Adding to Brent Baker’s piece on how AP gushed over the Obamas’ taste in picking art for the White House, Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik also tried to praise the "discerning eye" of the Obamas in Wednesday’s Style section, but Gopnik’s taste for artistic "affirmative action" came through very clearly:
They seem to redress past imbalances in the nation's sense of its own art....But there are still only six works by women, vs. 41 by men. And there are no works at all by Latinos. (A work by the deceased Cuban American artist Félix González-Torres would have filled the gap perfectly, and added a nod to the country's gay culture. The Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum has one that could have been borrowed.)
Gopnik concluded the piece by complaining that Obama was promoting "falsely naive" art that maligns black people, even in the titles of the paintings:
Even the most positive of gestures made by the new White House loans can have complications wrapped around them. One of the African Americans with pictures in the Obamas' residence is William H. Johnson, a sophisticated artist who trained in Scandinavia in the 1930s. After returning to the United States to bide out World War II, however, he made pictures of Harlem that can seem falsely naive, as though buying into then-standard notions that "genuine" black culture was "simpler" than the culture of white Europeans. Why did one of the new White House Johnsons, showing impoverished parents and children in a modest room, get titled "Folk Family"? Did being poor and black make you more "folky" than other Americans?
As for the Catlin Indians, should we think of them as a positive nod to the original peoples of this continent, or are they all about a white colonialist gawking at exotic conquered peoples? Paul Chaat Smith, who curates contemporary art at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, says that even he and other native peoples aren't sure of the answer. "They're not us, they're not for us," he says, but they're also "part of how we think about ourselves."
In today's art world, these kinds of debates and complexities are where you want to sink your teeth. In those terms, the Obamas could hardly have done a better job of choosing their loans.
Whether the whole electorate feels that way about them is another matter. Has Obama the art lover trumped Obama the skilled politician?
In between complaints, Gopnik did offer praise to the Obamas for a picture that suggested "the obliterations of American racism."
The politics in at least one of the new choices is strong and direct as could be. "Black Like Me #2," on loan from the Hirshhorn, is by Glenn Ligon, one of the best African American artists working today, and also one of the smartest and toughest. His loaner work is a tall white canvas covered from top to bottom with the repeated phrase "All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence," a quote from the 1961 book the picture's named after, "Black Like Me," in which the white journalist John Howard Griffin made himself look black and reported on the troubles that befell him. Just as Griffin disappeared into blackness, and into the obliterations of American racism, so Ligon's stenciled text disappears into an ever thicker mess of black pigment as it descends the canvas, until at the bottom it's close to illegible.
White House curator William Allman speaks of the Obamas' borrowings as expressing "probably more interest in truly modern art" than was seen in previous administrations. But the work by Ligon takes them way beyond the modern, to territory on the vexing cutting edge of the contemporary. Hirshhorn curator Valerie Fletcher says she started out making suggestions of works that were "pretty conservative," but when those were rejected, she proposed works she saw as "way out in left field," such as the Ligon. When they were accepted, she says, "I was quite surprised, and impressed."
Memo to Gopnik and the Post: if diversity in the art world is such an overriding concern, why is the Post's art critic a white male? Is a white male qualified to judge art by oppressed minorities?