in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask

Transcript: #55 Who Gets to Be American?

Panelists Antwaun Sargent, Lauren Haynes and Paul Anthony Smith. Photo by Teddy Wolff courtesy of The Armory Show

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Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today’s episode was recorded during a live panel discussion at The Armory Show here in New York in March. The subject was “Who gets to be American?”

My guests were Lauren Haynes, who is the curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; the artist Paul Anthony Smith; and the critic Antwaun Sargent.

Lauren HaynesIt’s not about taking those paintings down. But it is about saying, “Okay, well, what was really going on when this was made and what do we know now that we can also add to that conversation?

Paul Anthony Smith: I’m making work about me and my culture, and what I know and what I know to be true about where I’m coming from.

Antwaun Sargent: Our history is our history, and we have to be more robust about how we’re thinking about that history.

Before we dive into today’s episode, here is your regular reminder to check out our In Other Words newsletter. Our 101st issue, out now, is an investigation into the ways museum directors around the world measure their success. Be sure to check it out at artagencypartners.com. And now, on to today’s show.

Julia LePla, Programming Coordinator for The Armory Show: Hello everyone. Welcome to The Armory Show and to Armory Live. It’s my pleasure to introduce our second and final talk of the day, “Who Gets to be American?” How has the American narrative portrayed by cultural institutions fallen short? Examining representations of race and gender through the prism of the American identity, in what ways have institutions and the art world at large failed or succeeded in introducing overlooked narratives into our history? This panel aims to address these questions and the methodologies being used to rewrite historical narratives, probing what aspects of the American identity remain unaddressed and overlooked.

Guiding this discussion is Charlotte Burns, the executive editor of In Other Words from Art Agency, Partners. There will be a short period of questions and answers after the talk but in the meantime, I’d like to introduce Charlotte and the rest of the panelists. So please put your hands together. Thank you.

Charlotte Burns: I thought we’d begin this with an open-ended question to each of you: what does it mean to you to be American today? By which I mean, do you identify with or aspire to certain notions of Americanness? Do you think there are national characteristics that express themselves in our culture, whether that’s entrepreneurialism or American exceptionalism, an allegiance to the flag and freedom? Are there things that you feel define what it means to be a “real” American? Who’d like to go first? Antwuan, I’m going to pick on you.

Antwuan Sargent: I’ll go first. There are national characteristics. They show up in different ways, I believe, but I think that there is a sense of yearning to get an education and practice freedom and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or whatever. I think those are things that are constantly impressed upon on us. So, I think there are national characteristics. How they’re shown or how they show up is kind of different, depending on different communities.

Charlotte Burns: Right. Lauren, what does it mean to you?

Lauren Haynes: Yes, I agree because I feel like there are these things that from when you’re small, growing up, things that you see about what it means to be an American. Like songs—all of these things that either you maybe buy into at a certain point and then you realize there’s a myriad of ways that that’s just not always true. What does it actually really mean? I am American so it’s hard to really put my hand on, “Well, this is what it means,” because I don’t actually know how to separate what it means from what I was told it meant, and what it was said to mean.

Charlotte Burns: And how do you pass through that now? You’re a curator at a museum of American art. How do you think about representing what American art means in the culture?

Lauren Haynes: Yes, I think that working in a museum of American art actually gives some guidelines. We think about that to mean the 50 states—the United States—but also, we have a curatorial team across time periods that is really very much interested in pushing that. So, sometimes you’re American if you were here for six months. It’s so limiting to just think about, “Well, we can only show work by artists who were born in this country and currently live in this country,” because that’s just not the narrative. That’s just not how art is being made now. So we’re trying to think about it more expansively and this idea of, what does that mean? So, pushing and playing around with the edges of that.

Charlotte Burns:  Paul? I think for you, it would be great if you could answer and we may get to a couple of your works as well, I think.

Paul Anthony Smith: So, it’s something that I’ve been kind of questioning. It’s hard to understand what is really truly American, because growing up in Miami and moving to the Midwest and living there for a few years and getting to know that scene—I’m always trying to find a place where I feel the most comfortable. But I never really feel American being here. I feel most American when I’m out of the country because there’s so many people looking at me from different cultures, and they recognize me as American. But being here, I feel like I’m Jamaican. Hearing your question, “Who gets to be American?” to me it’s the crossing of culture, mixing of people.

