by by Olivia-Jené Fagon & Christina McCausland

illustration by by Diane Zhou


In the wake of two well-publicized condemnations of art journalism—art market writer Sarah Thornton’s list of “Why Writing in the Art World Sucks” and attendant resignation, and major critic Dave Hickey’s diagnosis of an art world “too obsessed with money and celebrity” along with his own resignation—an anonymous open letter pointing to latent racial and sexual bias in the writing of New York Times art critic Ken Johnson seems well-timed. The letter, which appeared online on November 23, chides the Times for publishing reviews by Johnson that mobilize “irresponsible generalities” to compare “women and African-American artists to white male artists, only to find them lacking.” It specifically takes issue with Johnson’s October 25 review of MoMA PS1’s “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles” and his November 8 preview of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s show “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World.” Its writers point out that, in both reviews, Johnson creates a division of broad-strokes between white, male artists and these historically sidelined groups, glossing internal differences to the detriment of his critique. In his “Now Dig This!” review, Johnson posits that the show’s pieces are weak in that they depend on a racial solidarity potentially alienating to white viewers—a criticism that assumes a singularity of racial experience, places the burden of artistic signification entirely on the artist (as opposed to the interpretive work a viewer might do to understand a different point of view), and equates universal appeal with appeal to white people. He makes a similar move in his summary of “The Female Gaze,” where he writes that though “sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market” that make it unlikely for a woman to earn “the big bucks that men like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst rake in.” According to Johnson, it might “also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make,” a statement made without insight as to what such essential qualities of work made by female artists he’s referring to. As the letter’s writers put it, Johnson’s comments imply that the relative marginalization of these groups’ work is their own fault, replaying “stereotypes of inscrutable blackness and inadequate femininity.”

As of this writing, the letter has over 1,500 signatories: though many of them are “anonymous” signatures (the equivalent of a “like”?), many prominent artists, curators, and critics added their names soon after the letter appeared, including Glenn Ligon, Coco Fusco, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Emily Roysdon, AK Burns, and Brooke Davis Anderson. The letter asks that the Times acknowledge Johnson’s writing as “below the editorial standards” of the newspaper and its writers told Gallerist, The Observer’s arts blog, that the letter “is not a personal attack on Ken Johnson… we have simply asked the Times for a considered, public response to the piece they published, for the reasons we outlined in the letter.” There has been no response on the part of the newspaper. Meanwhile, Johnson has been engaging with the discussion on his Facebook page, where there are now hundreds of public comments by other people that range in tone from invocations of Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology (though confusing his ‘interpellation’ with ‘interpolation’), pronouncements of “entry level women’s studies drivel,” to the troll-y “BORING!” Johnson acknowledged that at least part of his statement about “Now Dig This!” “taken out of context seems needlessly provocative,” though he appears to stand by the nature of his reviews.

It’s worth noting that the problems the letter’s writers found in Johnson’s work are likely also symptomatic of broader inequities in the way art is read and written about, something he alludes to when he concludes his review of the PS1 show by noting that “the art of black solidarity gets less traction because the postmodern art world is, at least ostensibly, allergic to overt assertions of any kind of solidarity. Covert solidarity of liberal white folks? That is another story.” This indictment of the art world is confusing in its lack of consistency with the rest of the article. He’s racist, but at least he knows it? — CM

Phenomenal Listening

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”
­— James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”

This past week, the stage of the Martinos Auditorium in the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts was occupied by artists, musicians, and writers, gathered before crowded audiences for the performance series, Close Encounters. Jazz pianist Jason Moran and drummer Charles Haynes led a master-class on the first evening, poets Kevin Young, Evie Shockley, and Terrence Hayes participated in discussions and read their work on the following evening, and the series concluded with a performance by longtime collaborators, pianist Vijay Iyer and hip hop artist Mike Ladd.

What all seven artists share is a willingness to traffic in the spaces between artistic disciplines, while also staking a creative claim on the personal/public history of African American master musicianship and writing.  Drawing upon sources such as the blues, hip-hop, black vernacular, and visual artists like Jean Michelle Basquiat, these artists’ work function as re-tellings, appropriation, and re-making of an already voiced articulation of black culture.

“If a black person is alone in a forest, are they still a black person?”
­— Kevin Young

There’s a form of canonization implicit in these three evenings, an effort at identifying a shared and sustained cultural aesthetic in black music and black writing. But it is not that the Close Encounters artists, who are predominantly African American, have been cornered into an artistic and cultural heritage they might not have any stake in. Rather, they demonstrated an explicit interest in the racial politics of their work and seemed to orient themselves around a legacy of black artistry.
Moran and Haynes punctuated the first evening’s master class with explosive periods of improvised music. As they played they shared looks, grooved in their chairs, and sat back and smugly watched the other play on. There were moments in which Haynes threw back his head and laughed.

The deliberate spontaneity of improvising in music, especially jazz, means that neither the listener nor, to some extent, the player can anticipate the next musical progression, chord, or rhythm change. Hearing Haynes and Moran improvise together, pushing the composition’s formal constraints, the two jazzmen became both creators and witnesses of their own performance. That what they produced was cohesive music makes it clear why its so often difficult to explain musical improvisation without thinking something more cosmic and thus unquantifiable is occurring on stage.

“You little bag of
… sugar”
— Terrance Hayes

For Hayes, Shockley, and Young, fulfilling or frustrating the listener’s expectations is their way of intervening in the going-through-the-motions approach that often impedes critical or meaningful public reflection on African-American history. “There is a certain tiredness to this history,” Shockley pointed out during the second evening’s roundtable discussion. “Yes, Slavery. Yes, Jim Crow. We know. We know.”

In musical dissonance, the refusal to be harmonic often sounds good or a player’s refusal to resolve a phrase can become precisely the moment you listen for. Similarly, the exploitation of register and linguistic tropes, rules and expectations that we have when hearing words, can provoke a very new form of hearing.

“We are not responsible…
for your lost or stolen relatives”
— Harryette Mullen

It is in the pause between expectation and the deference of that expectation that Young, Haynes, and Shockley carve out a space for newness in their poems, for a reconsideration or re-determination of certain boundaries of language that we take for granted

“fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork. fork..”
— Terrance Hayes

At the end of the first evening’s master class Moran sat back from his piano, “I’d like to play something for you.” Pressing a button on the top of the keys, a recording of Billie Holiday’s Big Stuff was introduced into the room.

Sitting in the audience on all three evenings, I was in the grip of these close musical, lyrical, and cultural encounters. I became markedly aware of how people listen, the postures and facial expressions that listening provokes: you sit back in your seat, you cross your legs and turn your body in, you lean forward, open your mouth, cast your eyes up.

Norman Mailer described jazz as orgasm: the jazzman blows and the listeners come together. Listening to Holiday with Moran with the audience, no description could be more accurate. — OF