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Glenn Ligon and Coco Fusco Among Hundreds on Petition Criticizing NYT Art Reviews

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An anonymous petition expressing concern about recent New York Times reviews of women and African-American artists has hit a nerve, sparking a wave of support from some serious bold-faced names. Artists Glenn Ligon and Coco Fusco confirmed to ARTINFO this morning that they had signed the letter, while other (currently unconfirmed) signatories include artists Paul Ramirez Jonas, Janine Antoni, Louise LawlerJulie Mehretu, Kara Walker, and Martha Rosler as well as art historians Rosalyn Deutsche, Miwon Kw0n, and Robert Storr. As of this writing, the petition bears 312 signatures and is growing by the minute.

The letter calls out two articles by Times scribe Ken Johnson: his October 25th review of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980″ at MoMA PS1 and his November 8th preview of “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Both articles use “irresponsible generalities” and compare women and African-American artists to white male artists, “only to find them lacking.” The problem, the letter’s authors state, is that “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.”

It is worth mentioning that the vast majority of well-known signatories — who are, by almost anyone’s standards, at the top of their field — are women and people of color. The speed with which many added their names to the list (Paul Ramirez Jonas was the 16th signature, Glenn Ligon the 24th) is also a testament to the strong feelings these articles provoked, even in the highest reaches of the art world.

The letter continues: “In both pieces, Mr. Johnson suggests that a marginalized groups’ lack of success is due to their own failures and not those of the ‘predominantly white high-end art world.’ In doing so, his texts read as validations of stubborn inequities. Johnson replays stereotypes of inscrutable blackness and inadequate femininity in the guise of serious inquiry, but that inquiry never happens.”

A generally well-liked art writer, Johnson is usually the one doing the scrutinizing, not the one under scrutiny. The letter encourages the Times to address the broader issues raised by these texts. (If you ask us, this seems like perfect fodder for newly-appointed public editor Margaret Sullivan.) The whole debacle also encourages us to consider whose art historical standards we are using to judge the increasingly diverse art we see.

Read the full text (which, full disclosure, contains the signature of this writer) here.

Julia Halperin

(Image: Detail from Phong Bui’s “Portrait of Ken Johnson,” 2011. Via The Brooklyn Rail.)

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  1. by Dushko Petrovich

    We wrote several letters to Margaret Sullivan and as yet have received no reply, other than to say they got the emails.

  2. How about just throwing all Academic art into the trash heap where it belongs. Fighting over careerism and market share isnt art, its business.

    How about art that defines who WE are, explores OUR world, seeks that sense of meaning and purpose WE call God?
    You know, creative art.

    The age of excess and meism is so over.
    It is time to put aside childish things. St paul and some guy named Obama

  3. by Nicholas Vahlkamp

    I was actually blown away by Johnson’s review of Black LA artists. It was informative, insightful, and yes, somewhat opinionated. Wow, imagine an opinionated art review! That he goes on to offer a false dichotomy between “white/european/male” assemblage and “black/american/male” assemblage is a stretch, admittedly but can it in any way be considered prejudiced against the
    LA art? That’s not what I got out of his comments. As far as his comment about the “Women’s Show” in Philadelphia (Hey, at least he didn’t call it the “Lady’s Show”), it’s little more than a toss off and a kind of “duh” one at that. If you find that in and of itself “offensive”, you have way too much time on your hands, and perhaps too little to think about as well. And to characterize such opinion as a “debacle” is almost as laughable as Republican senators tilting towards Bengazi.

  4. by Genny Danilow

    Any article that strays from a strict ideology will be attacked in the academic and art world. No surprises here.

  5. without touching the validity (or not –whatever) of any points the petition raises, i do get nervous at the idea of folks lobbing petitions around over art criticism.

    it could have a chilling effect on art-discourse and could also actually reduce the number of articles about group-identifiable artists generally; writers without enough decades of stature and income banked-away to weather a bad-publicity storm (and that’s most writers) might just avoid certain topic entirely. result: even less press-coverage.

    though maybe the petition-pressure comes in part from the NYT not-being in this century by not-allowing online comments. readers have to vent SOMEplace and if the comment –well they’ll find another way to comment.

  6. my own pipe dream would be that artists be judged by their art only –with birth identity having NO EFFECT (positive or negative) on assessment of them. show me the ART.

  7. I, as an artist, sadly agree with Mr. Johnson’s conclusions on the state of female and Black art being “lacking”, and I believe this to be due to both taking defensive postures over the last few decades…..I have often been perplexed at the subject matter of the majority of female artists I have viewed, which appears to be locked down into still-lifes and landscapes, or more regrettably,a regurgitation of advertizing or “Pop” iconography and the ad-nauseum representation of the female form in a casual demeanor or dance posture….I believe this is the after effect of the Feminist Art movement, and its blatantly skewed views and political flavor, which did nothing to “liberate” women artists, but instead polarize them, and equate success as an artist with selling, and an agenda of self-promotion instead of self expression….and when ANY artist concentrates on selling their art, it will eventually drag down their expression to the lowest common denominator, and bring an artist to produce “safe art”,and even worse, “sofa art”…I have witnessed many times a female artist being promoted to the public for simply being female, with no regard to talent or vision, and a disturbing trend of all-inclusiveness toward any works produced, regardless of artist qualities,and an entourage of support from other female artists toward other female artists, again, regardless of quality…and the Black artist often reverts to a type of representation that is a product of expected form for Caucasian audiences,or like the feministic artist, a product for self-consumption, again focusing on sales instead of a deeper meaning….In conclusion, as long as female and Black artists view themselves as a political force, instead of simply artists, their art will bear the mark of attempts of acceptance and greatness, instead of simply being great.

  8. by Abigail R. Esman

    If there were a “like” button to click on Roger Gregg’s comment, I’d have clicked it three times. The era in which black artists made art about being black and women artists made art about being women died an overdue death 30 years ago. That kind of narcissism was doomed to fail then just as it is now — and kudos to Johnson for having the courage to say so. Good art lacks gender or race, just as art that hinges on gender or race is almost never any good.

  9. What artist cowers to a critic and plays the race card? Are these mouthpieces attempting to champion the artists’ interests or their own curatorial ambitions?

    Who cares, egg the dudes care while you’re at it, that’ll teach him to have an opinion ever again.

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