Currently rippling through Art World headlines is news of the uproar against an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis by artist Kelley Walker, which features canvases of appropriated digitally printed images of police brutality and black women smeared with white, milk, and dark chocolate, and other gooey substances such as toothpaste.
The description on the museum’s website states this about the work:
With nods to artistic influences ranging from Andy Warhol to Jackson Pollock and Sigmar Polke, Walker’s work interrogates the ways a single image can migrate into a number of cultural contexts. Throughout his career, Walker has explored the manipulation and repurposing of images in order to destabilize issues of identity, race, class, sexuality, and politics. Often using such technologies as 3-D modeling software and laser-cutting, the artist works in a variety of media, including photography, painting, printmaking, collage, and sculpture. In an era of digital reproduction, Walker’s work draws attention to popular culture’s perpetual consumption and reuse of images. (from camstl.org)
Viewers, however, have a very different interpretation of the work, as demonstrated in this interaction:
“When confronted with an actual black person, Walker became flustered and angry and had no actual answer for why he was using these images,” Damon Davis wrote. “When he couldn’t answer my questions, the curator, Jeffrey Uslip, interjected and tried to explain for him. Walker and Uslip never answered my questions, and were both rude and condescending to myself and multiple people that asked questions that both related to race and not.” (from artnet.com)
And as reported by Hyperallergic:
At the artist talk on September 17, visitors attempted to better understand the imagery but left believing that neither Walker nor curator Jeffrey Uslip could satisfactorily explain what they meant. According to artists in attendance, including Davis, Walker dismissed inquiries about whom he considers his audience and why he is fixed on images of the black body and of racial injustice.
What we have here is a giant, irreconcilable rift between the artist’s contrived purported intentions and the public’s honest reception of the work. The artist claims the work to be operating under the umbrella of ‘activism’. The artist claims that the work speaks about social issues such as race and identity in a positive and progressive effort. If this was true, the art would be having a positive, progressive effect on people’s perception of said issues. What actually has happened as a result of the work being shown is people being offended and disenchanted. The public is speaking out against the exhibition, and (reasonably and rightfully) questioning the artist about his intentions for using such images the way he did. Being that a visual artist communicates via images, the reasons for and methods of utilizing images (especially if they are appropriated) should be a clear and intentional. Otherwise, is the artist actually striving to create images that speak, or is the art something other than visual communication– something other than what it presents itself to be? And who, in this case, is the artist speaking to (other than curators and other institutional authorities that prop up the artist’s work)?
As reported by Hyperallergic:
Artist Kat Reynolds was among many in attendance [at the artist talk] who took offense at how Walker addressed the audience, characterizing his manner as rude and defensive. “[The talk] was a microcosm of what we are dealing with on a daily basis,” Reynolds told Hyperallergic. “From the tension of the room, to the complete disregard for the feelings of the community, to a white man basically saying once again, ‘I made this, so now you have to deal with it,’ without explanation. That triggering feeling goes so deep that it is begging to consume us.”
What we have on our hands is an entangled and estranged complex of art-making which has become normal today. The ‘artist’ in society has somehow become privileged enough to do and say what they want, possessing the unquestionable authority to create work from a ‘fuck you’ mentality. As in: here’s the art I made for you to consume, but I also don’t care how it affects you–but give me attention and recognition for it anyway! The ‘artist’ now creates work within the safety of financially robust institutions, being in cahoots with the curators, directors and the like who are creating their own bubble of influence radically detached from the reality outside the Art World. The elephant-in-the-room problem is that said artists and curators are presenting art to an audience which exists outside their contrived, institutionalized, propped up bubble of reason. The result is that the art being created actually has nothing to do with reality–it has nothing to do with the public seeing the work it claims to be speaking to. Yet backers of the art maintain that it is relevant to the people’s reality, often on the basis that it addresses social issues of race, identity, police brutality, etc.
People are pissed off by the exhibition for many obvious reasons. I see a broad, pervasive and insidious negativity in the work having to do with the arbitrary aspect and randomness–the seemingly purposelessness–usage of images. People feel and recognize that it is abusive and insensitive to be using said images in such a careless way–especially since it is art, art being deliberate communication via images. The uproar against this exhibition brings attention to issues which go beyond social concerns and into the realm of aesthetics and image-making. Truths surface such as: the ways in which images are created and used matters. The public opinion of art defines its success and effect more than the artist or the institution backing the work. In this culture where images appear to be all too pervasive and over-saturated to be affective anymore–wherein we experience chronic image-overload fatigue–images truly are still potent and living. Visual communication (and thus, art) is relevant– even though, paradoxically, art functioning as a positive, progressive force in society has dwindled to an all-time low.
My short verdict:
Images have power. Art can do wonderful things. Artists matter–but only when the public opinion matters.
My longer (admittedly righteous) verdict:
If you are an artist creating art: know that people’s reception of your work defines it in the world as much if not more than your intentions, concepts, or words. You can say whatever you want about your art–hype it up to being the most genius, well-educated masterpiece of 2016, say that it is art created out of ‘activism’–but that doesn’t necessarily make it so for other people. Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering steak, but are served SPAM, and yet the cook insists that it actually is steak because he created it and because he says so. If that is all you want to do–make something, throw it out there, and have it be received per what you simply say it is–then stick to your click, keep your insular art within the bubble of people who already agree with you, spare the public grievances. Stop making art an irrelevant, detached, and negative force in society! Make ART not SPAM!
Unless, of course, you want to talk about this piece:
(it’s at LACMA and it’s great!)
And lastly, grievances from a self-accepting chocoholic:
Chocolate is a divine gift of nature, a magical substance contributing to humanity’s evolution and enjoyment of life on earth–it, like images, should not be abused in art!