The New Exclusionism

This feature originally appeared in ART PAPERS July/August 1988, a special issue on contemporary Black artists. 


I would like to submit a few caveats into current discussions about opening aesthetic criteria and paradigms in the art world. Catchwords like “diversity,” “transculturalism,” “pluralism” cause my antennae to go up, and warning bells of skepticism to go off in my head. Not about these ideas per se, you understand, but about the way they are being implemented in our free-enterprise society in the 1980’s. Let me explain myself more fully and provide a little background for my thoughts on this matter. The first issue of the newsletter published by the ad hoc activist group PESTS had a balloon that noted that according to the 1980 US census there were at least 11,009 visual artists of color working in New York City alone. You’d never know that looking at the monthly offerings of museums, galleries and art magazines. For those of you who don’t know about PESTS, it is the “minority” artists’ Guerrilla Girls, with a stated mission to make the existence and activities of artists of color–  both male and female—known to the art world. Several months ago another group under the guidance of New York artist Howardena Pindell completed the gargantuan task of compelling and disseminating a loss of artists of color with telephone numbers and any affiliation. Which they also sent out to the art community at large. These projects pointedly indicate the separations and exclusions that still exist in the art world. 

I really think that this discussion should be about segregation in the art world. But I knew that this tract would not be useful since that kind of talk makes all of us uncomfortable. We have an image of our profession as the bastion of liberal politics and attitudes. So to hurl accusations of segregation would not be conducive to our having a constructive conversation. What I will begin with then is a discussion of discrimination in the art world, since the essence of curatorial and critical work is the act of discriminating, making choices that are an critical work is the act of discriminating, making choices that are an expression of our eye, our taste, our sense and standard of quality. This might put us on a better footing with which to begin this dialogue. Maybe. But you know as well as I that “discrimination” is a word that has a double edge meaning. Both of those meanings—exclusionary and choosy—have determined how non white artists have fared the art world. Discrimination as an issue of taste sets up an arbitrary situation in which individuals can be excluded or included within an aesthetic discourse. The determining factors for this revolve around what we perceive to be issues of “quality” or “taste.” Lucy Lippard has some pertinent things to say about quality and art: “A populist definition of quality in art might be ’that element which moves the viewer.’  A man probably can’t decide what that is for a woman, nor a white woman for a person of color, nor an educated for an uneducated person, and so forth, which is where ‘taste’ comes in. This in turn may explain why the experts’ have never been able to agree on which artists have the elusive quality. Only where there are real channels of communication can artist and audience both change and mutually exchange notions of art.” 

Lippard is writing here in the 1970s, a decade when blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Italians, women, homosexuals—all those groups designated as the “other” in our society—lobbied for a more open, pluralistic approach to aesthetic standards in this country. The official critical stance of the avant-garde—in the visual arts at least—was couched in formalistic terms that disparaged subject mater, and exalted the selfhood of the work of art, the disregard for and disdaining of any content. But in the 1980s with the identification of a “new” expressionism, a new figuration, and a neo-everything, there was an opening up of the aesthetic dialogue to admit notions of sexuality, ethnicity, politics, etc., once considered the exclusive domain of the above-named “minority” groups. The battles against the critical and curatorial establishments in the ‘60s and ‘70s had finally taken hold, and there was a greater aesthetic openness. 

But it would seem that while the aesthetics of so-called alternative groups have been readily accepted and absorbed, the individuals  who have and still are engendering these forms have not. In fact their stuff, and at a times their very essence, gets appropriated by the society at large, which is ever in search of something new and different. So the people who get the recognition, and more importantly, the money are individuals sanctioned by the various cultural establishments, not the so-called ethnic artists, whom everyone will claim not to know. To cite an example that is perhaps more familiar to us: it is like looking at the recent documentaries on the early days of rock and roll and hearing about how the white record companies were always seeking white singers to do “mainstream” versions of the music conceived and created by blacks. Chuck Berry might be getting somewhere near the financial remuneration and recognition that he should have gotten—but it has taken over thirty years. 

