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Global Culture and the American Cosmos
©1995 Robert Storr, all rights reserved
American curator, critic, and artist, Robert Storr is currently the Dean of the Yale School of Art, and works as Consulting Curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. From 1990 to 2002, he was Curator and Senior Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The meaning and value of cultural diversity in America are not topics open to purely objective or theoretical assessment. Nobody enjoys a truly global view and no one can claim to speak from a totally disinterested vantage point. Whites, in particular, must be careful to avoid any such pretense, since in too many cases it means that they are passing judgment on the personal testimony of non-whites without accounting for their own experience or clearly establishing their everyday perspective on the social realities involved. This essay on the role of modern art museums and multiculturalism was, therefore, conceived in two parts. The first speaks briefly but I hope usefully about the situation in which I found myself when the issue came to a head for me professionally. The second deals both first-hand and historically with the aesthetic, political, and practical problems entailed in addressing the fact of pluralism in art. The tension between the world in which I lived, as represented in part one, and that in which I worked, as represented in part two, motivated me to write and informs all aspects of what follows.
"Always a knit of identity...always distinction...always a breed of life."
For the better half of my life, I have lived hard by the color line. For the last seven years, I lived on the other side. The neighborhood was Flatbush, Brooklyn; my neighbors were, for the most part, African-American and West Indian. Situated on the "far edge" of Prospect Park, the section of Flatbush in which I settled is a mix of large, old apartment buildings, small stores with living quarters above, and ornate brownstones. The brownstones have remained undivided and intact thanks to the covenant imposed by the farmer who deeded his land to developers at the turn of the century with the stipulation that the houses built on it were to remain single-family dwellings in perpetuity. Over the many economic cycles since, and the transition from generation to generation and from one ethnic group to another, this pact, closely observed, has kept slum lords and gentrifying speculators away from the tree-lined and well-tended residential blocks that branch off Flatbush Avenue.
Traffic on that main artery is heavy, and the action on the corners is often "heavy" as well. Chinese and Caribbean restaurants and Hispanic bodegas occupy most of the intersections between the avenue and the side-streets; drug runners command the pay- phones planted by the curb. Despite this human flux, and the fear of violence that shadows the street's vital commotion, the shop-keepers, executives, office-workers, teachers, lawyers, artisans, householders, short- and long-term unemployed, pensioners, and children who populate the neighborhood all recognize one another, and know that they are known, even to those who look away as they pass.
Surrounded by the teeming vastness of the city, the district is a distinct but far from homogeneous world. On the map its cardinal compass points are the Park, the Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, Kings County Hospital, and Ebbets Field -- former home to the Brooklyn Dodgers and now a massive public housing project. Legend has it that when Jackie Robinson signed up with the team in the late 1940s, he tried to buy a house in the area so he could walk to work, but couldn't find a seller. A few years later, the once all-white section was nearly all black. It stayed middle- and working class. Other landmarks include the grocery store on Church Avenue, which in 1990 was the target of a months-long boycott by community members and activists who accused the Korean immigrant proprietor of physically abusing a Haitian immigrant customer. And, nearer the core of the 71st Police Precinct which Flatbush shares with Crown Heights are the alternating synagogues and churches that stake out the hotly contested territory along Eastern Parkway, where riots broke out in the summer of 1991.
I belonged to the hybrid ten percent of the population that is white, which is to say not black. The short-hand of our racial discourse allows for only these two primary categories; what corollary distinctions are then made do little to modify the harshness of this initial Manichean division. "Yellow is mellow, if you're brown stick around, when you're black get back" goes the old, ugly rhyme. The caste system it describes survives in our day and has spawned a cult of undiluted Africanness that inverts this hierarchy. Of course, virtually no one in the Western hemisphere has "pure" blood, but atavistic racial myths die hard in a culture that preaches integration but still fears or hates "the nigger in the wood-pile."
In street reality as in genealogical fact, "blackness" is both an abstraction and a spectrum. Walk in a white part of town and the deeper, modulated tones of African-Americans may, to many Caucasians, seem to blur together. Perhaps it is that we who are white are taught not to stare, but to pretend that we are all alike so as not to cause embarrassment to those with darker skins, as if that were a cause for embarrassment. Or maybe it is because we are ashamed to look people in the eye whose pain and reproach and pride we cannot fully take in. But walk around the section of Flatbush where I lived and the finest gradations blue-umber, ruddy-brown, ocher, pink, and beige leap to the eye. There it is safe to notice that black is beautiful, ever varied but never "black."
This is an elementary observation, but conventional linguistic classification so regularly preempts perception that it is necessary to underscore it. The very essence of racism is reducing all distinctions to one. The practical test of whether this unconscious habit has become a conscious problem, subject to analysis and redress, is whether the individual in whom it appears starts to realize the myriad differences subsumed by the generally accepted single big difference. Alertness to the actual color of someone's skin in our skin-color obsessed society is therefore only the beginning. Chatting with one's neighbors in a place like Flatbush, or listening to the talk on the corner, one hears the rich accents of the deep south, the mid-west, and the northern ghetto, along with the neutral diction of the settled bourgeoisie, the suave vowels of Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada, the Bahamas and Guyana, and the rhythmic consonants of Haitian Creole.
The plural backgrounds evident in this catalogue are matched by diversity of other kinds. Religion plays an important role in the community and the faiths are many. Traditional and evangelical Protestant congregations continue to predominate, but a significant number of Caribbeans are Catholic and, because it runs a school system that is safe and academically strict, the church is a powerful force even among non-believers. Because of a moral authority manifest in their discipline, Muslims, belonging to several major and many smaller groups, also exert an influence greater than their number would suggest. With minimal police presence the rule in Flatbush, Muslim missionaries and security squads are often the only visible opposition to the pushers and the only organized force the gangs heed. Despite their sometime drug use -- and their media images as crazed drug dealers -- genuine Rastafarians are also respected for their spiritualism and self-reliance; members own several vegetarian groceries and eateries on Flatbush Avenue and their motto, "One World 360 Degrees Round," is a reassuring symbol of unity. Common to all of these denominations and sects is an essential conservatism that is rooted in the hard necessity of pulling together or holding together a community under siege.
Local cultural institutions reflect a corresponding quest for self-definition. Contrary to the blighted image of urban black life held by many outsiders, such cultural projects are proliferating in spite of scant resources. Need and respect sustain them. At the junction of Rutland Road and Flatbush Avenue is "Head-Start Books & Crafts," specializing, so its sign proclaims, in African, African-American, Hispanic, and European books. There you could find or order almost anything written by a long and ever-lengthening list of influential black writers -- John Hope Franklin, Zora Neale Hurston, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin, Aimé Cesaire, Toni Morrison, Niki Giovanni, Lerone Bennett, E. Franklin Frazier, Chester Himes, Rita Dove, W.E.B. Dubois, Derek Wolcott, Ntzosake Shange, Leopold Senghor, Ralph Ellison, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Jamaica Kincaid, Ishmael Reed, Malcolm X, Harold Cruse, Paule Marshall, Amiri Baraka, and Richard Wright, to name only a few. Also in stock are volumes by a host of others less well known, augmented by Afrocentric children's books, self-help books, marriage manuals, posters, and videotapes.
All over the city, in the last several years, sidewalk tables featuring the same material have cropped up. They, in effect, are the satellites of such neighborhood centers for the dissemination of black literature, history, and social thought; in common cause they offer to the public the wealth of titles that may appear on the computers, but far less reliably on the shelves, of mainstream bookshops and chain stores. In the evening, "Head-Start's" proprietors keep the doors open for classes, reading groups, and lectures. Several blocks down, on Lincoln Road, this forum is complemented by a small gallery that exhibits paintings and sculptures by artists similarly dedicated for forging a positive self-image. Throughout the area, there are exterior murals depicting movement leaders, poets, statesmen, inventors, and the kings of Africa ending with Haile Selasie. In an area rife with graffiti, these walls are honored and unblemished.
On any given day, all the many voices of the contemporary African diaspora are broadcast from hole-in-the-wall record outlets that sell classic Calypso and Reggae, or the latest Soca, Afro-pop, and Hip-hop. For a time, two such shops faced each other across Flatbush Avenue and from Friday noon into the night and on through the next day and night, you could hear Fela alternate with Flavor Flav, or Black Stalin duel vocally with the Mighty Sparrow. Occasional block parties and fairs bring dancing into the streets, and on Labor Day all of central Brooklyn descends on Eastern Parkway for the annual Caribbean Festival. While St. Patrick's Day and Columbus Day have devolved into a mix of orchestrated nostalgia, high-school jamboree, and political showcase, Brooklyn's carnival, a comparatively new but exponentially growing phenomenon, is the site of intense cultural ferment. Weeks in advance of this huge event, "mass-camps" open up in vacant store fronts all around the area. There teams of men, women, and children gather at sundown to plan their march and decorate their parade gear. Months before that, master craftsmen start work on the operatic regalia of the King, Queen, and attendants that lead each "mass-camp's" court. The preparations are done secretly so that the yearly result, with all its fanciful innovations, will come as a surprise when it finally appears before competitors and judges.
