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Breaking the silence: The second in a two-part series on art world racism

Artists of color are not only faced with the silence of their Eurocentric peers in the so-called mainstream, who now have to come to them to support their struggle with Jesse Helms, but are also facing resistance within the power structure in their communities of color. Breaking open taboo topics therefore set up a color-blind defense of those in power1 positions. Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art in Baltimore, states, “We must address it all. Keeping it in the closet, even when it is our own, does not make it any better. White artists use the same tactics against us . . .”2 The covenant of silence prevails.

In 1988 King-Hammond and Lowery Sims, associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, organized Art as a Verb. Dr. King-Hammond states in the catalogue: “. . . It should also be noted that when black artists were exhibited, albeit through various and often alternative forums, the opportunities for exposure were often turned against them.” This became painfully clear when Sims and King-Hammond were confronted with the New York exhibitors’ reluctance to show political and emotionally charged work. They preferred, according to King-Hammond, something “fun and pretty,”3 not provocative. Metropolitan Life Gallery and Studio Museum in Harlem balked, retreated, or rejected the work outright, although the exhibition had been originally funded by Metropolitan Life Foundation as a “provocative” undertaking and had been shown in its entirely at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (November 21–January 8, 1989). The exhibition of 13 artists of color, most women, contained performance, video, and installations addressing technology, spirituality, racism, birth, death, autobiography, and US foreign policy.

According to Dr. King-Hammond, the Metropolitan Life Foundation, which underwrote the exhibition along with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), Maryland State Arts Council, and the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Special Programs Endowment, had no problem with the exhibition. However, when the selection of work was revealed to the Metropolitan Life “corporate fathers,” they chose to censor the work, feeling the corporation could not stand by the view expressed by some of the artists. They objected to David Hammons’s How Ya Like Me Now?4 (later, in another form, to be vandalized as it was being erected as an outdoor installation by the Washington Project for the Arts in November 1989); Joyce Scott’s beadwork birthing chair piece: Adrian Piper’s use of body fluids (predating Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, which was the subject of the NEA/Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art congressional uproar) including urine, sweat, and blood in the The Big Four-Oh; and my video drawing suite, The War Series, concerning racism and US foreign policy. Artists were quickly passed back and forth like hot potatoes between the two exhibitors. The Studio Museum finally agreed to take the bulk of the work censored by Metropolitan Life. Although this controversy was discussed by Michael Brenson in his The New York Times review (“Split Show of Black Artists Using Non-Traditional Media,” April 7, 1989), by Arlene Raven in “Mojotech,” The Village Voice (March 28, 1989, p. 93), and by Josephine Withers in a New Art Examiner review (September 1989, p. 57), the art world was silent, hearing nothing, saying nothing, doing nothing!

Sadly, artists of color are caught between a rock and a hard place as institutions which previously supported them are less tolerant of potent political images and ideas reflecting dissent. Perhaps facing the futility and hopeless­ness of conservative corporate backlash and a political climate more attuned to censorship as well as the potential growth of a conservative constituency within the communities of color has coerced some institutions into putting up a stone wall against artists of color. In this instance the Studio Museum did agree to show most of the work rejected by Metropolitan Life (Metropolitan Life did agree to show Scott’s Birthing Chair). Hopefully this incident will be the exception rather than the rule, but I am personally chilled by the controversy’s implications. Artists of color are continually faced with being closed out and ignored by Euroethnic artists and institutions as well being faced with a new combination of forces including backs turned by their own.

As stated earlier, omission or partial, “abbreviated” omission is historically part of the art world’s arsenal of tactics. In a letter to me dated August 7, 1989, Adrian Piper writes that her piece “Open Letter from Adrian Piper” was dropped from the original catalogue of an exhibition she states was directed by Donald Kuspit. Titled Art of Con­science: The Last Decade, it originated at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio in 1989.5 Piper writes: “Since the entire catalogue was typewriter-typed and mimeographed, it would have been easy to just photocopy or photo offset the original; so production problems could not have been the reason for dropping it . . . . I’ve also included the statement, ‘Some Thoughts on the Political Character of This Situation,’ Kuspit did see fit to include—after inserting scare-quotes around the entire statement (as he did with all artists’ statements in the catalogue).” The following is an excerpt from Piper’s statement:

My interest is to fully politicize the existing artworld context, to con­front you here with the presence of certain representative individuals who are alien and unfamiliar to that context in its current form, and to confront you with your defense mechanisms against them: mechanisms of fear, hostility, rationalization and withdrawal . . . .

The page omitted was titled “xxx An Open Letter from Adrian Piper xxx” and would have read:

Dear Reader,
Tell me: why in your opinion am I the only Third World artist in this exhibition. I would be most interested in your thoughts about this question. Your answers will appear as part of Art Confrontation #4 [Piper provides her address. At the bottom of the page is typed “Art Confrontation #3 ( 1981 )”].

