Looking at Art Critically

by Chan

I love art, truly I do, but it really becomes a source of frustration when it is viewed as above critique. In many senses art is critiqued constantly. The meanings are deconstructed and analysed, but people magically forget this methodical approach when there is an outcry that some art is actually offensive.

It seems quite popular when something is seen as offensive, problematic or outrageous, to write it off as being ‘just art’ or ‘satire’. In my view this is often indicative of people wishing to enjoy something at the expense of others.

Art is powerful; except when it serves to attack the marginalised. Then it becomes not that big of a deal. The offended are being over sensitive, ignorant and unenlightened and the artwork has been ‘misunderstood’.

It is disingenuous to say that art goes into the world without repercussions. One needs only to look at recent history to disprove this idea:

An exhibit at the Barbican has been one of the more recent examples of something deeply troubling being excused because it is art. Although the efforts of Sara Myers and her supporters were ultimately victorious in their aim to get the exhibition cancelled, this was not before a number of excuses, deflections and accusations were levied against protestors.

Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B dubbed the human zoo by protestors, was described by director Peter Brook as ‘an extraordinary achievement’. This ‘haunting’ installation of black people in chains apparently set out ‘to subvert a disturbing phenomenon, turning the notion of exotic spectacle on its head’ according to the Barbican website. ‘As spectators walk past the exhibits one-by-one, to the sound of lamentations sung live by a Namibian choir, a human gaze is unexpectedly returned.’

I have a problem with black people being displayed as passive objects. I have a problem with the evils of colonialism and slavery being portrayed without the perpetrators being held visibly and directly accountable. I have a problem with a set up where black people are tasked with asserting their humanity rather than it being automatically assumed as it is to others.

Another example is the infamous ‘black woman chair’ by Bjarne Melgaard. This was pictured on Russian fashion website Buro 24/7 on, of all days, Martin Luther King Day: A wealthy white woman sitting serenely atop a bound half-naked black woman. If that’s not one hell of a visual metaphor, I don’t what is. Critics of the chair were quickly derided as overly sensitive. How people denied that it was deeply racist, sexist and misogynoirist is beyond me.

Swedish culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth
Swedish culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth

Yet another example is the work of artist Makode Aj Linde displayed at an exhibition in Sweden. A cake in the shape of a black woman; complete with the artist in blackface serving as the head of the body, in a style reminiscent of gollywogs was displayed. The Swedish minister Adelsohn Liljeroth was invited to cut the cake and giggled as she cut into what was supposed to be the ‘clitoris’. The cake was intended to bring attention to racism and female genital mutilation Makode said.

Black community groups in Sweden expressed outrage and demanded that the minister resign. The minister responded that she sympathised with the criticisms but denied she had done anything wrong. She stated that while she found the installation provocative and bizarre she had been invited to speak about artistic freedom and the right to offend.

Pushing ideas through art is hardly new, neither is the racism. In 1937 the Nazi regime put on two concurrent art exhibitions. One called the Degenerate Art Exhibition and the other the Great German Art exhibition. The Degenerate Art Exhibition was set up as the antithesis of the Great German Art exhibition and the Nazi ideals that were pushed at the time. The Degenerate Art Exhibition featured all the art that the Nazi regime viewed as filthy, ugly, poorly made and non Aryan. Black art was used as an example of that which was degenerate, primitive and valueless.

Opposition towards racism in art work is derided as political correctness ‘gone mad’ and the stifling of artistic freedom. The shutdown of Exhibit B was labelled as censorship. I find such suggestions laughable and tragic. There’s a lot more at play here. Complaining about political correctness seems to be the territory of those wanting to be oppressive assholes and get away with it.

People have a right to stand up and say what it is that offends them. They do not have to put up with things that dehumanise and insult them. Furthermore how can the marginalised and oppressed in society censor anyone? Censorship must be backed up by a structural institution. What structural institution operated to silence Exhibit B?

We see also the lack of representation of black and other minority people in the Western art world. When the work of PoC is celebrated, the artists behind it are frequently erased. We need to question why the greats and the classics of the art world are overwhelmingly white when art is the expression of humanity on a whole.

Responsibility must be taken for what is produced; your work must be able to withstand scrutiny. Artists take responsibility, take your licks when they are due to you and learn your lessons.

We do art and ourselves a disservice when we trivialise its importance, even if we do so in an attempt to protect it. It should be recognised also that who the art is by and the context in which it is created can be as important as the work itself. It is OK and essential that we critique what we love.

Art has wide use, it is not just confined to galleries and school syllabuses; it is as pervasive as language. Art can provoke, art can anger, it can bring joy, it can inspire. Art can give powerful messages, it can tug at the heart strings and cause outrage.

If art can be all of those things is it really such a stretch that it can be racist too?

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Chan is a not yet practising barrister, artist and seamstress based in London. She grew up between London and St Thomas, Jamaica.
More of her writing can be found on her blog toussaintmaroon. Find her on Twitter @ChanRileyArt

2 thoughts on “Can Art Be Racist?

  1. There is a lot that is wrong here but I will focus on the comments on censorship.

    It is glibly stated that censorship cannot be perpetrated by a minority. This is clearly false. What happened with Exhibit X was not that group protested their legitimate offence and the Barbican saw the error of hosting the exhibition. What happened was that a vocal motivated minority made it unsafe to continue the performances. That is not legitimate peaceful protest. That is not how we should operate in a free society – we cannot give any offended group the right to shut down things they don’t like.

    What is also extremely problematic is the author doesn’t see anything weird in prescribing the way in which a given subject can be addressed. If that isn’t censorious, I don’t know what is.

    Art can of course be both intentionally or unintentionally racist. But the people at the Barbican are not idiots – they are not going to put on a show that is explicitly and unequivocally racist, which is trying to present the moral value of racism. What art is is complicated and intended to be interpreted. People will differ in their views of it. No one groups’ interpretation or offence is sufficient reason to preventing others from seeing it or the artist’s freedom of expression.

    I lament that someone who aspires to join the Bar in the UK should have such illiberal views.

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    1. Who says we live in a free society? You are basically spouting liberal hogwash, you are neither here nor there. The whole art industry is racist, so the Barbican is part of that wether you like it or not. I dont think you understand what racism is.

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