Where is the Art World Left?

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


Where is the artworld “Left” in the age of “trickle-down,” homelessness, the rise of the Aryan Nation and corporate art coma: a dehumanization of art and artist into a common denominator of profit? In the late 1960s, Gene Swenson walked back and forth in front of the Museum of Modern Art carrying a blue question mark. His actions seem to have ushered in a brief period of dissection and examination of the artworld establishment by concerned white and nonwhite artist and critics. In 1969, a group of black artist, mainly women, picketed the Whitney Museum protesting the exclusion of artist of color from an exhibition of art of the 1930s. GAAG (Guerrilla Art Action Group) was formed and the Art Workers Coalition (AWC) presented the Museum of Modern Art with a list of thirteen demands. Some of these demands were “The Museum should hold a public meeting..on the topic, “The Museum relationship to artist and Society…’ ” “The Museum’s activities should extend into the black, Spanish and other communities.” In 1969, the AWC published documentation of their activities in Documents 1 which included a minority report linking the museums to galleries: “We recognize that the Museum of Modern Art and the galleries are inseparable. Today museums serve as galleries and galleries are inseparable. Today museums serve as galleries and galleries serves as museums. They both represent the same interests.” (For thorough discussion of activities of the 1970s and early 1980s, Please refer to Lucy Lippard’s book, Get the MessageE.P. Dutton, New York, 1984.) 

On April 21, 1979 a multiracial group of artists and critics (Action Against Racism in the Arts) entered Artists Space after having been locked out the previous week. (for further information concerning the protest see Heresies #8 Third World Women, Vol. 2, No. 4, New York, 1979, pp. 108-11.) They were protesting a white male artist’s exhibition title which used a racial slur against black people. As the group settled in to speak with the director and her supporters, a white female artist approached the group and said, “How dare you come down here and tell us what to do. This is a white neighborhood!” She was warmly embraced by the director at the end of the exhibition. 

portrait of howardena pindell

The artist in her studio on Seventh Avenue and 28th Street, New York, c. 1973 [photo: D. James Dee; courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.]

In the 1980s, the issues of the 1960s and the 1970s seem to be meeting with a wall of indifference. Examples of de facto segregation and de facto censorship of non white artists meet an even thicker wall of unconcern. Artists of color seem to be included when it is politically expedient but left out of “normal” routine daily activities and exhibitions. When issues are raised, they are addressed reluctantly, if at all. The Left seems less concerned about the daily practices of the artworld and seems more involved with the conditions brought about by our government’s domestic and foreign policies. The liberals seem to be concerned only with their immediate affinity group. During the Artists Space controversy, they seem to have felt that white artists have a first amendment right to express their racism. They saw protest as an act of censorship of the artist’s right to express him- or herself. It did not matter to them that artist of color were “censored” out of the system altogether and could not express themselves on the same platform on the same issues as the white artists. Nor were they bothered that artists of color were excluded from defining themselves in the same arena although white artists could “define” them as subject matter in their work. The white feminists, on the other hand, seem to feel that their concerns are being sidetracked by too much concern for issues such as racism in the artworld. As one woman artist of color said to me, “they [the feminists] have engaged the artworld’s attention, and they fear that to divert to what they feel are not relevant issues would distract from their cause. They do not see it all coming from a common source.” (I recommend Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class, Random House, New York, 1981, for a concise examination of the history of racism and feminism, and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, New York, 1963, for a fresh view of the issues raised by racism.) 

As Brenda Miller, a former member of the Ad Hoc Women’s group in the 1970s, has stated, “It is as if artists have become minicorporations as it has become tougher and more expensive to live and work in New York. The artists have taken on the lack of humanity of the corporations. They are too busy trying to climb the corporate ladder.” 

In the 1980s, there have been the multifaceted activities of PADD (see Lippard, Get the Message), as well as the emergence in the mid 1980s of the Guerilla Girls. The Guerrilla Girls have recently shown concern for women artists of color in their one-page spread in the December 1986 issue of Arts magazine (page 105) concerning commercial gallery representation. There is also a newly formed group called PESTS whose recent letter to artists stated that they are working to confront “art world apartheid.” 

In reviewing 1986-87 statistics, I was struck by the relative silence of the former activists of the 1960s and 1970s in light of what they have said and what they have stood for in the past. Many of them were included in these exhibitions, having been absorbed into the system since their activist days. What has happened? Have they become tired of protesting? Has being incorporated into the systems made them less alert, more docile? Indeed, once absorbed, should they be expected to be aware of what they are participating in and expected to ask hard questions? Considering this how does one promote change in such a rigidly commercial system? Besides the obvious step of asking hard questions of the systems about the treatment and their rights, I suggest that artist start first with the nonprofit sector. I feel that we must deal with the system, evolving alternatives as they naturally evolve. I feel that the artworld should be integrated on all levels, including benefit committees, artist’ groups, boards of trustees, acquisitions committees, staffs of museums, alternative spaces and exhibitions. And when I say integrated, I mean multiracial participation, and not token people here and there. In the days of the AWC there was also a request for artists’ representation through not only their work but their opinions in policy making. 

There is a slow moving away from the Reagan years’ trend which has devaluated all humanity in favor of profit. After a period of cathartic silence it seems as if artist’ voices are re-emerging as they attempt to assert their rights over the representation and presentation of their work. Hopefully, with this re-evaluation the universal family of artists will be truly universal and not limited to artists of European descent. 

This article is reprinted by permission from Art & Artists, where it appeared in March 1987.