After Whiteness: Race and the Visual Arts
[The Preface to the printed catalog of the exhibition.]
Such an effort is timely, appearing in the wake (and at times under the influence) of a great deal of other recent considerations of whiteness. In the past five or six years, scholars in many fields have launched vigorous, interdisciplinary investigations into the powers and privileges bestowed upon Americans who happen to be classified as “white.” They have also clarified the ramifications of whiteness for those grouped in non-white categories, as well as the simultaneous workings of racial whiteness with other operative categories. Often taking cues from earlier work in Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory, historians have shed light on the history of white racial formation; sociologists and anthropologists on its contemporary formations; legal scholars on its juridical ramifications; and scholars of literature, drama, and cinema on representations of whiteness in those modes of artistic production. Only within the past year or two have scholars and critics of the visual arts begun to examine extensively how the notion of a white race influences “the art world” and its participants. Works by such racially cognizant artists as those gathered here further such efforts in unique ways, calling as they do on the different faculties within us that are engaged by interaction with visually compelling creativity.
The title of this show conveys a meaning that is at least doubled. These artists are “after whiteness” in the sense that they are pursuing it, trying to capture some of its elusive formations and effects. In another sense, their work is emerging in a period when whiteness has come under increasing scrutiny in the culture at large, a scrutiny that threatens its very existence as a demographic category. Changing immigration and demographic patterns have begun to bring whiteness into focus by decreasing the numerical majority of whites, bringing to the notion of “whiteness” an attention that in part exposes it as a particular, “socially constructed” racial formation. Since all racial categories took on such enormous sociopolitical significance because they were deployed to justify such practices as the theft of natural resources, slavery, and genocide, today’s Americans are left with a legacy of categories that deserve nothing less than abolition. This recognition of the ongoing problems caused by the fictitious notion of race led one of our most insightful analysts of racial formation, the novelist and essayist James Baldwin, to observe, “As long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you.” At its best, this exhibition does offer hope, pointing toward a future made better by the ultimate dissolution not only of the fictional category of whiteness and its attendant abuses, but also of the egregious simplicities made flesh by other racial categories, which are, after all, only skin deep.
Read More of Tim Engles' work in Agora.