Piper’s words as well as her bodily fluids (in Art as a Verb) were seen as a threat and were therefore ripe for omission. Interestingly, it was what Serrano did with his body fluids that incensed the fundamentalists. The fact that Piper’s fluids were used at all triggered Metropolitan Life’s corporate fathers’ ire, perhaps because it touched a more ancient (male) taboo against female body emissions.6

The manners by which people of color are censored form a complex snare that the media plays an important role in, often inciting violent acts by corporate or neo-fascist vigilante mobs. Targets have included works dealing with images of people of color interacting in non-capitalist or pro-socialist contexts such as Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, who experienced acts of violence, censorship, and violation against his work (a mural at Rockefeller Center in New York) as a result of a newspaper article published by the New York World-Telegram on April 24, 1933. The headline “Rivera Paints Scenes of Communist Activity and John D. Jr. Foots Bill” led to harassment and the mural’s destruction. “Nine months later, after the Riveras had left New York, the mural was chipped off and thrown away.”7

The Pathfinder mural project in New York (a multi-ethnic venture) also experienced acts of media-instigated vandalism in December of 1989 as a result of inflammatory newspaper articles calling for the mural’s removal. According to the Pathfinder mural committee’s press material, the following commentary appeared in the New York press:

The mural should be removed.
New York Post, Nov. 19, 1989

At the top, dead center, big they should have painted in seven-foot black letters the following R.I.P. and then at the bottom, maybe a little larger NEVER AGAIN.
New York Daily News, Nov. 24, 1989

As for the New York Post, we will continue to argue that taxpayers shouldn’t be required to fund art that is so profoundly offensive.
New York Post, Dec. 8, 1989

In a letter sent out to their supporters, the Pathfinder committee explained the devastation: “Dear friend, during the night of December 20th, the Pathfinder mural was vandalized. Six bottles of white paint were thrown against the lower part of the mural. The paint damaged several figures and splattered many others including civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and anti-slavery activists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. One of the Haymarket martyrs and part of the scene of the Chinese Revolution were completely obliterated . . . .. Fragments of bottles found beneath the mural had swastikas and ‘SS’ insignias drawn on them . . . .”8

Acts of violence against works of art occur on both sides. However, I believe through direct personal experience that omission, de facto censoring, of artists of color and all people of color is an act of violence, whether you erase our presence by physical violation or erase us by turning your backs on us. John Yau put it succinctly:

. . . Or to put it another way: The issues of race and cultural difference have never become popular subjects or contemporary trends, and should be ignored. The result: A black woman can be dehumanized in a Hanson sculpture and a nameless Japanese man can be made fun of in a Byron painting, but no black or Japanese woman sculptor or painter will have their work shown by the museum [in reference to Whitney Biennial].9

Artists of color, unlike white artists, are not permitted into the same mainstream to express their own feelings concerning race as counterpoints to attacks on them and their identity. This tactic is always defended under the heading of “artistic choice” and the presumption of “quality.” Richard Powell, then acting director of the Washington Project for the Arts, put it lucidly in his Washington Post letter to the editor published May 21, 1988:

I agree in theory with the editorial “Art Criticism: The Chicago School” (May 14) that the aldermen who removed the absurdist portrait of the late Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, from the gallery wall of the Art Institute of Chicago were wrong. However, I disagree with the assessment that “this is not an issue of race.” As a born and bred Chicagoan, I know all too well that racial antagonisms enter into the motives and mechanisms of count­less Chicagoans, black and white. And as an arts professional who is also Afro-American, I know that the Art Institute of Chicago has an abysmal record of enrolling and graduating black students, not to mention hiring tenure-track black faculty. I perceive—and I’ll wager that many black Chicagoans also perceive—the painting is not so much an attack on Mr. Washington as a derisive symbol of black Chicago and a reminder that predominantly white cultural institutions have little or no regard for the people of color who constitute a major presence in that city. . . . 10

An additional controversy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago erupted around a work installed by “Dread” Scott Tyler at a student exhibition. The work, titled What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?, is described in Artnews as “a photo-collage hanging on the wall incorporating shots of flag-draped coffins and South Koreans burning an American flag, a shelf holding a ledger in which visitors were invited to answer the question posed by the title, and placed on the floor, an American flag extending outward from the wall. . . . President Bush called the work disgraceful.”’11

The artist later reflected on the controversy in his June 1989 “Speakeasy” commentary in New Art Examiner: “For those who haven’t caught on by now, the super-patriot flag wavers who marched on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago were nothing less than a howling white lynch mob who raised the slogan: ‘The flag and the artist—hang them both high.”’

Although artists of color and people of color in general are bearing the brunt of covert and overt censorship actions and assaults, as can be revealed in other cases including the Martin Luther King billboard project in San Diego (a multi-racial collaborative effort)12 and the En Foco controversy in New York, 13 an additional dynamic is interleaved as a result of an understand­able fusion of rage and frustration in the targeted victims.

