Some casual art consumers prefer to take their art without the hazards of politics. Their thinking is simple: why complicate pretty things with disturbing associations? But, one might suggest that it is art’s obligation to go beyond “prettiness” into the more dangerous realms risking severe discomfort, in order to challenge the audience into a brave new perspective.
The Black Body as a Political Site
It may be a testament to our faltering educational system in the United States that so many otherwise well-educated people seem to be blissfully unaware that the black body is (and has been for some time)a site of political discourse.
To put it plainly, when a black body (or parts thereof) appear in a creative work, it brings along with it the shadows of a very complicated past. Artists and creative people of all backgrounds may consider this to be a bit of a burden to deal with and may choose to ignore it as fact. Yet, the history of the black body in this country has been established beyond a legal, academic, and critical doubt as being the original “capital” that our Capitalist country was built on. There is no convincing the naysayers, who may also consider global warming and evolution to be fairy tales, because as Samuel L. Jackson might insist, “[They] cannot handle the truth!”
Case in point: a white artist creates a headdress woven out of a black woman’s hair. The black woman, who inspired the sculpture and whose DNA is literally part of it is not mentioned, alluded to, or referenced at all. In fact, in her place are photographs of the headdress mounted atop the head of a white woman whose face is painted black.
What is the political significance of this act? What does it mean when a white woman in blackface is depicted as some sort of other-worldly creature standing in a field while starkly adorned in a headdress made of the hair of a genuine negro? Does this represent a mere act of clandestine exotification, or something more sinister? Perhaps some sort of a war trophy—like an enemy scalp pinned to one’s breast and donned to inspire fear or intimidation in one’s enemies? And should we, as casual art consumers, even trouble ourselves by thinking about it?
Talent, or one’s ability to create “pretty things” has never been intrinsically linked to any measurable level of political responsibility. For example, did Picasso give appropriate credit to the artists who created the African masks who inspired so much of his most famous work? Did Gauguin leave anything beyond syphilis to the young Tahitians who quenched his thirst for juicy brown wildness?
Frankly, Western art has a rich tradition of exploiting the black body, so why would one expect that levels of accountability might have shifted in 2011?
A Point on Blackface vs. Whiteface
Should we all suddenly find ourselves capable of suspending our blissful enchantment with “pretty things” for a moment, we might also consider the histories of blacks who “whiten” their faces and whites who “blacken” their faces.
Unlike the problematic and relatively brief legacy of blackface minstrelsy in America, there actually is an African tradition going back hundreds of years involving the whitening of one’s face and body with clay, as an integral part of sacred and ceremonial rituals meant to evoke, call forth, and celebrate ancestral spirits. In these cases, the whiteness demonstrated does not represent race, but instead signifies the wearer as a ghost. A ghost, who much like the unacknowledged black woman lurking silently behind much of Greer’s work.
Perhaps it was not Greer’s original intention to evoke troubling memories of blackface with her genuine negro hair creation, but that may be the problem right there. If you make “pretty things” simply because they “look cool” or interesting, or whatever, it doesn’t really matter to you whether or not you actions are reaffirming a history of exploitation or not. Awareness is the responsibility of the artist, but should the artist fail, the viewer becomes essential to the ensuing discourse.
Mandy Greer’s Honey and Lightening, opens today at Roque La Rue Gallery in Seattle. The artist, who is in fact white, may not have intended to take the audience beyond the safety of prettiness, but perhaps she should have. In any case, it’s up to you as alwaysto ask the difficult questions.