Jamaica’s motto is, “Out of many, one people.” I think the same goes along with what America is today, because it’s starting to become this homogenized system of people from different cultures coming together and sharing their values and putting it on a stage, questioning their differences. So, I don’t think there is any specific distinctive way to be American.

Charlotte Burns: This work here, the title slide, it’s a work of yours called, Only in America (2017) [You can find a slideshow of this work and others by Paul Anthony Smith on our website here] and this was something that was inspired by reading the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what you mean when you titled this work, Only in America?

Paul Anthony Smith: I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book In Between the World and Me a number of years ago. I came across this quote “only in America”, which is based on Mike Tyson saying, “Only in America you could live in a mansion and be going through bankruptcy”. I found that a bit ironic in just thinking about different neighborhoods that I’ve visited and looking at the gentrification that they’re going through, and that that those occupying the space historically are not privileged enough to own those properties.

I began thinking about mostly domestic spaces, thinking about basketball courts—different arenas for sport events and who’s included, who’s excluded and seeing this veil or disguise that’s on a pedestrian level. Most of my work is from a pedestrian point of view, looking at images, people and thinking about it and incorporating it in the work. That’s what this work really comes from, just the contradictive side of being in America—the outrageous cost of certain things.

Charlotte Burns: One of the things I wanted to suggest to you was that our world and how we perceive it—our understanding of the environment that we live in around us—is both shaped by and reflected by art and long has been. This is especially true when it comes to the history, cultures, values and the self-imaginings of specific countries.

And so in America, for example, the landscape tradition of the 19th-century was very different than the landscape tradition of Europe in the 19th-century because in the absence of a long-established tradition of history painting or religious painting, the American artists at that time turned their attention to landscape. It was really a platform for the nationalist rhetoric of this newly-forming nation—which isn’t necessarily something that Europeans understand, because Europeans never imported that much American history painting. It tended to go the other way around.

From those early landscape artists to Normal Rockwell who presented a different idea of America; from Rockwell to the Ab-Ex artists or to Warhol and Basquiat, there are certain artists in the history of art who have really been identified within this country—and exported beyond it—as truly American. Do you think there are artists working today who are being exported in that way and also considered internally as American? Like Lauren, as you said, artists are producing work in a different way. It’s a time of more porous borders, or has been. Do you think there are American artists in that same vein?

Lauren Haynes: I wonder, just because it’s again that idea of “you’re most American when you’re not here.” So, who are the artists that are being imported and exported, and looked at and being part of these larger conversations? I think that’s the best way to really think about it and to understand it.

But I also don’t know what it means to really think about that, because is America their subject? Is America really what the work is about? If you think about the landscape painters and the Hudson River School and things like that, and those that didn’t make the export: how would we define what it would mean? I guess it would be: is that the first thing, how they would be defined? If an artist is shown overseas or somewhere else is it that, “Oh, it’s so and so, an American artist.” I don’t feel like that is often the case. I think there are other ways that artists get talked about.

Antwuan Sargent: One of the most recent examples of this conversation around America that’s happened in London, it’s around the show at the Tate, the—

Charlotte Burns: “The Soul of a Nation” exhibition.

Antwuan Sargent: “The Soul of a Nation” show. That was kind of an interesting case because you had essentially African America—or what they would just refer to as American artists—being shown in an international context, which is interesting because there’s a local history to that, to black nationalist struggle in Britain that they did not—

Charlotte Burns: Did not address in that show.

Antwuan Sargent: Did not address, did not show on the walls for various reasons. We just had the show where you had this American art from the 1960s through 1980s shown in this international context. I wonder, would the visitor that was not American: would they perceiving those artists as American artists? Which is a very different play than those artists get at home. Those artists were essentially marginalized and told they weren’t artists, and that their work didn’t matter.

Even in the kind of the conceit of this question, “who gets to be American”, the way that I was thinking about it is really around the idea of whose work do we get to see on the walls. Who gets to represent?

Particularly when you were talking about the flag, I was thinking about Jasper Johns and how he famously has worked with the flag, etcetera. But he also famously doesn’t have to explain his work. So, when we’re thinking about American artists, we’re also thinking about what artists have to do to justify themselves and justify—

Charlotte Burns: And find that space.

