The Problematics of Black Representation

Interviewer: Do you consider yourself a painter or a black painter?

Basquiat: Oh I use lots of colors not just black.

I’m not a betting man, but I’ll wager $10 that 15 years ago the average MFA student would have been hard pressed to name 10 African-American artists contemporary or otherwise. Today, the task is much easier: 1. Julie Mehrutu, 2. Sanford Biggers, 3. Rahsid Johnson, 4. Kara Walker, 5. Mark Bradford, 6. David Leggett, . David Hammons, 8. Adrian Piper, 9. David Hammons, 10. Kerry James Marshall; and that’s not even including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Theaster Gates, Coco Fusco, and Kehinde Wiley, titans in their own right. The past 15 years have witnessed a sea change in the artworld. Black Artists have become more visible now than in any time in history. So what’s the problem?

Nine months ago a painting in the Whitney Bienniale sent shock waves through the artworld. Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmitt Till created a controversy that was immediate. The outrage from the black cultural elite, and the Whitney’s tone deaf response was a case study in “you had one job”, the failure for a major institution to meaningfully tap into the feelings of the people they claim to represent. Schutz defended her piece, and rightly so, and the Whitney defended Schutz, and rightly so. So what’s the problem?

About 6 years ago I was living in my hometown of Oak Ridge, TN. As I was out taking a stroll I decided to stop by the local art center and ask if I might submit some work. My response was “I’m sorry, we only show black art in October”. The rage shot through my body like a thunderbolt. Fast forward 5 years. I’m at a critique showing a large abstract painting and getting consistently negative feedback from one particular participant. At one point he asks, “what’s your motivation as an artist?” to which I respond “Being an African-American, I am expected to make art that deals with race, and I as an artist, I reject that” to which he replied “That’s what I want to see!” The problem with black art, is that it’s trapped in an echo chamber of self-referential subject matter. Nothing for the black artist exists outside of blackness. All other work is suspect. The expectation for black artists to “speak from their experience” keeps them in a gilded cage where almost nothing relevant to the broader art world comes in or goes out. That is the problem. Keeping black artists shackled to identity politics is nothing more than a manifestation of a genteel brand of racism, “you can live above me, but you can’t live next to me”.

And that’s where the ire of Schutz’s piece comes from, the perceived gentrification of black subject matter made even more ironic because it was part of a show meant to embrace multi-culturalism, tragic because the controversy diverted attention away from work in the show actually made by African-American artists. When a white artist wants to show solidarity with the black community, they shouldn’t be punished. Today one can name 10 black artists off the top of their head, but that’s only part of the battle thats been won. Why this phenomenon is peculiar to the visual arts is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the very concept of art has always been a European one, a concept that literally formed at the same time as racism was becoming theorized.

The notion that Europeans have the power to “name the world” through science, technology, philosophy, and yes art, and that “The Other” possesses only the power to name themself and their oppression. In the ancient story of Narcissus, Narcissus is so beautiful when Echo emerged to embrace him and was spurned she wilted away leaving nothing; her echo may be the fate of the black artist who dares approach the canon of western art history. Will the day of reckoning come when the Art World’s own specific brand of narcissistic cruelty will be revealed to them? Perhaps. Perhaps the critical mass of black artists, with more on the rise every day, will force the gatekeepers of culture to ask the questions that are too difficult for now. In the meantime, let us appreciate this art for what it is, and celebrate the battles that have been won to create a more just artworld attempting to live up to its highest ideals.

Spencer Hutchinson, Chicago Editor

Spencer Hutchinson is graduate from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). He is a student at the University of Chicago as well as a member of the Borderbend Arts Collective and is a founding member of Agitator Co-operative Gallery in West Town.
Since 2014 he has been working heavily with found objects in the conceptual/ neo-dada vein of artists such as David Hammons, Jasper Johns, Joseph Kosuth and Marcel Duchamp.
One of Hutchinson’s current ongoing projects is a serial piece called “I See My Light Come Shining” that focuses on issues pertaining to Black racial identity and social history through the use of sound and found objects. Spencer Hutchinson lives and works in Chicago.

Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 p 7

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Rosemary Fields
05/06/2018 1:52 am

The new Black Classicists exhibition at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC reveals a totally different image of the role that black Africans had in ancient Greek art and literature, which did not portray racism. It’s thanks to exhibitions like this one that people’s misconceptions about the roots of our past can be illuminated and perhaps help the fight against prejudice so that we can open our boundaries that have blocked American society from evolving for far too long. Education is the key to eliminating discrimination. From a review of this exciting exhibition: “Derbew’s research focuses on the… Read more »

Taylor Williams
05/05/2018 12:31 am

Anyone going to be in Baltimore on May 17? Does the New Art Examiner have anyone there?
There’s going to be an exciting event at the Baltimore Museum of Art with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the Marvel Comic’s Black Panther series, in which he will have a conversation on the current cultural movement concerning “art, race, social justice, and imagining the future(s) we want.” Their website says that they will also put a video of the event online.


Carli Mutai
05/05/2018 11:13 am

Hi Taylor,
Even more interesting is the auctioning off of artworks by Rauschenberg, Warhol and Kline in the Baltimore Museum of Art to buy works by women and Afro-Americans in order to better represent their 64% black community. I don’t know why they group women and Afro-Americans together, which I find someone strange, but at least it’s a move forward. This is thanks to the museums director, Christopher Bedford, who is organizing this disposal or deaccession of artworks.


Stan Bukowski
28/04/2018 3:38 am

It was lovely that the writer of this article took the time to answer so many people, nor does it happen today anywhere inside an art magazine that an established art critic and artist can be so available to his readers. Other writers also respond to comments on their articles here (to a lesser extent), which creates an unbelievable interaction more common to social networks. Perhaps this is what the New Art Examiner is about, or am I wrong? If it’s the “New” Art Examiner, it also has to examine art in a new way, and what better way than… Read more »

Carey Davis
25/04/2018 2:36 am

I found a short video of an installation in Chicago by Spencer from the fall of 2017. It merits watching:
It’s haunting and disturbing with all these ladders representing the social ladder that Afro-Americans try to climb.

Gaetano Russo
26/04/2018 12:03 pm
Reply to  Carey Davis

Hi Carey,
I enjoyed this video, which I found intriguing, discovering that Spencer Hutchinson’s work has been shown abroad in Assisi and in Ravenna in Italy. I know he’s an art critic, but also an artist; I would like to know more about his work, but haven’t been able to find any more than this.

Paul Bethwell
25/04/2018 12:29 am

Finally an international art magazine that talks about racial and gender issues, though I wouldn’t bind them together as they are two totally different aspects of the art world. It makes me ask why artists from Asia aren’t covered more in the western world, also suffering from racial bias due to their “yellow” palette or skin. This has to stop, at least in the art world today; art and any aesthetic interest should be above discrimination. If a magazine is international, like this one is, then it means that it is read globally and should reflect the interests of a… Read more »

Phil Cortez
22/04/2018 1:48 pm

More important than skin color are the geographical, religious and cultural influences of art – these three issues are what should come into play. Who cares if a work of art was made by a white or a black man? It’s the artwork that is under discussion and not the color of his (oh dear, her or also its) skin. I wonder when America will ever grow up and move on to more serious topics than skin color.

George Mason
22/04/2018 2:02 pm
Reply to  Phil Cortez

Hi Phil,
If you don’t live in the States, you can’t know. It is all absurd and it shouldn’t be so, but some people still play on the race issues in the art world.

23/04/2018 1:13 pm
Reply to  Phil Cortez

The answer is never. If you want to buy a plane ticket to Paris for me and help me put a down payment on an apartment I know of one already.

Simion Williams
24/04/2018 12:14 pm

What a powerful message! Why Paris?

Andre' Simeon
24/04/2018 2:30 pm

C’est la vie! Paris is the place to be if you’re an artist, even today.

Debbie Garcia
24/04/2018 2:53 pm

It hurt me to the core to read this and hope to read here articles by Spencer from Paris in the near future.

Rose Candioli
25/04/2018 12:05 pm

Crowdfunding for Paris with the readers of New Art Examiner?

