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"A Subtlety" & We Are Here
July 2, 2014 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit: "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... Something snapped... I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes."

previously on MeFi: The Marvelous Sugar Baby - "An NPR interview with the creator of a 75 foot long Mammy-Sphinx sculpture made entirely of sugar. Award-winning artist Kara Walker's latest work challenges viewers to confront the relationships between American history, racism, slavery, and industrialization."

*HuffPo: Debunking the Myths of Kara Walker's Sugar Sphinx
*Hyperallergic: What Does Kara Walker’s Sugary Sphinx Tell Us?

The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instagram Capital - "I walked over to get a full-on, yet still-distant view of the giant sphinx. Two seconds later, my eyes exploded and I was crying all over myself... And in the midst of all of these feelings, I heard people yell "Sugar tits!" "Hey, did you get a picture of the lips? Those sweet lips!" and "That's a big ass!" Then came the photo ops, which ranged from the Munch/Home Alone "Scream" face to sexually inappropriate. My head was spinning."

*Artnet: Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Spawns Offensive Instagram Photos
*Here It Is, the Kara Walker Selfie Generator - "The website [...] allows users to superimpose a picture of themselves against either the front or the back of Walker’s monumental sculpture."

We Are Here: Black Women Claim Their Space at Kara Walker’s Controversial Sugar Sphinx Show (photos) - "Shocked by the exhibition’s disproportionately White crowds and irritated by what they considered to be crude reactions to Walker’s work, New York-based artists Ariana Allensworth, Salome Asega, Taja Cheek, Sable Elyse Smith and Nadia Williams were eager to organize a gathering for people of color."

“We Are Here”: People of Color Gather at Kara Walker Show (an interview with the We Are Here organizers)

Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Evokes Call From Black Women: ‘We Are Here.’ - "At one point during the afternoon, Nick Powers" (the author of "Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit" [top link]) "a professor who teaches black literature at SUNY Westbury, stood at the Sphinx’s backside to warn viewers about the significance of posing for comical photos in front of it. His words drew applause from some nearby spectators. ”What a lot of people of color in this room are feeling but just haven’t said out loud is that they don’t like how folks pose in front of this statue dedicated to the violence of slavery,” Powers said. “It’s actually a collective feeling.”"

White People Problems: On Kara Walker and the Way White People Interact with Black Art - "But the very nature of “A Subtlety” forces interaction with black history, making the white response to it a part of the work of art itself. And while many—probably a majority—of the white people who have gone to see Walker’s exhibit have been appropriately respectful of the work, the mere fact that countless others have no reverence and no care for the message behind the piece is as fascinating as it is distressing and is what takes Walker’s work out of the realm of excellence and into the realm of brilliance... Part of the power of the work is to look at the people interacting with it and realizing that no matter how far we’ve come, we’ve still got a long way to go."

The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art - "...it’s reassuring that so many white people have a vested — or at least passing — interest in consuming art that deals with race. At the same time I found it unsettling to view art by a black artist about racism in an audience that’s mostly white. It reinforced the idea that black people’s histories are best viewed but not physically experienced."
posted by flex (170 comments total) 118 users marked this as a favorite

 
Really thought-provoking; thanks for posting this. I remember finding Walker's signature cameo-style silhouette art really affecting when I was first exposed to it as a teenager, but now I wonder how much, as a white person, it should be ok for me to appreciate and encourage that kind of satire. Well, I mean, this sphinx piece is way less subtle than those works, but it's still somewhere on a similar continuum, maybe.
posted by threeants at 7:53 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I remember finding Walker's signature cameo-style silhouette art really affecting when I was first exposed to it as a teenager, but now I wonder how much, as a white person, it should be ok for me to appreciate and encourage that kind of satire.