Antwaun Sargent: —justify the fact that they belong. I think with a certain set of artists, they are constantly justifying who they are. They’re constantly saying, “I’m from here.” They’re constantly saying, “This is the source material.” And there’s another set of artists who are assumed to have a stake in cultural spaces in the country, in the histories, or whatever. I think this question of “who’s American” is fundamentally tied with “who’s an artist”, and who gets to be an artist and who gets to share their work kind of unquestioned? If we’re thinking about those people, it becomes very clear around racial and gender lines who those people become.

The first question that you asked was about the traits of America. It became this almost idealized space because often you can say, “Well, it’s about these things and those things”, but who you see doing those things and have the freedom in terms of movement with their bodies are not people like the three of us on this stage, I don’t know, it’s interesting because a lot of it is about agency and representation and power and things like that.

Sorry, that was a rant, sorry.

[Laughter] 

Charlotte Burns: There’s two things here. One is yes, you have representation of seeing yourself in institutions. So, it’s not only who gets to make art: it’s the audience who finds the art. Antwuan and I were on a podcast recently with the artist Mickalene Thomas and her partner and muse Raquel Chevremont, in which Mickalene talked quite movingly about an exhibition that changed her life, which is when she saw the photographs of Carrie Mae Weems. She was in Portland, Oregon. She was training to be a lawyer, and then she did a 180 and became an artist because she saw herself in those works—and she saw a woman from the same place as her, who looked kind of like her making a career for herself and making powerful art. It felt like a permission to do something else.

This is something that Antwuan has written about for us, this idea of how you see yourself. I want to go back to this idea of seeing yourself, the importance of representation. But I also wanted to go to—actually, Paul has a new body of work. 

Here are three works. Paul can tell us a little bit about the technique, which is picotage, a technique that comes from his ceramic practice. But the thing I thought was really interesting thinking about this work is how ebullient it is. It’s such positive, buoyant work. I was in a conversation earlier today about the work of Kerry James Marshall and the idea that if you look at the representation of African Americans on the front pages of newspapers or on broadcast network channels, often the depictions are of either people who are struggling somehow, who are criminals somehow. The work of Kerry James Marshall often presents a very positive depiction instead. I felt the same thing looking at this work, Paul, and I wanted to ask you: is that a deliberate choice, in terms of how you represent people in your work?

Paul Anthony Smith: That’s a good question. This one [Untitled, (2018-2019) [which you can view on our website here] was tricky for me because the figure is so dominant in the foreground of the image, and it kind of put me on edge. But let me go back to your first question about what is picotag. Picotage is a technique I developed from a practice of studying ceramics and using my ceramic tools on photographs to obscure the surface. In these terms, I pick into the photograph exposing the white paper material on its underside. By doing this I sometimes get a lenticular quality within the image on its surface.

And going back to your other question, moving to this country I didn’t really know what racism was or just certain things that have happened to black and brown people of color in this country. When I left high school I specifically went to the Midwest because I wanted to understand what America was. I’ve seen what Miami was. I knew about New York and I went to the Midwest to get away from home, focus. While away from home I started to realize and understand what segregation really was, living in the city that was red-lined back in the 1940s and 1950s.

I’ve seen many depictions of black individuals daily in the news and the media, and I made it part of what I do not to portray the black person in a traumatic way because I’ve seen so many of those images, often. I want to uplift who we are as a people and celebrate us.

With this image, it was hard because it seemed a bit too forward and—

Charlotte Burns: Do you mean that she’s looking directly in the camera, that it’s not obscured in that way?

Paul Anthony Smith: Yeah. It’s looking directly-

Charlotte Burns: Like some of your other ones?

Paul Anthony Smith: —at the camera, and sometimes I spend a lot of time with these images and sometimes I don’t like seeing them. Ali [Giniger] from Jack Shainman Gallery came by and I was like, “What do you think of this image, because I’m not really set on it.” I guess, in a sense it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.

Charlotte Burns: Making you uncomfortable.

Paul Anthony Smith: Making you uncomfortable but uplifting us or celebrating that person for being and participating.

Charlotte Burns: Antwuan, do you want to talk a little bit about representation, too?

