What does this white girl think she’s doing?
is a question that comes up in the art world regarding my paintings that include black figures. I’ve been asking myself that question for the last five years and will attempt to answer it here.
My primary aim in doing my art is to deconstruct my own conditioning within the “imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy.”1 I do this for my own psychic survival. Painting and drawing seem to be somewhat effective tools for this in a possibly mystical way that I won’t get into here. In making my work, I find glimpses of freedom, truth, love and my untrammeled humanity. This process of expanding awareness continues in the public dialog about my work—for me and for others.
I grew up in the back woods culture of guns, 4x4s and meth in Northern California, so I felt a familiar comfort when I moved to the ‘hood in West Oakland 10 years ago. I quickly settled into the community and made life-long friends who have become an integrated part of my life. Before my consciousness had made the full perceptual shift into integration, it didn’t occur to me to include black figures in my paintings. I remember asking Rory (my best friend, collaborative subject of many of my paintings, partner in life, and black man educated by the Black Panthers and the streets) what he thought of what I had painted that day and he said, “It looks like a bunch of white people.” That’s when I first realized how my perception was skewed by racial conditioning, and suddenly my work looked like a bunch of white people to me as well, and I fixed that by making my work look like my consciousness and my life.
When my work became public in the art world five years ago, questions regarding race and representation arose. The general stated concern is that the history of white people representing black people in inaccurate, exploitative or dehumanizing ways could be happening in my work. It seems a simple concern to address—look at the work itself and decide for yourself. Outside of the art world, when people look at the work and decide for themselves, the consistent response from people of color has been positive: “it’s good to see some color represented,” “these paintings show real life,” “there is life in these paintings,” “here is an ally.” I don’t report this as a defense of my work, but as a point of discussion. Why such a starkly contrasting response in the art world, where my inclusion of black figures creates discomfort among some viewers?
I’ve been grappling for the last five years with this gap in perception: through reading, writing, introspection, rumination and ongoing, in-depth conversations with people of all races from the street to academia. What I’ve come to know is that there are multiple perspectives and voices that need to be listened to if we want to have a clear grasp on reality as it’s experienced by the collective. We don’t listen to outside perspectives to be nice. We do it because we need them:
%“...the margin is more than a site of deprivation...it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance...a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one's capacity to resist. It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds."%2
Here is an example of a perspective from outside the art world that feels radical within the art world: Since I make my work in a mostly black neighborhood and my social life is racially integrated, a lot of black people see my work before anyone else and are part of the conversation before it goes public. People like to give me suggestions for paintings they think I should make, such as, “Hey, you should paint a tribute to Nia Wilson” (the black girl who was murdered on Bart by a white man in July of 2018). When I tell them how badly their idea would go over in the art world, people are offended to hear that, in the art world, our relationship is characterized mainly by unequal power. This characterization defines us based on societal power variables outside of our control and ignores our humanity. When I asked Rory what he would like people in the art world to know about people in the streets, he said, “I would like them to know that we are no different than they are.”
Marginalized perspectives such as Rory’s are sometimes dismissed as uneducated, uninformed or unenlightened. So, I’ve made a practice of finding links between street wisdom and more “credible” cultural production. Here, Hilton Als, writing about Alice Neel, repeats and expands Rory’s perspective:
%“What struck me about her vast oeuvre… was all the people of color she painted. This was unusual, and is still. The truth of the matter is that many—most—contemporary artists of non-color are interested in reflecting themselves, their creamy whiteness and hair untroubled by thought. On the flip side, many artists of color who make a buck nowadays do it by equating blackness with oppression and selling the result to white people without feeling a thing for their subjects’ lives. Neel’s work smashes both of those categories, showing us the humanness embedded in subjects that people might classify as ‘different.’”%3
Als boldly names a possible reason why Rory’s perspective on my art differs so vastly from that of some art world viewers: Identity is capital within the art world. If a black artist can capitalize on black identity, this will inevitably extend into a white artist getting in the game and taking power from the black artist. In a conversation with an artist friend of color, he voiced this fear and made the analogy of Elvis capitalizing on black music. His courageous honesty immediately shifted the conversation to our mutual goal of resisting the commodification of black oppression while seeing more artists of color rise up the art world ranks. In the broader cultural dialog, I suspect that the fear he named is operating as an unspoken subtext surrounding my art. If that is so, we should talk about that subtext.
For people of all races with no skin in the art game, my work has been seen as some much-needed representation of black folks, as normalizing blackness, as depicting what an integrated life looks like, as an opportunity to see black people not as symbols for something else but as individual, beautiful human beings mixed in among individual, beautiful white human beings, and even as an opportunity to analyze our perceptions of race. But, in the art world, where racial identity is charged with power, the neo-colonial pattern of white people exploiting and dehumanizing black people is brought back to the table.