David Hammons’s work, censored by Metropolitan Life Gallery’s and by the Studio Museum’s Art as a Verb in New York earlier in the year, was in­stalled by three white gallery workers on November 29, 1989 in Washington, DC, at 7th and G Streets NW, as part of a Washington Project for the Arts exhibition, The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and ModernismHow Ya Like Me Now? depicted “Jesse Jackson as a curly-haired white male with pink cheeks and blue eyes.”14 Hammons felt his work reflected the belief widely held by people of color that Jesse Jackson would have been this President if he had been white. (I feel this was exacerbated by the election of Dan Quayle, considered a featherweight Vice President, a perfect example of how mediocracy “aerated” by the media and political handlers is forced to float to the top.) Hammons expressed the wish that the piece, modified by vandalism, retain the damage, incorporating it. He requested that it remain installed with “hammer marks and all.”15

Non-Euroethnic intercultural racism and vandalism manifested themselves in a New School controversy during a Parsons School of Design exhibition. According to an article in The New York Times, a negative stereotypical minstrel image of a black male used as part of a “1983 advertising campaign for a Japanese soft drink was created by the Japanese artist Shin Matsunaga . . .” The work was defaced with a large blue “X” by a faculty person of color, Sekou Sundiata, who states “The New School doesn’t have the right to invite someone into my community to insult me.”16 Forty students supporting the action wrote their names across the mount and the image itself and there were demonstrations.11

An additional complex issue is raised by the Matsunaga work through the use of a media image for its “halo effect,” the positive or negative response a person will have to an image or the imagined attributes of that image. For example, a product modeled by a German or Scandinavian type would be, under normalized US racism, viewed as preferable to modeling a product using a person of color. This and other issues of multi-level subliminal manipulation techniques are addressed in Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction and Media Sexploitation.18

The minstrel image in our culture is considered by people of color to have a “negative halo effect,” whereas to people of European descent, it may have a “positive halo effect” in its reinforcement of a vertical power hierarchy. It is difficult to assess where in Japan’s complex cultural matrix the minstrel image fits. I feel that possibly the artist was adopting the use of the power of vertical prejudice of Japan’s cultural colonizers, the Euroethnic Americans, but it may be inter­twined with other complex patterns reflecting the rank of the musician-actor in Japan’s rich theater tradition. Because of this possibility, I do not feel the same tactic is operating here as might be operating if the same image were executed by an art world Euroethnic. (I discuss the use of “halo effects” and art criticism in my article “Criticism/or/Between the Lines,” Heresies #8, Volume 2, no. 4. January 1980).

As artists of color have been picked off and isolated by censor-hip vigilantes, the silence in the art world has almost been deafening. Sabers rattled only when NEA funding was threatened. I would like to explore the reasons for this silence by examining several sections in Benjamin Bowser’s and Raymond Hunt’s compilation of essays, Impacts of Racism on White Americans. In a section on “individual racism,” James Jones’s essay “The Conceptions of Racism and Its Changing Reality” contains the following ghastly observation:

A comprehensive review of published studies of racial discrimination appeared recently (Crosby, J., Bromley, S., and Saxe, L., “Recent unobtrusive studies of Black and White discrimination and prejudice: A literature review,” Psychological Bulletin, 1980). This review analyzed studies which reported unobtrusive measures of racial bias in interpersonal behavior among black and white Americans. The general result of this review showed that whites were more inclined to help a person in need if that person were white than if he or she were black; white subjects tended to be more aggressive against black than against white targets when delivering electric shock was the means of aggression. Aggression was more likely when the target was in no position to retaliate. A third finding indicates that, in spite of positive attitudinal statements made about a person, the underlying affective tone suggested the opposite feeling when the target person was black (Weetz. S., Attitude, voice, and behavior: A repressed affect model of interracial interaction,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1972).19

These findings explain the indifference as well as the thinly masked hostility encountered by artists of color when they raise the topic of de facto censorship and the ongoing normalization of the condition.

In another essay, “Socialization and Racism,” Rutledge M. Dennis discusses a form of “conformity bigotry” as well as “authoritarian bigotry” when he states: “People engage in racist behavior because they are reasonably sure that there is support for it within society . . . ‘racism (1) supports irrationality, (2) inhibits intellectual growth, and (3) negates democracy.'” He further states that racism affects white children by creating the following “four affects: (1) ignorance of other people; (2) development of double social psycho­logical consciousness; (3) group conformity; and (4) moral confusion and social ambivalence.”20 (I would add that racism leads to addiction on both sides because of the confusion caused by inauthentic values. Racism and sexism are addictions to domination, power, and control.)

Robert W. Terry , in his essay on “The Negative Impact on White Values,” posits that the advantages of being white are “easy mobility, freedom of choice, membership in a ‘majority’ culture, [and] preferential treatment.” However, he devotes his article to the negative impacts and carefully dissects “models of authenticity”: “ . . . racism undermines and distorts our personal and organizational authenticity. As racists we become untrue to ourselves and/or untrue to the world . . . . As inauthentic persons operating in inauthentic organizations, we make decisions that conflict with our real short-and/or long-term self-interests . . . . It substitutes a false foundation for a solid one, and guarantees a false understanding for the world.”21