I don't think the objection is to white people who understand the context of Walker's art. I think the objection is to white people who look at it and think "wow, big boobs, haw haw haw!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:02 AM on July 2 [10 favorites]


This post is best post.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:05 AM on July 2 [8 favorites]


...A note to Nicholas Powers, too - there are indeed people who take 9/11 museum selfies.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:05 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]


On second thought, I should just re-direct the Civil Rights Act post here. Holy shit.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:11 AM on July 2


I wonder how much of this is due to people visiting the factory to see the factory, or as a general weekend NYC outing, and not really caring about the art that much. When they run into people who care about the art very very much, I can see there being a lot of tension.
posted by smackfu at 8:15 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I think the essay at the top of the post is directed toward stuff like the part I've emphasized here:
Inside the factory, cool, sweet air filled my nose. It was a rusted cathedral of industry, held up by blistered girders. Across the warehouse I saw the white Mammy sphinx. Visitors bunched around caramel-like statues of children holding baskets. They were antebellum figurines of slave boys, made of resin coated in molasses. The irony of them molded into sugar was of course symbolic of the money and power distilled from their bodies. Viewers seemed to get it. Maybe, I thought, it was safe to turn off the alarm? And then I saw a balding white father, posing with his son next to one of the boy statues, his arms folded across his chest “gangsta” style as the mother took a photo.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:15 AM on July 2


This is a fascinating post.

I wonder if it is possible that the reaction of some white people was an intended consequence of the art, factored into its creation. Those blithely taking selfies and making jokes unwittingly form part of the work itself, adding another layer to what it has to say about racism.
posted by cincinnatus c at 8:20 AM on July 2 [29 favorites]


I don't think the objection is to white people who understand the context of Walker's art. I think the objection is to white people who look at it and think "wow, big boobs, haw haw haw!"

Well, I'd be uncomfortable pinning down what "the" objection is, since the FPP includes a number of different perspectives, but-- and I haven't had the chance to read this article yet, but even from the pullquote I think the situation is more nuanced than you're suggesting-- "...it’s reassuring that so many white people have a vested — or at least passing — interest in consuming art that deals with race. At the same time I found it unsettling to view art by a black artist about racism in an audience that’s mostly white. It reinforced the idea that black people’s histories are best viewed but not physically experienced."
posted by threeants at 8:21 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


I went the other day. I went around the back. I didn't know it was about rape. I felt really weird taking a picture but then I decided the artist put that there, so it's okay for me to look at it and think about my feelings. I put my pictures on Flickr. Most got 100 hits. The buttocks/vulva image has 4500 hits. I don't feel great about that, but it is what it is.
posted by stevil at 8:26 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


One note about the selfies and picture taking at the Kara Walker exihibit. When I visited A Subtlety in late May, signage at the exhibit explicitly encouraged the taking of photographs for "social media" distribution. And if social media photography means anything, it means the selfie. I took no photographs myself, since I'm cranky and old and never take photographs at art exhibits or museums (I find the practice bizarre. The smartphone camera has become a veritable replacement for vision for some people, who wander around The Met only seeing the art through their iScreens, despite the fact that The Met makes high quality digital reproductions of nearly all its art available for free through the website.) I don't know if the selfie-encouragement is Kara Walker's doing or Creative Time's, but I think there might be a bit of intentional social commentary there. Isn't it just all so sweet, so amusing, our brutal bloodsoaked charnel-house of a history? #genocide #nofilter
posted by dis_integration at 8:29 AM on July 2 [12 favorites]


Wow, there's really a lot to dig into here. From a scan, I initially was under the impression that Walker was being accused by other people/artists of color of becoming co-opted and making art that caters to white/racist sensibilities. Getting the chance to read more of the articles, however, it's clearer to me that Walker's messages and methods remain appreciated but there's a perceived audience problem.
posted by threeants at 8:30 AM on July 2


The Powers piece has so much well-targeted rage and despair, and then there's this, which I think is where things become more interestingly debatable:

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!

Should the exhibit be framed differently, more piously or solemnly, so that people don't fill it with their horrifying, oblivious racist clowning? Or is the carnivalesque atmosphere part of Walker's goal? Powers is obviously entitled to his visceral reaction — I shared his rage and disgust just reading about his experience — but I still wonder whether this condemnation is entirely fair, or whether Walker's whole idea is to get outside the pious, moralistic solemnity of the art world and tap into something more visceral in contemporary culture.
posted by RogerB at 8:32 AM on July 2 [14 favorites]


It's a weird thing, too, because nearly everyone talking about it acknowledges that Kara Walker made some really powerful art - but the question seems to be being asked, should the fact that some of the viewers are being shits affect whether the art should have been made or displayed?

