I went to a talk today by prominent self-proclaimed-painter-but-everyone-else-calls-him-a-conceptual-artist Glenn Ligon. He is Black, he is Gay, but beyond those two I think he is a really pretty awesome Artist and Human Being. The talk, which happened because Harvard’s Fogg Museum recently acquired one of his works, Untitled (Negro Sunshine), was really pretty interesting in a number of ways.
First, it was not really a talk but rather a talk with–you know, one of those things where the artist doesn’t actually get/have to speak the whole time and instead also interacts with another luminary or two. In this case, the other speakers were Elizabeth Alexander, poet, professor of Af-Am studies at Yale, and Radcliffe Fellow (Black), and Helen Molesworth, head of contemporary collections for the Harvard University Art Museums (White). Helen spoke first, giving an overview of the event and her own introduction to Glenn’s work, and then Glenn spoke himself for an “extended 15 minutes” complete with Powerpoint slides (and subsequent failures), and then the three convened on stage for a discussion.
Glenn’s talk was really interesting. He talked about how he came to work with text and how he still considered it painting, and all the various reactions (including the really whack ones) he gets about his work. He was totally funny. He talked about his inspirations and his methods and his process and all of that, which was really, really great.
But what interested me more was sort of…well, the bigger picture. There was such a level of unintentional discomfort in the (predominantly old white people/college students) room. When Glenn showed one of his works (pictured at the top of this post) during his presentation, I had to laugh–talk about unintended coincidences. I mean, here was a Black man (well-educated, mind, and with no trace of a “Black accent,” whatever that means) giving a talk about Black culture (as manifested in the high art world, mostly) to a room of probably 90+% White people at one of the “Whitest” institutions in the world. Sharp white background, indeed.
(A LOT MORE…after the jump)
This raised a ton of questions, too, about how not-Black people deal with “Black art.” At one point, Glenn showed one of his works in which he paints a Richard Pryor joke, Warhol-style, over and over again. The joke goes something like: “I was a nigger once, but I gave it up at the age of twenty-three. No room for advancement.” The first time, we all laughed. Later on, Glenn mentioned that he found that joke interesting because it was a joke, but it was also sort of not a joke. Next time he showed a similar joke, a lot fewer people were laughing.
I guess the question at the core is: is it FOR us? And actually, I shouldn’t even say us, because I don’t think I count–I’m already a minority so I get that special “I’m Marginalized Too!” privilege (though, to be fair, Asians get the least of this out of all the minorities), and I spent the summer in Jamaica, and so on. So I guess to be perfectly blunt, specifically in the context of the history-rich Black/White binary in this country, I’m talking about White people–are they allowed to “get” Black art? Black jokes? Black culture in general? Are they only allowed to “get it” if they have a “Black roommate” or “tons of Black friends” or “totally grew up in a predominantly-Black area” or “Black people love me” (okay that’s joke)? But seriously, how does one gain “cred,” exactly, and how does one spend it? Is it like, I have a Black roommate so that’s 10 “Black points” and I can make Black jokes now?
And, as my classmate Trevor brought up afterwards, would it “legit” for non-Black people to reference or use their elements in their own art? I think as a white artist that’s attempting to do something racial, people are immediately suspicious and you have to put some crap in your bio like “After a childhood in the rougher areas of the Bronx…” or be ready to pull out a detailed account of all the Black points you’ve earned over the years. Argh!
But then again, I guess it can come off as imperialist in a way. Let me appropriate your culture! Let me summarize your culture and use it in some other way! But then again again…isn’t that what all artists do with all cultures even if it’s their own? How do we start having inter-cultural dialogs? I would love to see a show where artists make cultural works about cultures that aren’t theirs. I wonder if anyone would ever fund that.
And also! There is the question of what Black is. Because usually, when we say Black, we are not referring to anything that is made by any Black person. There is a sense that Black people can make non-Black art, even if it’s *about* being Black, as long as their experience is not the “typically Black” one. Is Glenn Ligon less of an oppressed Black man just because he went to a good college in Connecticut? In fact, is he less of a Black man because he is gay? Or vice-versa? And isn’t it so damn problematic that somehow, it is only legitimate to make Black culture when there’s some ghetto shit going down? Doesn’t that leave us with a lose-lose situation: either Black people have to suffer OR they “disappear”? Is there a forced choice between invisibility in society and invisibility in culture, or what?
I’m immensely interested in all this not only because I’m immensely interested in Black culture and its interactions with other races, but also because I think this provides a really interesting scaffolding on top of which I can start thinking about Asian-American (lack of) culture and how the hell it is that we are going to start building one. I think I’m going to try to make my next project be about Asian people, which is a huge step for me because I’m kind of terrified of Asian-Americans as a group (more on this later, I promise). But I don’t really know what to say about us, except that we are far too quiet and I don’t think that’s okay. If you’re Asian-American (and I bet that most of you who’ve been obedient enough to read all the way through this are (just kidding (sort of))), please let me know–what the hell are we?