There is No Room for Colonizer, White Savior Mentality in Art Criticism – or Anywhere

This opinion piece represents the views of the Editors at ANTE. Mag. It was written as a direct response to the Whitehot Mag article, “Kill Your Darlings: The End of the White Male Ally” which in turn was a response to the NY Times’ “The Dominance of the White Male Critic”

-Ed.s, ANTE. Mag

 

There is nowhere to begin this article.

There is nowhere to begin – because the subject of this article is all around us, it is limitless, boundless. It affects what we say in polite society, what we talk about with museum funders, collectors – those in positions of power. But power is bounded by silence: the type of silence that reifies the entrenched systems of oppressor and oppressed that has persisted since the first Portugese slave ships set off from the island of Goree off of the West coast of Senegal, and long, long before.

It is wrapped in the embrace of those same systems of power that enable police officers to turn off their bodycams and plead innocence even while causing suffering to our brothers and sisters, like Eric Garner – it spans far and wide in underground networks, supporting entrenched inequality from homeownership and credit to college admissions, the use of public space, the right to assume a place in the art world. The right to have a voice – any voice, much less to assume a position of authority. The right to exist alongside and in spite of a culture rooted in hatred for the very autonomy of others. The right to not be questioned or accused of representing a “threat” to an established majority.

When allies demand to be recognized for their efforts, they undermine the very platform for marginalization they purport to support. When ego overcomes the hard work put in to empathize with those whose experiences in life have not been defined by the lines of privilege, they lose the ability to be true advocates.

What angry white men, whether in Congress or in Art Journalism, conveniently ignore is this: there will never not be room for white cis male writers in the art world: in every aspect of our world. By insisting otherwise, these critics undermine efforts to recognize and confront the persistent, inevitable influence of white supremacy continuing to determine the trajectory of our culture and the world at large.

By ignoring that the pathways are already uneven, that our very foundations are built upon the flawed premise of white supremacy, these “saviors” of cis, white male art critics everywhere deny a pervasive force – they may as well deny the existence of the magnetic field. Just because a force cannot be made manifest, and remains invisible, does not mean that it effects are not seen.

When hegemony exists – that-which-must-not-be-named, white supremacy – it is our duty collectively, as marginalized voices, as allies, to call it out. To provoke it, not to pacify it. To question it, not to submit to it. There is no reason to support a status quo that continually dampens the spirit of those bright voices who have always existed and who form our future – people of color, women and non-gender conforming folks, those of diverse sexual orientations, religions, backgrounds.

Too often, those who have privilege never understand the effects of everyday life that terrorize those who don’t “present” like them. Those who have experienced these effects are often silenced or disparaged when they present their truths to a wider public – they become Anita Hill’s, Christine Blasey Ford’s, the greater “radical other” in our collective consciousness. They become widely disparaged, threatened – challenged.

Demonized.

Here is a great barometer for equality: would this collective Shunning or “Other”-ing happen to someone who represents a white, cishet male member of the hegemony? Would they be run out of town, have their lives threatened, be demonized and disparaged for daring to stand up to a power structure that – oh wait, they are the power structure. The fiber of their own, elevated histories sustains and supports that same, buried power structure that subjugates those who do not subscribe to a white, colonizer patriarchal mentality.

This mentality feeds an endemic system of thought that silences voices from the margins, holds back new ways of seeing and processing: prevents new connections to form between underrepresented voices and those who represent them and – even more critically – prevents us all from reaching our true potential as a society by stifling voices of genius through fear, coercion or threat. This process is fundamentally de-humanizing to those who have keenly felt the piercing threat of white supremacy.

Venice Biennale Golden Lion Award-winning artist Arthur Jafa notes that his practice centers around the idea that empathy is key to his practice. “The people who are dehumanizing others are trying to maintain or hold onto the sense of their own humanity,” reflects Jafa. “Ultimately it comes down to the relative presence or absence of empathy. You cannot oppress people without expending a certain type of psychic energy, unless the whole mechanism, the whole superstructure is supporting that understanding of the other as being less human, less feeling than you are. I think you learn empathy. I think it has to be taught.”(1)

A self-appointed savior is not exercising empathy, and their remonstrations of justice or demands for consideration for the pitiable, cishet white male – those who have never tasted the angry steel of prejudice – smack of hypocrisy and egotistical protests. The measure of the threat they perceive is in direct response to the lack of their own ability to empathize with the internalized oppression that marginalized members of American society – of our world at large – have unfortunately learned to anticipate every day.

Colonizers and white saviors have no place in guiding us forward in a realm where ingrained prejudice is giving way at slow, small intervals to inclusion and diversity of opinion – so slowly that the monolithic cliff face preserving colonizers’ value systems is still firmly recognizable.

The perspicacity of artist Titus Kaphar’s insights in 2017 holds true today. He notes of the criminal justice system’s glaring inequalities that a careful and circumstantial examination of the realities of the existing system must be dealt with in order for evolution to have a firm foundation to rest upon. “I’m heartsick and sorry about it at the same time,” notes Kaphar, “because in the justice world it…a deeper investigation of the issues is standard. You dig deep to find out answers, and you look more into the issues, and you try to come to some conclusions. Then you try to work towards change.”(2)

Kaphar continues, “The art world is not like that, and that’s where my fear comes from. The art world can be extremely fickle. The art world is often about just what’s novel. I don’t want this to just become one of those issues that’s in fashion right now, and therefore we’re making art about it. That would be disheartening.” (2)

Too often, subtle changes and improvements in social justice for minorities are measured in relation to a majority: we ask, why there is a need to place distinct populations in direct opposition? Why is an increased presence of POC, non-male identifying, LGBTQIA+ art critics such a threat to an entrenched bevy of white cis-male art critics?