So I don’t think it’s a question of rendering American culture more diverse, or more open to other cultural influences. If nothing else, the sheer numbers of non-European peoples who are swelling our population will make that happen. Oriental martial arts, Jamaica reggae music, even African braided hair, and now gospel music and South African popular music are entering the American consumer market at large. It is clear from the ready reception that these art forms garner that the market is ravenous ethnic communities getting the recognition? Why are we more willing to deal with South African music from Paul Simon, rather than Leti Moulu or even Miriam Makeba? This country does seem to find it easy to accept the diluted, filtered versions of these cultural expressions rather than the primary form. 

portrait of lowery sims

Lowery Stokes Sims, screenshot from Interview with Lowery Stokes Sims, courtesy of ArtTable Channel, Youtube.

I take the implications of the aesthetic strategy of the ‘80s—namely “appropriation”—to be more far-reaching than the corporation of images from the media of other works of art with little or no modifications. Appropriation as a critical strategy in the 1980s has a decidedly aggressive, defiant aspect to it. Borrowing and copying is done within a completely amoral context. The borrower can use whatever material strikes his or her fancy without taking into consideration the fact that they might be distorting the original meaning, context, etc. for the form or idea. In the context of contemporary society this is cause for concern because there are forces in the media and political world who will use images to rather reprehensible ends if artists are not able to determine, and even control, the confines and nuances of the dialogue about their work. Certainly, this option is being denied most artists of color—be it in the visual or performing arts—who have little or no control on the dissemination of their creative products—If they get a chance to get them out in the world at all! And, regrettably, those white artists who are successfully adapting these images, these tunes, are not necessarily responsible and conscientious in their presentation of cultural forms that are not native to them. Here we are treading on the road of “contemporary primitivism,” and its consequences for artists of color today is a bit different—though no less serious in the total scheme of things—than they were for the anonymous tribesmen from Africa, Oceania and Asia, whose confiscated art was “discovered” and appropriated by European artists at the beginning of this century. In this day and age, when the descendants of those anonymous individuals have been educated and acculturated to expect the same monetary and celebratory gratifications from their endeavors as their white middle-class counterparts, then this maneuver has an entirely different impact and political portent than it did when there were no Tahitian artists or Dan carvers working in the Parisian art market of the 1920s. 

The movie Soul Man which was released in 1986 was a piquant demonstration of the inherent irresponsibility and callousness with which the establishment often deals with the minority experience, A white man in tanning make-up proclaiming: “This is the ‘80s, man. It’s the Cosby decade!” was the worst kind of appropriation of the black experience in this country. The development of the idea lacked the reflective viewpoint that one could find in earlier treatments of the theme of racial crossing-over in movies such as Watermelon Man and black like me, which dealt with the dynamics of discrimination in the world. Soul Man definitely suggested that to be a black student was to be privy to exceptional opportunities, when in reality affirmative action programs have been under fire—the recent decision in favor of a woman and the issue of seniority notwithstanding. This movie did a disservice by leading white Americans to feel that there were no more racial problems, and that blacks—and by implication other non-white groups in this society—had an extraordinary advantage over them in terms of scholastics and career advancement. (We are now also hearing about deliberate quotas being set by college acceptance committees with regard to Asian students, because they do so much better over-all that they overshadow “traditional” segments of the student body!) 

If our target group of artists go to the same schools, learn from the same teachers, shop in the same art stores, for the same materials, make the same slides and transparencies, frequent the same bars, why are they still on the periphery of the art world? The key issue is—surprise!—economics, and the art establishment, as with the American economy as a whole, still seems to be hesitant or unwilling to admit minority artists into full economic participation in the art world. Even where good exists, there is still a distinct difference in the way that these artists would be promoted, vis-s-vis their white counterparts. An unconscious but definite feeling seems to exist that their work does not merit comparable financial return as their gallery mates. Economic issues, therefore, are couched in diversionary issues like “quality,” “taste” and “talent,” hence the insidiousness of the situation. If the art establishment truly believes that it is useless to take on “ethnic” artists without being assured of the support exclusively from those respective communities, then it should not go on promising those artist careers that will not be accessible to them. Likewise it should not send false signals to those communities in a ploy to swell the attendance statistics for funding purposes if it does not care to take the trouble to let them see a reflection of their contributions to culture in galleries and museums. Without admitting a dialogue that approaches the actual situation then the dishonesty will persist. 

