Category: Commentary

Now Dig This: The Ken Johnson Kerfuffle.

Ghetto Merchant, ca. 1965, by John Riddle. Part of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80, on view at MoMA PS1, and the subject of one heck of an unsavory review in the New York Times. (Image courtesy of the Hammer Museum and the collection of Claude and Anne Booker.)

Last month, Ken Johnson, an independent writer who serves as an art critic for the New York Times, published a review of Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-80, on view at MoMA PS1. The piece was critical of the show on a number of points, most notably that many of the works promoted a racial solidarity that could be alienating to white viewers. There are also some very uncomfortable paragraphs about the ways in which Black artists have employed the medium of assemblage:

“[Marcel] Duchamp’s work is a piece of deracinated, intellectual mischief-making designed to question relations between language and reality. [John] Riddle’s is about a particular population of people digging itself out of a real-world debacle.”

Something that could easily be read as: the sculpture by the white-guy European artist addresses universal themes; the piece by the Black artist, not so much. (If you haven’t read Johnson’s piece, I’d suggest clicking over and giving it a gander before you keep reading.)

That review, in addition to a preview produced by Johnson (about a show of women artists in Philly), has since generated an anonymous online petition/open letter directed at the New York Times. “Using irresponsible generalities, Johnson compares women and African-American artists to white male artists, only to find them lacking,” reads the opener. It goes on to state:

“Rather than engage the historical work in the exhibition, Mr. Johnson states that he prefers the work of mostly contemporary black artists who have been widely validated, without acknowledging the social progress over the last 50 years that might allow for the next generation of artists to ‘complicate how we think about prejudice and stereotyping.’”

It asks that “the Times acknowledge and address this editorial lapse and the broader issues raised by these texts.” As of this writing, the petition has garnered almost 1,000 signatures, including prominent art world figures such as Glenn Ligon and Coco Fusco, who confirmed to Artinfo’s Julia Halperin that they did indeed sign it.

Earlier this month, Johnson’s review also generated a raft of lengthy partially-deleted/disappeared discussions on his Facebook page, which includes posts by Kara Walker, as well as curator Dan Cameron, both of whom challenge his conclusions in very articulate ways. The discussions were in turn heated, articulate, rancorous, illuminating and all kinds of internet crazy pants. (I’ve posted some of the most interesting outtakes after the jump, but if you need some interesting reading the whole mucky schmegagie can be worthwhile.)


Now Dig This! was organized by independent curator and scholar Kellie Jones and originally debuted at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last year as part of the Pacific Standard Time (PST) series of exhibitions. It was very well-received. In fact, Johnson’s colleague, Roberta Smith, described it as having “a visionary power.” It was the only PST show to travel to New York.

I personally dug Now Dig This! Among all the shows I saw during PST (and I saw a lot of them), this was one of the three that most stuck with me. It was an introduction to artists and works with whom I had only cursory familiarity. It provided an important sense of lineage for the work of contemporary artists such as David Hammons. It revealed a lot about the region that I grew up in and that I thought I knew. And it provided an important social, geographic and political context for a group of artists who, for a variety of reasons related to race and class, did not have the luxury of being included in the Ferus Gallery scene.

Johnson’s review is problematic for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that he appears to be prickly about shows that take as their organizing principle the race or gender of the artist — and he employs the work of white artists as the ultimate gold standard. As with Now Dig This!, he gave a skewering to the LACMA-organized Phantom Sightings, which examined art made in the wake of the Chicano movement, railing ainst the idea of the “identity-based show” as an “evil whose necessity would disappear in a more equitable world.” Likewise, in his review of Seductive Subversion, the exhibition of women pop artists held at the Brooklyn Museum two years ago, he judges the work against the production of male pop artists. (Sample line: “If it does represent the best female artists of the first Pop Art generation — and there is no reason to think otherwise — you’d have to admit that there were no women producing Pop Art as inventively, ambitiously and memorably as their male counterparts. That is not to say, however, that there were no interesting women mining the Pop vein.”) His listing for The Female Gaze, in Philly — the one that also happened to draw the ire of the petition writer — makes a similar comparison between the production of male and female artists.