One evening several years ago, a friend and I were guided to a remote tenement basement in the heart of Crown Heights to witness the completion of one such ensemble. Made of bent and welded tubing, hammered copper amulets, cellophane, and glitter, the royal couple's towering, bird-of-paradise-like harnesses were the creation of a man who modestly would not give his full name. The day after the masquerade these glorious exoskeletons were scattered along the sidewalk like the shells of tropical insects. My first reaction when coming upon them was to think about how to lug one home. Reaching out for it, however, I hesitated, remembering the anonymous man who had spent hours making the piece, but was apparently unconcerned with its fate after the pageant.
I mention the incident because it concerns an order of things which are the topic of much art-world argument but which in Flatbush crop up as the manifestation of an old and thriving tradition. Many scholars and art critics now question the manner in which objects from other cultures are publicly displayed, for commonly they are the product of plunder from graves or sacred sites. Setting aside the moral onus of those violations, the essential dilemma of whether to exhibit such work derives from the fact that the ritual purpose they served is basic to their meaning. In many of the societies that engendered them, once that purpose was fulfilled, they ceased to be of value and were discarded. The efforts of connoisseurs to collect and preserve these intentionally perishable creations is predicated on our preoccupation with significant form, and so constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of the aesthetics of significant function. The desire to possess these creations in isolation from their fundamental context is, thus, all too often a consequence of being blind to their true beauty. Relinquishing my hold on the costume, I made contact with its informing spirit and carried that away with me.
The great complexity of the world I have tried to describe can be at least partially inferred from the details I have provided. I have spent so much time on this description -- and will proceed to spend a little more -- because, like the example just cited, much of what follows bears on views of the African-American community and debates about cultural diversity that take for granted a perspective that is foreign to that of the majority of my former neighbors. Their near-and long-term fate turns not on debates over political correctness in white-dominated journals but on the affinities and animosities felt by and the pressures exerted upon the various classes, creeds, and nationalities closest to home, which are complicated by the differing aspirations expressed and disillusionments endured by these individuals. Integration into white society, if regarded as worthwhile under any conditions, is not so pressing an issue as the integration or disintegration of the multicultural reality in which they already live.
Affirming black identity in the face of white indifference or hostility is not just the affair of activists, and certainly not the conceit of social theorists, but a daily struggle for collective recognition, reconciliation, and survival in which everyone is engaged without choice or exception. On the morning subway heading to Manhattan and the evening subway back to Flatbush, the woman with unguarded emotion in her face as she pores over The Color Purple, the testy kid with the Walkman intent on the lyrics of Public Enemy, and the man paging through Jet are all a part of that process; and, they are as acutely aware of their separate passions and allegiances as they are of their shared separateness from the world in which they for the most part work.
I followed the same daily path but in mental reverse. My house in Flatbush was outside the confines of my hereditary milieu, my job at the Museum of Modern Art was deep inside it. The distance covered and the inversion of vantage points such travel occasioned form the matrix of the essay that follows, since nothing makes one so aware of the contingent nature of one's sense of identity as being a commuter between two cultures. The irony of my situation was frequently pointed out to me by cabbies who would pick me up at almost any hour of the night because I am white and then peer quizzically in the mirror when I told them my homeward destination. Although some were more fearful or angrily inconvenienced than others (none expected to get a fare back to "the city"), it did not matter whether the driver was Slavic, African-American, Middle Eastern, West Indian, Jewish, Italian, Asian or WASP: nearly all of them started asking questions about how I came to live there, which soon enough turned into a lecture about why I should not. The more I explained the simple fact of having moved my family to a place I could afford in an area that was generally hospitable, the wider the gap in our understanding became. Protocol in discussions of tense social issues demands that you let people know "where youíre coming from." The flip side of this emphasis on the authenticity of one's roots is to know "your place." When I was dropped off, it was evident that however cordial the conversation had been, everything I had said was unbelievable because where I was going wasn't where I should be.
Being suspect simply as a result of being candid is a very unpleasant feeling, more unpleasant by far than the snapped heads and the trailing looks of unfamiliar stoop watchers and pedestrians who, without malice, wondered what my business in a black neighborhood was. Trying to make contact and failing is harder to dismiss than passing through like a stranger, especially when it happens that their turf is also yours. Within my unevenly marbled neighborhood, preconceptions about who belonged and who did not set the stage for all manner of misapprehensions. Every encounter was loaded with so many psychological and social expectations and with such a well-spring of hurt and skepticism that its meaning might be simultaneously found and lost, Rashomon-like, in the almost inevitably conflicting impressions that the participants took away.
An example: at a school Halloween party, my then six-year-old daughter had herself made up to look like a cat by an older -- incidentally African-American -- girl, who overzealously covered her entire face with a thick coat of charcoal grease. Walking home afterwards we crossed paths with a West Indian woman and her daughter, who looked at us first with curiosity, then disbelief, then anger, having apparently concluded that my child was in black-face and so mocking their complexion. There was nothing I could say to ease the tension that would not compound it. Thus the overriding condition of life where cultures meet on an unequal footing is the unreliability of the signals one sends and the unpredictability of the responses one gets. No one trusts absolutely, or even very much, in the good intentions of the other. Without warning, appearances may betray the truth of a situation, setting off chain reactions of misunderstanding that end up becoming its truth.
If signs like these could be so easily misconstrued, or if my words rang dissonantly or false in the minds of taxi drivers, they also frequently fell on uncomprehending ears of many of my professional colleagues or, worse, evoked something exotic, as though I were telling a running tale of life on the wild side. Almost impossible to communicate were the ordinary subtleties of the circumstances I tried to describe. Still, my situation was exceptional only to the degree that its contradictions and confusions were on a daily basis obvious and inescapable; otherwise, it was merely symptomatic of the larger process of America's uncertain social and cultural evolution with which we all most reckon.
Having had to deal with the constant perplexity and sometime pain of being marginalized within my community, I had no misconception about the resemblance of my predicament to that of my black neighbors. Being a self-elected minority within a "minority" is not the same as being an involuntary minority within a disproportionately large and powerful majority. Never did I try to "blend in." A case in point: the part Hispanic "white" boy, in his mid-teens, who tended the corner grocery and secretly listened to Mozart, gradually affected a deep Trenchtown Jamaican accent; he had a good musical ear and sincerely wanted to sound like the people he served. Among whites caught between racial camps, the desire to live "black" is a recurrent syndrome that only heightens awareness of the telling incongruity between style and substance, manners and motivation. A parallel belief that one can learn by impersonation how it feels to be different from what one is has arisen among naively sympathetic liberals. But humanity is an historical and cultural aggregate that will not yield its complex nature to gross humanist generalization, however well-intended. Far from showing solidarity, stressing superficial similarities between people or attempting to stand in another person's shoes is, if anything, an insult.
Among the whitest of whites in the vicinity, I was too conspicuous to even entertain such illusions. An almost comically visible man, the only thing I shared with Ralph Ellison's invisible protagonist was a measure of self-consciousness about my race that transcended immediate concerns about how to get through the day and made me wonder at the endless and absurd ramifications of this one unalterable fact. Nonetheless, with the passage of time, it became increasingly apparent that I was not an internal expatriate but the uneasy inhabitant of a sequestered region of what has long been and still is an essential part of my own culture. For, in addition to the many aspects of our original heritages that have been absorbed, exchanged, and transformed by living side by side if not together, blacks and whites in America have developed a unique if often harrowing consciousness directly out of their long, difficult history of proximity. The scarred fruits of that special consciousness are our dearly paid-for common wealth.
As this conviction has deepened, it has become ever clear to me that segregation in this country is not just a matter of divorcing ourselves physically from one another; nor does it always flow from or confirm ill-will. As much as anything, it results from a failure to articulate the fullness of the things we have experienced and to envision clearly the obstacles we have yet to and may never completely overcome. In short, it is a failure of the imagination, which is the theme of Part II, which follows.
Since completing this text, I have left Flatbush for reasons of safety. Four years ago last May, a fifteen-year old boy armed with an automatic pistol stopped his bike in the middle of the street outside our house and fired down the block, grievously wounding another fifteen-year old boy who was standing on the corner. By the time I got to the door, the shooter had calmly remounted and ridden off without interference. No one dared take him on. I could never find out if the victim survived, but as I walked away from where he lay bleeding on the pavement, tended by his mother and surrounded by onlookers, I heard his brother come up the sidewalk, yelling that he knew who had done it and was going to kill him. I do not know if he ever did, or if the police ever arrested the suspect.
In the following years, such violence became terrifyingly commonplace, largely as a result of the ready availability of crack and handguns. A bodega owner and the local shoemaker were shot in daylight hours; men would stumble out of the drug-infested buildings bleeding from puncture wounds; fusillades were heard almost every summer night; and it was not unusual for helicopters to hover after dark, shining spotlights onto roofs and into back yards in search of someone on the run. When I talked to my seven-year old daughter about moving, she cried and said there was no need since she knew just what to do when there were shots outside; get down on the floor until they stopped. It was time to go.
