The New York Times has responded to a petition that hit a nerve in the art world last month. The letter argued that two recent articles by Ken Johnson used “irresponsible generalities” to examine the work of women and African-American artists. It garnered signatures from scores of well-known art world figures including Coco Fusco and Glenn Ligon. Now, the Times’s culture editor Jonathan Landman has responded to the letter’s authors. In short, Landman says that criticism of his critics is welcome, but he has no plans to censure or restrict Johnson. The entire exchange is reproduced below.
On December 3, 2012, the authors of the letter wrote:
Dear New York Times,
We are a group of artists who drafted this letter, which has been signed by 1,318 people. It is important to emphasize that this letter is not intended as a personal attack on Ken Johnson. We are not calling for his resignation or censure. While we express frustrations that Mr. Johnson’s arguments lack rigor, his articles touch on important issues in a necessary effort to understand troubling and persistent inequalities.
Many had written to the New York Times without response so we decided to write an open letter, both to allow people who shared our concerns to express them, and to encourage the New York Times to address them. We are simply asking the New York Times for a considered, public response to Ken Johnson’s published pieces, for the reasons we outline in the following letter.
The next day, the Times’ culture editor responded:
Dear Colleen Asper, Anoka Faruqee, Steve Locke, Dushko Petrovich and William Villalongo,
Thanks for your letter about Ken Johnson’s reviews. I’m glad to acknowledge that some of Ken’s phrases could have been more precise. He has acknowledged this himself on his Facebook page, where there is lots of lively discussion of the issues you have raised. As Ken wrote, “I can see how my statement that ‘Black artists did not invent assemblage’ taken out of context seems needlessly provocative.”
At the same time, I assume that anyone who believes in the value of healthy debate would condemn any effort to stifle good-faith ideas and those who express them. I am heartened by your assurance that you are not calling for Ken’s resignation or censure, but your letter has been circulating for a couple of weeks as a petition and petitions are meant to produce action. It would be troubling, and, it seems to me, inimical to what I would like to believe is your goal, if the action contemplated by the petition involved some sanction by The Times against Ken, whom you in effect accuse of racism and sexism. To be clear: Ken is guilty of neither of those things.
The bottom line, for me, is that Ken’s work, like any critic’s, is legitimately subject to tough criticism. Yours is welcome and it has properly stimulated all sorts of reaction. Less welcome is any suggestion that The Times should publicly “address” unfair and unsound accusations against him.
On December 5, the letter’s authors wrote back:
Dear Mr. Landman,
Thank you for your response. We welcome your acknowledgement of “imprecise language.” However, our letter speaks to the overall quality and effect of the texts. We remain disappointed that you see our letter and its stated goal as an accusation against an individual rather than a question of the New York Times’ journalistic and editorial rigor.
The many who signed the letter have hoped for a considered response in print, in the form of an opinion piece or letter. Can we infer that yours is the only response from the New York Times? If so, we assume we can share your note with the many who signed the letter and those who continue to write about this debate.
Mr. Landman advised that the authors were free to share his response.
The petition, meanwhile, continues to accrue signatures and currently bears 1,601 names. Recent additions include Hammer Museum curator Anne Ellegood, Inhotim and former New Museum curator Eungie Joo, and artists Naeem Mohaiemen, Penelope Umbrico, Lorna Simpson, DJ Spooky, Kalup Linzy, and Luis Camnitzer.
— Julia Halperin