Antwuan Sargent: To me, almost in this work—and we don’t have to critique your work on stage—but in the Kerry James Marshall question, in your work and others work, I see it less as feeling, like you’re supposed to feel good. When we think about newspapers and we think about black representation in mainstream, we’re thinking about white spaces. We’re thinking about white controlled spaces in museums, in magazines or whatever. The idea that we’ve never seen ourselves celebrated is… it’s just not true. So, we’re talking about a particular gaze.

Because if you go to a family photo album, there are images of your family that are represented there. That has been the history of photography, particularly when you’re talking about black portraiture. You can go back to the 1840s and you see the camera being used that way. I think that when we’re talking about that, we have to be a little bit more subtle about the idea that what we’re talking about are white spaces. What Kerry’s talking about is transforming white space, not necessarily transferring black spaces. I think there could be a critique in that. That you’re still, in some way, trying to negotiate a white gaze that has otherwise ignored and erased you. So, why make art for it?

In an image like this, I don’t necessarily see “oh I suppose we feel good”. I see an argument for her having to be there and wanting to be there and you putting her there in that space. I find it to be a little bit more constructed. It’s less this simple kind of, “We have never seen images of black people that are positive.” That’s just like—

Charlotte Burns: No. Sure. I mean it’s more, for Paul, it seems this idea that the work’s celebratory on the one hand. I mean, on the other hand, the picotage layering obscures. There are layers, there are gates, there are bricks, there are breeze blocks, there are a lot of things getting in the way of that being a simple exuberance, I would say. But it was a question I thought was particular to this work which is what you said, which is the idea that you don’t want to present a traumatized image like the one you felt that you saw when you were looking at the television in the Midwest.

Paul Anthony Smith: Yes. Also, every year for the West Indian Day Parade I would notice that there’s cases of trauma displayed in the news. So, for me, it’s celebrating these people. I don’t think about those events that occurred, those negative events that occurred during that event.

Charlotte Burns: The other thing, too, is that the idea of who is American is a bigger question in terms of who is overlooked. There’s been lots of different communities of people that have been overlooked or people that have been valued more than others—whether that’s Asian American, women, African American, there are lots of different communities. It’s a very long endless list, the things that we see and the culture of the things that we value. Naima Keith wrote and interesting article for us last year about motherhood and the representations of motherhood in America. Alison Gingeras wrote a great piece on sexuality and morality in America—the images that we’ve censored or the artists who have been censored for showing explicit work and how that’s reconciled morality in the age of Trump, when you have the politics of that prurience and overt sexuality coming together in this political moment.

So, I just want to take a step back and broaden it, too. When we talk about America, we’re talking about lots of different aspects of that.

How do you feel that—this is really for you, in a way Lauren—in what ways have the institutions and the art world at large failed or succeeded in introducing overlooked artists and their narratives into art history?

Lauren Haynes: Yes, I think again the idea of overlooked is overlooked by who? So, it’s this idea of the white institutions, mainstream institutions. The Studio Museum focuses on black artists and the artists of African descent and work inspired by black culture. So, there’s an inherent looking at these artists that now we continue to have artists “being discovered”.

Charlotte Burns: Mm-hmm.

Lauren Haynes: It’s like no, this is not the case.

Charlotte Burns: It’s the overnight success story.

Lauren Haynes: Exactly. It’s like, “oh really?” No, they’ve had shows. They’ve been having shows. It’s just now people who make these decisions—curators, directors, museums, collectors—everyone is starting to look in different places because they also realize, “Oh wait, I’m being left behind. I’m missing this trend,” and also realizing where as a country we’re going. And that we can’t continue to show the same six people and do the same shows over and over again.

So I think, yes, we know that there’s a long history of institutions talking to each other and looking at the same artists. Often those artists are white, often they are men, and it becomes this cycle that we all know—and we all know it’s changing. But, I also sometimes wonder and question if it really is deeply changing. Right?

Charlotte Burns: Yes.

Lauren Haynes: Because I think there’s some institutions who are making great strides and really putting money where their mouths are, it’s happening. But then, there are people who almost are just… it’s another box that’s being checked. So, it’s the same thing. Women, it’s like, “Oh great, we did that show, now we don’t have to do another show. We don’t have to think about it.” I think that it’s making sure that we don’t as a field start patting ourselves on the back.