Most of the people we left behind understood our departure. Many had wanted to leave for years but could not abandon their lifetime homes, or could not afford to buy another even with the increased resale value of the one they had owned for so long. Their good-byes were warm but tinged with sorrowful frustration. Others resented outright our pulling up stakes, and for some that resentment flowed out of the oldest and deepest of suspicions. We were community deserters, but more than that, it proved that we were just like other whites after all. An elderly woman who until that time had always said a cheerful good morning and had occasionally stopped to chat, walked away after overhearing the news from a mutual friend, muttering in stage whisper, "Well you never liked us anyway."
Much of this section, as well as Part II, was drafted before that day and before I had any intention or any opportunity to go elsewhere. Some sections are revised versions of shorter pieces while the balance was written to record experiences and feelings that I knew would change in memory and as my situation changed. So it has. My involvement in the day-to-day dynamics of racial and cultural diversity is different now that I live in an area integrated in almost exactly the opposite proportion as Flatbush. My sources of information are different and on the whole less reliable and less well-balanced. The social distance I once traveled daily can now only be bridged by the things I read and see, which makes me evermore alert to and dissatisfied by the restricted access to black culture in the mainstream media and the general misrepresentation of the context in which it flourishes. My stake in greater openness and inclusiveness continues to be personal; I do not want and I cannot afford to be cut-off from so essential a part of my world.
White Americans have supposed "Europe" and "civilization" to be synonyms -- which they are not -- and have been distrustful of other standards and other sources of vitality, especially those produced in America itself...What it comes down to is that if we, who can scarcely be considered a white nation, persist in thinking of ourselves as one, we condemn ourselves...to sterility and decay, whereas if we could accept ourselves as we are we might bring new life to Western achievements and transform them.
More than any other institution, The Museum of Modern Art has for generations publicly defined modernism's essential character and scope. From the outset, MoMA's perspective was internationalist and its approach encyclopedic as well as evolutionary. In the effort to establish the modernist canon, MoMA's founder, Alfred Barr, took it upon himself and his collaborators to look wherever the fertile conditions for modern art existed and wherever examples were reported. Although many factors influenced how that ambition was pursued in practice and significant oversight certainly did occur, the belief that modernism was multifaceted phenomenon was a decisive criterion of Barr's endeavor.
Barr thus devoted his energies to collecting and researching not only the now-acknowledged classics of the tradition -- Cezanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Klee, Kandinsky, Malevich and so on -- but also championed work from farther afield aesthetically though sometimes closer to home geographically. For example, the museum's abiding if intermittently active interest in Latin American art no doubt owed a good deal to reasons of State, as its critics have claimed, but it also testified to the variety and importance of the modernist tendencies south of our borders, and Barr's prompt acknowledgment of them. When MoMA most ardently presented and collected Mexican art, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siquieros were commanding models across the United States and not, as they are now often described, mere precursors to the Abstract Expressionists. As it happened, Barr had first met Rivera in Russia in 1928, a year before MoMA was founded, and the muralist was the subject of one of the 15 exhibitions devoted to Latin American art mounted by the Museum between 1929 and 1945. Awareness of Latin America peaked as a result of the hemispheric entrenchment imposed by the war in Europe, and by 1943 the permanent collection of the Museum included some 293 Latin American works. Although institutional interest subsequently flagged, by 1974 the Museum's Latin American holdings had nevertheless increased to 650, thanks to a fund especially established for the purpose.3
Among this number were paintings by Frida Kahlo, which languished in storage for much of the last 40 years. Only recently were they rescued from limbo and returned to the walls on a regular basis. Changing tastes have so catapulted this neglected artist's reputation that current acquisition of her work would have put a significant strain on even MoMA's resources. A further though more obscure example of Barr's risk-taking broad-mindedness has similar significance. Following his 1944 trip to Cuba, Barr arranged for a small show of contemporary Cuban art, for which he wrote the catalogue and from which he acquired several works for the museum's permanent collection. A recent exhibition devoted to Wilfredo Lam and his artistic affinities at the Studio Museum in Harlem centered on the Cuban painter's huge gouache The Jungle (1943), which has long hung in MoMA's lobby, and also drew on Barr's other finds. Granted, few of these paintings have retained their freshness, but their inclusion in the collection is a testament to Barr's willingness to gamble on his taste and on the talent of non-mainstream artists. Meanwhile, the presence of these works in New York made it possible to reconsider the sources of an Afro-Asian painter primarily viewed as a disciple of European surrealism, and to do so not as a revisionist gambit but to correct the record according to the evidence that Barr, as both connoisseur and art historian, had gathered.
Parallel to Barr's involvement in Latin American art was the attention he paid to tribal and folk art, which was frequently integrated into MoMA's programs during the first decade and a half of its existence. Generally, this interest was prompted by such work's direct historical influence on major modernist movements such as Cubism and Expressionism, as was the case with the 1935 exhibition of African Negro Art. On other occasions, such as the 1937 show of the African-American stone carver William Edmondsen, the emphasis was on such tradition-based art's indirect formal correspondence with these same movements. Under Barr's direction, the museum also mounted exhibitions devoted to American folk art in 1933 and 1938. Shortly after, it hosted Indian Art of the United States (1941), co-curated by Rene d'Harnencourt, later Director of the Museum; Religious Folk Art of the Southwest (1943), a traveling show recast for MoMA by Dorothy Miller, Barr's closest colleague, in which all of the work was Hispanic in origin; Joe Milone's Shoe Shine Stand (1943), a local vernacular construction brought to Barr's attention by Louise Nevelson; and a retrospective of the "naif" painter Morris Hirshfield (1943), organized by dealer Sidney Janis.
Barr's eagerness to show the reach of modernism beyond the established cultural centers extended to his careful recording of the national origins of artists in MoMA's collection. In addition to those who were American and European-born, Barr's 1945 index cited Argentines, Chileans, Colombians, Cubans, Ecuadorians, Haitians, Mexicans, Peruvians, and Uruguayans. In 1948, Australians, Bolivians, Brazilians, and Guatemalans were included: in 1958, Japanese, South Africans, and Venezuelans joined the list; and in Barr's 1967 update, artists from Algeria, Canada, China, Ethiopia, Iceland, India, Iran, Israel, Korea, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Puerto Rico, Rhodesia, Sudan, Tanzania, Turkey, Tunisia, and Uganda were added. Though some of these artists made their careers in Paris, New York, or other such capitols, many had not. Their presence, therefore, reflected both Barr's catholic interests and his adventurousness. As in the case of the Cuban material, work from Africa was acquired in the process of his searching for art where it was made.
In light of the current condemnations of multiculturalism and the published demands for the resignation or firing of museum professionals actively engaged in the promotion of diversity, it is necessary to recall that Barr's patrons were at crucial times impatient with or intolerant of his experiments and excursions. In late 1943, after having upset several trustees -- in particular, the aesthetically conservative board chairman Stephen C. Clark -- by offering museum space and sanction to the Hirshfield show, and by installing Joe Milone's richly ornamented shoeshine stand in the museum's lobby, Barr was fired as the Museum's Director. Barr's dismissal came little more than a week after Victor D'Amico, the pioneering head of MoMA's Education Department, inaugurated an exhibition of work by students at the Hampton Institute entitled Young Negro Art.
With the exception of the museum's 1944 exhibition, Modern Cuban Painters and Paintings by Jacob Lawrence, Barr's departure broke MoMA's tradition of culturally varied fare for years to come.4 Although he returned to the institution in 1947 as Director of the Museum's Collections and served for another twenty years, Barr never again fully resumed the position he had once occupied as MoMA's guiding hand. Now almost universally honored for his curatorial prescience and ingenuity, Barr is rightly held up as a model for generations of his successors. When it comes to the issue of cultural diversity, MoMA has much to be proud of and virtually all of it resulted from Barr's proactive rather than reactive engagement with the problems and material involved. Preferring to ratify their own conservative view of modernism, however, some of his ostensible admirers conveniently forget the liberality of his pioneering approach to collecting and museum programming and take for granted its lasting consequences.
All of this is preamble to the present resurgence of pluralist thinking and pluralist demands. What is notable about Barr is that he was a pluralist by choice, or rather his exacting curiosity and the range of works that attracted his attention compelled him to that conclusion. Instead of being responsive to external forces, he responded internally and spontaneously to the disparate array of art in which he divined intrinsic merit and patterns of affinity. His judgment of quality was therefore specific before it was categorical, and when in doubt he opted for critical openness rather than the pretense of critical infallibility.
In the years since his retirement and death, and even before, the American view of modernism became narrower not broader as American art gained in authority and its institutional base expanded. During the 1960s and 1970s historians and critics streamlined the famously churning diagram of the course of modern art history that Barr had devised in 1936; and, to an increasing degree, they concentrated on a strictly, often mechanically formal interpretation of the art they deemed worthy of that tightly channeled "mainstream." The break with the founding spirit of MoMA came with this triumph of American formalism, and not with the so-called postmodernist reaction to it. Ironically, the rebellion against modernism as it thus came to be narrowly defined, while often interpreted as a demand that the museum reject the whole of its tradition, in many respects challenges the institution and others modeled on it to do the reverse, and return to that tradition's generative spirit and empirical approach.
