Commentary By Tim Engles

to gallery | to commentary by John Bowles

After Whiteness: Race and the Visual Arts

[The Preface to the printed catalog of the exhibition.]

In the last two decades, visual art produced by America’s racial minorities has received somewhat wider recognition in mainstream art arenas. One result has been heightened awareness of the racial dimensions of the American art world’s canonization process, especially of the overwhelming and ongoing whiteness of that process. However, when critics, curators, and other patrons turn their attention to matters of race, they still tend to focus only on art produced by “people of color.” They also tend to gravitate more readily toward such art when it can be construed as somehow about people of color. The artists whose work appears in “After Whiteness” effect something of a reversal, “getting after” a racial category that paradoxically remains both dominant and elusive. Juxtaposing race-conscious work by artists who are both “of color” and “white,” this traveling exhibition is one of three recently devoted to the topic of racial whiteness. In March, 2003, “Whiteness: A Wayward Construction” opened at the Laguna Museum, in Laguna Beach, California. This gathering included pieces by Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, Kyungmi Shin, Byron Kim, Andres Serrano and twenty-three other individuals or collaborative teams. Art historian, critic, and curator Maurice Berger’s show, “White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art,” opened recently at the International Center of Photography in New York City, with work by William Kentridge, Barbara Kruger, Nikki S. Lee, and Cindy Sherman. While previous exhibits have addressed whiteness itself thematically in more abstract terms, these three represent a new, intensified inquiry into it as a racial status.

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.

to gallery | to commentary by John Bowles

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