Where does the threat lie for a hegemony that feels happy to highlight artists and creators of diverse backgrounds, but suddenly chafes at the idea that they may not be in the best position to do so?

In seeking answers to this frequently occurring yet problematic phenomenon, I came across a formidable article written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. – hardly an unrecognized voice in contemporary American culture. His reflection on the period of Reconstruction, a bright and shining moment between the defeat of the Confederate states and the rise of Jim Crow laws in the United States, merits particular scrutiny. “Reconstruction, the period in American history that followed the Civil War, was an era filled with great hope and expectations, but it proved far too short to ensure a successful transition from bondage to free labor for the almost 4 million black human beings who’d been born into slavery in the U.S., “(3) notes Gates. He continues on, tracing the rise of overzealous white supremacists who had suddenly found the foundation of their very existence shattered by the insistence of another population of American society that they were equal to them in every way despite the atrocities of bondage they had been subjected to in this country. Gates reflects on this period of promise in American history. “Reconstruction was fundamentally about who got to be an American citizen.”(3)

One wonders whether the same white men who had dominated American society to that point were protesting, ultimately, whether this was all too much. Were they wondering if they were being erased, much as contemporary white, cishet male critics now argue today?

Reconstruction is a particularly dirty word in the South, where I was born. As a white women descended from a firmly middle class, non-plantation owning family, it never occurred to me that I was heir to a force that was tearing apart the very fabric of what it meant for Americans to feel free. There were the hesitant looks of the older black man who worked with my grandfather, who kept his eyes bowed when I was around, as well as the firmly segregated church congregations that still (for the most part) continue to permeate Southern society. Born and raised part-time a stone’s throw from where Arthur Jafa is from  – Jafa, a Howard-educated, prize-winning, internationally recognized artist – I rejoice at the prominence of an African-American artist on the world stage who has known the darkness of suspect glances and long stares in the Mississippi Delta – and I find myself destroyed by the fact that he, or the millions of other descendants of Africans kidnapped by Europeans and brought to the new world, have ever had to inhabit a world that told them they were not good enough.

The world changes, but never soon enough.

Jubilant periods arrive – the era of Reconstruction, a black American president – and are followed by suspicion, threats to “whiteness”, perceived enmity.

The pendulum never swings one way.

Thankfully there exists a long legacy of cultural criticism of colonization. I won’t flatten it here for lip service, though it spans the many paradigm-shifting theorists ranging from Frantz Fanon to James Baldwin, to Deborah Willis, to Kellie Jones. Who is to argue that there wasn’t a need for cultural criticism and engagement with diverse art theories, for educated cultural theorists who are not white cis-het males, to comment on an expanded view of what constituted art and cultural heritage?

How poor would our legacy of cultural criticism be today without these formidable thought leaders! And who take up the mantle now to argue that there is “enough” now – that there doesn’t need to be an ever-expanding, level playing field for art critics and cultural producers of diverse viewpoints to continue to grow, engaging with a range of cultural contemporaries far beyond the prominently white, cis-het male artist-dominated era of, oh I don’t know, every century before this one?

I see color. I recognize the significance that two prominent cultural figures, Okwui Enwezor and Audre Lorde, have continued to influence how I approach cultural criticism and art theory. I appreciate the efforts it has taken for them, and other public figures of diverse backgrounds, to emerge on the international stage to a place of prominence.

But I recognize I am not the sole reference point of iconic thought leaders like these – there are rising, marginalized voices in art criticism and cultural theory who are able to learn from and identify with those who have come before and paved the way, seeing those who have come before – those who have achieved all this while looking like them. This is far more valuable than any tired platitude, repeated bon mot or expression of encouragement. This recognition that greatness has come before – this is even greater than the promise of tomorrow. It is, in fact, the proof that tomorrow can exist beyond the concept of “whiteness.”

In the words of the incredible Betye Saar, “It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously.”(4)

By confronting the past, present and our future with honesty, clarity and humility – and most of all, with empathy – we can recognize that as allies, it is only by taking the time to pause – taking the time to listen – that we can allow space for the tired epithet of “white savior” to finally wither away, crushed under the weight of its own bloated fallacy.

———————————————–

1. Jafa, Arthur and Tina Campt. “Love Is the Message, The Plan Is Death.” E. Accessed July 09, 2019. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/81/126451/love-is-the-message-the-plan-is-death/.

2. Keller, Bill. “Titus Kaphar on Art, Race and Justice.” The Marshall Project. February 02, 2017. Accessed July 09, 2019. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2017/02/01/titus-kaphar-on-art-race-and-justice.

3. Jr., Henry Louis Gates. “How Reconstruction Still Shapes Racism in America.” Time. April 02, 2019. Accessed July 09, 2019. https://time.com/5562869/reconstruction-history/.

4. Artist Statement by Betye Saar. Accessed July 09, 2019. http://www.betyesaar.net/.

 

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