I arrived at the Museum at just the moment when the old dogmas were imploding under pressure from critical theory while being exploded by eclectic contemporary artistic practices that they could neither explain, accommodate, nor constrain. These combined forces have pushed MoMA back into the open field of cultural debate, a terrain made treacherous by impending social and political confrontations of far greater magnitude. After the speculation-driven boom of the 1980s, the art world has found itself confronting a definite bust. As material circumstances have worsened and public patience has frayed, anger at the institutions identified with monied privilege and resentment over decades of officially sanctioned indifference to marginalized groups have grown.
For the second time in a quarter century, the country, in general, and museums, in particular, are being forced to reckon the costs of squandering an interlude of prosperity and civil peace. And once again, we are being brought back to the unfinished business of forming a polity and a culture out of a heterogeneous population that is celebrated in patriotic myth but whose actual distinctions are regularly ignored if not disdained. The fault-line between the black and white worlds is both symbolic of this incomplete social fusion and the single most intractable impediment to overall cohesion. Despite legal and economic advances that have generally benefited the African-American middle class, that gap has widened rather than closed. It has done so not only because of the deteriorating conditions of the inner city, the gradual erosion of our global economic advantage, and a loss of national nerve, but also because, with tempers shorter than ever, the very terms employed to describe this dangerous state of affairs are themselves in dispute.
The debate about multiculturalism is, in that measure, a fight over words. Skirmishes about acceptable nomenclature have proven that any term is a provocation when employed as a euphemism for attitudes the speaker has not examined or hopes to hide. "Minorities" rightly question the term and its connotations because in other parts of the world they are majorities. "Third world" people understandably object to the hierarchical meanings that have attached themselves to this once purely geopolitical phrase. "The Other," so called by ostensibly sympathetic theorists, increasingly balk at having their variousness dissolved into a collective abstraction whose sole characteristic is being "other than" whatever the dominant social entity happens to be. "People of color" increasingly doubt the benefits of such an ambiguous turn of phrase; after all, as an Hispanic artist recently pointed out at a panel I attended, it's really just a cumbersome way of saying "colored people."
From what one group calls another, the problem extends to what any collectivity calls itself. Depending on age, attitude, or circumstance, a person in my old neighborhood of Flatbush might identify themselves as a Black, an African-American, a Negro, or, as is defiantly common on the streets and among a younger generation of rappers and comedians -- a Nigger. Over the years, the rotation of these usages, and the shift back and forth between their positive and negative interpretation, has been a chief indicator of changing racial sensitivities. This need to keep revising or exchanging vocabulary testifies to the basic unreliability of language in relation to its social function. On all sides, our inability to speak about or name the chronic condition from which we suffer is a principal source of our discomfort. We cannot say what ails us because the very phrases we use are at once symptoms and aggravating factors of that condition. Nevertheless, like any physical pain, the sharp pang we feel on hearing or speaking some words is an urgent and healthy reminder of the fundamentally unattended causes of our plight.
Proliferating attempts at formulating a semantic balm for raw social sores have in the meantime provided endless amusement to commentators of a disenchanted-liberal to conservative bent. Double-speak is always fair game, of course, and without question there has been ample foolishness to fuel the satirists' fancy. Anecdotes of loony self-righteousness are a staple of conservative complaints in the same way that talk of welfare-queens driving Cadillacs once highlighted warnings about the folly of providing economic subsidies to the poor. On the whole, however, the eager debunking of "politically correct" speech has offered journalistic cheap thrills while simultaneously providing an alibi for those anxious to evade serious engagement with the underlying issues. In short, it is a way of ruling out discussion by incessantly calling verbal fouls.
Formerly a self-critical part of radical left-wing parlance, the label "P.C." is of a more sinister convenience to the radical Right. Suggesting rote agreement among members of every stirring social group when in reality there is none, at the same time implying a policed intellectual Left at a time when the Left has all but ceased to exist as a coherent force, the epithet "P.C.," as it has been misappropriated and promiscuously applied to the far Right, effectively supplants a contentious and yet-to-be-defined mass of people and body of thought with the image of a threatening new conformity.
Above all, conservatives recoil from pluralism because it means accepting a world that is in constant flux. In order to persuade people of the dangers of change, the Right conjures up the opposite of the diversity it actually dreads -- that is, a monolithic, undifferentiated alien horde making unfair demands on an innocent, individualistic Everyman. Alternatives to conventional wisdom are regarded as proof of a conspiracy of "them" against "us," and the ensuing confrontation is an ideological civil war between "our" common sense and time-honored beliefs and "their" mysterious and irrational creeds. Correspondingly, the mention of multiculturalism has come to evoke the Red Menace, the Yellow Peril, Black Rage, and the Spanish Inquisition all rolled into one. By the same chain of unreason, the derisive use of the term "P.C." has been transformed into the ultimate semantic weapon for ridiculing and denying the lively dissimilarity among people and their views; it is bigotry by abbreviation.
By rapid rhetorical contagion, "P.C." has thus become the new omnibus taboo. The term's broad appeal derives from genuine frustration as much as from polemical opportunism. Many, who would like to think well of themselves, at least to the extent that they do not in general think badly of others, feel unfairly called to judgment by those drawing attention to the denigrating assumptions and disastrous consequences of "benign neglect" in all dimensions of our public life. Among those professionally or otherwise committed to philanthropic enterprises, this sense of personal disorientation is sometimes exacerbated by fear and resentment that good works undertaken in good faith will or have become counters in a struggle for power among factions who may have no loyalty to or investment in the institutions that are the temporary site of their crusade.
There is also the matter of styles of cultural consumption. In reading rooms, silence prevails while books argue; in museums, which are the public libraries of visual culture, people reverently contemplate works of art that often quarrel with one another's poetic or philosophical rationale. In these places, it is expected that intellectual and artistic cacophony will be met with quiet appreciation. When those conflicting views are echoed aloud and amplified by a citizenry rarely heard from in or outside such establishments, that church-like decorum is broken. As accustomed to the disruptive mobbing of "blockbuster" exhibitions as museums have become, they still find it hard to deal with people who identify "too" strongly with what they see or react "too" directly to what perplexes or disturbs them. Hybrid in its origins, multiform in its realization, and arguable in its import, modern art was made for controversy; for the most part, however, the institutions created to house and display it are ill-prepared to be forums for that controversy when it inevitably erupts.
Never was this more uncomfortably obvious than in the 1960s and early 1970s. During the sharp waning spasms of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and the Viet Nam War protests, major museums were frequently the focus of demonstrations and the locus of mostly ill-fated experiments aimed at broadening their audience and artistic purview and making their programs more "relevant." Enthusiasm for reform or institutional activism soon withered in the face of guerrilla actions and expressions of defiance that were more startling than threatening but which still managed to undermine confidence among patrons and interested members of the public that the protesters had any respect for the aesthetic and intellectual values they cherished. It was a short jump for hysterics to assume that the art world agitators were essentially illiterate iconoclasts bent on destruction for its own sake: if they changed slogans or made agitprop posters, so the logic went, they must be deaf to T.S. Eliot and blind to Henri Matisse.
Within the beleaguered pro-modernist old guard, many, once militant in their own day and for their own causes, were appalled by what they perceived as a fall from the idealistic grace of the ideological battles of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. From their ranks came many of today's chief neo-conservative advocates and apologists, determined to defend the ground they had long ago won as artistic and social progressives against all newcomers inspired by the tradition of which they still claim to be the exclusive representatives. Having lost control of artistic and social discourse in the '60s and '70s, such aging warriors retreated from the fertile chaos of the contemporary scene to their various professional citadels to nurse their bruises and plot their revenge. Widely broadcast from these far-flung redoubts, their obsessional contempt for the partisans of cultural diversity set the tone for a rising generation of younger conservatives. Having missed the social and artistic crucible experienced by old and new vanguardists alike, the young conservatives of the 1980s fed upon canned images of bad political theater, from gun-toting students at Ivy League colleges to Leonard Bernstein's infamous party for the Black Panthers.
Besides making them prematurely dyspeptic, this diet of outdated radical chic convinced converts to cultural reaction that the exigencies and expediencies of the "real" world were entirely incompatible with aesthetic activity. Having no stomach for contradiction and no understanding of how it fuels the creative process, they argued that formal and philosophical purity must be protected at all costs from contamination by social impurities. To be sure, the cause of art-for-art's sake is hardly new; nor is it inherently wrong-headed. Motivated by the positive if illusory ambition of completely transforming life by art or life into art, total immersion in the aesthetic is one of the exhilarating constants of modernist thinking from Baudelaire to Wilde to Cage -- all of whom were worldly indeed. The pessimistic and backward-looking version of this same impulse is another thing entirely, since it constricts imaginative freedom in both the artistic and the social domain. Maintenance rather than creation becomes the sole objective; passive longing for the Golden Age coupled with active hostility toward an unruly present consume the spirit and skew the mind.