In addition, he states, “ . . . racism exists any time one color/ethnic group intentionally or unintentionally perpetrates an unclear and/or dehumanizing mission, refuses to share power, denies appropriate support and challenge, maintains inflexible and un-responsible structures, inequitably distributes resources to another color/ethnic group for either group’s supposed benefit, and rationalizes the process by blaming or ignoring the other group.”22 His article is ripe with other insights; however, the most useful to our discussion is his model of the “White (men’s) Club” and what he refers to as the “’White Brotherhood” which our mainstream arts institutions fit into snugly. He states that the White (men’s) Club is designed to appear to open the system to all “qualified members, especially qualified minorities (and women). Equal distribution of resources is explicitly promised, but unequal distribution is implicitly guaranteed.”23 He refers to “club leaders . . . building a propaganda facade.” He also states that the club says its mission is “non-discriminating,” yet it concentrates whites in “most line management positions,” and “club leaders” justify this by citing “past discrimination, or lack of qualified candidates.“24

I feel the art world also fits the “white brotherhood” model as set forth by Terry in its paradoxically “unresponsive structure that smothers its members and scares minorities . . . . Rules and practices are usually unwritten and enforced by informal tyrannical peer pressure.”25

He also discusses “superhero minorities” or what he calls a “token sacrificial.” Terry states: “whites, who often want credit for bringing minorities into the organization, invariably sacrifice the tokens in the process. The token exploited because of her or his high visibility becomes the spokesperson for her or his group and is expected to represent the group—but is denied participation in subsequent decision­making processes.”26

Keeping this in mind, I would like to review the consequences of racism as it relates to de facto censorship of artists of color. I feel there are specific aspects of racism 27 which affect both sides of the issue including exploitation, parasitism, colonial carpet bagging, Pygmalion overseeing, and appropriation.

A troublesome sectarian parochial breed of censorship involves the implementation of false and double standards resulting in artists of color being caught in a catch-22 between another rock and another hard place. I have seen this endlessly revolving door throughout my own experience. People on the left will accuse the artist of color of not being political enough as well as “too educated,” “too art-school trained,” “too refined,”’ “too assimilated,” “too privileged,” and censure the work based on a litmus test they would not apply to white artists. One is not Black enough. Asian enough. Latina enough. Native American enough or street-tough enough, or one is too Black, too Latina, too Native American or too Asian. On the other hand, people in the profession on the right accuse one of not having accomplished enough or offer yet one more hoop to jump through for the illusory carrot. “If only you were in more museum collections, we’d give you an exhibition . . . If only you were in more private collections, we’d give you an exhibition.” When you’ve jumped through all their hoops, they turn their backs, loath to admit to your face that it was merely a stalling tactic and that they had no intention of including you or taking your work seriously no matter how much you accomplished. It is particularly annoying when white feminists pull this ploy, knowing full well they would not require this of white women artists. They seem to be notably vexed if the woman of color is educated beyond their own experience. It is a lose-lose situation for the artist of color and a win-win proposition for the manipulators who get to stay jellied in the sauce of their own limited experience and opinions.

Lowery Sims points out this pattern in her recent article in Artforum in reference to the galleries selection of new work. She states, “The subconscious reaction of the art world at large to artists of color and their work is demonstrated by the follow-up to the so-called (color) blind review: an artist sends in slides of his or her work. Initially he or she receives a favorable reception from the gallery. But once he or she shows up in person, the gallery cannot consider the work, since the gallery does not show ‘black art.’ When did the art become ‘black?’ And how? If the visual codes of the work are sufficiently parallel to those or any other (read: white) artists, wouldn’t the assumption be that this artist is participating in a larger group geist? What changes the perception once the black artist shows up? African, Asian, and Latin American artists have been educated within the same school system, been encoded with the same visual information.”28

A particularly ugly consequence is the exploitation by those who wish to build their empires on our exclusion. For example, in the April issue of Spy, Michael Brenson’s use of black artists was cited. In an amusing commentary about the rises and falls at The New York Times, the art world is referred to as an “inbred art community, a circus hot­house frightened of any change that might alter the late-[1980s] status quo that has enriched its most prominent members to a degree they’d never imagined.” It further states that in a quest for a more stable position at the Times (if you consider Spy a reliable source), Brenson’s “campaign for advancement seems to have been based on promoting the work of black artists . . . . ‘All I care about is power . . . and if I have to write about black artists to get noticed, I’ll do it.’” 29 Perhaps we suspected this all along, but were afraid to face it. This exploitation will become increasingly common, I feel, because some Euro-ethnic critics will wish to capitalize on the fact that critics of color are barred from publishing their views in the mainstream press and art trade periodicals, which therefore gives the white critic full access. Instead of promoting a process that would open their organizations to art critical writers of color such as Amalia Mesa-Bains, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Daryl Chin, John L. Moore, Susana Leval, Rick Powell, Lowery Sims, Judith Wilson, Kellie Jones, and others, they prefer to keep the profession closed for their own benefit and exploit the situation. Sincere critical appraisals are always welcome, but when they are propped up and maintained by a “closed shop,” and fueled by careerism, I feel it transforms the sympathy into hypocrisy. I call this Postmodern art critical colonial carpet­bagging.

One aspect of this is the Pygmalion overseer, whose symbiosis with the overseen makes it difficult for the person of color to detect a trap or a hook. The overseer is usually a Euro-ethnic who wants to oversee, advise, correct, and get credit for being the maven and administrator for artists of color. This can fall into the above carpetbagger category, as well as using the privilege of exclusion as a means of having access from the top of the vertical hierarchy to determine who will and who will not enter the system, albeit in a token fashion—a kind of carpetbagger clearinghouse while still enjoying the privileges of the all “white men’s club” described by Terry. One would be seen by the “club” as altruistic, while subtly stroking liberal guilt and maintaining the system, giving it an outlet for that guilt.

