Project Art Lounge has highlighted the work of many women artists over the years. We didn’t do so because they were women. We did so because something in their work inspired us to look closer. It matters to us who these artists are, of course, and we let their art speak for them. Sometimes we’re lucky to be able to interact with the artists directly. We add context and commentary from our own background and experience. That is us talking, not them. This is how we learn – through dialogue and connection.
Whether the artists we interact with are women, men, black, white, Asian, gay, straight or none-of-the-above, we’ve tried to support artists of all backgrounds without putting labels on them. But TRUTH be told, many cultural institutions have fallen short. A 2019 study found that artists in 18 major US museums are 85% white and 87% male. So while women artists are and will be a continued focus of ours, we too have fallen short and must do better in other ways to draw our circle wider going forward.
In this hyper-political moment, memes and slogans are being thrown about with abandon. Labels are being worn like a badge of honor or with blind allegiance, sometimes void of any true understanding for the underlying cause. Project Art Lounge believes that #BlackLivesMatter. They do, and it’s a shame that even needs to be said. More importantly, it needs to be demonstrated through changes in attitude. At the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the Museum presented Kamasi Washington’s sumptuous music and video installation, “Harmony of Difference” from the album “Truth” posted at the top of this page, an invitation to slow down, look (and listen) more deeply, and to think about the true meaning of “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity”. At that time, we confessed with sincere humility that we, like all Americans need to own a “shared cultural heritage including the shamefulness of white supremacy.” Acknowledging that truth is a necessary starting point for dialogue and action.
So as we wrap up this post with some observations about the limits of one white man’s experience in the art world, we invite you to listen to Kamasi Washington’s Truth and consider the true meaning of harmony, difference and equitable justice to you.
A young follower confessed to me, “In the current environment I don’t know what to say for fear of saying the wrong thing, so I don’t say anything at all.” But then he realized that silence isn’t a solution either, telling me “if I don’t say anything, others will condemn me as well.” It was a message of frustration and grief, and one that echoed the call to action during the 1980 AIDS epidemic: silence = death.
So I suggested the young man keep reading, listening and learning. Eventually the right words and actions would come to him. I told him that just as he was struggling to join the conversation, people in the black community are also tired of explaining their experiences with racism. I could have pointed to the arts as another form of self-expression, where it still holds true that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
In the documentary accompanying the exhibition Gerhard Richter: Painting After All, Richter describes painting as a “secretive business,” a means of expression for someone “not suited for the public” or “a bit cowardly” about speaking their mind. He describes the painter’s studio as a safe place for “someone who wouldn’t speak out in public, but then goes for it here in secret.” To be sure, there are plenty of artists who put it all out there, who engage with and even provoke public criticism to get a message across. Think about the Dana Schutz Controversy or Kara Walker’s shadow art, or Marina Abramovic’s performance art. Actually, Kara Walker’s art shouldn’t be controversial at all, since her work simply tells the truth about slavery and the African-American experience, which should have been taught to every American in grade school.
What Gerhard Richter expresses in his work, in a quiet, more reserved and perhaps privileged tone, is also a truthful telling of his own experience, that of a political refugee fleeing from East Germany to the West, never to see his family again. In an interview shown in the documentary, Richter talks about the artist’s responsibility toward “personal morality.” But he also acknowledges that artists are not alone in their work. They’re “automatically part of society.” Many of Richter’s abstract paintings are based on photographs. As Richter tells it, “the photos create a world, but I don’t know what’s happening outside of the Frame.” That’s an honest admission of doubt – of the limits to individual experience, which shape one’s world view. It’s also a call to action regarding the need to pursue truth beyond the limitations of that experience.
Richter grew up in the Eastern part of Germany in an area that changed hands between Germany and Poland during the upheavals of World War II. He was a young man at the height of Nazi indoctrination, too young to fight, but old enough to be “haunted, like many of his German contemporaries, by memories and associations from the Third Reich”. He escaped to West Germany two months before the Berlin wall was built. As a political refugee he wasn’t able to return “home” until 1987. His parents were long gone. These, too, are experiences outside the four corners of Richter’s painting, which have influenced his work to be sure. With all the fame of a leading contemporary artist, Richter is also a symbol of white privilege. In a 2016 interview he expressed criticism of immigrants and used derogatory language that can only be explained as the prejudice of an old white man afraid of his own future and out of touch with the “Zeitgeist” that contemporary art portends to embody.
Richter never claimed to be an authority on multiculturalism, or the harmony of difference, but he stepped into a dialogue and spoke out. About painting, Richter says “To talk about painting is not only difficult, but perhaps pointless, too. You can only express in words, what words are capable of expressing.” Maybe he should have let his paintings continue to do the talking, but now we have a more complete picture of him, if only to educate ourselves about our own personal morality and bias.
