Reading With One Eye Closed



Since my preview of “The Female Gaze” and my review of “Now Dig This!” are readily available online at the New York Times website and elsewhere, I hope readers will judge for themselves whether or not the Nov. 23 peti­tion and David Levi Strauss’s commentary in last month’s Art in America fairly represent what I wrote and what I think. I do not believe they do.

Like many of my critics, Strauss left out a crucial part of my brief preview of “The Female Gaze”: the sentence following the question “but might [the market’s under­valuation of women’s art] also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?” The next sentence reads, “Anyone with a theory about that will have a good opportunity to test it at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where ‘The Female Gaze: Women Art­ists Making Their World,’ a show of works by about 150 women [can be viewed].”

My reasoning went like this. The exhibition’s title suggests that its contents represent something distinctive about women and female artists: first, that women have a different way of seeing than men have; and second, that female artists collectively produce a world that is different from the world of men—”their world.” While these are controversial theories today, they would have been less so in the 1970s, when feminism emerged as a force in contem­porary art and the idea that women have something very particular to contribute to culture seemed like a good and potentially radical one.

Now it is feared that to admit of such differences is to venture down a slippery slope to repressive essentialism. I think that to imagine women have a creative nature different from men’s is problematic only if you suppose you know for sure what the difference is and what sort of social arrangements should follow. But entertaining the notions suggested by the exhibition title need not lead to ontologically certain conclusions. There is much to be gained by freely speculating on these questions, because we may thereby bring to light and better understand fantasies about sexual difference that inevitably lurk in the hearts and minds of all people.

The high-end art market seems to believe that there is a difference and that the difference is one of quality and, therefore, of monetary value. The market appar­ently thinks that the best art is made by men. In light of the these inequities, my critics think that to consider the notion that women’s art is different from men’s licenses the belief that there is something inferior about what women artists do. But I think that believing there is a difference between what female artists make and what male artists make does not necessarily commit you to a belief that one is more worthy than the other—esthetically, monetarily, spiritually or otherwise.

PHOTO: View of the exhibition “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” showing (on wall) Charles White’s Birmingham Totem, 1964, ink and charcoal on paper, 71 1⁄2 by 40 inches, and (on floor) Melvin Edwards’s The Lifting X, 1965, steel, 65 by 45 by 22 inches. Courtesy Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Photo Robert Wedemeyer.

As for “Now Dig This!,” the paradox I wanted to address in my review was that of using a genre developed under the aegis of modernism—ostensibly a cosmopolitan ideology of free thought and expression for all—for the art of a particular group’s identity-based solidarity. As the exhibition’s curator, Kellie Jones, points out in her catalogue essay, artists in “Now Dig This!” who adopted assemblage were taking on a genre that was already in vogue on the West Coast in the 1960s, thanks to sculptors like Ed Kienholz, George Herms and Bruce Conner.

Black artists like John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy and Melvin Edwards embraced the esthetics of assem­blage while narrowing its potential meaning and altering its relationship to the potential audience. Edwards, for example, created compact assemblages of industrial steel, including found knife and axe blades and chains. Absent context, a newcomer to these works could delight in them as surrealistic icons open to wide-ranging interpretation. But the series’s title, “Lynch Fragments,” forces a specific meaning. Each piece symbolizes and protests the legacy of slavery and the continued oppression of black people in America. Insofar as these works are animated by a spirit of black solidarity, they set up, it seems to me, an us-vs.-them dynamic that can make people who do not identify as black feel excluded and, if they identify as white, morally challenged.

Liberationist identity movements were on the fore­front of social and cultural changes happening in America in the ’60s. Today, in contrast, identity politics have been institutionalized in academia. It is like the ending of Animal Farm. The revolutionaries have become the rulers and bureaucrats. As a result, identity-based art is taken very seriously in the nonprofit world and has much influ­ence over the minds of new artists, art historians, curators and critics.

Among elite dealers and collectors, identity-based art is less valued. The dominant demographic in that realm has a solidarity of its own, though it ordinarily does not call attention to itself. The high-end art world would like us to believe that it adheres to transcendent, universal values. I am skeptical about that, which is why I ended my review with this: “As for the covert solidarity of liberal white folks? That is another story.”

All art, I think, is at some level identity-based, and the more self-aware it is as such, the better. The question for me is, can a work of art have deep roots in its own native soil and also have branches that reach up to levels of thought, feeling and imagination that all people can potentially share and be intellectually and spiritually invigorated by?

As for the petition, I am saddened that the head of a graduate program in art writing would sign a petition against a fellow critic—especially a petition punctuated by comments accusing me of racism, bigotry and misogyny, all on the basis of tendentious misreadings and misrepresenta­tions of a single review and a brief preview blurb. Contrary to the petition’s claim, my review of “Now Dig This!” does not open with the assertion that black artists did not invent assemblage. It is careless reading to find in my pieces “validations of stubborn inequities” and affirmations of “stereotypes of inscrutable blackness and inadequate femin­ity.” I do not think that success in the marketplace is the ultimate measure of artistic success, as the signers evidently assume I do. The petition says, “Mr. Johnson states that he prefers the work of mostly contemporary black artists who have been widely validated.” But that supposed statement is nowhere in my review.

In his commentary, Strauss contends that I am a formalist, although on what basis I’m not sure. Following Harold Rosenberg’s lead, he equates formalism with racism. Therefore, I must be—at least unconsciously—a racist. That, I think, is weaselly reasoning.

What kind of a lesson is this for student critics? If I were in Strauss’s class, I might conclude that the only safe route is to avoid writing anything contrary to today’s academically orthodox wisdom regarding race, sexuality, gender, identity and other such sensitive topics. If the petitioners have their way, criticism will be bland or it will not be at all.

Ken Johnson writes frequently for the New York Times.  

To read David Levi-Strauss’ criticism, click here.