The dichotomous concept of the imagination supposed by this negative aestheticism also assumes that all true artists have the luxury of removing themselves from mundane circumstances and struggles to compose their disinterested thoughts or images. If not an aristocracy of talent in the old sense, this view posits a protected cultural meritocracy, where the worthy are guaranteed sufficient material and mental security to insulate them from "extra-artistic" distraction. Utterly ignored by this approach are the artists whose subject is, in fact, the impossibility of taking refuge in their thoughts or existing comfortably in the world as they find it. At regular intervals in its history, modernism's direction has been altered by individual as well as organized efforts to reflect upon and examine this exact dilemma. Some of the work has been overtly political in form and content but much has not been, though it has been deeply rooted in social realities without which the art makes no sense at all. Recent events have recast this problem and revived interest in these precedents. The new work that addresses art's critical relation to its context thus fruitfully complicates the task faced by museums dedicated to deepening public understanding of modernism's continued development in our day.
It is no accident that African-American artists count prominently among those caught between aesthetic dreams deferred and wide-awake nightmares. One of these artists is Adrian Piper. Over the last several years, Piper has created a series of installations that probe many of the aforementioned issues. Cornered (1990-91), for example, was a self-portrait of the artist as racial enigma. The centerpiece was a videotape in which Piper, assuming a politely insistent schoolmarmish tone, described how she was often mistaken for white because of the fairness of her skin and the double-bind of being privy to what whites say when they think no blacks are around. In the course of her talk, Piper also explained how she came to have two birth certificates, one identifying her as black, the other as white -- thus giving her the option to "pass." She then pointed out that, given the long history of interbreeding in this country, no one can be confident of their ethnic purity and therefore everyone either knowingly or unknowingly shares her dubious status. That theme was reiterated by a chorus of voices on other monitors -- all the speakers were apparently white -- while aligned around the periphery of the room were eye-level photographs of African-American women. Each face was recognizably black, yet different in skin tone, "Negroid" features, dress, and make-up.
Avowedly didactic, Piper takes a minimalist adaptation of mathematical Set Theory and applies it to social classifications, in this case diagramming the permutations of a racial paradigm the way Sol LeWitt dismantled and displayed all the structural subdivisions of a standard geometric cube. And like LeWitt's piece, it makes one fundamentally reconceive the object of one's attention, where before one looked only in order to confirm a prior definition of that object. Piper's response to the conceptual inquiries of LeWitt -- for whom she worked as an assistant early in her career -- goes much further than formal methodology and delves into the problems of aesthetic idealism.
Another of her recent installations addressed the matter head-on. Entitled What It's Like, What It Is, No. 3, the piece was commissioned for DISLOCATIONS, my first curatorial project at the Museum of Modern Art. It consisted of a square room with bleacher seating on all four sides, rising to a height of about seven feet. Mounted on the wall just above the uppermost step, a ribbon of mirrors ran around the room. In the middle of the small amphitheater was a column. A video screen, level with the mirrors, was set into the top of each of the column's four facets. Every surface in the room, including the column, the ceiling, and the squared-off floor was painted the same hard white, made brighter still by an overhead grid of naked, high-intensity light bulbs.
Spectators entered through a narrow cut in the corner of the structure, and were free to climb the bleachers and to sit anywhere. As they came and went and changed places, taking the measure of the space and notice of one another, a man's head appeared on the screen. Shot from the left, right, front, and back, he appeared in the round as if trapped inside the vertical box. At intervals he would shift his head to the right, rotating like a lighthouse beacon and seemingly casting his glance on each side of the room and on everyone in it, though in fact his gaze met his own eyes reflected in the mirrors. Against the rising and falling of an exultant soul song, the man, who was young, quiet in demeanor, and black, would haltingly, wincingly repeat, "I am not shiftless, I am not smelly, I am not dirty..." At the end of this litany, his eyelids fluttered and closed as if he could no longer bear to see or be seen, and his head dropped away into darkness.
Reaction to DISLOCATIONS was mixed, but the brunt of the negative response fell on three of the seven works with an explicitly political aspect; Piper's installation was several times singled out for complaint. Speaking to, and presumably for, this hostile constituency, one critic concluded, "Upstairs, though, the installations can be summed up in a sentence or two, and looking at them isn't very different from reading about them....In the center of the amphitheater is a blue pillar with a television screen on each face, and on each screen runs a videotape of a black man chanting, 'I'm...not...stupid,' 'I'm...not...horny,' etc. You sit down on one of the tiers in the amphitheater and watch the tape, and that's the piece. The point of [the] piece is exactly as obvious as it seems."5
Setting aside the self-disqualifying observation of a writer who glibly asserts that "looking at [the work] isn't very different from reading about [it]" and then misinforms his readers about the "blue pillar" at the center of the all-white room, the crux of this appraisal lies in its telling critical mistakes and oversights. Evidently predisposed to judge all art "with a message" as crudely moralizing and aesthetically obvious, the reviewer concentrated solely on the "message" spoken from the video monitor, assuming that the audience to whom it was being delivered was racially enlightened and predominantly white, in which case the man on the screen was preaching to the liberal choir while exploiting their vestigial guilt.
The issue in this review and several like it, was not, after all, Piper's simplistic notion of her artistic mission, but rather what Ezra Pound called the "ambition of the reader," which in the text cited was damningly low. Unfortunately, inattentiveness on the part of such expert readers-turned-writers tends to diminish curiosity in their lay following. Insofar as that audience already shared similar assumptions about the make-up of the museum public and the ethical self-satisfaction of socially oriented art, those attitudes quite literally colored the reactions of people who, had they been encouraged to analyze their personal experience fully, might have arrived at a distinctly different assessment of a situation in which they had an active part to play.
Take away these preconceptions -- which, unwittingly, have all the practical consequences of overt prejudice -- and the dynamic relations of the elements in Piper's installation are altered dramatically. Consider, for starters, that rather than lecturing the people in the room, the man in the box was engaged in a monologue. Consider also -- all the while remembering that the performer was embodying character and not just mouthing the scripted opinions of the artist -- that this man was at least as focused on the bitter inner resonance of his words and their outwardly reflected expression as he was upon being witnessed by or bearing witness to those gathered round. Further, suppose that while listening to his voice, the eyes of individual spectators drifted away from the video image, fell skittishly on faces next to or across from them, then wandered up to the mirrors in which their own gaze was captured and multiplied, along with that of everyone else present including the man on the screen, so that altogether in each other's sight they became a crowd. Factor into that optically tessellated group a number of African-Americans, and envision the looks they exchanged amongst themselves and with their non-African-American neighbors as they simultaneously heard the repeated slurs and repeated denials. Then let the balance shift, so that a few whites are scattered among many blacks in the blanched chamber resounding with the bitter voice. Or, as was in fact the case one day when I went in to check on things -- picture a group of teenage boys from Harlem sitting by themselves in the same space, attending to the same hurtful phrases articulated by a man who could be their father, uncle, or brother.
The idea that art's content is ultimately determined not only by its creator's intention but by all the possible interpretations and misinterpretations it prompts is basic to contemporary aesthetics. In creating a work the artist initiates a collaboration wit the public, and that collaboration is important because its self-revealing and catalytic nature adds to a greater understanding of the diverse components that form the work itself and its audience. Rather than presenting a fixed idea to a universal spectator, the artist sends out a coded proposition that will elicit reactions that illuminate the disparities between perception and expectation among those who respond.
By contrast, protest art tries to transmit the same message to all people, hoping to affirm in a uniform way the human values it proclaims. Piper's practice, however, follows the principle that the consciousness must be stimulated before the conscience can be addressed. Hence, the discomforts felt by the various people who entered her environment -- anger at hearing the slurs; shame at having once uttered them; fear of showing true emotion; irritation at being watched while trying to hide that emotion; awkwardness in attempting to express empathy in a social vacuum; uncertainty about whether to identify others with the man speaking; uncertainty about identifying oneself with him; and uncertainty about being identified with that man and, if so identified, in what way -- all are part of the raw material from which the work was composed, and all brought to the surface the intricate, often clashing patterns of feeling, thought, and behavior that make up the irregular texture of race relations.
What It's Like, What It Is, No. 3 was not designed solely to instruct or provoke whites, but was a meticulously planned come-as-you-are-party and, literally as well as figuratively, a place for reflection. It juxtaposed the elegant otherworldliness of the art-space to the grim everyday world inhabited by the man speaking. Instead of condemning the former as "unreal" by interjecting the irrefutable reality of the latter, and thereby reiterating the old radical argument that we cannot afford artificial beauty until moral ugliness is defeated, Piper fused her dialectical opposites into a visual and spatial oxymoron. She thus made viewers conscious of the cognitive dissonance created by the confrontation of the two forms of idealism she invoked -- the dream of aesthetic harmony and the demand for social justice.
Incommensurable with one another, both of her symbolic terms involve extremes of abstraction: the first, positive archetypes of artistic perfection; the second, negative racial stereotypes. Although the rational structures of the minimalist architecture cannot be reconciled with the irrational concepts at the heart of racism, in context each compels our attention. The relative power of these two concerns is decided largely by who we are and where we are. The contemplation of absolutes -- in which Piper, a Kantian philosopher, firmly believes -- requires a trust that the detachment required will not be violated. Like other African-Americans, Piper knows by experience that access to the ivory tower is extremely limited and that living in your head can be very risky. Nevertheless, by evoking without irony exactly the sort of transcendence that has been a goal of art in every era, Piper asserts her equal claim to such transcendence -- refusing, in effect, to cede her rights to the "White Cube" of high modernism simply because she is black but also refusing to permit others to continue to enjoy its sanctuary without constant thought of what lies outside.