Tim Rollins and KOS (Kids of Survival) fit this category. The children he works with, even though benefiting from the profits from sales, remain nameless and faceless. They remain KOS, while the white overseer is named. Very often, Euro-Americans find this kind of exploitation natural, comforting (as the vertical hierarchy remains intact), and serving the needs of a colonial system. The exploitation of children of color for profit to further launder the image of the art world and assuage liberal guilt, I personally find reprehensible (one usually finds Euro-ethnics rather than people of color writing positively about the KOS phenomenon, no doubt because they are silenced within the system). The people who would buy the work very often would never wish to own a work by an adult artist of color and patronize galleries which refuse to show artists of color. Tim Rollins rides in the front of the bus while KOS ride in the back, or would walk if they attempted to have equal footing in the current system. They have had a taste of being artists and have been embraced as anonymous people of color in the art world spectacle. When they approach the system as adults, if the profits are used to choose to enter the art school of their choice, they will no doubt find as adults the doors of the art world closed. A number of statements from Asiba Tupahache’s book Taking An­other Look: A Further Examination makes the dynamics of this relationship clearer:

The persuasive perpetrator can be more “up front” about what they want to do, or what they would like others to do, because trust is gained on the grounds that they are “making suggestions” on the victim’s behalf.

Even when a source of domination wants to seem fair, the bottom line is that the victim cannot be allowed success.

It will be largely assumed that all valuable inventions were made or discovered by the dominant source.

Identities will either dominate, be dominated and/or “enable” or “facilitate” oppression. Each of these identities is dependent on the others to seem real. The change of either will upset the system.

The perpetrator exploits the helplessness of the powerless, reinforcing issues of dependency.

Sometimes those who are empowered to help will deliberately withhold their aid to sit back and watch the victim give up.30

Appropriation as a consequence of the exploitation possibilities set up by the de facto censorship of artists of color is the last category I would like to explore. The Native American cultures have been appropriated, as is evident in the work of Charles Simmonds and Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of a Hohokam spiral petroglyph (Arizona) for his Taliesin West logo. Since the arena is limited to the voices and visions of Euro-ethnic artists, the silenced can be easily used to generate imagery, styles, culture, etc. to be utilized by the exploiters. It’s cogently stated by Timothy Maliqalim Simone in About Face: Race in Postmodern America:

Variations in real lives and outlooks become a multiplicity of codes, styles, fashions, signs, and signatures consumed and then discarded. Within such a climate of over­ produced plurality, Baudrillard (1976) and Lyotard (1977 and 1984) conclude that the postmodern individual finds it increasingly difficult to imagine who he is. This situation is one of the reasons that, in the foreseeable future, whites may be forced to turn to blacks as the only group which continues to experience the real difference . . . . [I posit that the reason it is “difficult to imagine who he is” is because, following Terry’s model, many Euroethnics are, because of their racism, inauthentic.] This move I believe is necessary, but it is also important to keep in mind that it may, itself, constitute a dangerous rearticulation of the same racialist order that has maintained Western culture’s reluctance to make such a move i.e., instead of picking cotton for us, blacks will make our culture for us.31

John Yau and Lowery Sims both address the issue and expose appropriation’s historical roots. Yau in “Official Policy” states: “ . . . appropriation is a postmodern continuation of Picasso’s first use of motifs derived from African sculpture. The birth of modernism is tied up with colonialism.”32 Lowery Sims in her catalogue essay for the Hunter College Art Gallery’s 1987 exhibition Race and Representation writes: “ . . . appropriation my [sic] be, when all is said and done, voyeurism at its most blatant. But while voyeurism would seem to be part and parcel of the artistic process, what makes appropriation different from other approaches allowed the artist is lack of accountability. This is less of a problem when the dynamics of borrowing, and even theft, are relatively clear-cut. But where artists toy with subject matter that has far-reaching implications for the political, economic, and social condition of groups of people with no access to or recognition by the dominant society, the problem becomes more urgent.”33

Perhaps it was the artists’ march on Washington, DC in late March 1990, or perhaps it was the direct result of a few discreet phone calls to George Bush from Kennebunkport corporates, unsettled that their leisure time investment territory was being trampled on by boozy “hawks” and “sex-crazed” fundamentalists, that motivated the Gipper’s shadow to step in, at least temporarily, and nip Jesse Helms’s dream in the bud. And commercial sectors of the art world returned to business as usual, a trifle more self-censoring with deeply entrenched biases against artists of color confirmed, as now any form of dissent or favoring of progressive change made them targets for vigilante surveillance. Vacillating opinions and positions plagued the NEA, elements within the government, and sectors of the arts community. Outcries from more progressive factions of the arts punctuated the unfolding events of the spring and summer, seemingly ushered in by the outrageous indictments of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center Director Dennis Barrie on obscenity charges for exhibiting the work of Robert Mapplethorpe.34

In spite of the protests and various issues raised, little was said about the longstanding and accepted de facto censorship of people of color, as if the current censorship debate erupted because an open, free, and nearly perfect system was being hampered by corrupt elements with right-wing political agendas. The golden art world door (with the narrow slot for tokens), which had squeaked open briefly to include protestors of color for a period other than the shortest month of the year, Black History Month, slammed shut once again and was bolted against artists of color, including those who stepped forward, in spite of little benefit to them, to protect de jure censorship. And returned to Kansas.35

I would like to thank Asiba Tupahache, Lowery Sims, Leslie King-Hammond, Bernadette Mayer, and all my friends, art-related and non-art-related, who put up with me, dialogued with me, during the time I gestated this project.

