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Action Against Racism in the Arts

The Event: a white male artist exhibits a series of charcoal drawings. The work is abstract, consistent with work shown in established, prestigious galleries. The artist calls his work The Nigger Drawings. The gallery sponsoring him is Artists Space, an “alternative” space designed for young artists who do not have galleries. Artists Space receives the majority of its funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

The exhibition was unique only in its open expression of racism. Racial discrimination pervades the whole of the art world, including publicly funded “alternative” spaces. Even those spaces created especially for minority artists are discriminated against by being drastically underfunded. The exhibition The Nigger Drawings points up this discrimination: while the artist gets support for his show, the art world fails to provide minority artists the opportunity to express and define themselves.

It should not be surprising that a prestigious art institution sponsors an overt racist gesture at this time. The efforts initiated in the 1960s to draw Blacks and other minority groups into the “mainstream”—the programs for better education, housing, health services, and job training—are now judged inessential. When the economy is slow and jobs are scarce, Black health and well-being become dispensable. This trend has been accompanied by a resurgence of both covert and explicit racism. The Nigger Drawings introduces to the art world a new form of racism: brutality chic.

In brutality chic, social pathologies masquerade as newfound virtues. Racism, sexism, poverty, social violence, and repression emerge in glamorized form. Brutality chic is the cultural front of today’s backlash. The Nigger Drawings not only reflects that backlash, but also strengthens it.

As individuals in the arts, it is our responsibility to oppose racism as it confronts and divides us.

On April 5, 1979, The Emergency Coalition sent a mailgram to Artists Space stating that they would be visiting Artists Space on Saturday, April 14 to see the current exhibition and to hold a teach-in. When the members of the Emergency Coalition and their supporters arrived on the 14th, they found the doors locked.

Although The Nigger Drawings exhibition closed on March 10, protests and counter-protests have continued. Views opposing the protest against racism include the following:

“To the charge of racism, without referring directly to the pictures themselves, it would be presumptuous to consider that the artist’s titling of his work The Nigger Drawings was an explicitly racist gesture.”
—Letter from the artist, March 8, 1979

” . . . at this point, ‘nigger’ is a broadly used adjective that no longer simply refers to blacks in a pejorative context. Artists refer to the projects gallery at the Whitney as the ‘nigger gallery’ because it ain’t the big time upstairs. People are neutralizing language. These words don’t have quite the power they used to—and that seems like a healthy thing.”
—Helene Winter, Director, Artists Space, quoted in R. Goldstein. “Romance of Racism,” The Village Voice, April 2, 1979

“The cry went up ‘Racism!’—as if the mere use of a word, and not the context in which it occurs, determines meaning. Angry letters were written, a petition was circulated and signed by a few celebrities. . . . Is it not ironic that those ‘liberals’ who in the sixties, when government support of the arts was hotly debated, warned against the danger of censorship, turn out to be precisely those who attempt to use the government agency as an instrument of repression?”
—Craig Owens, Skyline, April 1979

“Douglas Crimp, the managing editor for another small arts publication, October, which considers itself on the left, went so far as to circulate a petition in support of Nigger Drawings. ‘It’s damaging to think about the political issues and not the work,’ he told Seven Days.”
—Elizabeth Hess, “Art World Apartheid,” Seven Days, May 18, 1979

Ironically, if one takes the counter-protest position further, government agencies have always been used by funded spaces—alternative and non-alternative—as a means of “selecting” out or censoring out work, ideas, etc., that they do not care to endorse, including the work of “minorities.” All curatorial decisions may therefore be viewed as aspects of censorship, based on political leanings, expediency, taste, personal preference, etc. . . .

Example: The National Endowment for the Arts funded an Alternative Space Conference in Los Angeles, May 1978. The conference was sponsored by LAICA (Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art). Bob Smith, the organizer, selected the participants, whose expenses were paid by the National Endowment for the Arts. “Minority” or non-white alternative spaces—Black and Hispanic— and non-white directors and administrators of “minority” alternative spaces were not invited. By this omission of non-white participation, government funding and government agencies were utilized as means of “censoring out” the ideas, viewpoints, contributions, and aspirations of non-white artists and art administrators.

The “curatorial choice” of the Artists Space staff to endorse The Nigger Drawings reflected a political decision to echo more overt racism by dressing it up as “neutral in an art context.” The endorsement is a reflection of their shared vision, personal taste, and preference. One wonders what would have happened if a Black artist had approached Artists Space with this project: An arrangement of white, slightly soiled papers on the gallery floor titled Poor White Trash.

As the protest continues, it is fascinating to see how panicked and terrified many whites have become when dealing with their own conscious and unconscious racism. Art world figures who were not so uncomfortable when confronted with the demands of feminists fled and locked their doors, their ears, and their minds. It is also curious to see how quickly many white feminists—who had courted Black women for support early in the feminist movement and who indeed employed tactics borrowed from the Civil Rights Movement—fell into line with the other side when they felt that rocking the boat might disturb some of the “crumbs” they had gained. Racism is “too sensitive” an issue for them to deal with. Some feel it’s not their problem…a “What, Me Worry?” attitude. Some fear that their alignment with the protest would affect their career. (If a dealer will show women, but not Blacks, what response would that dealer have to a white woman artist dealing with issues of racism?) Others felt that to protest the racism of the Artists Space show would give that artist too much publicity. They preferred to see racism continue and remain silent than to see him receive a review.

The political climate in the United States is becoming increasingly retrogressive. Black artists, all artists, should being asking hard questions about the art world they support with their work. The Emergency Coalition has formed to address the issues of racism in visual arts funding and exhibitions, as well as in the performing arts. The Coalition is made up of Black and white artists, writers, historians, arts administrators, and educators.

Excerpted from Heresies, no. 8 (1979): 108–111. Written anonymously.