Charlotte Burns: Yes. I think that happens. We did a big data survey last year in collaboration with artnet News looking at the representation of African American artists in US museums and in the international art market. We surveyed 30 US museums, large and small. Around half were large museums—the best attended in the country—that we felt spoke to mainstream taste, power, and wealth. Then we spoke to some leading urban, and suburban and university museums. The idea for this came around because I was reading so many articles that were saying, “This is a great moment for African American artists!” I was thinking, I could write an article about this tomorrow and it would be the same thing as every other article that’s ever about anything to do with progress in the art world, which is not a world well known for its factual basis.

So, I will ask some people and they will say we are making progress. I will ask other people, and they will say we are not making enough progress. In the end the article will land on “we’ve made some but not enough”, which is where these articles always land. So, we wanted to find a different way into that and try to find some facts. It was quite staggering to the extent to which the progress has been quite recent. It’s really only in around 2015 that you saw institutions begin to collect more. It’s by no means consistent. There were certain places that were collecting more than others.

Things really took a jump in 2017. When I say a jump, it’s still small. It’s still 2.3% of all the works that were acquired by the museums in that period were works by African American artists. Then we ran those names through the market and you saw that the market had really exploded in 2018—but when you say exploded, you mean that Jean-Michel Basquiat at around $1.3bn, and then there’s five artists at around half a million, and then everyone else. And the “everyone else” is quite small, too. If there were 775 artists in the museums, there were 300-and-something on the market and really only 20, maybe, with substantial markets. So, it’s quite interesting to see that with the rhetoric of progress, the needle hadn’t moved in any way near the way that you might suggest because of these events, like the popularity of the Kerry James Marshall touring exhibition or the record sale at auction of works.

So, there is change, but it’s not actually clear yet whether that change is more than a moment in time or if it’s a systemic shift, because it’s relatively recent.

We’re in the middle of doing a data study for women and we were preparing ourselves for an onslaught of data and it’s sort of… trickling in in this quite subdued fashion. It’s like, “Oh, maybe this isn’t going be so good either.”

Antwuan Sargent: Just to add to what you were saying is that that’s the problem with representation. That’s the problem with giving black artist programming,but not giving them shows—which is something that museums do all the time. So, it seems as though there are more artists being represented but they’re not. They’re just being invited to speak. Also, this idea that Lauren was talking about, is that you need institutional change: actual systemic change that’s going last beyond the hotness of a moment. You also need to not give the same five black artists museum shows. If you look at the coming shows at the major New York institutions, the same name pops up at a few of them.

Charlotte Burns: That’s true of all museum shows across all the races and genders, that you see a consolidation around the tried and tested artists.

Antwuan Sargent: I think my point is that if we’re saying that there is difference happening, then show the difference. I don’t think that the goal for any black artist is to be incorporated into the system as is because the system as is is the same system that excludes those artists. I think that also is part of this misconception. No one is saying black people want to be included in something that otherwise excluded them. That’s also just an interesting layer. Part of this conversation is that the same practices that got us here are being repeated, but they’re being repeated with the black people. And I don’t know if that’s going to be a sustainable progress, because if you can think about… there were other frenzies about other ethnic groups’ works a decade ago. There was this whole push towards Chinese artists—

Charlotte Burns: And Eastern European.

Antwuan Sargent: In between, Brazilian. There’s always this kind of frenzy around certain ethnic groups, but how you do make that sustainable? How do you make that change? How do you make—

Charlotte Burns: And also, less self-congratulatory. There was a press release that went out from a major museum—that does great work—this past week, that said this museum is planning five exhibitions dedicated to women artists over the next two years. And it was like, well… great? Is that a press release? Wouldn’t it be great if that were something that you did?

Antwuan Sargent: But, that’s a question of—and we’ve had this conversation so many times—that’s a question of when the writers are reflected in institutions, too. We have a pretty uncritical, white art press who is just going “oh yeah, that’s progress” and not thinking about, does it make sense for a museum to expand in size and say, “Oh, we’re doing this because we want to show more women and African American artists.” The six floors that you had could not do that?

