Safety and Danger in the Art World

Last October, I went to BAM’s Fisher space to see a set of performances organized by Clifford Owens at the invitation of Martha Wilson. Owens, in turn, asked Martha Wilson to perform as Michelle Obama, a continuation of her famous series of performances as First Ladies. From offstage, she talked about that series, and never performing as Mrs. Obama because of how much she admired her, unlike the other First Ladies.

You could feel the tension in the room about how she would play this. She walked on stage with half of her face done in brown makeup and the other half left white. After speaking about her work, she took questions from the audience. The artist Dread Scott raised his hand and asked, flatly, if she was uncomfortable with her performance because of her admiration for Michelle, or because she was white. Wilson answered it was because she was white.

Everyone in the room had to recognize the obvious fact that Wilson could pass as every First Lady in history but this one. It was a small incident, but something I’ve never seen an arts institution or curator do: admit their whiteness, and the limitations that come with it. As the color of this country changes, whiteness is simply denial.

I am often asked some version of the age-old question of arts versus politics: whether artists can be activists, what the political duties of art are. But that question presumes that they are separable, and is a product of a logic that wants them separate. All creation is a political act, as is every display, critique, circulation, and purchase of an artwork.

Lorraine O'Grady, Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and her Master of Ceremonies enter the New Museum). Image courtesy of the artist.

Lorraine O’Grady, Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire and her Master of Ceremonies enter the New Museum). Image courtesy of the artist.

We have whole art history of disruption and questioning by radical artists of color. I am thinking of Lorraine O’Grady marching into a New Museum opening in 1981 as MLLE BOURGEOISE NOIRE, reciting, sardonically, “be polite wait to be discovered/ be proud be independent/ tongues cauterized at/ openings no one attends.” Or Tehching Hsieh, who didn’t need a gallery space at all for the “One-Year Performance” in which he didn’t go indoors at all from September 1981-2. Then there are artists like David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Coco Fusco, Yong Soon Min, Godzilla, William Pope.L, Mel Chin, and many others. Let’s be uncomfortable, some artists say. Let’s question the boundaries of the gallery space, what we bring to that space.

And today we have artists like Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani, who install their Index of the Disappeared, an archive of documentation of people missing, detained, and deported after 9/11, in arts and library spaces. The information is itself dangerous to the logic of a state that extradites and detains people without due process.

CRYING: A Protest, organized by Jennifer Tamayo

CRYING: A Protest, organized by Jennifer Tamayo

Or there was CRYING: A PROTEST last March, in which artist Jennifer Tamayo organized a group of women to cry in the Carl Andre retrospective at Dia:Beacon to mourn Ana Mendieta. Mendieta, a radical artist herself, was killed in a confrontation with Andre, who was acquitted of any charges. Security forced the criers to stop. In a similar vein of direct protest, Occupy Museums has been staging demonstrations inside and outside of the gallery, linking museum funders like David Koch to climate change, and questioning the Guggenheim’s labor practices in Abu Dhabi with massive projections on the museum’s façade.

Our politics cannot stop at the entrance to the gallery. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has shown us how deeply our government’s conception of violence and race and safety are deluded. The same logic pervades major arts institutions. Arts spaces are very much designed, like our policing and incarceration systems, to keep the gallery safe for the white, wealthy, and male by expelling others to the margins of society. In the white cube of the gallery, who is suspicious, and who is safe? If the white cube admits its whiteness, what would they have to change?

In that BAM performance, Owens did what he is known for: make the audience aware of its complicity in watching, acting, and participating in his performances. It was a rare moment where the two levels of distance from curator to artist to viewer were collapsed into one encounter.

We need more such encounters. We need to admit that art spaces were never safe to begin with: there is nothing more violent than the erasures and lineages of the white cube stating that they show the ‘best’ or ‘most significant’ artworks. We need to find and support artists who make spaces less comfortable, breaking its sanitization from the rest of the world.


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