But I also wonder about cincinnatus's question, too. People are actually tasting the statues, it said in one of the articles. How many surreptitious and shitty licks will it take before the statues themselves start to crumble as the people who were exploited did?
posted by corb at 8:35 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


When I visited A Subtlety in late May, signage at the exhibit explicitly encouraged the taking of photographs for "social media" distribution

Please do not touch the artwork, but do share pictures on social media...
posted by the jam at 8:36 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]


I remember when I first heard about this piece months ago, thinking... oh boy, people are going to be taking some offensive photos of this. It's human nature. Doesn't matter about the context, the subject matter, the underlying themes or anything else. There are people of all races, creeds and colors who don't dig deeper into the art they see/experience. So I wouldn't put it past ANYONE, white/black/brown/yellow/red/green, to take silly photos next to a gigantic set of tits or an exposed vulva. Human nature. In Time Warner Center there are a couple of sweet Botero sculptures that are a never ending source of enjoyment for passers-by. The genitals have been fondled so much they have a different patina than the rest of the piece. A girl I met who runs a very hipstery Brooklyney Instagram feed told me her fantasy of creating a collage of offensive Instagram photos of other white people making offensive photos of the Walker piece, and asked my opinion of that. All I could think was who cares and what's the point of doing that? Kara obviously knew this kind of thing would happen and would provoke discussions. That seems to be the point of this piece, to provoke and make us think; MAYBE to expose the underlying racial tensions that still exist? Not sure. To be surprised that ignorant/lazy visitors would find humor in the piece is a bit naive. Especially when there are signs encouraging the use of social media.
posted by ReeMonster at 8:37 AM on July 2 [5 favorites]


Audiences are generally discouraged from taking photographs of work by living artists unless the artist explicitly wants them to do so.

I am pretty familiar with Walker's work and its confrontational nature, and something tells me that this is part of her statement - that the attitudes and actions grotesquely caricatured and on display are not part of ancient history, they are happening, right now, right here, and you are complicit.
posted by louche mustachio at 8:37 AM on July 2 [57 favorites]


Sugar and art. Interestingly, the collection of H.O. and Louisine Havemeyer is still (I believe) the largest single gift to the Met—a little more on the Havemeyers here and on their collection here—and whose descendents (Electra Havemeyer Webb, John Wilmerding) continued and continue to collect and finance art.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:40 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


that the attitudes and actions grotesquely caricatured and on display are not part of ancient history, they are happening, right now, right here, and you are complicit.

Q. F. f'ing T.
posted by Sophie1 at 8:41 AM on July 2 [11 favorites]


Philistines gotta philistine? Back in the day we liked to ham it up in front of big art. There're some unflattering snaps around here of me and the Burghers of Calais (the ones in front of the Norton Simon Museum), for example.

The venue may have something to do with some folks' irreverence -- set the Sugar Sphinx in a hushed museum and you'd maybe get more muted responses.

On preview: "And then I saw a balding white father, posing with his son next to one of the boy statues, his arms folded across his chest “gangsta” style as the mother took a photo."

Yeah, you'd like for people to have more awareness of the language they use (the tropes they borrow and recycle) as they pose and posture (not just here), but it's not an easy thing. Interesting how this work is pulling some of that forward.
posted by notyou at 8:43 AM on July 2


I actually think this issue bears strong relation to Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent article about slavery reparations, in the sense that it perhaps offers a pessimistic "no" response to the questions he raises about whether white America is ready to face its past and present with honesty and courage.
posted by threeants at 8:45 AM on July 2 [5 favorites]


...A note to Nicholas Powers, too - there are indeed people who take 9/11 museum selfies.

I think selfies at theme parks are fine.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:46 AM on July 2 [16 favorites]


> ...A note to Nicholas Powers, too - there are indeed people who take 9/11 museum selfies.

I think selfies at theme parks are fine.


