Hunting season 2012 just opened on art critics. Accusations of racism and sexism are hurled against New York Times art critic Ken Johnson in a scolding petition circulating the Internet at this moment.
Johnson, generally considered mild mannered and fair, if a tad conservative, managed to offend almost all minorities in just a few sentences within a 2 week period. Is that some kind of record, or is our collective skin just getting thinner each decade? Johnson’s unfortunate comments on black and female artists and the proceeding following hoopla are almost a case study in freedom vs. appropriateness of speech and are drawing comment from all quarters.
In his short November 11 piece “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World,” Johnson prognosticates, “The day that any woman earns the big bucks that men like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst rake in is still a long way off.”
As a female artist I find that unfortunately likely to be true. Women have to deal with complex social history and perceptions that affect us unfairly at times.
Apparently not knowing when to shut up already, Johnson blames sexism for “inequities” asking, “But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?”
Now those are fighting words: sweeping, banal generalities misting all female artists with a vague, indefinable reproach. But he’s hardly the first Times commentator to deliberately antagonize women.
Contributor Camille Paglia once famously claimed, “If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”
Only her lack of Y chromosomes gives her a pass, though.
Johnson’s second “offense” arises from his longer article on Oct. 26, “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980.” The authors of the petition accuse Johnson of “starting with the claim that “black artists didn’t invent assemblage,” which actually appeared in the 7th paragraph of a supportive and generally positive critique. It’s debatable that African or European people “invented” assemblage, so the entire thing is overblown and the outrage a bit contrived.
But the offended’s grievances continue: “Mr. Johnson organizes his review around an oversimplified opposition between the apolitical, ‘deracinated’ work of white artists and the political, ‘parochial’ work of black artists.”
Johnson’s words are entirely lifted form context here. He was referring to two particular artists’ pieces (John T. Riddle Jr, vs. Marcel Duchamp), and the petitioners are extending his point to cover entire races. This can only be a deliberate manipulation or a total lack of comprehension on their part.
Johnson later responded to the charges on Facebook: “I can see how my statement that ‘black artists did not invent assemblage’ taken out of context seems needlessly provocative.”
My money is with manipulation born of a legitimate gripe with a few of the man’s thoughtless and irritating remarks.
Johnson also transgressed one of the 21st century’s cultural taboos: Only minorities may speak authoritatively on race, and only on their own race or subset at that. All pronouncements coming from outside the ethnic or sexual minority circles are verboten. Negative observations are racist, imperialist, sexist, colonial and “hateful,” while positive ones are patronizing, patriarchal and feudal.
Johnson foolishly ventured a theory 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.”
This is probably true, but why state the obvious? The entire world is more splintered and polarized than ever, and solidarity of any type seems futile. Johnson should have known better; after all, the Grey Lady is the world’s leading arbitrator on political correctness and self-censorship.
Other than the creative writing bordering on slander in a few places, the text of the “Open letter” to Times editors is thoughtful but not explicit. While not demanding Johnson’s head on a platter, the authors make it clear the Times must do something. The question for the newspaper as well as larger community is what? The authors have backed off a bit lately, noting that it isn’t meant to be a “petition” demanding a reaction, only a request for dialogue.
Exactly how much power art critics and commentators hold at this point is debatable, even those of the New York Times. Historically a well-placed critic could make or break an artist or movement – or at least significantly slow recognition and acceptance. The Internet has changed the landscape of commentary though, with floods of cognoscenti opining on all matters. Critics realize that poorly phrased attacks, especially emotionally charged personal reactions, remain on paper (or the exosphere) forever to haunt them. Future decades will justify or condemn the prescience and wisdom of the critic.
“The writing in these articles is below the editorial standards typical of the New York Times,” the Open Letter chides.
A plea to professional pride? Past issues of the Times are fairly slathered with editorial scandals, open plagiarism and elaborate fictions masquerading as facts. I would probably appeal to something other than the faded past-grandeur of the Grey Lady.
I think the real issue here is who is allowed to be insulted and who is insulated. Conservatives, Jews and specifically Zionists, have been viciously targeted by New York Times writers and editors, especially in its op-ed pages. Times columnist Maureen Dowd outrageously attacked Republicans before the 2012 election so transparently that even leftist publications beat her down with reproach. I don’t recall the Times doing a thing about that. Various readers of the Times have watched their op-ed pages with alarm. Blogger “Soccer Dad” tallied 38 anti-Israel opinion articles and 7 pro-Israel opinion articles in a 6-month period. Once again, no apologies.
While all true bigotry and bias is ugly and inherently dangerous, Mr. Johnson’s opinions on the value of women’s paintings or African-American assemblage probably won’t cause enduring harm to their careers, as art will stand or fall on its own merit. It certainly won’t encourage a reign of terror, but the Times open support for Hamas does.
How much offense is too much? Writers, artists, editors inevitably offend someone every day. The authors of the Open Letter to the Times claim they’re not asking for Johnson’s job, but there aren’t many options other than an abject apology, which undermines his reputation and independence. I admit to penning rants on political and ethical matters, but not so much on art. Issues of public taste and opinion will self-balance eventually or follow the nation’s culture wherever it leads.
The first line of the petition began, “The recent writing of art critic Ken Johnson troubles us.”
To its authors and 1,500 “troubled” cosigners I sincerely say, “Join the club.”
It will be amusing to see if the Times responds to these injured sensitivities while continuing their daily shiv to conservatives.