Piper's installation, therefore represented the opposite of what it was accused of being. Rather than merely taking sides and pointing fingers, the artist set out to demonstrate the complex uncertainties of interracial association by providing the grounds for a particularly intimate experience of ambivalence and alienation. Rather than casting aside art for the sake of a cause, Piper contrived a space of gleaming formality that plainly indicated her belief that aesthetics are as much at stake in any critique of the existing order as social conditions are the inescapable framework of pure and practical reason.
Public Enemy, David Hammons' installation for DISLOCATIONS, proceeded from an antithetical position. His project was inspired by the statue of Theodore Roosevelt that stands in front of the Museum of Natural History, which he passes frequently en route between uptown and downtown. Seated on horseback in a Gattamelata-like pose, the Imperial President and great outdoorsman is attended by two noble savages -- one African, the other Native American. No longer willing to ignore or psychologically "grandfather" this glaringly anachronistic vision of the white man's burden, Hammons decided to symbolically unburden himself and the rest of New York of it.
The centerpiece of his environment was a precariously leaning three dimensional photo-mural of the monument surrounded by sand bags, machine guns, patently fake sticks of dynamite, miniature cannons, and model attack planes zeroing in from above. Streamers and balloons festooned the ceiling in celebration of this domestic Desert Storm; deep piles of dried leaves covered the floor and filled the air with their fragrance. One full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows opened over the museum's garden; Hammons painted the other three walls a mottled sap green and scrolled them with gilt filigree so that they shaded into the gold-tinged autumnal trees outside. Combined with the leafy odor, the optical illusion made it feel as though one had stepped through the museum looking glass and back into the city. This blurring of the environmental boundaries was as basic to the work's meaning as its theatrically enhanced iconography. Hammons is an ironic poet of place, not an editorial cartoonist.
The city has long been Hammons preferred field of operations. For almost two decades, he has fashioned his major projects out of doors, from cast-off materials. In one piece, for instance, he attached basketball hoops and backboards to towering telephone poles which he embellished with scavenged beer bottle caps, much as African craftsmen would decorate fetishes with cowry shells. In doing so, he created a monument to the lure and frustration that professional sports represents to young black men. Entitled Higher Goals, these poles were planted in a vacant lot in Harlem and in a park in downtown Brooklyn, where those to whom they would have most meaning would easily run across them. Like much traditional African art -- and like the costumes of Brooklyn's annual Caribbean Festival which are part of that tradition's legacy in exile -- Hammons' work is often inherently impermanent; in fact, none of these totems survive except in memory.
Nor does Public Enemy survive. What remains, besides a burlesque after-image of the tottering Rough-Rider and his carnival bright Armageddon, are some afterthoughts about the differences between it and Piper's piece. Although both dealt with race, they did so in ways that could hardly have been more dissimilar. In contrast to Piper's critical and aesthetic restraint, Hammons used mordant but engaging humor coupled with a restless suspicion of institutional culture and its programmed audience ability to respond to what he calls the madness of America. Altogether rejecting the "White Cube" as sterile and foreign, Hammons went beyond introducing one discordant element into its precincts. He did everything he could to bring the street into the gallery -- to turn the museum inside out and transform its marshaled public into meandering pedestrians.
From Piper and Hammons alone it is evident that among African-American artists who directly broach the matter in their work -- and many do not -- there is no single black view of racism. The assumption that Hammons and Piper were, in their separate ways, saying the same thing, begged the essential question of the relation of content to form, which is usually the first question asked of work dealing with less political issues but generally the last asked of art addressing controversial social problems. Rather than simply echoing each other's anger at a common enemy, Piper's and Hammons' installations revealed deeply considered and sharply contrasting attitudes toward the historical, philosophical, and artistic dimensions of their situation as black creators in a predominantly white society. Rather than constituting a chorus of accusations directed at the white majority, theirs was a dialogue between peers, conducted in the presence of that majority and serving as a forum for other "minorities" to join.
Many other voices are indeed taking part. While Piper, Hammons, and a handful of other artists whose careers began in the turmoil of the 1960s and early 70s have re-emerged in recent years, we have also witnessed the rise of a younger generation of African-American painters, sculptors, photographers, multimedia artists, and critics. It is an artistic flowering that more than rivals the "Harlem Renaissance" of the 1920s and 30s in its vigor, range of expression, and accomplishment. This new generation is very much aware of that past and of the episodic, often abruptly truncated development of previous movements and of the individual careers of those involved in them. The reason for such discontinuity is no mystery.
Attention to and inclusion of blacks in the established white art world is rarely timed to the creative seasons of the artists but is all too often determined by the intermittent need of whites to check the pulse of the black community and publicly show their concern for it. Besides periodically reaffirming a moral involvement, this cyclical interest is prompted by an anxious desire to be told in encapsulated form what the current issues and etiquettes are so that one will know what to expect and how to behave. Once that desire has been satisfied, attention frequently wanders. The treatment awaiting black artists in these circumstances thus taps into the subtlest forms of bias, since it is predicated upon the notion that blacks are "the problem," and that among their number are those who, with the support of whites, will provide "the solution," or at least help keep matters from getting worse. It is in the spirit of tokenism, then, that African-American artists are first and foremost regarded as spokespersons of their kind. To avoid confusion, only so many can be given prominence at a time and only so long as their work clarifies rather than complicates the understanding that whites hope to gain of the prevailing state of interracial affairs.
In this context, the currently burgeoning and contentious community of black artists poses a special challenge to art institutions. The difficulty they must deal with, though few have fully accepted this fundamental reality, is not which black artists to select as representatives, but how to accommodate and present the multiplicity of aesthetic attitudes and practices that demonstrably exist, and how, according to the other criteria, to integrate them into the broader history of art. Although focus-collections and alternative spaces have pioneered the way, the stage where it is acceptable to think of the work of black artists as merely tributary to the mainstream and therefore primarily suitable to the care of ethnically defined venues has long since passed. For the foreseeable future, however, these specialized institutions will continue to play the leading role in researching the past and nurturing new talent. They will always remain essential to the long-term support of African-American art in particular, just as the exclusively black colleges and universities have had and will have a special role in black education and cultural scholarship.
It is easy to compile a long and substantial roll of black visual artists, living and dead, whose work has in some measure contributed to the creation of a distinct and varied tradition, which is as much a part of the American tradition as a whole as the more generally acknowledged achievements in African-American literature, music, dance and film. Among those who come to mind are Horace Pippin, William H. Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, James Van Der Zee, Beauford Delaney, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Roy de Carava, Richard Hunt, Robert Blackburn, Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, William T. Williams, David Driskell, Mel Edwards, Benny Andrews, Faith Ringgold, Martin Puryear, Robert Colescott, Tyrone Mitchell, Betye Saar, Alison Saar, Gary Simmons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Maren Hasinger, Fred Wilson, Lorna Simpson, Clarissa Sligh, Dawoud Bey, and Carrie Mae Weems.
Obviously, not all the serious creative work by black artists is of the first rank, just as not all the novels and essays by black authors worthy of being read are equally good. Nor is every Impressionist painting or Cubist sculpture that can be seen in our museums an undisputed masterpiece. Living culture is never just a matter of the widely agreed upon greatness of a few artists or works. The best museums reflect this fact by showing and interrelating the various threads that give culture its textural richness. Given then that understanding depends on more than an appreciation of a handful of recognized classics, the sheer quantity and diversity of what is presently available necessitates comparative judgments of quality. True discernment -- as opposed to gross discrimination, blanket approval, or the reflex preferences of unexamined taste -- requires a general knowledge of the field that is constantly fed by ready access to and careful study of particular works. While established museums have made some progress by mounting retrospective exhibitions together with historical and contemporary surveys, chances for the general public, as well as for art professionals and patrons, to educate themselves are still few and far between. All too often these exhibitions are treated as socially mandated exercises, effectively signaling them as duties acquitted rather than as artistic options enthusiastically chosen. Moreover, the educational opportunity they create is frequently lost in the rush by the Right and the Left alike to use the art in question as interchangeable pawns in what has become a contest between a difference-muddling brand of liberalism and a difference-scorning school of conservatism.
Such was the case with the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which over the course of its rocky run became a virtual referendum on socially encoded art. Having just defended two works in an exhibition that I organized against what I considered to be dismissive reviewers, I am not now going to venture a hit-and-run analysis of the flaws in the Whitney show, except to say that my disappointment with aspects of its conception and content was compounded by the unhappy realization that the backlash it had provoked was narrowing art-world appreciation of specific artists in whom I also shared an active interest.
