critic, poet and professor nicholas powers writes for the indypendent about kara walker's A Subtlety, an imposing 40-foot tall sculpture made out of 80 tons of sugar! @ the soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar Refinery in williamsburg, brooklyn.
he opens with a critical salvo:
"You are recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique," I yelled. The visitors lowered their cameras. Just seconds ago, they had been aiming their lenses at the sculpture of a 40-foot tall, nude black female sphinx. Many posed under its ass; some laughed and pointed at its vulva. As I watched their joking, my thoughts spun and I walked into the crowd, turned to face them and began yelling. It wasn’t my rage, it was our rage. In early June, I went to the exhibit. The anxiety increased when I saw the factory — in line, nearly everyone was white. The alarm rang louder.powers feels these (white) folks were not getting it. by "it" i mean the idea, message, content, that walker's A Subtlety implies.
The "alarm" is a reflex most minorities have, it's a rising anxiety that signals you are surrounded by people too privileged to know they're hurting you. Or who would not care if they did. It can beep quietly.point taken. what powers refers to rings true. he's right to feel upset. but things get more complicated when powers revises his own feelings:
Anger shot up my body like a hot thermometer. Face flushed, I walked to the Mammy sphinx. Couples posed in front of it, smiling as others took their photos. So here it was, an artwork about how Black people’s pain was transformed into money was a tourist attraction for them. A few weeks ago, I had gone to the 9/11 museum and no one, absolutely no one, posed for smiling pictures in front of the wreckage.if the science of psychology makes any sense, a feeling is a lingering response to a stimulus. if so, one should take into account that different contexts (artworks?) elicit different responses. how could powers prevent a person's misinterpretation? (& is not any mis-interpretation an interpretation?) more technical, but not less fitting, how could one accurately attribute a certain behavioral disposition to a supposed mental state?
i think a more "subtle" point is that walker's sculpture evinces asymptotic layers, which make for a variety of responses. for example, this mammy is actually white. what i'm saying is that walker "whitefaces" black, a daring inversion, which ultimately honors the piece's title. why does powers miss walker's conceptual "teasing"? another asymptotic layer is that in the space of analogical histories sweet/sugar plantations becomes bitter/slave trade --this latter analogy is observed by powers.
now it's time for history:
I caught the eye of the few people of color, we talked and shook our heads at the jokey antics of white visitors. We felt invisible, and our history was too. It stung us and we wanted to leave. I forced myself to go the backside of the statue and saw there what I expected to see, white visitors making obscene poses in front of the ass and vulva of the "Subtlety." A heavy sigh fell out me. "Don't they see that this is about rape?" I muttered as another visitor stuck out his tongue. What is the responsibility of the artist?one thing is to "feel" invisible (i.e., not being considered present) and another to imply that that automatically renders one's whole history invisible. why does powers have to assume this self-centered, emotivist, conclusion? i can agree that the piece is about rape, but certainly it's not solely about rape. it can't be. this is an artwork (not a history of a people, which can only be partly, limitedly conveyed by the piece). and this mammy doesn't look defeated or miserable by her long, painful history. in fact, A Subtlety presents us with a riddle: for example, the mystery behind her hermetic & proud sensuality.
an artwork's meaning --by definition-- cannot be univocal, otherwise it wouldn't "mean" anymore. if meaning is transparent we wouldn't have to negotiate for consensus anymore, provide valid reasons, etc, which is precisely (luckily!) what powers does in his engaging piece.
so, what's really going on?
Something snapped. I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.powers was right to feel angry at some stupid white people & what he did was even necessary. this is what good art is supposed to do, to elicit discussions --and learning.
now, what follows is baloney:
People are going to bring prejudices and racial entitlement into the space. Duh. Instead of challenging the racial power dynamics of white supremacy, Walker and Creative Time, in their naivety or arrogance, I don't know which, simply made the Domino Sugar Factory a safe place for it. Thanks for nothing, Ms. Walker!"thanks for nothing ms. walker?" from rightful indignation, powers now -ironically- shifts to self-pity. in other words, not only he has "unveiled" walker's "intentions," but expects art to become a didactic medium to challenge (racial stereotypes?). the "walker & creative time" binity --as if they were a Co. is a despairing ad hominem. and why is walker to blame because some white folks (or some black people, let's not rule out that possibility, though powers didn't witness it) don't get it?
it gets worse:
(...) but the sad thing is that thousands of visitors are still seeing a sculpture that symbolizes the history of racial violence with no guidelines on how to interpret it.which "guidelines"? who would construct and provide such criteria? the sponsors? the curators? powers?
and what is the distance separating "guidelines" from, say, mild censorship, even zdhanovism?