rule had been laid down regarding a place in the arts...it was left to the Afro-American elite to win what assimilation it could through copyrights, concerts, and exhibitions." (David Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue, quoted in Tate, p 190) In NY, there occurred the Negro or Harlem Renaissance, a highly creative and successful effort by Black writers, painters and sculptors to establish a sense of Black identity. Some tried to integrate African elements in their work, as well as "reminisce(ing) about (their) prior life in the south and offer(ing) commentary about the pleasures and problems surrounding (their) their present urban existence." (8 Artistes Afro-Americains, 1971, p 12-3) This was the time of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. The first major exhibition of works by Black American artists went on display at the International House in 1928. During the Depression, many artists were supported by the WPA.
An early advocate of the idea of exploring African sources to establish a Black style was Alain Locke, who argued that while European interest in African art was just an "exotic fad", "(f)or the Black American artists, since there existed a "historic and racial bond between themselves and African art...(it)should act with all the force of a rediscovered folk-art, and give clues for the repression of a half-submerged race-soul." And later he wrote, "We ought and must have a school of Negro art, a locally and representative tradition." W. E. B. DuBois, although he first wrote that "the Black should feel secure enough to "lend the whole stern human truth to the transforming hand of the artist." and developed a 'Truth in Art' theory, which appealed for honest expression, rather than mere propaganda", became disillusioned by white reaction and by 1926, wrote, 'Truth in Art' be damned, I don't care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda".(AAA p 4-6).
Jeff Donaldson rejects the idea that zeal, enthusiasm, emotionalism in the subject matter were more important than technical excellence or aesthetic considerations. He says that:
"That's really how so-called "Black Art" in the '60s got a bad name. There were people who really had no understanding of art who were more political than they were involved with aesthetics, who were able to dominate the discourse of the time by insisting that a different standard applied..."
He also argues for a Black art which develops independent of the mainstream, develops its own clientele, but is ready to be integrated into the mainstream when the opportunity arises. Although he refuses to publicly criticize Pindell who confronts artworld racism directly, he reluctantly agrees that they have a different marketplace philosophy.
Robert L. Douglas, Associate Professor of Art History and Chair of the Pan-African Studies at the University of Kentucky, Louisville, while accepting an Afrocentric concept of art history, proposes that it has been too content-oriented and that an African formal visual heritage still survives in the art of some Black Americans. He writes ("Formalizing an African-American aesthetic", New Art Examiner. June/Summer, 91, p 18):
"I submit that formal qualities - such as the use of brilliant and high-key colors and geometric shapes or design patterns...in much African-American art reflect and signify a distinctive visual form born of an African one."
Some feminist leaders assumed that female artists also had some intrinsic aesthetic. Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro traveled the country in the early 70s lecturing about the circle as being a unique female form because of its resemblance to a vagina. Lucy Lippard wrote about the fundamental female image as involving 'layerings and enclosures'.
Why does anyone, minority or not, want to be an artist anyway? Some people who will be artists have a drive to make images, a compulsion to create forms, a need to express feelings, perceptions, ideas, etc. Making art is a mode of self-realization. It is a way of discovering, of creating, of making visible one's identity, Making art is also one of the very few ways one has for probing one's inner self, as well as presenting one's vision of the external world and of society. And, for some, art is a way of expressing one's anger toward society, one's rage at being invisible or of being deliberately excluded. Some artists believe that art is a way of changing society. Living the life of an artist is assumed to allow you the opportunity to satisfy such needs as no 9-5 job can. For a minority artist especially, an artist's life would seem to offer the freedom to be oneself, an open world, the origin and model for the 'alternate life style'. where one can live and work with others who feel as you do. Certainly few people go into the artworld to make money; rather, artists make money so that they can make art (although I would expect that most hope to be able to make a living by doing so).
How does one know that there is an 'artworld' out there in which one is supposed to be able to do these things? Some people (Latinos?) grow up in a culture in which art (although not necessarily Fine Art painting) is seen and made; most don't. Making art, especially paintings, has little status in most cultures in the United States. Traditionally, the idea of the Fine Arts is Eurocentric. It is based on the idea that painting and sculpture were the 'noblest manifestation of a nation's soul', the nation of course being white, western European. They were assumed to be the highest achievement of culture, the expression of its greatest artists. It excludes or degrades the crafts (called the 'minor arts') and functional, communication and popular arts. Some white mainstream children might learn about the Fine Arts during museum visits, take art appreciation courses, or look at coffee table art books, but although the Fine Arts had high cultural status, the making of art was considered to be a very suspect activity and certainly no way to make a living. Yet most American artists have been males who have come out of the white, middle class environment even without the encouragement of parents. Africans, however, were not assumed to have the 'civilization' that Fine Art required and those who tried to make Fine Art were belittled by Black and white alike. Certainly the Black middle class did not encourage participation in the Fine Arts.