In the documentary Richter describes an “astonishing” picture hanging in his Atelier: “it’s fascinating how peaceful it looks, how normal. When you look closely they’re having a nice little chat. But this is the commando that was forced to burn corpses.” It was a photograph of dead bodies awaiting cremation at Birkenau Concentration Camp from 1944. “I can’t explain it. It’s crazy…it hasn’t let me go since.” Rather than express his thoughts in words, Richter often conceals reality under thick layers of paint, scraped away, giving the viewer only a hint of what’s going on beneath the surface. That is the strength of his resolve – to uncover parts of our shared experience, while obscuring them at the same time. Perhaps he’s just muddying the water. At the DIA Foundation in Beacon, NY, Richter gives his process a new twist, inviting the viewer to see their own reflection on the glossy surface of his “6 Gray Mirrors”.
If Richter is muddying the water with his famous gray hues, then at least he gives viewers a chance to see themselves in the process – in the depths of his own introspection. In doing so, Richter may be offering a call-to-action after all. Take a good long look at yourself. Pause before you speak and think before you act. Just as Richter found his calling to paint, we must now find our path forward, while never forgetting the limits to our own experience.
On the first of what will no doubt be several visits to the 2017 Whitney Biennial I was confronted with an uneasy feeling. As I worked my way through the crowded galleries, I stood shoulder to shoulder with others pondering the works before me. It was like standing next to a stranger in a public bathroom, looking into the mirror. Are we staring at ourselves, or looking past one another wondering what the other person is thinking, while trying not to make eye contact. However innocuous the encounter, I walked away from each artwork feeling that we are all here because of a common purpose and a desire for shared experience.
The “Zeitgeist” portrayed in the Whitney’s newest survey of American art is one of seriousness and concern over the polarization in society. Significant artworks deal with themes of inequality and injustice that were at the forefront of last year’s election. Probably the most talked about piece is Dana Schutz’s homage to Emmett Till, the painting of a young black boy who was brutally killed following false accusations by a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. Controversy erupted as some black artists protested what could be perceived as profiteering on a “black death spectacle,” criticizing that – as a white female artist – Schutz has no ownership in the cultural heritage and the civil rights movement that the image of Emmett Till represents. In her defense, Schutz has made clear that she never intends to sell the painting.
I disagree with the criticism and feel strongly that it is for all Americans to own that shared cultural heritage including the shamefulness of white supremacy. It’s certainly better to confront that experience than to run away from it or deny its continued existence. Biennial’s co-curator, Christopher Lew on artnet put it this way: “It is deeply painful and traumatic—more so for some than others, in unequal terms—but it is something that we all have to deal with, and I think if we don’t confront it, if we don’t have these kind of conversations, then we’re not getting anywhere.”
That painting is also the subject of a personal confession and the source of that unsettling mirror-image I was feeling. In a moment of pictographic ambiguity, the yellow cloth surrounding the victim’s head suddenly resembled the shock of yellow-blond hair that we have all become too familiar with. Was it Emmett Till’s casket open in front of me or was I staring into a dystopian void in which Donald Trump was staring back at me? However fleeting, this weird moment of confusion was a reminder that the subject of racism is ever present in society today. Our fate as Americans – white and black – are all wrapped up in the heritage that led to the death of Emmett Till and we have a shared responsibility to deal with it. I am reminded of the song “Everyone’s a little bit racist” from the musical Avenue Q:
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone Stopped being so P.C.,
Maybe we could Live in — harmony!
In the words of another notable white figure, controversial on matters of racial injustice, the Polish-British author Joseph Conrad said this: “In order to move others deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be carried away beyond the bounds of our normal sensibility…” Whether through literature or painting, art has a way of transcending reality to engage us in new ways of thinking about ourselves and our shared experience.
Biennial co-curator Mia Locks wraps up the exhibition this way: “When people keep talking about racism, when people keep talking about inequity, when people keep talking about debt — when conversations come around without you bringing it up — you realize: These are the ideas!”
For a show bustling with the energy of an overzealous crowd in search of the next big controversy, the Whitney Biennial also offers quiet moments of reflection. The busy visitor will miss the beauty and poignancy in “Harmony of Difference”, a video and music installation by jazz musician Kamasi Washington. As I stood and watched, I could hear hushed questions from impatient passersby asking “is anything going to happen”.
Slow images rolled by as visitors came and went. For those who patiently waited, Washington’s beguiling music evolved and the video rewarded greatly with “Desire,” “Humility,” “Knowledge,” “Perspective” and “Integrity” – the five themes beautifully woven together. My take away of the whole biennial: for true understanding, we must take the time to look (and listen) carefully and to see deeply.