 A version of this article was printed in the Summer 1990 issue of Third Text (No. 11).

Excerpted from New Art Examiner 18, no. 3 (1990): 23–27, 50–51.

  • 1

    German psychiatrist Alica Miller in Fore Your Own Good (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1983), discusses identifying with the aggressor as a mechanism for processing a sense of “defenselessness.”

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  • 2

    Telephone interview with Dr. King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies, Maryland Institute, Baltimore on March 11, 1990.

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  • 3


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  • 4

    King-Hammond states Hammons substituted another piece made of fried chicken wings and gold chains which was exhibited at the Studio museum. The Jackson piece had first been exhibited at The Jamaica Arts Center, Jamaica, New York.

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  • 5

    Letter to H. Pindell from Adrian Piper, August 7, 1989. Artists included in the exhibition were Vito Acconci, Rudolph Baranik, Leon Golub, Hans Haacke, Martha Rosler, Nancy Spero, and May Stevens.

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  • 6

    Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), pp. 635–645. “Pliny said a monstrous woman’s touch could blast the fruits of the field, sour wine, cloud mirrors, rust iron, and blunt the edges of knives. . . . If a man lay with a monstrous woman during an eclipse, he would soon fall sick and die.”

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  • 7

    Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), pp. 164–168.

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  • 8

    Undated Pathfinder press materials requesting aid to restore damaged mural (Pathfiender Mural Committee, 191 7th Avenue, New York, New York 10011).

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  • 9

    John Yau, “Official Policy,” Arts, Sept. 1989, p. 51.

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  • 10

    Richard Powell, “A Derisive Symbol of Black Chicago,” in “Letters to the Editor,” The Washington Post, May 21, 1989, p. 51.

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  • 11

    Sylvia Hochfield, “Flag Furor,” Artnews, Summer 1989, pp. 43–47.

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  • 12

    Christopher Reynolds, “Installation isn’t only gallery caught in dispute with government,” San Diego Union, June 19, 1989, p. E-4.

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  • 13

    Judd Tully, “Photos Provoke Political Protest,” New Art Examiner, June 1989, pp. 32–33. As Tully discussed in his article, the En Foco controversy involved the publication of the Bronx-based organization in their photography journal Nueva Luz, of a portfolio by Richardo T. Barros of prints of his wife and children unclothed. It is curiously reminiscent of an earlier controversy in 1988 in Alexandria, Virginia, involving a white woman artist, Alice Sims, whose Water Babies series was labeled by the “authorities” as “Kiddy-porn.” See Skip Kaltenheuser’s “Artist Harassment: A Family Affair,” New Art Examiner, December 1988, pp. 42–45. In San Francisco on April 25, 1990, the FBI “visited” artist/photographer Jock Sturges, confiscating among many other items his cameras, and prints and negatives of his work, stating that he was a child pornographer. His body of work includes photographs of nudists and their families. His slide processor, Joseph Semien, who is black, was arrested and “handcuffed to a bench for six hours.” Both Sturges and Semien could be charged with child pornography by the FBI. (Laurie Udesky, “When Innocence Is Called Obscene,” The Progressive, September 1990, p. 13.) The same week the FBI focused their attentions on Sturges and Semien, a nude photograph of John Lennon by Annie Leibovitz was removed by museum trustees from an exhibition at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fullerton, California. (Unsigned, “Imagine! Nude Lennon Banned,” New York Newsday, April 25, 1990, p. 8).

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  • 14

    Eugene J. Paton, “Painting of White Jesse Jackson Attacked in D.C.,” “Newsbriefs,” New Art Examiner, February 1990, p. 11.

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  • 15

    Ibid., p. 11.

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  • 16

    Steven A. Holmes, “Protest or Censorship? Debate Erupts at Art Show,” The New York Times, December 6, 1989, p. B-12.

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  • 17

    In an editorial in The New York Times (August 17, 1989, p. 19), Diana Henriques reflects on the current business practice of cutting back on hiring women and people of color, to suit the “prejudices” of the Japanese business community courting liaisons with US companies. “And the vast expanding pool of Japanese wealth is just such a cultural tide. In our market-driven society, the client calls the tune; women won’t be the only casualties, of course. If the gentlemen from Tokyo aren’t comfortable with a black executive, or a Hispanic, or a fellow Asian of the ‘wrong’ background—the cultural evidence on that score is ominous—their male executives, too, may find themselves crossed off the guest list.” (When I lived in Japan, in 1982–82, and found myself caught up in the snare of anti-black, anti-women bias, I remember being amazed to find one white woman who was exempted because, as she stated, she was told she looked like the Virgin Mary as depicted by Renaissance artists. Seen as a religious icon, she was pampered to what she felt was excess.)

