Wednesday, October 9, 2019

In These Times

When the powerful appropriate from the oppressed, society’s imbalances are exacerbated and inequalities prolonged. In America, white people hoard power like Hungry Hungry Hippos. In the history of problematic appropriation in America, we could start with the land and crops commandeered from Native peoples along with the mass expropriation of the labor of the enslaved. The tradition lives on. The things black people make with their hands and minds, for pay and for the hell of it, are exploited by companies and individuals who offer next to nothing in return. White people are not penalized for flaunting black culture—they are rewarded for doing so, financially, artistically, socially and intellectually. For a white person, seeing, citing and compensating black people, however, has no such reward.

Take, for example, the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Since 1932, the exalted Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan has hosted exhibitions boasting whom it considers the most cutting-edge artists on offer. The Biennial is a shortcut to the heart of the art world and therefore to the art world’s race problem. In 2014, the museum promised a show that would “suggest the profoundly diverse and hybrid cultural identity of America today.” What its curators, Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner— all white—failed to mention was the scarcity of artists of color with work on display.

The exhibition included paintings by a so-called Donelle Woolford. Donelle Woolford is not the name of an artist, nor even of a real person, but the comic avatar of artist Joe Scanlan. Scanlan, a professor of visual arts at Princeton, is a white man. Donelle Woolford is a black woman—sort of. She is a deceit. Her black womanhood relies on how much credence one lends to a name that denotes a concept. Her name was “appropriated,” in his own words, “from a professional football player I admired” (a former Chicago Bears cornerback, Donnelle—two n’s—Woolford).

Included this way, Donelle was one of nine black artists out of 103 artists in total, or 11% of the black artists chosen for the Biennial. “Joe was the very first artist I asked to visit when I started on my studio-visit process for the W.B.,” Grabner told Observer in advance of the show. “I invited both Joe and Donelle. Joe turned my invitation down, but Donelle agreed to participate.”

Out of all the identities in the world, Scanlan chose a black woman, a person who, if real, would be as discounted by the world as he himself is overvalued. Head and shoulders above artists who happen to be black women, who struggle for a fraction of recognition from sentinels of the art world who look like him, Scanlan crouched down and plucked from them what he sees as their only worthwhile feature. Not their history, not their culture, not their community. Scanlan played identity politics and won.

The disparity in power between white and black in America is severe. According to a 2018 report by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, “A white household living near the poverty line typically has about $18,000 in wealth, while black households in similar economic straits typically have a median wealth near zeroThis means that many black families have a negative net worth” (emphasis in original). Contrary to myths that say if only black folks did right—saved money, went to college, got married, started a business—nothing is as predictive of success in America as being born white. In fact, as the report concludes, “There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the racial wealth gap.”

The enormity of this wealth gap is exacerbated by the gap between who is allowed to thrive off intellectual property and who is prevented from doing so by this nation’s hysterical, driving compulsion to own and regulate all things black. When it’s time to pay the piper, however—that is, give credit where it’s due—somehow the accolades land in the lap of somebody white, or at least someone who is not black.

Read the full article here.