To be fair, when reviewing individual artists, this doesn’t seem to be an issue. In a review of a show of Kara Walker’s art in 2003, he addresses her aesthetics and her message straight on. In a piece covering an exhibition of sculpture by Anne Truitt, he does much the same. And although it contains a few catty lines, he generally enjoyed an exhibition of feminist video that went on view at the Brooklyn Museum in 2009.

But there nonetheless seem to be some issues at work here. In one of the various Facebook posts that went up during the long discussion of his review, Johnson stated, “Personally, I think race is a fiction that far too many take as real, which, as a consequence, makes it all too real.” It was something that was echoed in his book on art and drug consciousness, in which he discusses pieces that get at the illusory nature of race. (I’d quote from the book, but I’m in the middle of moving and everything’s in storage, so I’m asking y’all to trust me.) And there are some statements he made about Black artists and solidarity at a panel of art writers in New York earlier this month — in which he alludes to his Now Dig This! review — which would seem to imply that he finds shows built around racial solidarity difficult to criticize because they are more about moral righteousness than anything else. (It’s not a direct transcript, so draw your own conclusions on that last one.)

Johnson is right in that race is a fictional concept. There is no biological basis for racial classifications. We all have the same teeth and heart and lungs, even if we come in different shades. But the social and political structures that race generates imbue every aspect of our society, not to mention our history: slavery, indentured servitude, apartheid, Jim Crow, housing covenants. As a result, race shapes experience and world view — and therefore art. To not recognize this is a gross omission. Race can determine a person’s economic status, their social status, even where they live. And in a society that is obsessed with it, it is a perfectly valid lens with which to examine art.

I will admit that there are identity-based and gender shows that are sloppy and uninteresting, exhibitions in which some curator seems to be saying, ‘It’s Hispanic heritage month, let’s put a bunch of Latinos in a room.’ But Now Dig This! and Phantom Sightings were the opposite of that. These rigorous, well thought-out exhibitions tell a story about a place and time. Now Dig This! provided historic and material context for a group of artists whose work doesn’t generally get pride of place in museums. (Jones once told me that many of the pieces in Now Dig This! actually reside in major museum collections — but they never get shown.) Phantom Sightings addressed ways in which Chicano artists employed conceptual language in the wake of 1970s conceptual art and civil rights movements. These exhibitions connected dots that weren’t previously connected and for that reason, they are important. (For what it’s worth, I addressed some of this in a piece about Chicano art that I did for ARTnews, which was, in part, a response to Johnson’s Phantom Sightings review.)

But in his critiques, Johnson is so busy railing against the idea that there are shows built around fictional notions of race or that some piece of art might not be as good as that of some long-dead male artist, that he fails to notice that these groups of artists, in the collective, might have something interesting — even important — to say. And that as a critic, he should be listening to what that might be. At its heart, this is intellectually lazy criticism: seeing what you want to see rather than letting the art speak to you. (For a point of reference: read Christopher Knight’s reviews of the same exhibitions, here and here.)


At the top of this post is an image of a sculpture by John Riddle that was made sometime around 1965. Ghetto Merchant is an assemblage crafted from cash registers that the artist rescued from a burned out store after the Watts Rebellion. In its structure, it is part Ibram Lassaw geometric monster, part musical instrument, part abstracted figure — all of it evidence of the ability of an artist to turn tragedy into something inspired. Until Jones put it on view in Now Dig This!, it sat in the home of a private collector and was rarely, if ever, seen by the public. And there were so many other pieces like this in that show. Melvin Edwards’ torqued industrial wall sculptures left me feeling suffocated. Senga Nengudi’s pantyhose installations grabbed me by the tubes, then twisted and yanked them in aggressive, uncomfortable, hilarious ways. Noah Purifoy transformed the basest junk into something greater than its parts.

It’s too bad Johnson missed this — all because he was so focused on race. That is, any race that isn’t white.

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Why I’m okay with photos of the dead.

After the Battle of Gettysburg, during the American Civil War, by Mathew Brady. (Via.)

Joerg Colberg at Conscientious has a highly thought-provoking essay on his blog about the decision, by the New York Times, to reproduce a picture of the U.S. ambassador to Libya shortly after the embassy was attacked by Islamist militants. In the picture, Ambassador Christopher Stevens appears battered, bruised and glassy-eyed. He was one of four fatalities. The U.S. State Department asked that the picture be removed, but the paper declined, citing the picture’s “newsworthy” qualities.