I think we all want to get to a certain place of being diverse and being truly American and having our values reflected, but the wanting to get there and actually the doing of the wor—as your survey suggests—there’s a huge gap between that. We are congratulating ourselves, as Lauren said, way too early before there’s been years and years and years of actual progress.

Charlotte Burns: Lauren, how do you see it from your institutional position?

Lauren Haynes: Yes, I also think we need to start looking past the same five or six institutions that we always look to for guidance and to make these changes, because they may choose to continue to do it; they may just do it for a minute. I think across the country there are institutions, big and small—small spaces that are doing things that are… In a way, it’s almost easier for them to have these conversations because maybe they’re not in a major city center. Maybe it’s a smaller team. They’ve been doing this work consistently. So, how do we also think about opening up this idea of the institutions that we look to for guidance or to make these changes, because they’re there. They’ve been doing work. There are curators, there are directors who have been doing this work. So, how do we also make sure that we’re not leaving them out of the conversation?

Charlotte Burns: That’s about the exchange of ideas. How do you have better exchange, which is to do with who commissions exhibitions and then takes exhibitions? There’s so many factors complicating that because it’s also about how culture—which is to do with media, and local media is in even more acute crisis than national media. It’s how those stories surface. That’s absolutely reflected in the data we did. The smaller museums had been doing this work for a much longer period of time, and in a way it’s really easy to see the impact of an individual. One individual would join an institution with a particular vision and they would see that through. To some extent it’s a function of necessity. A lot of these smaller museums are locked out of the mainstream, contemporary art market anyway. They can’t start building a great Ab-Ex collection now and you’re not going to be gifted those things by your patrons, either. So, there’s an entirely different ecosystem that got built up and I think you’re right, Lauren. How do you bring more attention to that?

As a future way of expanding the way that we talk about American art, how do you do that institutionally? Do you collaborate with colleagues beyond the traditional centers? How do you think about building up those networks?

Lauren Haynes: I think being at an institution that is not directly, but almost directly in the center of the country has been something that I think a lot about, and being in a part of the country that I had no idea about before I moved there. It’s Arkansas. I grew up in Tennessee, but the South is not just one big thing. It’s very different.

So really, also learning what it means to be 15 minutes into Missouri and Oklahoma—all these parts of the country that growing up in New York, are out there. Thinking about, actually a lot of places are five hours away from Bentonville. You can get to Dallas in five hours. You can get to Memphis in five hours. You can get to St. Louis in five hours. So, what does it mean to be in a place, in a part of the country where you can have access in a way? You can get in your car—I don’t necessarily. I get in someone else’s car and ride with them. But if you like to drive, you can drive and do this, and be able to have these conversations.

So, I often see curators from Tulsa that come to our openings because there’s an exchange in a way that—here in New York, you are just going to other institutions that are maybe a subway ride away—but when there’s nowhere that close, you do have to think more expansively. You do have to think about, who are these partnerships, and who are the artists that they’re looking at that you can also learn about, in a way? Which I think is really important.

Charlotte Burns: Paul, for you, how do you think about that as an artist? Finding your way into, how do you think about your career in that sense? Where do you want to show? Where’s your dream exhibition? Who are your dream collaborators? Or do you think that way?

Paul Anthony Smith: You know, sometimes I do and sometimes I put it aside and put my attention into work, because I think the work needs the attention. The institutions are going to come, over time. So, I don’t think I could force that.

Charlotte Burns: Are institutions important to you? If people were buying your work, would it be important that they were institutions as opposed to private collectors? Does it matter to you who buys the work?

Paul Anthony Smith: It definitely matters to me because this might sound strange, but I look at them as kids and I want to see them flourish out in the world. I don’t want them to be locked off into a private collection always. Because I want to show examples of who we are as a people, and have the younger generations come and see that and emulate and grow. Does that make sense?

Charlotte Burns: Yes, absolutely.

I think we’re almost at the end. We’re going open up to questions in a moment but before we do, I’m going to ask each of you a somewhat tough question. Which is, if the goal that we’ve been discussing is this idea of a more expansive view of America, what are the next steps to get there? To maintain and build on and develop and accelerate?

