An Note on Whiteness
The COVID-19 pandemic ostensibly put the whole world on pause. With news outlets eclipsing all other noteworthy events through a lamentation on the crisis, it seemed as if this was the only thing on peoples minds or otherwise transpiring. News nowadays is conjured with mirages of what is real or ‘fake’, causing a constant back and forth between sources i.e. social media or newspapers. This week though, social media proved its worth as a socially mobilising, consciousness raising and activism inciting tool. The murder of George Floyd by MPD Officer Derek Chauvin marked an exacerbation and fed up-ness with the pervasiveness of white supremacy. The term, white supremacy, is one that has been increasingly used, often with reference to the POTUS, D****D T***P. For the leader of one of the most powerful nations on earth to spout such overtly racist rhetoric, this behaviour enacted by Chauvin is clearly vicariously learned and encouraged racism. The acknowledgement of Whiteness is essential for all of those benefitting directly from not being a BIPOC. Not having to be threatened and deal with police brutality as a regular occurrence is one part of it which has seemed to tip the scales, though this is an institutionally embedded, deeply seeded issue of hatred and disillusion which is imperative to address.
The History of Art with almost never regards an artist under the moniker ‘white artist’. However, the terms ‘African-American artist’, ‘Black Artist’, ‘Asian Artist’, ‘Indigenous Artist’ etc. are thoroughly utilised by way of differentiating who is an ‘Artist’ and who is an ‘Other Artist’. This may seem a harmless distinction in order to give the viewer context on the artist, though this needs to be interrogated. By understanding that the work you are looking at is by a ‘Black Artist’, is there any extra details able to extract from it? Does it tell you something that a simple cursory glance at the artists name and age wouldn’t have? Art scholarship dwells incessantly on the way in which Black Artists create an aesthetic and tackle subject matter, a means of pigeon holeing and ‘niche-ing’ an ostensible grouping of otherwise unrelated peoples. Black Artist ≠ Black Art.
History’s authorship is that of the white bias and perspective. There is no history of White ‘Art’ or even ‘People’ for that matter – this is instead seen as the baseline, the assumed. ‘Extraneous’ histories are thus addendums to the assumed history, i.e. Black Art History, History of Black Diaspora, History of Indigenous Peoples. If you type ‘White Art’ into Google, the results will show the white canvases of Robert Ryman or Agnes Martin (two White artists, though their race dare not be mentioned). One does not assume their race from looking at such a work. When you look up ‘Black Art’ on the other hand, images of Black bodies and traditionally African motifs are shown, alongside work by African-American artists such as Faith Ringgold. This seems inextricably related to Black Artists. Though how come Kazmir Malevich’s infamous Black Square painting is not shown? Well – ‘Black’ is positioned as a political identity. White superseeds this in maintsream culture, it profits from its powerful assertion of the non-race, the unmentioned normal.
Acknowledge what is White culture. Acknowledge what it means to produce White art. Acknowledge White profiteering. White is not a vacuum. White is not apolitical.
Should Whiteness then, by default, be a theme in the work of all White artists as much as Blackness is for Black Artists? The immense White Privilege runs in all aspects of life and no less in Art. White Artists have the absolute privilege of being able to show their work to represent, stand for or discuss anything they want. White artists have the privilege of presenting work which is seemingly ‘aracial’ in so far as to say it does not speak on or relate to their status as a White person. The White Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline were able to make work which wasn’t reviewed with their White ethnicity in mind, however Black abstract expressionists such as Norman Lewis were often sidelined as such – ‘Black Abstract Expressionists’, an appendage never fully assumed in the grouping. As the influential author on the subject Sara Ahmed states, “If Whiteness gains currency by going unnoticed, what happens when we notice it?”. Well, we know what happens when we notice ‘Blackness’ or ‘indigenousness’ - artists are eternally earmarked by their ethnicity and how that impacts all aspects of their work, seemingly unable to produce a work received in a vacuum peripheral to their status as a non-white.
This is an issue which needs to be addressed and acknowledged now. It has been pervasive for far too long. Museums and gallery spaces themselves are intrinsically whitewashed both literally and metaphorically. The Venice Biennale of 2017 only showed 5 Black artists out of 120 (4%), while Pussy Galore’s Manhattan Boycott Guide shows the gross imbalance of artists represented in New York commercial galleries. What makes the ‘white cube’ so white? – The artists inside and their irreverence towards their own racial ubiquity and presence. As an Art History student and budding museum professional, I acknowledge my white privilege and stand against the erasure and Othering of non-white culture. I urge you to support and stand with BIPOC in activism against White Supremacy in all aspects of society; silence speaks the loudest.
For more information on the topic, read about 'The Racial Imaginary Institute at the Kitchen" project from 2016 organised by MacArthur Prize winner Claudia Rankine: https://theracialimaginary.org/