On Tuesday, just as their work was about to be rotated into display at the Whitney Biennial, the mostly black and queer artist collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, which includes Seattle artist Christa Bell (she's smack in the center of this photograph), withdrew its 54-minute operatic video from the Whitney Biennial in protest.
From the Yams' statement:
We’re sure that we don’t need to explain how the notion of a black artist being "willed into existence" and the use of a black FEMALE body through which a WHITE male “artist” conceptually masturbates in the context of an art exhibition presents a troubling model of the BLACK body and of conceptual RAPE. The possibility of this figure somehow producing increased "representation" for black artists both furthers the reduction of black personhood and insults the very notion of representation as a political or collective engagement.
The Yams, as they call themselves, were protesting the implications of another artist's piece in the Biennial. It's called Donelle Woolford, and it's by white male artist Joe Scanlan, a professor at Princeton. For Donelle Woolford, Scanlan hires black female actors to play a fictional artist he created named Donelle Woolford. This has been going on for about a decade. Scanlan gave her an Ivy League education, and poses her as a "hot young artist" whose race and privileged background give her art-world cred.
The Yams aren't alone. Kim Drew, founder of the blog Black Contemporary Art, Tweeted about how absurd it is that Donelle is seen to increase the count of women and black artists in the Biennial. The Studio Museum of Harlem, devoted to artists of African descent, refused to host Donelle for a Biennial-related performance.
Donelle Woolford is not just part of co-curator Michelle Grabner's Whitney Biennial, though. She's the first artist/piece Grabner grabbed. Or, actually, Scanlan is Grabner's artist-of-first-choice for the American exhibition, Gallerist reported in March:
Joe was the very first artist I asked to visit when I started on my studio-visit process for the W.B.,” the artist Michelle Grabner, who is co-curating this year’s Whitney Biennial, told me via email. “I invited both Joe and Donelle. Joe turned my invitation down, but Donelle agreed to participate.” I had asked why she felt Ms. Woolford’s work seemed important to show. “Donelle is foremost compelling to me as an invention of Joe Scanlan,” she said.
According to the curators' essay in the catalog, "If there is any central point of cohesion" in this survey of American art, "it may be the slipperiness of authorship that threads through each of our programs."
Not only is "the slipperiness of authorship" an idea so old and dull as to be self-parody, but "the slipperiness of authorship" is not remotely trenchant to some of the most urgent issues in art and culture today, which revolve around the question: Whose art world is it? Who's included in art and who's not? Who pays a higher price to get in? What kind of work is promoted while other work is ignored? All of these questions take as a given the very non-slippery realities faced by artists in shaping their work and their careers.
Meanwhile, Donelle is a cover for sidestepping those issues.
It's all about context. The American art world, like all American institutions, is dominated by rich white people, and white male artists get the bulk of the support and attention—a fact supported by the numbers.
The context of Donelle: Donelle "agreed" to participate, Grabner says. But Donelle is of no interest outside of Scanlan, she also says.
Donelle is listed on the Biennial's artist list, but Scanlan isn't. This isn't slippery authorship, it's Scanlan slipping out of being accountable in the subjects of race and gender.
But worse, it's Scanlan—and Grabner and the Whitney—using race and gender to avoid talking about race and gender. And not having to talk about race or gender if you don't want to is a perfect demonstration of white male privilege in action.
So Donelle Woolford is about a white guy passing the buck on exploring racism. Whiteness is kept offstage entirely, as usual. The focus is instead on a black woman who doesn't exist and was born from a white man's head like Athena from Zeus. Some accounts interview the black female actors who play Donelle, and highlight how they make their own independent choices in shaping the character. But they are on Scanlan's payroll. And if they make such independent choices, why don't they share author credit with Scanlan?
If this is the most interesting American artist of 2014, the one a chosen curator runs after first, then perhaps contemporary art is slightly out of touch. That would be the charitable reading.
In an "edgy conversation" the poet Jeremy Sigler had with Joe Scanlan (so transgressive!), the two talked at length about subjects from marketability to death.
They never discussed race or gender. Scanlan prefers to speak in abstract ideas. Abstract ideas suit him. Unpleasant realities do not come in and muck up the pretty ideas.
"Yeah," Scanlan says, "for some reason the art world still clings to the idea that visual artists have an essential subjective authenticity that is made manifest in their work. ...that two or three vital statistics will tell us what an artist's work is about. I don’t find that to be true or even interesting. And I think artists of all stripes would agree with me."
Artists of all stripes would most likely agree that that it should be that way. Of course art and artists should not be judged according to a few personal facts. But biography is not a burden shared equally by men, women, people of color, and queer people. Kara Walker, for instance, would love to be seen as a specific individual. It has simply not been an option. This is from a long new interview between Kara and her father, artist Larry Walker, also in BOMB:
I think this work was fueled by this frustration I felt—that the story of black art and being black always returns to a compromising set of locations and representations; it is always about “us” and rarely about “ME.”
The Yams are making an alternative "us." Their work will be on display in the coming weeks; stay tuned for a schedule. Wherever the work is shown, presumably it won't put the artists in the position of being the exception to a dysfunctional rule. From The Yams' statement:
What we stand for—
The Our in
together and individually refuses to participate in a fundamentally flawed curatorial process. We appreciate that the Whitney Museum has attempted to fashion an institutionally circumscribed bandaid. However, this is a wound that deeply penetrates the surface of our skin.