Ironically, it was precisely because of its unevenness that the Biennial was the ideal occasion for setting standards for a variety of contemporary forms of "political" work. Disappointingly, few commentators took advantage of it. As with DISLOCATIONS, almost none troubled themselves to describe in sufficient detail the appearance of the work or to ground their overall disapproval in any physically or visually verifiable specifics. In sum, these reviews constituted an inquest without evidence. That said, much of the work was limited by the obviousness of its confrontational attitude or polemical intent. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an artist represented in the previous Biennial but absent from this one, and one of the canniest young artists working with social signs in social settings, said it best: "Taken altogether, the show made it look as if we didn't know what metaphor was."6
There were notable exceptions. Some pieces with a specific point to make did so by indirect means. Byron Kim, a former student of figure painter Philip Pearlstein and a realist of the flesh in his own right, contributed a mural consisting of small rectangular paintings, each covered by a different monochrome coat of an earthen hue, ranging from bleached tan to rich coffee brown. At first sight, it looked like a tonal version of Ellsworth Kelly's 1951 chromatic grid, Colors for a Large Wall. Randomly placed, each panel was identified as the skin color of an acquaintance of the artist. Just as Kelly observes color in the world around him, distills it and represents it in formal, sometimes chance-derived patterns that prepare one to experience the very same visual epiphanies as the painter, Kim, in assembling his modulated swatches, created a catalogue of nuances that, once noticed, trains the eye to recognize them in reality. In short, Kim's paintings provide the perfect optical tuning for a walk down Flatbush Avenue, or anywhere else in the city that one finds a broad range of human shades and tints. The simplicity of his premise guaranteed its effectiveness; like all successfully provocative works of art, Kim's prompted the viewer to experience a phenomenon before he made his case.
Glenn Ligon's multipanel installation also succeeded in opposing the assumption of uniformity with the reality of manifest variety. Ligon clipped the pages from Robert Mapplethorpe's album of homoerotic photographs of nude African-American men, and arranged them in a two-tiered frieze on the wall. Below the rows he placed text quoting the reactions of models, friends, and others to these images. Dispelling any notion that there exists a "Politically correct" line toward the pictures and the highly charged mix of racial and sexual archetypes they directly or indirectly summon forth -- the pagan, the buck, the blackamoor, the boy, the trick -- these commentaries range from severe critique to elegiac anecdote. Almost paradigmatic of its type of conceptual art, Ligon's work is demanding because it requires one to stand and read and piece together an understanding from the fragments provided. Its difficulty is not a form of aesthetic punishment, but a necessarily taxing demonstration of how unexpected perceptions and spontaneous doubts emerge when one is confronted by images that have been deliberately reframed and separated from the "master" narratives that originally set the terms for their reception.
Or, to put it in plainer words, what if a gay black man should find himself attracted to depictions of other gay black men that were staged to suit the controlling fantasies of a white artist whose iconography flirts with racist stereotypes? This is essentially the problem Ligon set out to address; his work has so many meanings because his starting point was ambivalence, a heightened and authentic sensitivity to competing impulses and logical irreconcilable attitudes. Art of this kind cannot prove anything; it can only question belief by making believe, by articulating that is, all the unstated, incoherent, and often unacceptable thoughts and feelings that are triggered by the experiences and signs that connect us to the social realm. To have any value to the maker, and to therefore be convincing to the public that is called upon to trust and identify with the artist's speculations and projections, such work must begin with the unexamined and the undecided, and must be content to remain there. All we can expect is increased clarity about matters of great import but also great convulsion.
It is far more important to explore our own involvement in the errors and evils of any existing social or ideological order than it is to assign blame. Bad political art trades in pure guilt and pure virtue. Looking back on DISLOCATIONS, the Whitney Biennial, all the recent exhibitions that have raised similar issues, and yet further back in the long history of social commitment in modern art -- a heritage one may trace on the walls of MoMA, from the overt symbolism of Russian Constructivism, German Dada, Italian Futurism, and Mexican muralism to the political undertones of Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism -- it is obvious that the lessons to be learned are embedded in unresolved contradictions intrinsic to the work and the condition in which it was produced. Conservatives with perfect hindsight ridicule the failed dreams of the past; those more forward-looking study them for the symptoms of self-deception. Mindful of those failed dreams, the leading figures in the current generation of politically inclined artists are practicing skeptics.
The moral high ground has been cut out from under us on all sides. Art made for naively altruistic or therapeutic purposes is no longer plausible. On that score the Right is right. It is no longer possible to speak for others, or to presume to fight their causes, when it is obvious that we have lost the ability to speak honestly for ourselves and cannot fully comprehend how our fate is connected to theirs. The problem is to find a way to live in an America that cannot live with itself: to proceed as if the American model of democratic pluralism worked or could be made to work even when all around us its juridical and economic promises are being broken or indefinitely postponed and its cultural and ethnic make up undergoes perpetual transformation. To define one's position in that setting one must accept, if not embrace, change and instability; one must be ready on an ongoing basis to renegotiate the social contract that binds each to all.
Balkanization is the reactionary aspect of the multiculturalist response to that challenge. In heterogeneous societies, the tendency toward fragmentation rather than consolidation is profound, recurring, and potentially disastrous -- witness the ruinous resumption of ancient conflicts in the European region that gives us the term. Lynching, riots, gang-banging, and vigilante action prove that ethnic turf wars in the United States can be every bit as violent, although here the problem is primarily the formation of social cysts. Though no one, save the decimated Native American population, can claim a primordial homeland, territory and allegiance are plainly marked by speech, dress, diet, music, and other symbols of group affinity.
Fastening on an essentialist idea of the individual and the community, these tempted to confine themselves to voluntary ghettos must eventually content with latent doubts and insecurities that mutate and fester in isolation, jeopardizing survival as surely as does the harassment of outsiders. Under these circumstances, denial gradually undermines affirmation and idealized self-images threaten to become self-caricatures equal to the hostile representations advanced by the larger culture surrounding the smaller enclave. The most effective critics of such regression are among those who have felt its attraction but, rejecting outward trappings, have learned to assert and protect themselves with less literal or constricting means. On this I turn to James Baldwin, as quoted by Glenn Ligon in another recent art project, Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap:
Identity would seem to be a garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one's nakedness can always be felt, and sometimes discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.7
Another black artist already discussed, David Hammons, is just such a nomad, and his fierce vulnerability is the mark of his freedom. Like Baldwin, moreover, Hammons constantly reminds the public of his status as an outsider to Western Culture, while simultaneously sampling it at will. The liberty he claims is a license to use whatever he wants while ignoring whatever is unrelated to the formulation of an alternative African-American world view. In the tradition of jazz composer Sun Ra's black science-fiction utopia -- which combined triple-whammy minstrel comedy, radical musical invention, and ardent cultural nationalism -- Hammons wants it all, and will use anything. With Sun Ra at his back, he draws Fellini to his side, reversing the canonical progression of influences by africanizing European models -- in this case, Fellini's baroque recasting of the modernist absurd.
The selective assimilation of foreign ideas does not under these conditions entail the wholesale social assimilation of the person involved. Quite the opposite, the process begins and ends with an acute sense of separateness. That artists such as Hammons insist on that separateness is not a denial of the debt, but a refusal to play the colonial to a culture that is theirs only through historical imposition and individual curiosity and acquisition. Anyone who is scandalized by recent critiques of Eurocentrism and thinks that they are symptomatic of an unprecedented and wholesale denigration of Western tradition, should first consider the following remarks by Baldwin, written in 1955, when he lived as an expatriate in a Swiss village:
I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West: when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, and to the stones of Paris, to the Cathedral of Chartres, and to the Empire State building, a special attitude. These are not really my creations, they did not contain my history: I might search in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper: this was not my heritage.8
Nevertheless, he added, "The cathedral at Chartres...says something to the people of this village which it cannot say to me; but it is important to understand that this cathedral says something to me which it cannot say to them."9 That statement, and the efforts of Hammons, Piper, Ligon, and many other black artists active at the moment demonstrates the possibility of remaking and reinterpreting the creations of the West in light of that "special attitude."
Commuting between New York and Rome, Hammons is currently the most remarkable agent and symbol of this cross-fertilization. African-American critics, whose number has steadily grown over the last decade and whose works are featured with growing frequency in glossy as well as alternative journals, are seizing the same opportunity. Kellie Jones, Lisa Jones, Michelle Wallace, Calvin Reid, bell hooks, Hilton Als, and Greg Tate head the list of such younger writers and all approach the visual arts as cultural critics in the broadest sense. In talking back to power, language is transformed. Saluting and amending Baldwin, Tate's collected essays are entitled A Flyboy in Buttermilk, and in them post-structuralist thinking picks up an urban American slant and a Hip-hop beat, which ironically restores to it the kind of antic word play generally lost in the translation from allusive French to academic English.10If this new generation of writers and artists continues to concentrate on defining themselves in terms of the immediate ambiguities and tensions they face daily, remember this also from Baldwin:
I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I do not expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else.11
Well before Baldwin, the works originating from this imperative already constituted one of the major chapters of American literature. Looking back, but also at the present, one can see an equally rich contribution to modernism in the visual arts. For mainstream institutions to miss out on this because of political pressures or because of initially unsuccessful attempts at coping with disparate material and a diverse public would constitute an abdication of their fundamental aesthetic responsibility as well as of their civic role. Above all it is for the sake of their primary obligation to artistic seriousness that such institutions must pay attention to these developments. Any claim to representing the art of our time that neglects mention of them is fraudulent. Continual support of black artists is of the essence; informed respect is not a sometime thing. The crucial test, therefore, is not one of vague intentions but whether such institutions are honest enough in their purpose to make such work an integral rather than an incidental part of their program, and strong enough in their conviction to withstand the stress that such inclusiveness will inevitably put upon them.