Antwaun Sargent: I think as an example, I really liked the way that the Brooklyn Museum—and I wrote about this for you guys—is the way the Brooklyn Museum did their rehang of their American art galleries. It was a series of different shows, and at one point it was Mickalene Thomas across from George Washington’s stately portrait looking out and he sees this fabulous 1970s odalisque. I think that exchange, symbolically, is what I want in terms of the type of America: where those two paintings, or those two bodies, can live in a real kind of way with some sense of equality and have some sense of beauty status that is equal.

Charlotte Burns: So, integrating without absorbing?

Antwaun Sargent: Yes, exactly. Or that you have to desecrate one for the other. Our history is our history, and we have to be more robust about how we’re thinking about that history. I thought that curatorial touch or approach was to put your history in conversation with each other as opposed to locking off these certain kind of paintings, or these certain kinds of paintings. I think that offered hope in an institutional way, for me at least.

Charlotte Burns: Lauren?

Lauren Haynes: I also think that when institutions have collections that go back, and we can all picture that school trip: you go to a museum and you see a Hudson River School painting, and you read the label and it’s talking about the beauty and expansiveness and everything that’s in it. But what does it mean to have works like that, and then have labels and have interpretation that’s digging a little bit more, and maybe not telling that same story and having other people’s perspectives be brought into these conversations?

Because again, it’s not about taking those paintings down. It’s not about saying, “No, we should never look at them.” But it is about saying, “Okay, well, what was really going on when this was made and what do we know now that we can also add to that conversation, in addition to thinking about the people who were also making work at that time? And why isn’t their work around anymore? Why don’t we see it?” Talk about the absence at a certain point, while we’re continuing to change the narrative and expand it.

Charlotte Burns: That was one of the most compelling, random facts from our data—was that one of the largest, most collected-by-quantity artists was actually a group of unknown photographers whose work was in the Met. There was more work collected by them than almost any other artist or group, but nobody knows who they are. It’s just sort of lost. The works are there, but it’s really unclear whoever made them.

So essentially, you’re saying a layering of those narratives. Paul?

Paul Anthony Smith: I agree with Lauren’s comment on layering, including, crossing over the histories, showing just a sequence of time of what has occurred within the nation and within the museums.

Charlotte Burns: To have art as a way of having those conversations?

Paul Anthony Smith: Yes.

Charlotte Burns: Well, thank you all very much. Does anybody have any questions? I believe that we have a microphone roaming around. We’ll go here first.

Speaker 4: Hi, thank you. I have questions about the nature of the progress that we’ve been discussing—sort of defining substantively what we mean by that. Because this conversation has made me wonder whether our notion of the mainstream is sustainable, according to generally understood standards of curatorial and institutional integrity.

I can think of an institute of sacred music in the United States that doesn’t have a gospel music chair. So, what’s the nature of the integrity—even intellectually—when America’s only liturgical form, arguably, is gospel music? How is it that they’re presenting liturgical examination?

So, how is it that a museum, which is a museum of American art, cannot centrally situate its core—what Toni Morrison would call “mainstream” subjects? Isn’t this just about basic intellectual solvency and curatorial standards? So, are we seeing it catching up with us—our own skill? Our own discipline?

Charlotte Burns: Okay, so Antwuan, I see you shaking your head. Is that in agreement or disagreement?

Antwuan Sargent: Oh no, I totally agree with everything you’re saying. But I also am saying, “No, absolutely not.” I think the point that you make about gospel music is a perfect one, because there’s artforms that are not even being organized around curatorial principles that are so important to African American culture. You saw a little of this with that Southern group of artists that included Gee’s Bend and what used to be called “folk art”, you know.

Lauren Haynes: Like self-taught?

Antwuan Sargent: Exactly. Self-taught people. That is a huge tradition, but we’re only starting to now recognize Bill Traylor and people like that. You get no more American than that, self-taught. You talk about what the ideals are, but we’re still now only giving that work the same credence as other—

Charlotte Burns: And understand the work on its own terms. There is a great outliers exhibition on right now at LACMA, if anybody happens to be in LA, that addresses this very topic.

Lauren, institutionally can you speak to that as a curator?