Tim Hollis
11/05/2018 11:28 pm
Reply to  Rose Candioli

Over the last few months I have talked to more and more African Americans who want to emigrate from the US to countries where they feel more accepted, some even citing that the current climate of racism is detrimental to their health. Is America really getting so bad that people feel they have to leave their own country?

Brad Torres
22/04/2018 3:10 am

Can you look at a painting and say, “That was done by a black, white, green, blue or yellow man?” No, of course you can’t. An artist is an artist, and only through the use of the colours from his palette can we see what the artist has inside himself, not from his skin colour, which should be totally irrelevant. However, I should have written him/her/itself for the gender fluidity issues that are taking on more and more importance now than skin colour. And yes, we need to ” appreciate this art for what it is, and celebrate the battles… Read more »

23/04/2018 1:11 pm
Reply to  Brad Torres

Thank you. Fortunately or unfortunately, there are RULES in the Art World. Lines that should and should not be crossed that are racial and gender based in nature. I agree, but in my own practice have found that Black Subject Matter can be and is just as rewarding as all other subject matter, even more so now than it has probably ever been.

Brad Torres
25/04/2018 2:01 am

Thank you Spencer for your answer. I think people are hungry for dialogue. Perhaps we have found the right platform for this with New Art Examiner’s comment area.
You write, “there are RULES in the Art World. Lines that should and should not be crossed that are racial and gender based in nature.” The art world shouldn’t be limited or constrained in this way.
Thank you also for your article and for giving us the possibility to read, examine and respond to these dramatic and unjust issues. Art should not be about justice, instead it is, even in 2018.

Debbie Garcia
11/04/2018 5:11 am

Sorry, but I’m a little confused. Is this an interview with Basquiat before his death in 1988? Or is Spencer the interviewee quoting “Basquiat: Oh I use lots of colors not just black.”?

23/04/2018 1:10 pm
Reply to  Debbie Garcia

It’s from the film Basquiat directed by Julian Schnabel starring Jeffrey Wright. I apologize for not making a note of my source.

Toni Rutgers
25/04/2018 5:39 am

Now I get it; it’s a quote starting the article. It’s a great quote, and very appropriate, a perfect fit.

Victor Rankin
08/04/2018 2:42 am

Who was the interviewer?

23/04/2018 1:09 pm
Reply to  Victor Rankin

I can’t track down his name, but in the film directed by Julian Schnabel and starring Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat he’s played by Christopher Walken. The only online documentation I have been able to find is drawn from the movie (which is where I heard the quote) and the Interviewer is referred to as “The Interviewer”.

Victor Rankin
24/04/2018 2:33 pm

Thank you Spencer for trying to find out for me.

Tara Holden
06/04/2018 9:24 am

What a story! Do people think that black people see colours differently from white people? When an artist applies colours from his palette on the canvas, why should race be an issue or even considered? I don’t live in the States and find it all inconceivable and difficult to understand.
I look forward to more of your writing.

23/04/2018 1:05 pm
Reply to  Tara Holden

Racism is an incredibly powerful force in this country that dominates virtually every aspect of life. There are certain activities, aesthetics etc. that are considered “black” and “not-black” or “not black enough”. If you are in any way shape or form part African-American here, you and everything you do is considered second rate. For this reason, the American Art World has, in a sense, created an “Art Ghetto” for African-American artists. This is a field that is formalized and doggedly policed by both black and white taste makers.

Tara Holden
24/04/2018 12:28 pm

Hi Spencer, Thank you for your answer, but think that something’s profoundly wrong when even art is classified as black, not-black or not black enough. We should be talking about artists who work with colour, not skin colour. It can’t just be about prejudice; there’s got to be the financial aspect behind it all as there is with all aspects of capitalism. Is the white American Art World also afraid it hasn’t got the creative talent that comes from not having an easy life? I hope that New Art Examiner can make its contribution to changing this situation and outlook… Read more »

Tanya Jones
14/05/2018 12:44 pm
Reply to  Tara Holden

Bigots see colors only in black or white, no in betweens; in the end, they are the true losers.

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