For all their stated intentions to be sites of radical critique, art world institutions are inescapably centers of power. The higher up a power hierarchy we go, the more there is to be lost and gained in terms of social and economic capital. We are inside what Audre Lorde calls the master’s house. In the words of my academic artist friend Butterfly Williams, “The master’s house will never be dismantled by the master’s tools—and the master’s primary tool is your identity.”4
The discomfort that comes up around my work in the art world pulls at a thread that leads us right to the center of the knot of identity, class and neo-colonial power. We know that racial identity was created and legislated to serve economic power and is, to this day, wielded politically to maintain economic power. This racialized system has infected not only our societal structures but our psyches as well. Here is Butterfly Williams again:
%“Postmodernism is Neo-Colonialism: Postmodernity is the cultural condition that results from the history of colonialism. What contemporary people think of as “identity” is a result of colonialism: the poor worked for the rich, people of color served whites, women obeyed men, and homosexuals and transgenders were pathologized by heterosexuals and cisgenders because these cultural habits made imperial expansion under capitalism more efficient. The dynamics within these binaries have been changed — somewhat — by cultural and political activism, but the binaries themselves remain firmly entrenched. Similarly, what contemporary people think of as “power” is also the result of colonialism: a social hierarchy of cultural privileges that determines who issues orders and who obeys them.”%5
So what do we do in the art world and in our own conditioned psyches with the relationship between identity and power? I certainly don’t suggest that identity be ignored in some kind of color-blind fantasy. But, we should be aware of whether we are using it for liberation or for domination. Without awareness, we can unwittingly recreate the power dynamics we want to resist. If we recognize that we ARE the art world, we have the power to shape it—most practically perhaps in the narratives we initiate around specific works of art.
I saw a missed opportunity to disrupt the dominant power paradigm in the discourse around Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, “Open Casket” in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. First, the critique that she is using black suffering for career points doesn’t go far enough. Are we going to address the fact that we’ve created a system where black suffering is a commodity? Second, where was the conversation about Henry Taylor’s painting of Philando Castile’s murder, “The Times They Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough!” An in-depth compare-and-contrast between those two approaches to the same subject seems to me to be an obvious and enlightening approach. We could have given at least equal attention to Henry Taylor and shed light on the difference between knowing about racism and knowing racism, among many more rigorous analyses. In the resistance to Dana Schutz’s work, she became the focal point of the whole show, once again centering whiteness and the white artist. (See my own compare-and-contrast reflections on these two paintings at the end of this book.)
While the quality of our public discourse is important for freeing our art world from destructive patterns, perhaps even more transformative is the willingness to talk openly one-on-one. Intimate, vulnerable conversations about racial dynamics that dismantle conditioned identity concepts are revolutionary political acts. Division between social identities prevents us from building coalitions powerful enough to fight back against our economic overlords. The Black Panther Party was a serious threat to power not because they had guns—power has bigger guns—but because they understood who the real enemy is. Stokely Carmichael breaks it down:
“If a white man wants to lynch me, that's his problem. If he's got the power to lynch me, that's my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it's a question of power. Racism gets its power from capitalism. Thus, if you're anti-racist, whether you know it or not, you must be anti-capitalist. The power for racism, the power for sexism, comes from capitalism, not an attitude.”
I know how hard it is, however, to have these intimate vulnerable conversations about race and power. When people experience the identity dynamics between my black figures and me as hurtful or threatening, I understand this reaction and am sympathetic to it. When I have been challenged, I have been aware of my own fight-or-flight impulse to try to control my image. (I have nothing to lose materially, since at this stage in my career my art is more economic burden than boon.) Under capitalism, our value as human beings is not secure. We use the tools at hand—control dominance, mastery—to feel safe, unless we are willing to risk safety for freedom. Those tools hinder, rather than support, intimate connection and coalition building, and by relying on them to uphold our personal value, we continue to uphold the master’s house.
I’ve considered not including black figures in my work to avoid causing this stress in others and in myself. But, to avoid this stress—by not painting half of the people in my life and not addressing race in the context of my larger project of addressing power—would be a cowardly move. This stress is the feeling you get when you approach the edges of deep wounds. And in America, I don’t think there is any deeper wound than the centuries of genocide and enslavement justified by the invention of race. My life-long enmeshment with people on the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder—from rural redneck whites to black people of West Oakland—has given me an up close perspective on how racism is used to maintain the class division. The magnitude of suffering at the margins makes a lot of our art world discourse seem vague and pointless. But since this is where I ended up, I am motivated to try to move the conversation into territory that feels more relevant to me and the people I love.
I paint to address suffering—material and spiritual. I witness and reflect how the unexamined tension between power and love creates suffering in our culture and in our psyches. And we can’t talk about power in America without talking about race. I’d suggest also that we can’t talk about love in America without talking about race. I sense a deep heartbreak over our separation—our separation from each other and from our own essential humanity. There is a particular quality of boundless love that gets released when we work through the fear, distrust, guilt, shame and delusion of our racial conditioning. This “working through” is political power. As Cornell West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
In the art world, the commodification of our artistic expression to serve power is not a newly identified problem. I’m offering that, currently, the commodification of identity to serve power is a problem we should talk about, and it goes beyond the art world to the political realm with very real material consequences. In our collectively created art world, we have what amounts to a crucible of our collective consciousness as it relates to power, if we choose to use it this way. Here we can try out untested ways of thinking, perceiving and representing. We can privilege information from our senses, hearts and guts over familiar ideology. Most importantly, we can talk to each other from our hearts. We have the opportunity to expose unconscious forces personally and interpersonally within the low-stakes, symbolic realm of art. No one’s life is at risk here. A painting is not a gun or a public policy. Opinions only hurt egos.