Lowery Sims, associate curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, (quoted in Berger, Mag of Art, Sept, 90, p 71) observes:
Art history was not a career that black, middle class were taught to aspire to. For one, the Eurocentricism of art history often made it irrelevant to black college students who never heard African-American culture discussed in art history classes. Museums - the major conduit for teaching young people about art - were not always accessible to blacks. African-Americans were socialized into certain careers after Reconstruction; visual art was not one of them. The economic realities made a career in art even less desirable. You didn't see many black visual artists until the 1920s and 30s, when the black colleges started to establish art departments. Black art historians are an even rarer breed.
Certainly art was no option at all for poor Black, segregated children. Until recently children might learn about art in school only if some sympathetic teacher would show them what it offered, would encourage them to go on and who would do the groundwork, get them scholarships, grants, etc. Sometimes, but rarely, children might see pictures in magazines or books, perhaps in museums. (Sometimes, I suppose, but rarely, they might say to themselves, "I want to make something like that!") Only recently, during the last 20 years, have there been exhibitions of Black art in the Black community, in Black museums, or programs about Black art in the public schools.
Until recently, making art was even less of an option for white or Black women. Although there is a history of women artists going back thousands of years, during the last hundred years, white, upper and middle-class women knitted, crocheted, sewed, quilted and perhaps dabbled in watercolor and pastel, but were not expected to make paintings or sculpture to be exhibited in museums. Women were assumed not to have that 'golden nugget' of genius that great male artists had. They were not taken seriously in art schools, as exhibitors in art galleries and museums, nor were they adequately reviewed by art critics. Works attributed to women were considered to be worthless, both aesthetically and economically, although the same work erroneously attributed to men might be quite valuable. "As late as 1893, "lady" students were not admitted to life drawing at the official academy in London. Even when they were, after that date, the model had to be "partially draped". (Nochlin) Fine Art was to be appreciated, not made. For rich Americans, both Black and white, making, appreciating and patronizing art was a dilettante activity.
At a lecture at the Slade School of Art in 1962, the sculptor, Reg Butler, identified women with procreativity and men with cultural creativity:
"I am quite sure that the vitality of many female students derives from frustrated maternity, and most of these, on finding the opportunity to settle down and produce children, will no longer experience the passionate discontent sufficient to drive them constantly toward the labours of creation in other ways. Can a woman become a vital creative artist without ceasing to be a woman except for purposes of a census?" (Old Mistresses, p 6-7)
In reviewing an exhibition in 1978 at the Arts Councils Hayward Gallery in London, organized by women and showing predominantly work by contemporary women artists, John McEwan employed another but related strategy. He identified women not with art, but with domestic craft. Only one artist escaped his general censure, but for revealing reasons. She:
"at least exhibits none of the needle-threading eye and taste for detail that is so peculiarly the bug bear of women artists when left to their own devices; a preoccupation that invariably favours presentation at the expense of content." (Ibid. p 7)
James Laver wrote on women artists of the 17th century:
"Some women artists tried to emulate Frans Hals but the vigorous brushstrokes of the master were beyond their capability, one has only to look at the works of a painter like Judith Leyster (1609-1661) to detect the weakness of the feminine hand". (Women Painters', Saturday Book, 1964, p. 19)
Under these circumstances, how does one go about becoming an artist? Most people, unless they intend to be 'self-taught', or study with artists they know, go to school. What school do you go to? (Which schools can you afford?) Art school? College degree granting school? Community or cultural center? Do you need a BFA or an MFA? What for? And, in school, which teachers do you study with? What skills and knowledge do you need? What for? And who makes such decisions?
Most young students don't really know what they need to learn. Most don't know anything about Black or ethnic heritages or intrinsic female aesthetic forms. They want to be artists or art teachers. They take whatever program the curriculum requires and take which teachers fit into their schedule. If they went to a art school which followed the western, Eurocentric, traditions of the last 500 years, they would study drawing, composition, tonal color, art techniques and western art history. If the school had picked up some ideas of the last 100 years, they would also hear about expression, form, of developing a personal style. They would learn about Impressionism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Post Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Abstractionism, Social Realism, Mexican mural painting and Abstract Expressionism. All of these skills and this knowledge are what the faculty and administration of the school believed was required to function successfully in the artworld, as an artist and as a teacher. It was what you went there to learn; it was what Black artists and Latino artists and women artists learned; it was what the artworld was about. It was what the galleries and museums exhibited, what the critics and historians wrote about, what collectors collected. As Jeff Donaldson, one of the founders of AfriCobra, said:
"We were trained by the same people who trained the Warhols, the Lichtensteins and the Raushenbergs. We had the same teachers; we were at school with them, we know how good they are - we know how good we are."
