The latest attempt at art censorship in the United States is directed at a politically leftist, anti-racist artist. It seems that only artists who take on political subject matter in an effort to raise the plight of the marginalized are targeted for being insensitive to the marginalized.
This time the culprit is an overtly political painting – a protest painting, by a highly politicized artist – that attempts to illustrate the presence of white supremacists in the contemporary United States. The artist is Vincent Valdez, a young man of Mexican origin who is known for representational work that is critical of racism, injustice and inequity. Previous works include a series of paintings meant to suggest the lynching deaths of Mexican-American men in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His new painting, titled The City I is on display at the Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.
The painting is 30 feet wide and depicts, in photo-realist style, a group of modern-day KKK members in their hoods, looking toward the viewers. Certain objects, including an iPhone, indicate that the image represents the contemporary. It is a menacing image, topical – and stressful – in the U.S. south, especially since white supremacists marched in Virginia and murdered an anti-fascist protester with a car attack in 2017. (Valdez painted The City I before this happened.)
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There have been many protests of protest art in recent years in the United States: Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, a victim of a lynching and beating, in a coffin, created to remind us that U.S. callousness toward black men has a long history; Scaffold, the large gallows constructed by Sam Durant to commemorate the Dakota people who were publicly hanged in Minnesota in 1862; the reading of a poem based on Michael Brown’s autopsy report, by Kenneth Goldsmith – all have been angrily denounced as insensitive, hurtful and racist. The argument is that because these works were made by white artists, they appropriate or exploit the suffering of people of colour for the artist’s personal gain. The sympathetic intent behind them is irrelevant. Many of these protests demand that the offending artwork be removed from public display or even destroyed. (Scaffold has now not only been dismantled, but also ceremonially burned, after profuse public apologies for its creation by the artist.)
These works were not pieces of theatre in which a real person plays a character of a different race. These are inanimate representations – paintings, sculptures, texts – by individual artists.
The gallery that is now showing Valdez’s work, which had paid US$200,000 for it, was aware of the possibility these criticisms could come and so took a series of softening measures in preparation for the exhibition. They consulted the Anti-Defamation League and the University of Texas’s Department of African and African Diaspora studies, whose analysis they put on their website. They put up a warning at the gallery saying that the piece “may elicit strong emotions.” A gallery host is will be on hand at all times to discuss the work with patrons. An interview with the artist, proving his anti-racist bona fides, is shown on video. There is a comment box for visitors.
Despite all the warnings and justifications, protest immediately arose. One student’s statement read that the painting “glamourizes historical violence by way of art world validation.” The artist’s racial identity was also a problem: “The artist is Mexican American and while Mexicans experienced racism in the Western Hemisphere, the KKK historically terrorized and murdered African Americans to a larger extent.” The student called not just for the exclusion of the painting from the gallery, but also its destruction.
Then the head of the local chapter of the NAACP, Nelson Linder, said to The New York Times, “I would have shown the victims. Not just pictures of the Klan, but the end result of their behaviour, the black folks being lynched.”
The museum has not capitulated to the student’s demand to remove the painting or to show another work in its stead, but it is releasing conciliatory statements to try to soothe opponents.
The great irony of these anti-art movements is that they come from the same cultural faction that tends to demand a greater revolutionary role in art. It is the identity-centred left that calls for artists to resist a racist society. One can only interpret this to mean that art should be engaged and didactic. Yet it seems to be only the artists who attempt such work that are targeted as abusers. Those who are not involved in social justice activism do not face demands to have their art destroyed for ignoring marginalized groups. The apolitical are generally left alone.
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Valdez says in interviews that as a Mexican-American he is a person of colour and so has every right to address racism in the United States. But to play this card is dangerous – it is really to accept the lunacy of the identity argument in the first place.
The idea that certain subjects in global history may not be represented in art by anyone but those directly harmed by those events is repressive and Philistinic. It would exclude many great works of art of human history, and particularly limit commentary on the contemporary and the topical. It will lead to more and more of us retreating into apolitical and uncontroversial art.
It's almost as bad an idea as the belief that being troubled by something is the same as being put in physical danger by it.
The monk Savonarola publicly burned art in the 15th century, in the name of morality and progress, as has everyone who has done so ever since. History never looks on art-burners as being on the side of progress and equality. It’s time for universities, galleries and all of us to stop apologizing for an act that is uniquely human and indeed at the summit of human achievement – the act of making art.