The current stand-off between those who want to open museums to new art and new audiences and those determined to turn them into fortified churches hinges on this question. At the heart of the matter lies a crucial irony: the most ardent partisans of cultural protectionism are those with the least faith in the vitality of the heritage they defend. Although neo-conservatives hoping to keep pluralism in check trumpet the superiority of what they selectively call "Western" civilization, they ignore its deep indebtedness to other cultures and show their basic lack of confidence in its capacity to assimilate further outside influences. Their "West" is a neurasthenic invalid protesting its faith in a quack regimen, all the while ignoring that its superstitions will hasten not halt its decline.
Such reactionaries see themselves as valiant guardians of high culture against low culture, eternal values against ephemeral fashions. Their mantra is Matthew Arnold's vow to be "bound by my own definition of criticism: a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world." It is a noble premise. Alfred Barr, for one, certainly felt something akin to this ambition. But his expansive idea of where the best might be found and his belief that identifying it was a matter of trial and error qualify the abstract simplicity of Arnold's credo. Moreover, Barr realized that the best is not so easily swamped by the lesser, though we may be unprepared to recognize it at first sight or even after the passage of years. Art is mysterious. Like other mysteries, it is a puzzle before it becomes meaningful; something obscure before it becomes clear. And still, there remains the possibility that we have misunderstood. A work's significance is always a matter of contention, and thus the canon of greatness is inherently subject to challenge and reappraisal. It is the exercise of critical intelligence that keeps art fresh, and freshness, as Harold Rosenberg once said, is the mark of quality in modernism.
Unwilling to enter into the fray, as Barr did, the advocates of the static view of culture fancy themselves kindred souls to Arnold's poetic protagonist, watching from afar as "ignorant armies clash by night." In reality, they are responsible for inciting many of the conflicts they deplore. Despite their refrain that politics and art have nothing to do with one another, their obsession with power belies their disinterestedness and their refusal to take responsibility for politicizing aesthetic discussion is just one example of their dishonesty. Hoping to further distract attention from their activism while damning that of their adversaries, neo-conservatives are prone to reciting W. H. Auden's dictum that "poetry makes nothing happen." Disillusioned with the romantic radicalism he espoused in the 1930s, Auden was renouncing the hope that poetry could make men good or at least arouse them against evil. But those who most regularly invoke this line as criticism of contemporary art and literature are agents of a well-schooled anti-intellectualism for which Auden should not be blamed. Devaluing the life of the mind while pretending to honor it, they argue that aesthetic thought and feeling have no bearing on other types of experience, and the proportion and disturbances of art offer no useful insights into the structure of reality.
Although "poetry" cannot insure any actual result, art in all forms makes the world imaginable. To the extent that America has lost the ability to picture itself whole and in all its dimensions and thus to freely speculate on how these many aspects affect and fuse with one another, it has lost its way and risks forfeiting its patrimony and its prospects. In this of all societies, a sense of social momentum and cultural cohesion depends on collective involvement in the constant revision of our collective self-image. America has never been a fixed entity; it is a process. By virtue of its perpetually unfinished becoming it remains the most modern of states. Implicit in our history and our institutions as well as in our art is the realization that form without formation is impossible, and that growth necessarily admits and often thrives on mutations and admixtures.
No artist in our past understood this better or expressed it with more fervent and fully tempered optimism than Walt Whitman. America's great migrations flowed into his poetry, and his prose recorded its fratricidal Civil War. A man of easy acquaintance and immense appetite, Whitman was ready-made for the flux of his era. His gifts of concentration allowed him to transform hard quotidian fact into a pulsing cosmology. His distinction was in noticing and embracing distinctions. Antitheses and antagonisms did not trouble him but instead spurred his desire to find a common ground. Singing himself and others, he sang the unity of opposites.
If any part of our cultural heritage has been overlooked or taken for granted in recent years, it is the one Whitman personifies. And if our desire to reconnect past and present is sincere, it is there we should start. Gazing through his prism out over democratic vistas, the view has changed but not diminished. The echoed speech of his fellow citizens which he transmitted to us over space and time still rings true, but differently as his own voice has dissolved into a chorus. Men and women like those whom Whitman met and celebrated, now celebrate themselves. The questions he asked them, they ask each other and answer in their own name. They in our day, as much as he in his, value variety and see themselves as individuals in a multitude. More than a descant to his national hymn, their cumulative sound is its fully orchestrated continuation. Whatever dissonance one hears was always there. Its amplified intensities and their relation to overall harmony are the inevitable and enriching consequence of additional and unique timbres.
Riding on the subway between my home in Flatbush and my job at the Museum of Modern Art, I often thumbed through Leaves of Grass. Gently hypnotized by the sway of the train and the cadences of Whitman's verse, I sometimes felt an invisible surge of energy in the crammed-together bodies and the blank or wary, mostly black, faces. And I would sense a kind of bond that nothing in their outward demeanor demonstrated, which made me wonder if only a catastrophe could bring that vigor and connectedness to the surface, or if some other cause, some word, look, or act of recognition might reveal it. I have had the same sensation reading Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg and Gwendolyn Brooks. When this feeling came over me I waited for an overt confirmation of my intuition, all the while knowing how unlikely that was. I keep waiting. Because I also know that between a rock and a hard place there is always space for the imagination. If we cannot escape our predicament, we must live our lives and dream our dreams in the gaps we find and in the time allotted us. It is only reasonable to think that others nearby know this too, and that from any one of the them might come the pall-breaking sign. Wherever it appears, we cannot afford to miss it.
August 15, 1994
1. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, [The First 1855 Edition], ed. Malcolm Cowley (New York: Viking Press, New York, 1961), p. 27.
2. James Baldwin, "The Fire Next Time," The Price of the Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction, 1948-1985, ed. Michael Joseph. (London, 1985) p. 375.
3. I owe much of the information pertaining to Barr's collecting policies and early programming of the Museum of Modern Art to the research of Rona Roob, archivist of the Alfred Barr papers. Her published findings often appear in the Museum's quarterly journal. See, for example: "From the Archives: The Museum and Latin American Art,î"MoMA Magazine, Summer 1993, p. 16.
4. The stated rationale for some of these exhibitions, Young Negro Artists in particular, have a paternalistic ring to them, but that must be measured against the sheer fact that such shows occurred at all, and did so years before the broad national mandate arising out of the civil rights movement. Other texts merit re-reading in light of more recent polemics concerning the purely formal treatment of tribal arts advocated by some modernist critics versus the more complex approach to this material provided by others. After a quotation in the press release from Eleanor Roosevelt's foreword to the catalogue of Indian Art of the United States (1943), the show's curators Frederic H. Douglas and Rene D'Harnoncourt stated; "Fine art in the sense of art for art's sake is a concept that is almost unknown in Indian cultures. There are very few aboriginal art forms that have no established function in tribal life....The close relationship between aesthetic and technical perfection gives the work of most Indian artists a basic unity rarely found in the product of an urban civilization....Beyond general statements little can be said about Indian art that would fit all the various tribes and tribal groups, since each area of Indian culture has an art of its own." These attitudes are more enlightened than much that currently appears in print regarding the cultural specificity and function of non-mainstream art; the fact that such ideas were discussed in the context of MoMA's other programming gives some indication of what was lost when, in the course of institutional evolution, the consideration of vernacular or non-western art of all kinds -- tribal, folk and classical -- was shifted over to specialized museums such as The Museum of Primitive Art, The Museum of Folk Art, the Americas Society, Asia House, and others. Much later, in 1967, when Rene D'Harnoncourt was still director of MoMA -- that is, before the brief, socially crusading tenures of Bates Lowery and John Hightower -- the members of the Museum's Junior Council met and founded what was to become The Studio Museum in Harlem, having already initiated a series of outreach programs directed toward the African-American community involving both white and black artists and educators. To be sure, MoMA could not have continued forever to embrace the full range of work that Barr originally addressed -- nor could it have kept fully abreast of all new work shown by focused museums such as The Studio Museum in Harlem -- but the division of labor that resulted has undeniably had its narrowing effects on theoretical presentations of modern art.
5. Adam Gopnik, "The Art World: Empty Frames," The New Yorker.
6. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, to the author in a public conversation at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Winter 1993.
7. James Baldwin quoted by Glenn Ligon in his installation "Good Mirrors Are Not Cheap," Whitney Museum of American Art, July 17-November 28, 1992.
8. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (New York: Bantam Books, New York, 1964), p. 4.
9. Ibid., p. 147.
10. Baldwin's essay, "A Fly in Buttermilk," appears in Nobody Knows My Name; more Notes of a Native Son, (New York: Dell, New York, 1961).
11. Ibid., p. 5.