But, during the last 30 years, some obvious circumstances in the socio-political and artworld and, as a result, in some art departments and schools, changed, leading some art faculty and students to challenge these assumptions. Faculty was hired to practice and teach new artworld concepts. Students would learn about Pop art, 'art as idea', installation art, site-specific art, about non- traditional materials and techniques, about performance art, of non- commodity art attacking the museum and gallery system, about art as politics, suggesting way of expression other than traditional painting - and they could not avoid hearing about sexism, feminism, racism, the evils of the 'system', etc. even if all their teachers did not concur. Women Studies, Black Studies, Ethnic Studies programs were introduced. Students became conscious of, and felt freer to express, their experiences of racial or gender bias among some of their white, male teachers. They became aware that they had seldom seen a female, Latino or Black teacher. They might feel that they have experiences, formal ideas, inconsistent with traditional learning, which rejected by their traditional teachers, that their racial, sexual or ethnic integrity is threatened. Judy Chicago, describing experiences as an art student in the 60's, felt that she had to work with 'masculine' (metal) materials and forms which were not compatible with her female self, that she had to dress in masculine clothes to be accepted as a 'real' artist. Robert Douglas, associate professor of art and chair of the Pan-African studies at the University of Kentucky, describes how African American students would have had to separate themselves from "their rich African heritage" if they listened to "such aesthetically narrow views" contained in such instructions as "tone down your colors", "colors must not compete or clash with each other'", and "don't crowd your composition with so many different elements." Douglas sees bright, competing colors and crowded compositions as aspects of a Black aesthetic.
As a result of such pressures, more women, Blacks and Latinos, who are assumed to represent the views of such minorities, have been hired in art depts. Notice that I am not arguing a position on issues of 'feminism', on 'political correctness', 'on multiculturalism', on 'quotas,' on hiring practices in relation to 'diversity vs quality'. I am not arguing, as some do (DaSousa?)' that minorities and other radical leftists are taking over educational institutions nor that they should. I am saying that students would learn about such issues (in at least some schools), from some faculty, (as well as fellow students, reading books, magazines and pamphlets, seeing exhibitions, hearing speeches, etc.). as well as from events in the political world and artworld. They would learn the materials, concepts, images, techniques, art forms, etc. they would need to make any statement they want in school, often with the support of faculty. Students could pick the teachers they wanted to study with, at least in advanced courses or grad school. Expressing oneself, as unpopular as it might appear, became less and less a matter of revolting against the 'system', and more and, in some schools, more a characteristic of the system. However, in spite of this kind of art education, many graduates still felt that there was no market for their work when they left school either because of their race (Pindell) or sex or because of the form or subject matter of their work.
How do the problems of minority artists appear to the institutions of the artworld? What are the obligations of art museums and similar cultural institutions? Does receiving tax monies or allowances, government grants, etc. create special responsibilities to taxpayers because of their race, gender or ethnic background? What creates a constituency to which a tax distributing agency has obligations? Is it simply a matter of political clout? Of diverse cultural representation? Of cultural uplift? Of educating the public? Of entertainment? Of exhibiting the best that has been created (assuming that there is a general standard of excellence) or the best that has been created within such groups (assuming that each group has its own standards)? Should each group have its own museums? What are the differences between the obligations of the Art Institute, the Cultural Center, and the Museum of Science and Industry? (For years, the Museum of Science and Industry exhibited Black and Hispanic art.) And to go on, what are the obligations of government, corporate, and foundation grant givers? Of University art departments, art schools, and their administrators and faculties? Art dealers and private galleries? Art magazines? Art critics? Auctioneers? Art historians? Aestheticans? Collectors? Etc.