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  • 18

    Wilson, Bryan Key, Subliminal Seduction (New York: Signet, 1973) and Media Sexploitation (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

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  • 19

    Benjamin P. Bowser and Raymond G. Hunt, eds., Imparts of Racism on White Americans (Beverly Hills and London: Sage Publications, 1981), pp. 29–30.

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  • 20

    Ibid., 72, 73.

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  • 21

    Ibid., 120–121.

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  • 22

    Ibid., 124.

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  • 23

    Ibid., 141.

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  • 24

    Ibid., 142.

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  • 25

    Ibid., 140.

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  • 26

    Ibid., 141. I would like to expand Terry’s concept of tokens to include the inevitable encouragement by the system of opportunistic tokens. They are people of color who take advantage of the scarcity of other people of color in the mainstream as well as the limited access. They identify with the oppressor and are willing to fulfill the oppressor’s fantasies. In some cases, the opportunistic token passes as a person of color, being, however, a person of European descent from a Third World country (they may even appropriate people of color as images in their work to give the appearance of authenticity). If their original ancestry is that of a Euroethnic minority in a Third World country, they are counted as tokens, although their physical resemblance to the dominating group accords them certain privileges denied an authentic person of color. Thus they can interface socially with the art world spectacle while fulfilling the token roles. Whether or not passing as a person of color, the opportunistic token’s goal is to please the dominating culture by (1) not making waves; (2) not insisting that other people of color be brought; (3) being hostile or manipulative with other people of color they perceive as competition; and (4) sabotaging true change in the system. They thrive on the exclusivity of the status quo and depend on the system’s continuing mode of bias.

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  • 27

    I remember last fall idly watching Frugal Gourmet (Jeff Smith) on channel 13 in New York, and being stunned by his peppering his descriptions of the process for making the day’s recipes with a lecture on how Africa had no culture!

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  • 28

    Lowery Stokes Sims, “The Mirror/The Other,” Artforum, March 1990, p. 114.

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  • 29

    J. J. Hunseker, “The Times,” Spy, April 1990, p. 48.

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  • 30

    Asiba Tupahache, Taking Another Look: A Further Examination (New York: Spirit of January, 1987), pp. 121, 128, 148, 170.

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  • 31

    Timothy Maliqalim, Simone, About Face: Race in Postmodern America (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 1989), p. 93.

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  • 32

    John Yau, “Official Policy,” Arts, September 1989, p. 151

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  • 33

    Farhad Dalal cites the following passages from the collected works of Jung, Vol X, 1931, p. 507: “In the early childhood we are unconscious . . . consciousness is the product of the unconscious. It is a condition which demands a violent effort. You get tired from being conscious. It is a most unnatural effort. When we observe primitives, for instance, you will see that on the slightest provocation or on no provocation whatever they doze off, they doze off, they disappear . . . ” (Dalal, p. 7), And in the same volume: “ . . . It is much easier for us Europeans to be a trifle immoral, or at least a bit, because we do not have to maintain the moral standard against the heavy downward pull of primitive life. The inferior man has a tremendous pull because he fascinates the inferior layers of our psyche . . . ” (Dalal, p. 17).

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  • 34

    See “Cincinnati Gallery Indicted in Mapplethorpe Furor” by Isabel Wilkerson, New York Times, April 8, p. 1. Also see “Taking Liberties/Artistic Freedom: A Gathering Storm,” in Civil Liberties, Spring 1990, No. 369, pp. 11, 16. Dennis Barrie was charged in Cincinnati within a year of the Helms-Mapplethorpe-Serrano furor. Although George Bush informed Congress on March 21 that he “would not seek to control the content of art supported by federal tax dollars,” the issue continued to heat up, fueled by right wing distress at his conciliation (Karin Lipson, “Promise on Art Aid Stirs Ire.” New York Newsday, March 22, 1990, p. 15), In spite of Bush’s apparent conciliatory stance, congressional elements wrestled over muzzling, sanitizing, fumigating, diapering, and heterosexualizing the arts to fit Bible-Belt standards. An NEA grant was swiftly becoming a Good Housekeeping seal of approval or a PG rating
    The advent of the NEA obscenity clause bolstered the decency crusaders’ hypervigilance, encouraging them to find lurid genitals lurking around every artistic corner Obscenity clause casualties included the hidden silent self-censoring as well as those singled out for selective persecution: Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, and John Fleck, who were defunded (C. Carr, “The New Outlaw A11,” The Village Voice, July 17, 1990, p. 61). Backlash was felt by the University of Pennsylvania’ s Institute of Contemporary Art, which had originated the Mapplethorpe exhibition (Karin Lipson, “NEA Council Kills 2 Museum Grants,” New York Newsday, May 15, 1990, p. 7). Some of the heeled and not-so-well-heeled refused to accept grants with the obscenity clause, including Joe Papp ($50,000), the University of Iowa Press ($12,000), and choreographer Bella Lewitzky ($72,000), who filed a suit disputing the clause. An additional suit includes the New School ‘s challenge of the NEA’ s “obscenity restrictions” as a result of receiving a $45,000 grant to redesign its courtyard (Karin Lipson, “New School Pursuing Suit Against NEA,” New York Newsday, June 23, 1990).