...Well played.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:49 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
I think that includes those who don't give a shit, too, not just those that forgot.
posted by dubwisened at 8:55 AM on July 2 [4 favorites]


Humans, once again proving for the eleventy gazillionth time this month that if there were an "intelligent creator" that he/she seriously fucked it all up in giving us freewill.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:56 AM on July 2


I think selfies at theme parks are fine.

New attractions coming in 2015!

- 9/11: The Ride
- Osama's Hideout: The 3-D Experience
- Fallujah 360: An Interactive Virtual Reality Oculus Clusterfuck
- Cheney's Burger Shack
posted by ReeMonster at 8:56 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


So awesome that she partially titled the piece 'A Subtlety.' It's about as subtle as a brick to the face.
posted by mike_bling at 9:03 AM on July 2 [9 favorites]


I so wish that I had the opportunity to see the sculpture. I'm not really surprised by the sexual selfies -- it's a deliberately discomfiting piece and people react to that, along with all their cultural baggage around race and sex and history.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:08 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


9/11: The Ride

Already been used as a capsule review of the movie Cloverfield.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:12 AM on July 2


Cheney's Burger Shack

Where every meal is like a shotgun blast to the face.
posted by dis_integration at 9:12 AM on July 2 [4 favorites]


So awesome that she partially titled the piece 'A Subtlety.'

Admitting that I haven't read all the articles, so apologies if they address this - but I wonder if that's not because a lot of the fancy-poo desserts in colonial-era Europe, where you took sugar and molded it to look like something else, used to be called "subtleties". And...guess where they were getting the sugar from?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:14 AM on July 2 [20 favorites]


Isn't this just the American attitude that anything nude is immediately sexualized? We don't culturally expose our kids to nudity in different contexts, so I'm not surprised that the reaction to this sculpture is the same as "LOL I FOUND SOME PORN IN THE WOODS" that a 10 year old might have.
posted by sbutler at 9:16 AM on July 2


I think that if I were to paint "YOU ARE A RACIST" in yard-high white letters over a blown up photograph of a nude, brown-skinned buttocks that had been scarred by whipping, you would see three basic reactions:

- "Yes, that's true."
- "Doesn't apply to me."
- "LOL BUTTS"

I worry a lot less about the third reaction than the second. That said, I think the goal should always be to educate as often and as loudly as possible so that the preponderance of reactions are the first one, at least in my lifetime.

Thank you for this post. It was informative, thought-provoking and unsettling.
posted by Mooski at 9:18 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]


apologies if they address this

It's mentioned in passing by the Hyperallergic article -- "The title, “A Subtlety,” refers to the medieval taste for elaborately sculpted sugar treats that marked the beginning or end of a course." -- but certainly worth repeating.
posted by cjelli at 9:20 AM on July 2


Great post. I like this response to the art:
On my last trip there I was with a group of friends. Again we stood under a bright sun in a long line. Again Creative Time staff handed out release forms. But now a new team was there, people of color, working with the We Are Here project. They gave us stickers reading “We Are Here,” to remind white visitors that the descendants of slaves were in the room, present and watching the whites pose in front of their history like tourists.
Wish I were still in NYC and could go see it.
posted by languagehat at 9:20 AM on July 2 [6 favorites]


I'm white - went to see the exhibit a few weeks ago.

I don't think I had put exact words or even a concrete reasoning on it, but the exhibit left me with a strange feeling, of not exactly working. I had said something about everyone there being white, but not actually went through with the thought of what it meant.

Upon reading this article, I went back through my phone to look at the pictures I had taken.
There are five:
- one of my girlfriend looking up at the sculpture
- one of the sculpture seen from far away
- one selfie of the both of us smiling with the factory wall as the background
- two pictures of other tourists taking pictures and looking at the sexual attributes of the sculpture

Self verdict: I'm guilty as charged of taking a light hearted picture in an absolutely not light hearted space. However I believe that that feeling of 'not-right' ness caused by both the sculpture and people's reactions to it was not missed by many people - even the gangsta dad will look through his pictures and maybe, hopefully, stop and think: "why was something not feeling right that day? Why did I take this awful picture?"

In short - the permanence of the photos taken, for me, along with the in hindsight obvious reaction outlined in the article, make this piece of art both worthwhile and efficient. It taught me, and I believe it taught others as well, to not let this feeling of unease just go by unnoticed. It taught me how easy it can be to be oblivious to racism.