In his essay, Colberg questions the premise that this is a newsworthy shot:

…there it is not a simple and obvious step to demand that we need to see the corpses of people blown up by our drones or, in this current case, the body of the dead or dying ambassador to Libya. In much the same way, if there is shootout in Manhattan then we also do not need to see the dead bodies of the various victims (as happened just a little while ago). Being told what happened is enough – seeing the bodies does not add even the tiniest amount of extra insight.

He adds:

I think a pretty simply rule would be to say that anyone who does not exist as a mental image in the larger public’s mind should be granted the dignity (yes, dignity) not to have her or his dead body shown in a news context (Not to mention what the relatives have to go through). There is no newsworthiness to showing such a photograph, as the case of Mr Stevens makes very clear.

Che Guevara, after being killed in Bolivia in 1967, in an image by Freddy Alberto

Initially, I was inclined to agree with Colberg, but after giving this some thought, I have to respectfully disagree. One, I think the photo of Stevens is brutally powerful, and it brings home the violence in the way that more abstract images (a man holding a weapon; charred architectural remains) do not. In addition, I don’t know that the purpose of a picture is always to add “insight.” Sometimes it’s simply to illustrate what happened — in this case, a brutal attack. Secondly, I disagree that showing some people’s deaths is somehow acceptable while others are off limits. (As in: Che Guevara, okay; unknown American soldiers and military contractors, not so much.)

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On the Future of Freelancing: The Journalist as Marketer.

Pondering the future (and burritos) at Stanford. (Photo by C-M.)

For two days last week, I traveled to Stanford to participate in a conference on The Future of Freelancing. Needless to say, any gathering of journalists these days is akin to attending a deer-in-headlights convention. It’s a fraught time to be a freelance writer. Newspapers are shutting down left and right. Magazines, which have historically paid the livable wages, are thinner than ever. And everyone seems to want journalists to write for free, or almost free — or, worse yet, for “exposure.” And any time anyone even utters the word “exposure,” I am seized with a terrific desire to bitchslap Arianna Huffington.

The conference was interesting, if not earth-shattering. We had magazine folk (among them, Esquire‘s David Granger) talk to us about the power of story-telling, a slew of digital media types told us all about e-books and the internet, and a parade of panelists dissected the intricacies of “marketing,” “product” and “branding.” (Apparently, that’s how being a freelance journalist is referred to these days.) What will happen to our industry remained unclear. Though, to be fair, I didn’t expect the conference to answer these bigger questions because, really, who the hell knows?

What was clear is that, over the last decade, there has been a big shift in what is expected of a journalist. No longer is it sufficient to report and write well and be amenable to over-editing. There was a clear expectation by all of the VIP figures present (both digital and dead tree), that writers need to be deeply engaged with the public, that they need to cultivate their own built-in audience, and that they need “leverage their networks.” (As part of this, there was plenty of obsessing about Twitter and Facebook and blogs — and whatever other social media stuff the Redbull-saturated set may yet have in store for us.) There was also lots of talk about marketing. In fact, if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that “marketing” was the most oft-repeated word of the conference. And it wasn’t in a sexy, Mad Men kind of way.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that journalists these days need to self-promote. I do it relentlessly. But I worry when it starts to feel like the focus of what we do. I think part of the reason that we’re in this shit-hole to begin with is precisely because of marketing. Because for decades, publications have focus-grouped their content to death, creating cover lines about 17 ways to get flat abs and pumping out written-by-committee stories about lifestyle “trends.” In fact, barring a few key titles, I think it’s safe to say that much of our media is nothing but marketing. And as a result, it feels empty and dull.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the web in all this, it’s that there are people so passionate and so committed to certain thoughts and ideas, that they’re willing to put them out there for free. (And I’m not referring to opportunistic content mills who churn out crotch shots of Miley Cyrus.) If we expect to continue to be paid for our work, we’re gonna need a little bit of that fire in the belly, a willingness to explore new ways of telling stories, to convey a passion for what we do. What we certainly don’t need is any more marketing.