Questions such as these make it obvious that the artworld is a highly complex social institution with each of its varied participants having different, often contradictory, agendas, goals, methods, and indeed, values. The primary goal of artists, regardless of origin, is most often to exhibit their artwork, no other objective being achievable unless that happens. Museums, on the other hand, are public institutions which may have several different objectives, the satisfaction of the artist often being the least important. Museums want to be popular, attract lots of visitors, satisfy all constituencies, - the public, private donors, local, state and federal grant givers, interested civic organizations, politicians, and, therefore, want to avoid controversy. Generally speaking, galleries and auction houses want to make money, art critics, aestheticians and historians want to be influential among their peers (although some art professors have been known to achieve fame, if not fortune, by grinding their professional axes in public); art magazines want to be widely read so that they can receive advertising revenues as well as spread their particular views of the artworld; collectors want status and investment rewards as well as aesthetic pleasure, museum visitors want pleasure, uplift, education, and so forth. How does any artist 'make it' in such a world?
I believe that:
Artists, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, regardless of political or social agendas, have more in common than not. whereas the dealers, curators, historians, critics of the artworld do not.
Race and gender in themselves cannot generate an aesthetic or a style although they can become content. There is no genetic basis for imagery or aesthetic judgment.
Art and imagery are cultural constructs. Although artists articulate personal experiences, they do it utilizing forms developed within a social context. There is no art without society.
New art come out of old art, either as a development or rejection of it. Experience does not make art. Art gives form to experience and makes it comprehensible, meaningful.
Art comes out of the experiences and the imagination of the artist as formed by art; art comes out of a cultural experience like Black music, but it is not invented; it is not limited to one's own cultural heritage; art can use as resource, as inspiration, the art of any culture, any historical period, popular, decorative or high; it cannot be imposed by some outside ideological pressure. This does not mean that such art is good, only sincere and authentic.
Style is personal, individual as well as cultural. It is an integration of self, of skill, of what one knows about art. Although art critics and historians can define a style by selecting common characteristics (formal or subject matter) of certain artists, they cannot define an artist solely by those characteristics, nor can they use those characteristics as criteria. They cannot define a criteria and then judge the authenticity of an artist by how well he or she fits in.
An artist's primary roots are personal experiences, memories, dreams, family narratives, old photographs, traditions. Ancestral discoveries are reconstructions, imposed, intellectual, deliberate and therefore are secondary.
Social causes, provocative, insightful, well-intentioned, politically legitimate subject matter cannot be the basis of a legitimate aesthetic or criteria.
Intensity of feelings, expression, anger, rage, hate, legitimate or not, cannot be the basis of an aesthetic or criteria.
Catharsis, self discovery, therapeutic insight, social revelation cannot be the basis of an aesthetic or criteria.
Great subject matter does not make great art.
On the other hand, an aesthetic based on notions primarily of beauty or taste trivializes art. Art that is about life, about the 'human condition', is more important than art about form or beauty.
Great art is neither propaganda nor decoration although it has been used for both.
The problem with taste is that people can develop a taste for any perceptual experience. They can even have the same perceptual experience and either like or dislike it. People can admire a work for its craft, aesthetic form and appropriateness to its function. They can be sympathetic to or despise its subject matter and can be moved or revolted by its expressive qualities.
Although any object can be reinterpreted within any new context, objects designed to be meaningful, art objects, have more potential, more significance, more value, for this practice.
We can only learn to 'appreciate' what the museum curators, art dealers, historians and critics determine. We can only perceive what we see in art museums, galleries, art books and magazines.
The power structure of the artworld has the authority to determine which artist, which artwork, which aesthetic theory achieves status, and often this authority is economic, political, religious and/or social rather that professional consensus about artistic quality.
The artworld forms a 'political constituency' as legitimate as any other.
All art exhibitions are political, even those of the academy, in the sense that they all have a point of view for selecting works; they represent class taste. They may represent race and gender as when the artists, collectors, viewers are white and male.
Although the term 'quality' may have been used to justify discrimination against minority art, it also does refer to valid qualities of great art.
Although cultural values differ and can change, are relative, we develop our own values within our own cultures which are absolute, real to us, even though they can also change. We are being dishonest if we deny our own responses and judgements because we might be 'wrong', insensitive or politically incorrect.
Although great art can come out of any aesthetic (Renaissance, Medieval, Buddhist, Hindu, Egyptian, African ?), some aesthetics allow for greater range of meaning, greater profundity, insight. Some media, subject matter, concepts have greater potential also.