The media also plays a role in this (and goodness knows the media does not necessarily have anything to do with “taste” or “quality”). The media is the first line of defense, in a way because what gets publicized in magazines or newspapers, televisions or film gets out to the general public, and by implication gets sanctioned as “official” taste. The collectors and dealers also come into the process, but their response may be tied into the media. If they are reluctant to look beyond approved taste, then they will not be inclined to have the guts to take on what has not been established as the thing to like and buy. And then we curators continue to work within these closed references, perhaps because we are beleaguered and don’t have the time to look beyond the magazines and the galleries. Also, our “tastes” may have been informed by the “brand name” approach to art history that characterizes college art curricula. It is definitely easier and more convenient to fall back on old familiar, sanctioned references rather than trust our primary responses to the images presented to us. 

I want to make it clear that I am not denying access to non-European cultures to Euro-Americans or anyone else—Venusians, Plutonians, etc. In fact, Euro-Americans have often been a mainstay of financial, scholarly, and creative support for ethnic cultural expressions throughout the years. But in the 1980s when there is a generation of highly sophisticated, well-educated, politically astute, and financially deserving artist from these ethnic communities who are ready and able participants in the cultural arenas of this country, to ignore, or worse, to rip off their contributions to culture is simply reprehensible. On the other side of the coin I also do not feel that the problems being aired here in any way absolve non-white artist from their responsibility to make the best art they can, and to continue to strive towards their own fulfillment as artist. Arts administrators, curators, critics, etc. can be susceptible to blackmail by Black, Native American, Hispanic, Asian etc. artists who are not strong artists. Just as the curatorial and critical and collector segments in the art world must work to open perception and acceptance of various options for visual expressions, artists must work to see that their art is integral and true to themselves—be it abstract or figurative. There are no free rides for anyone in this dialogue. 

Much of this discussion gains currency especially in view of the more recently defined “new initiatives” on the part of the cultural establishment to diversify programmatically in order to attract “new” audiences who will swell the attendance figures and the till in the galleries and at the box office. The pertinent question is, in whose hands will the presentation and interpretation of cultural diversity lie? Will it again be the missionaries reinterpreting the world of culture for the natives? The continued vitality of talented artists of color in the art world these days due to the diligence and commitment of originations—such as the Studio Museum in Harlem, El Museo del Barrio, the Caribbean Cultural Center, the Asian Arts Institute, The Alternative Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art and INTAR—that specialize in supporting their work and exposing it to the world at large. These organizations also labor under the burden of not receiving recognition for the work they do, and the statistics concerning the percentage of monies they receive from public and private sources, while better than it was, is still—proportionately—woefully low. It would seem that the fate of artists of color would extend also to that of the alternative organizations which have nurtured their talents this far. While so-called “mainstream” art organizations may rush periodically to initiate programming for artists of color, their motivation and commitment very often only last as long as the funding for so-called “special” programs exist. When there is a financial squeeze, and we are all forced to tighten our belts, then artists of color may very well find themselves back in the same situation, not having achieved a crossover into the mainstream. Then the importance of organizations devoted to artists of color is made patently clear. They provide the continuity of support and promotion of these artists through various periods of social awareness. 

In conclusion I think there is no denying that the contributions of Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian Americans have had an indelible influence on the flavor of American culture as a whole. But, if we continue to consume the products of these cultures while the populations within which they are engendered remain excluded, oppressed and exploited in the arenas of world and art politics, then as professionals and cultural consumers we can no longer maintain our smug self-images as social liberals, and must confront the inherent contradictions that permeate our chosen field of endeavor. I must say that I do feel a profound sense of frustration when I reflect that I’ve participated in these dialogues in 1968, 1978, and here we are in 1988. I sincerely hope that as a profession we can get the situation remedied this time. Because if we have to do this again in 1998, I do not want to be called upon.