Dear Seph Rodney:
I read your 15 Questions About Kara Walker’s Latest Exhibitions on Hyperallergic and what you call your “deep reservations” about it being on view.
I too am torn-apart about the White-Nationalist Nativism run rampant in America; I too revile and rebel against the continued long American night of racism.
I imagine that neither of us expects any one-artist to do all the things you ask for. But I think that art is not primarily about understanding, or instructing. We do not ask what Mozart means or has to teach us. As Gerhard Richter said “You can’t say that art is no good because Mozart didn’t prevent the concentration camps… all we know is that without Mozart and the rest we wouldn’t survive.”
It’s difficult to say why Jackson Pollock’s One; Number 21, 1950 somehow embodies the sights, sounds, energies of America in 1950. Or how an exploding Pope by Francis released the demons of one man and expressed outrage at the church, anti-homosexuality, and authority. Or how my interior life changes when I hear an afternoon raga.
I’ve tried to sincerely answer a few of your questions about Walker.
Senior Art Critic; New York Magazine
October 4, 2017
Responding To: “15 Questions About Kara Walker’s Latest Exhibition” by Seph Rodney (For Hyperallergic / October 2, 2017)
1. Who is enlarged or educated by Kara Walker’s latest exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins gallery?
Who is educated by Mozart at the Emperor’s Opera house? Or by Velazquez’ Las Meninas – which only hung in the royal palace until very recently yet somehow affected all of subsequent art-history. We are “enlarged” and “educated” by art in a language beyond words and by osmosis and incrementally. Often we don’t even know how or that we’ve been “enlarged” and “educated” till years later.
2. Who is made whole by the decontextualized images of violence correlated with race, gender, sex, and with chattel slavery and the social practices devolving from that historical circumstance?
Perhaps in similar ways that “decontextualized images of violence correlated with race” of civil rights-movement marchers being attacked by dogs expands our moral dimension to make us “more whole.” Through horror we can find humanity. As with Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Children.
3. How does this impel a greater understanding of the relationship between these disparate aspects caught in synchronous orbit around the black body?
Perhaps this has something to do with the way images of two black Olympic athletes giving the Black Power salute “impel a greater understanding … of the black body.” And dignity. Love. Revolt.
4. What do we do with the white patriarchal phallus when it is shown to be an agent of degradation for anyone who is the other?
We feel revulsion for “the white patriarchal phallus when it is shown to be an agent of degradation for anyone who is the other.”
5. What if we know this already?
What if we already know that MLK was assassinated when we look at images of the Memphis balcony where he was murdered by a White assassin?
6. What has happened in the more than 20 years of Walker’s practice to make this new exhibition any more relevant than the ones previous?
As you know, Walker has struggled with and against the incredibly narrow formal limits of her art: Silhouette and drawing – always looking for ways to give her work more psychic space, not to stop at the paper’s edge, to annihilate the “minor” status of the supposed “craft” of silhouette.
This show is a big leap. She is employing assemblage and collage in new ways; a totally different, more alive, sensual surface is brought to bear on a vast History Painting-like scale – again with just silhouette and drawing. Her touch has grown sharper, more detailed, and only one actual silhouette in a show of dozens of images – “makes this new exhibition more relevant.”
I would add that Walker commands far lower prices than other equally celebrated artists of her generation – sometimes less than 10%. This likely has to do with many things; she is a woman; she is an artist-of-color; her blatant subject-matter of “degradation”; the fact that her work is “dismissed” as merely “drawing,” and worse, just “craft.” I consider one work in her current show to be a full-fledged modern masterpiece: ”Christ’s Entry into Journalism,” 2017.
7. Why do we wake to violence and then willingly sleep with it nestled under our pillows?
“Why do we wake to violence and then willingly sleep with” … images by Bosh, Goya, Picasso, George Gross, and 10,000 other artists … “nestled under our pillows?” Tremendous images from India and China, Africa and Oceania are riddled with just this violence – and lived within close quarters. The first word of The Iliad is “Rage.” Shooting stars or not, it’s in our natures.
8. Why do we nurse our anger and cultivate it like a tender vine? Who is this work for?
You ask who Walker’s work is “for”? It is for anyone who can use it. Each of us “uses”, sees, experiences it differently. The same way that your Hamlet and mine are totally different; and the way your Hamlet is totally different every time you see it.
9. What could Walker hope to teach her audience: pain, surprise? Who is enlivened by this work?
Who is “enlivened” by Eva Hesse? Frida Kahlo? Cindy Sherman? Chris Ofili? Matisse, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, et al?
[Saltz did not respond to questions 10-12].
13. Why is a cudgel thought to be the best tool for historical investigation?
It strikes me as reductive and dismissive to confine Walker’s work as being only “a cudgel”. I do not think that it is only this.
14. What happens when Walker exhausts the gag reflex of our collective conscience and it no longer responds?
I think that Walker’s work is not exhausted; I think that it contains multitudes. I do not think that it is now limited only to “a gag reflex.” As Oscar Wilde said, “The minute you think you know a work of art – it is dead to you.”
15. After we leave this show, what benefits will we imagine accrue to us being alive right now?
After you read poetry, Aeschylus, hear a song or symphony, see the Temple at Kyoto, stare at a beautiful curving wood Eames chair, climb Chichen Itza, gaze at hieroglyphics on the pyramids, look at a painting, a cave painting, an all-white Robert Ryman – you ask “what benefits will we imagine accrue to us being alive right now?” I ask you.
This piece was originally published on Medium. Thank you @butter_toe