    Not to be daunted by artists’ protests, National Council on the Arts member Jacob Neusner attempted to impose further restrictions. (Neusner had become infamous for a misleading New York Times editorial, “People Who Put Color Ahead of Art,” August 31, 1988, concerning a meeting of the advisory council. On September 20, 1988 the Times rescinded the editorial with a disclaimer which read in part: “A New York Times review of the transcript of that meeting established that the article was substantially incorrect,” Frank Hodsoll wrote a follow-up editorial, “No, Color Isn’t Put Ahead of Art,” in order to correct Neusner’s errors. ) Neusner attempted to tie up funding further with clauses restricting work promoting “a particular political, ideological, religious or partisan point of view, or a particular program of social change,” (Karin Lipson, “Arts Council Rejects Strict Funding Proposal,” New York Newsday, August 6, 1990, p. 15).

    Numerous lawsuits have been filed, including David Wojnarowicz’s case against Reverend Donald Wildmon, director of the tax-exempt American Family Association. In late 1989 Wojnarowicz’s text on AIDS and censorship became embroiled in a controversy, which led the NEA to set the precedent of singling out an aspect of an exhibition to be defunded. The fundamentalists, in their zeal for their brand of law and order, pulled Wojnarowicz’s images out of context and reassembled sections in a bizarre mass-mailing which was indeed pornographic, The “178,000 piece mailing” misused the artist’s work, prompting him to sue for libel, copyright infringement, “five million in damages and a corrective letter.” (Karin Lipson, “Artist Sues Conservative Group,” New York Newsday, May 22, 19 90, p. 5). In late June, after a one-day non-jury trial, a judge in New York’s Federal Court ruled that it was difficult to document the damage to the artist, as the American Family Association did not know the difference between a collage and a portrait,” and they were ignorant of the artistic issues concerning fragmenting a work of art. He awarded the artist one dollar for damages, some of the lawyer’s fees, plus ordered a corrective letter (Telephone conversation, David Wojnarowicz, New York, September 21, 1990). According to the artist, Oliver North has, as part of an organization (Freedom Alliance), mailed out a pamphlet condemning the work of Wojnarowicz and Karen Finley, in order to raise funds for Jesse Helms.

    The “chilling effects” of this climate of censorship are being felt across the country. Black shrouds were placed over the works of Ilona Granet, Lucio Pozzi, John de Fazio, and sections of work by David Wojnarowicz in Off Stage Attitudes, an exhibition organized by Frank Moore. In the lobby of Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, in conjunction with the “Serious Fun” festival “The show wasn’t even on the walls and they were measuring the black cloths” (Kim Levin, “Lincoln Censor,” The Village Voice, July 31, 1990, p. 93). While visiting Phoenix, Arizona, in December 1989, I noticed several disclaimer notices placed next to the contemporary works by Native American artists at the Heard Museum. The museum administration seemed to feel that the works were so potent that the public needed to be warned in advance. A group exhibition in memoriam for the students who died at Tiananmen Square which “opened at the Senate Rotunda of the Russell Building in Washington, D.C.” was eviscerated. Robert Lee, director of the New York-based Asian-American Arts Center, withdrew the American component “because he was told that the Senate Ethics and Rules Committee had objected to the works of Zhang Hongtu, Hong Yiu Wa, and Byron Kim.” David Phillips, legislative assistant to Senator Kennedy, one of the sponsors of the exhibition, denied it was an issue of censorship but said it was a “purely contractual dispute (Luis. H Francia, “Tiananmen Show Gutted,” The Village Voice, July 31, 1990, p. 93).

    Artist Judy Chicago recently withdrew her gift of The Dinner Party to the University of the District of Columbia after student and faculty protests over the financial condition of the school and the $1.6 million needed for housing and installation. However, the controversy was clouded by media and political denunciations of the feminist work. It was refered to by Rep. Robert Doman (R–CA) as “Garbage, ceramic, 3-D pornography” (unsigned, “House denies 12.6 million for Artwork display,” USA Today, July 17, 1990, p. 4A). And in Birmingham, Alabama, the need to silence dissent prompted a talk show host on WERC to ban black callers. Tim Lennox, suspended and then reinstated, was defended by his station manager who said his action was not malicious (No attribution, “Host Back on Radio,” New York Newsday, July 18, 1990, p. 14). And I am increasingly hearing about art students whose parents footing the art school bill are withholding money because they question the merit of the content and direction of their children’s work and wish to direct it to their own tastes and standards.

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  • 35

    I decided to end with a reference to L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz (1900), symbolizing not only the artists’ march on Washington and George Bush (“The Wizard”)’s response in returning Dorothy to Kansas (i.e., the artworld returning to business as usual, diluting the threats of the Wicked Witch of the, in this case, South [Helms], and his minion, and, once again ignoring the de facto censorship of artists or color). The cruel reality for me as a child when I devoured the series of Oz books was my perception as a little person of color that Dorothy’s Kansas was segregated.

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