Lauren Haynes: You’re right. It’s that same thing about the people who are making the choices about what gets to be studied. So, what qualifies something for an art history PhD? What can you focus on? What can you actually do? Yes, now more and more that’s changing, but for a long time it was so limited that these conversations couldn’t even be present. So, it was very much: this is what the institutions were doing, and nothing else was important. “Well if they were there, I would know who they are,” and it’s like, “No, you’re not looking, you’re only looking in the same spaces.”

Charlotte Burns: Can we go to a question here, and then we’ll come to you next.

Speaker (Melanie Gerlis): Thank you very much, that was really interesting. Thanks. I just wondered: you touched on Donald Trump and the politics of prurience, I just wondered if you feel that the limited progress in diversity is also a bit threatened now?

Lauren Haynes: I mean, I think progress is often under threat. I think there are a lot of things now that are more under threat than the progress. I think the progress is sort of sneaking in under the radar a little bit because there are bigger things that people are worried about. But I think, also, the progress often comes from people who are used to being under threat, who are used to fighting for things often. So, I don’t particularly think that’s going to stop.

Charlotte Burns: The lady at the back.

Speaker 6: Do you pay attention to different theories about race? I mean essentialism, non-essentialism, critical race theory, intersectionality; or do you work as an individual primarily and then let your race seep into it? Or are you identifying with race primarily in your work

Paul Anthony Smith: I don’t really go towards race first in my work. I’m black, and I think James Baldwin said, “Being black is always going to be political.” I first go to my subjects. I don’t look at them in skin tone. Mostly all of my subjects are black, and I’m making work about me and my culture, and what I know and what I know to be true about where I’m coming from. Blackness is always going be part of it. It’s who I am. Does that answer your question?

Lauren Haynes: I think from a curatorial perspective, part of the work is responding to and talking to and thinking about what artists are doing—but also putting it in conversation with other artists, and writing and things that have been talked about. So, I think, yes, there’s definitely a turning to the work of people who are much smarter than I am to help me think through some of these ideas. But I don’t think it’s the only way forward. I don’t think it relates to all black artists because there’s some black artists who—shocking—are not making work about blackness and their experience, and so, it’s not necessary to talk about that in that relationship. But then for artists who are, you do want to go to these writings, you do want to go to these scholars and really have it be more grounded and not just an opinion.

Charlotte Burns: There’s something that Hamza Walker said in an interview with us, this idea of curators of color. He was like, “Do you mean that I like red? Oh! You mean the color of my skin.” There’ll only really be progress when it’s not identified in that way, like you’re just curator.

I think we’re almost done, maybe have time for one more question.

Speaker 7: Hello. I wanted to know how the internet plays into this. So, Solange had her big debut not too long ago where she commandeered Black Planet, which was amazing and awesome. I’m wondering if maybe this idea, or this underlying idea of leveling the playing field in the art world and the art market is maybe the wrong idea, and we should just be looking to do our thing?

I’m also interested in the curatorial perspective as well, since you’re within the institution. Thank you.

Lauren Haynes: I think, yes. I think it’s a “yes-and”. I think we should look towards other ways of talking, other institutions, other spaces that maybe aren’t even a museum. Where are the spaces that people feel comfortable and how can we, again, let people see themselves in all the ranges that exist? So, for some people that’s going to be the museum. I don’t think we can dismiss that completely, but I do think we can be more expansive and look to other modes and take over whatever we need to take over.

Antwuan Sargent: Yes, that’s so funny. A couple of days ago when I had a conversation with Solange about her new album, what she was interested in is creating spaces for herself primarily whether that was in the film, or that was taking over Black Planet, or if that was using technology, or that was in a sound or whatever.

For her, it was pretty much about being reactive to your own needs and creating worlds out of that. There’s any number of things, institutions that people are creating. Underground Museum in LA, Rick Lowe, Space, 3rd Ward, what Joanna’s doing here in New York—where people are thinking about their community and thinking less traditionally in terms of big institutions, but “What does my community need now in terms of artistic production?”

I think that also applies to some of the digital art that you’re seeing, too. People are curating art in the ways in which they understand the world. Some people understand it digitally, some people understand it institutionally, and I think it is a “yes-and”. That we’re allowing for the creation of that work, but also then giving that work the kind of academic rigor and thought and rigorous thinking that it deserves.

Charlotte Burns: I think that’s our time up. Thank you very much to my panelists. Thank you all for coming.

 

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