I sincerely wish I had been able to come to these conclusions on my own, while there, at the exhibit, and clearly formulate them. I am glad that this FPP allowed me to reach them, even a few weeks later.
posted by Riton at 9:28 AM on July 2 [5 favorites]


Isn't this just the American attitude that anything nude is immediately sexualized?

I have no idea how this American exchange student got wedged into a giant stone vagina in Germany, or why.
posted by elgilito at 9:33 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


but I wonder if that's not because a lot of the fancy-poo desserts in colonial-era Europe, where you took sugar and molded it to look like something else, used to be called "subtleties"

I thought "subtlety" in this sense was more a Medieval thing. I mean, I think you're right that she's referencing the meaning of "subtlety" as "sculpture made with food" but I don't think it's an historically specific reference to the C18th or C19th. But I could well be wrong; do you have any specific instances in mind?
posted by yoink at 9:36 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


We live in a culture that fetishizes black women as objects or accessories and doesn't treat them like equals. OK Cupid did a study four years ago which showed black women received responses from men 20% less than women of other races.

The visitors' reactions are very revealing, even if we ignore the obvious messages of slavery & exploitation and that the main sculpture is white with african-american features.
posted by qi at 9:41 AM on July 2


I don't know if it's been posted here yet, but this fantastic Art:21 segment on the piece has Walker talking specifically about the meaning of "subtlety."
posted by theodolite at 9:45 AM on July 2


Re: the selifes in front of the sculpture.

It's really unfortunate that this sort of "hey, look at how offensive I'm being, but I don't really believe it, K?" is so prevalent - it's really just another form of institutionalized racism, and I feel like people are being conditioned to accept it and propagate it themselves, all under the guise of "I don't really believe this, it's just for the LOLZ."

I do think that the selfies for this will end up in a rather scathing exhibit, one that is trying to make a point, but also ultimately one that will unfortunately not attract as many people as a giant vagina.
posted by MysticMCJ at 10:01 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]


Right now, White American culture can't understand this because we are not a serious people.

I'm not kidding. We don't have the tools, the grounding, or the context in which to seriously engage with isms.
posted by clvrmnky at 10:12 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


Can I try to make a subtle counter-argument to the "white people don't understand" sort of commentary that I've seen a fair amount of in discussions about this piece?

(Which is, I should note, taken to it's logical and absurdist extreme in this quote from Stephanye Watts' piece in Gawker: "After a (well-meaning) white guy interrupted a libation ceremony at the Brooklyn Library's Henrietta Lacks celebration two weeks ago, I'd gotten the sense that deep reverence may not be white people's spiritual gift." Egads.)

If the issue is that "white people" (or some white people) don't have the historical understanding to treat the piece with the gravity it deserves, whose fault is that? And if this lack of understanding is known, is it possibly a failing of the piece itself to not convey the historical context?

As far as I can tell, the piece is a gigantic naked woman in a very sexualized pose. Humans across the racial spectrum will treat this like humans treat over-sexualized media of all sorts: Some will be shocked, some amused, some will make fun, some will be titallated. Surely Walker knows this and could've predicted this result.

Or maybe this is actually the meta-art piece: Creating something that will highlight the lack of the understanding of the racial component to the sugar trade amongst the white community in particular or the country at large. In which case, the piece feels a bit baity -- like it's trying to get people to make asses out of themselves to prove a larger point. Which might be a little unfair to the people currently being mocked as insensitive?

Aynway. Really tough to write about something so racially fraught. Especially as a white male...
posted by chasing at 10:12 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


If the issue is that "white people" (or some white people) don't have the historical understanding to treat the piece with the gravity it deserves, whose fault is that?

The history referenced in this piece is not arcane knowledge. They even had a song about the rum-molasses-slave trade triangle in a Broadway musical, for God's sake.

I would say, thus, that the person whose "fault" for not having the "historical understanding" in this instance is a) a given person's high school teacher, or b) the person themselves for either sleeping through American History 101 or just not giving a shit about what they learned.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:18 AM on July 2 [5 favorites]


Which might be a little unfair to the people currently being mocked as insensitive?