If we value our collective freedom, we can address the uncomfortable subtexts of competition, distrust, fear, shame and guilt that keep us divided and playing out the master’s plan. It’s on us. As James Baldwin says, “Freedom is not something that anybody can be given. Freedom is something people take, and people are as free as they want to be.”6
We have a choice: do we continue to operate within the terms of power created by colonization, or do we can do the difficult work of psychic deconstruction in public? Can we give up the master’s power and begin a reconstruction with love? People with nothing left to lose have already begun this project. I am reporting to you from this site of reconstruction, in this writing and in my paintings.
Thanks for reading and please let me know what you think.
1 bell hooks’ phrase
2bell hooks, Marginality as Site of Resistance
3 Hilton Als, The Inclusive Humanity of Alice Neel’s Paintings, The New Yorker, February 4, 2017
4 Butterfly Williams, Why is emotional abuse rampant among activist communities? https://link.medium.com/745aQfURLT, www.iruke.org
6 James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985, page 243
Reflections on Henry Taylor and Dana Schutz
If we believe the body and the senses are part of consciousness—and I hope we do by now—then we must look to aesthetic style as a source of information about meaning. According to Susan Sontag, “All aesthetic judgement is really cultural evaluation.” So let’s use Henry Taylor’s and Dana Schutz’s paintings to do some cultural evaluation.
In my assessment, Schutz’s painting is an illustration of how white people often interact with black suffering—from a safe distance. Her style has wit, irony, sardonic humor, neurosis, angst, but it doesn’t have soul. Hers is a style of privilege. Privilege is a material gift, but a spiritual curse. The ability to control one’s environment, circumstances and image distances one from one’s essential humanity. This control is not afforded to people under attack, or living in poverty, or whose identity is so misperceived and misrepresented that simply being in the world is a struggle to exist in wholeness.
Ta Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, identifies white people living in this controlled, protected condition as “The Dreamers.” Addressing his black son, he writes:
"I'm sorry that I cannot make it ok. I am sorry that I cannot save you, but not that sorry. Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life. Just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams their lives are not so inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real, when the police decide the tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities, they are shocked in a way that those of us who are born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like [the Dreamers]. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always in your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact."
In my assessment, the work of Dana Schutz is the work of a Dreamer. A Dreamer who is beginning to wake up, perhaps, but the reality of violence is still abstract. How could the horror of what they did to Emmet Till ever find an appropriate place within her body of work? Yes, her work is dark, but in a sardonic, ironic, humorous way. This is not what the horror of lynching looks like.
Henry Taylor’s very different stylistic depiction of violence against black people illustrates how violence is perceived by someone who knows it, rather than knows about it. Taylor’s style is raw, abject, immediate, stripped of flourish or entertainment. It reminds me of when Rory and I went to see Detroit, a grueling film about the Algiers Motel incident, in which white police terrorize black people in a motel during the 1967 Detroit riots. We went during a heat wave, where the only cool place we could find was a movie theatre in Rockridge. There we were in a theatre full of white people, sniffling, sobbing and moaning at the horrific abuse playing out on the screen in front of us, while Rory sat there stoically watching the movie, apparently unphased. At the end, I was wiping my eyes and everyone was getting up to leave. A white lady singled Rory out and said, “That must be horrible for you to watch.” Rory kind of shrugged. As we were leaving, I asked him how he could be so nonchalant. He said, “That’s not shocking to me. That’s just how it be.”
Rory’s matter-of-fact confrontation with the pain made my emotion feel like indulgent melodrama. Maybe something like Dana Schutz’s brushstrokes.
I don’t believe that Schutz’s piece shouldn’t be shown, especially if we can recognize that we have the power to shape the narrative around it in ways that serve liberation. Such as: discussing it in relation to Henry Taylor’s piece, or using it to reveal where more soul work by white people needs to be done. To me, Schutz’s painting is about some white peoples’ limited emotional connection to black experience of racial trauma.
In my own self-inquiry, I asked myself if or how would I paint the subject of Emmett Till. I determined that a real act of empathy would be for me to paint my own nephew mutilated in a coffin. I tried to imagine myself making those brushstrokes, while looking back and forth from the Emmet Till photo to the smiling, whole face and body of my beloved nephew, and trying to merge the two on the canvas. Just the thought of making that painting brings tears to my eyes. And this inquiry revealed to me why I would not approach this subject. Not because I’m white, but because I have the choice not to confront my nephew’s mutilated body. Emmet Till’s mother didn’t have that choice. I know the limitations of illustrated empathy. There is a gap that must be observed to honor the sacredness of her pain. This is the form my empathy must take.