Art Counsel

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Race in contemporary art (companion post to “Art and Multiculturalism”)

As a follow up to the previous post on multiculturalism, perhaps we should discuss Blake Gopnik’s new article, “Race issue a two-edged sword for black contemporary artists.”   He touched upon two particular issues that are worth serious consideration.  The first is the assimilation of, and a new comfort-level with Black artists.  Besides highlighting the subtle racism involved in framing such a cultural phenomenon, this observation also shows that there is no real “comfort level” for Black artists.  An outsider trying to work on his/her own terms possesses nobility, but only a small market.  An assimilated, popular Black artist is in danger of being tagged as a betrayer.  This is a narrow and perilous tightrope to walk.

The other issue that deserves some attention is the historical tension within certain examples of Black artists’ work.  Gopnik chose to spotlight Kara Walker and Spike Lee works that are criticized by the Black community for promoting and perhaps prolonging stereotypes.  But the community critique does not seem to offer any new solutions to the problem of which historical motifs Black artists can safely use to express the human experience.  Besides, what value can “safe” images hold when expressing great and prolonged historical and present danger? Another question to ask is that, in a time when marginalized communities are increasingly appropriating and redefining discriminatory words, how is the appropriation and recalibration of images any different?

Ultimately this begs the question; what does “race” in art mean?  What happens when we ignore it?  What happens when we embrace it?  How, where, and when is this important/not important?

Please discuss here or on the forum if you wish to create sub-topics on the matter.


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