I would not presume to tell minority artists (or any other artists) what kind of art to make, how to accomplish their goals nor even to interpret their artworks to a general public as if they were incapable of doing that for themselves. I understand that it is inappropriate for me to criticize what appear to me to be negative cultural stereotypes as they appear in the artworks, plays and movies made by people who are not of my own group, recognizing that I am not supposed to be capable of understanding their significance within the community. Certainly I cannot tell racial, sexual or ethnic jokes which are considered appropriate and funny within the community. (I don't recall ever meeting a woman, Black, Pole or Jew who would laugh at a joke told about them by an outsider, although the same joke might be acceptable when told within the group. By the same token, a racial, sexual or ethnic stereotype is acceptable when presented in art, movies, plays made within the group, but rejected when presented by anyone else.) In fact, there are those who would say that I have no business discussing minority art at all because I could not possibly understand what it was all about anyway.
And also, as we all know, despite the conservatism of Fine Art taste, within mainstream artworld history, art judgments have changed; no 'masterpieces' have 'stood the test of time.' The art canon, like the literary canon, is of relatively recent origin. Many works of art which we now call 'masterpieces' were ignored or denigrated before they were accepted. During the last hundred years, notions of art quality have changed quite rapidly and it seems to some critics today that almost anything is being accepted as art in the art market. Many have argued that the status of artworks is as much a matter of class, economic, gender and ethnic power as artistic or aesthetic significance.
Also, different cultural groups have produced different kinds of art which utilized different materials, have different formal and aesthetic characteristics, served different social functions and expressed different social values which certainly cannot be perceived or responded to as they were originally intended by those who are not members of those groups. These art forms have not had the same status in the traditional western artworld that Fine Art painting and sculpture has had. They had no 'quality'. It is only recently that they have been allowed by the artworld any aesthetic quality at all and during the last several years that such objects have been seen in art museums and galleries, have generated any critical literature or histories. In fact, without the status, the 'aura', of 'high' art in the artworld, there would be no reason to display, criticize or study these objects at all. And besides, everybody has taste of some kind, know what they like even though they know nothing about Fine Art. Some people enjoy the popular arts or the 'crafts' or Folk art and what's wrong with that?
Also, although some aestheticians now have gone so far as to argue that all mankind is characterized by a general aesthetic capacity when studied from the 'outside,' even from within the context of, say, the 'objective, neutral' 'myths' of sociology or anthropology (or poststructuralism), art judgements of the artworld appear to be relative; there are no historically and cross-culturally valid, absolute, arbitrary, universal standards for art 'quality'. Aesthetic judgments are seen as a matter of what group you belong to, each culture having or arguing for its own 'separate but equal' aesthetic. Obviously we are forced to accept the assumption that all aesthetics are equal, that the quality we perceive in Michaelangelo's Last Judgment or Picasso's Guernica equal to that of an African mask or a Karen Finley performance and that we are ignorant, insensitive, bigoted, racist or sexist if we do not. And, of course, we must throw out traditional Western, art historical categories of schools, periods and styles of art. It seems to be all a matter of opinion and, therefore, must be a matter of being open- minded, of art education, of multiculturalism, of aesthetic diversity in which we all learn to recognize, respect and experience each other's art criteria.
What could I possibly say which might have any validity since notions of 'quality', of agreed upon standards, have disappeared? Well, in spite of what I have said, there still remains the my personal perception. I refuse to give up my own sense of identity, deny my own experiences, reject my own values. Values are only relative within a cultural or social context; within the sanctity of one's self, one's mind, they are not relative at all. I have been an artist and art teacher for over forty years. I know something about the artworld. I have looked at a lot of artworks, read lots of books, worked with lots of different kinds of people. I have some idea what it is like trying to 'make it' in the artworld. I know what it is like trying to create a personal art, an effective way of responding to and expressing my feelings about the society I live in. I know what rejection is whatever the reason, although, as far as I know, I have never been rejected because of my race, sex or ethnicity. I know what it is like to create an 'alternate gallery space' in which my fellow artists who shared my vision and I could exhibit. And I also know that although in the same way that I am not Dutch, French or Renaissance Italian, I feel qualified to make observations about the art and lives of Rembrandt, Poussin and Michelangelo - and Blacks and women. I have had a lifetime of experience in the arts in which more and more I have come to depend. My criteria is what I see and know. It is an internalized, educated perception which I share with others in my field even though we may disagree. It is not a list of objective standards which can be passed on to someone else. It cannot be passed on to others who have not had similar experiences. It cannot be applied to works of art to determine if they are good. And therefore, even though I am not Black, female or Latino, I believe that I might have something worthwhile to say. And even though I am a professor, I reserve the right to be wrong, to be confronted and contradicted, to change my mind and to learn something new. I know what 'quality' is and if I change my mind tomorrow, I will still be absolutely right.