Criticism's Blackout
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Criticism's Blackout

Where are all the Black art critics?

This is what a one white male art critic, Blake Gopnik, had to say about painter Alma Thomas on April 8, 2015:

For all its eye-appeal, what especially interests me is how casually the picture seems to be made–just a bunch of haphazard red brushstrokes sitting on a yellow ground. That distinguishes it from any number of precedents: from the extreme care and discipline of tidy formalists such as Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland; from the expressionist gestures of Pollock and his crew, for whom every pictorial gesture was (over-)ripe with meaning; and even from the completely arbitrary gestures of conceptual painting, where there doesn’t seem to be any violation, of any kind, behind what happens on the canvas.

Thomas seems to occupy a lovely middle-ground of just-good-enough painting–the painterly equivalent of a floor well-enough swept, a letter well-enough written, a soup well-enough cooked. That is, it’s painting that reflects the lives of all the millions of people (including many women) who haven’t had the luxury to perseverate over perfection. It echoes–and provides–the special middle-ground pleasures of domestic life.

It would be comforting to ignore the various tropes utilized by this “seasoned” critic to discuss Thomas’s work. Haven’t we concluded that comparison is the laziest form of criticism? Never mind the fact that Thomas’s life was anything but domestic as an educator working in Washington, DC. Never mind the fact that the history of Blackness and domesticity, particularly in the US, are incredibly fraught. And while critique is undoubtedly, very subjective, we wonder: how might this assessment of Thomas’s work look different if written by a Black art critic? How might rigorous critique imbued with certain cultural nuances look when compared with this reduction?

Alma Thomas, Oriental Sunset, 1973. Photo: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

These are the questions that we ask as editors of ARTS.BLACK.

Where are all the Black art critics?

As soon as Gopnik’s article was published, we found ourselves in a slew of digital and non-digital conversations. Many an expletive was typed. Many a sigh exhaled. We thought: we could do this work; we are doing this work. We know young Black critics writing. They are online. They are on Tumblr, Twitter, personal blogs, and even Instagram. What would it mean to bring all of these voices together in one place? To offer a safe editorial space in an ever blooming digital arts writing landscape that still seems so devoid of varying cultural perspectives?

By no means are we suggesting that only Black critics can or should write about Black artists. Quite the contrary. We use the example of Gopnik to illustrate #theclapback, a term we use often that’s rooted less in hostility and more in accountability. More than anything, the digital world has allowed us to respond in real time to a pervasive imbalance in the arts public discourse. In 2015, we can read a piece of troubling art criticism and offer our immediate evaluations. There is no ARTS.BLACK without the digital, simply.

ARTS.BLACK seeks to further expand the places and spaces for critical thought on Black art by Black writers. There is a need to combat structural differences and systematic barriers to equitable representation, while simultaneously bringing together independent arts facilitators who are contributing greatly to arts dialogue without the validation of traditional institutions. As we conceptualized this platform we understood that if there wasn’t a publication or platform willing to actively include Black critics on the mastheads, in the pool of contributing writers, we would do it.

We want to spark a conversation around the implications of the dearth of published critical interpretations of art from diverse perspectives. What is lost when Black art critics are invisible? We aim to cull together a collective of Black writers who are interested in interrogating the aforementioned spaces. Such a collective has been difficult to find en masse, but we are slowly growing a community (a much discussed #Superscript15 concept but not one we are willing to give up). We look forward to continuing the search and encouraging critical minds of color to be bold in interrogating arts and cultural normatives.

We refute the idea that the digital landscape reduces the quality of art criticism. Yet, even still, if everyone is an art critic now, thanks to the interwebs, fine. We happily wade through the muck to find the new writers challenging the proverbial and quite literal gatekeepers: Serubiri Moses, Rianna Jade Parker, Kareem Reid, Imani Jacqueline Brown, Ladi Jones.

Kehinde Wiley, Santos Dumont — The Father of Aviation II (detail), 2009. Photo: Taylor Renee Aldridge

Why should Jessica Dawson be paid to write a review filled with homophobic slurs and racist undertones and call it it criticism? What should be made of her recent Kehinde Wiley review in which Dawson likens Wiley’s paintings of African-American men to “predatory behavior dressed up as art-historical affirmative action”? Do we ignore lines where Dawson refers to Wiley’s subjects as “firm piece[s] of African-American flesh” instead of people just because her Village Voice editors gave the green light?

Our efforts within ARTS.BLACK are to hold such critics and establishments accountable by rejecting the claims that theirs are the only critical reflections to which we should pay attention. Digitization has allowed for us to provide an outlet for equitable critical query from perspectives that are not often valued in a traditional world of art criticism.

We’ve embarked on an exceedingly special journey. An intervention. But it is quite intimidating. Yet, every day we wake up and say to ourselves, “This matters.” Occasionally, there is worry about lack of pedigree. We can be transparent about that. Arts writing is tied to pedigree–a pedigree that results in so much whiteness and nepotism.

Our goals for ARTS.BLACK are all quite ambitious, but we are resolute about the fact that if we are not challenging the inequitable standards of arts writing, publishing, and, indeed, the criticism field at large, then why bother?

To that end, we ask: Where are all the Black art critics? If you know them, shout them out and send them them our way.

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