Eh, when people's instinctive response to someone or something is some form of bigotry I think it is okay to presume that the fault lies within them and not the object or individual which inspired their bigotry.
posted by elizardbits at 10:19 AM on July 2 [12 favorites]


If the issue is that "white people" (or some white people) don't have the historical understanding to treat the piece with the gravity it deserves, whose fault is that? And if this lack of understanding is known, is it possibly a failing of the piece itself to not convey the historical context?

Yes. Let's just stop talking about racism because white people can't stop acting like spoiled babies about it. All art sucks unless it caters to white people as its primary audience.
posted by Conspire at 10:20 AM on July 2 [17 favorites]


Eh, when people's instinctive response to someone or something is some form of bigotry I think it is okay to presume that the fault lies within them and not the object or individual which inspired their bigotry.

Is it bigotry? Or lack of knowledge about the subject? I think it's the latter. And I don't think that's bigotry.
posted by chasing at 10:21 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


Yes. Let's just stop talking about racism because white people can't stop acting like spoiled babies about it. All art sucks unless it caters to white people as its primary audience.

Excuse me? I'm asking questions about the piece. Do you think I'm ineligible to ask these questions because I'm white?
posted by chasing at 10:22 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


Audiences are generally discouraged from taking photographs of work by living artists unless the artist explicitly wants them to do so.

??
posted by bq at 10:25 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


Is it bigotry? Or lack of knowledge about the subject?

Men taking photos of themselves in which it appears they are licking the sculpture's anus do not, in fact, come from a "lack of knowledge about the subject".
posted by elizardbits at 10:26 AM on July 2 [27 favorites]


Well, they definitely HAVE a lack of knowledge, it's just that one is dubious as to whether they want to change that state of affairs.
posted by corb at 10:28 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I don't think that people are taking selfies because of their own ignorance, I think that people are taking selfies because they have enough knowledge to get nervous and defensive - which comes out as mockery, or taking things too lightly, or turning it into a "ha ha I'm so edgy" kind of thing.

Just the act of taking a picture is potentially to reframe oneself as a tourist, not someone involved in the exhibit. To deflect discomfort. I'm not saying that to excuse any of these folks - if anything I think they DO know better. Or know that they should know better.
posted by Jeanne at 10:46 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I think that people are taking selfies because they have enough knowledge to get nervous and defensive - which comes out as mockery, or taking things too lightly, or turning it into a "ha ha I'm so edgy" kind of thing.

No, I don't think that's it at all.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:49 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]


In which case, the piece feels a bit baity -- like it's trying to get people to make asses out of themselves to prove a larger point. Which might be a little unfair to the people currently being mocked as insensitive?


Won't somebody think of the insensitive white people? I'm sure this behavior is really the fault of someone else.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:52 AM on July 2 [13 favorites]


In which case, the piece feels a bit baity -- like it's trying to get people to make asses out of themselves to prove a larger point. Which might be a little unfair to the people currently being mocked as insensitive?

It's actually extremely fair to the people who are behaving insensitively.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:53 AM on July 2 [4 favorites]


In which case, the piece feels a bit baity -- like it's trying to get people to make asses out of themselves to prove a larger point. Which might be a little unfair to the people currently being mocked as insensitive?

No one is tricking them into taking selfies tonguing the sculpture's ass.
posted by qi at 10:54 AM on July 2 [5 favorites]


I don't think that people are taking selfies because of their own ignorance, I think that people are taking selfies because they have enough knowledge to get nervous and defensive - which comes out as mockery, or taking things too lightly, or turning it into a "ha ha I'm so edgy" kind of thing.


I think that's a good way to look at it, Jeanne, and where it gets interesting is in the tropes and language people in that state reach for and deploy without too much thought.

I read a thing in the Atlantic a long time ago about cat behavior -- the way they rub up against us as if marking us as territory. The writer supposed that, no, Kitty isn't actually marking me as territory, Kitty is trying to be social. Unfortunately for Kitty, cats have a limited toolset for social interaction -- it exists, for sure, but it's not as broad or as rich as a dog's, say, or our own. So when Kitty reaches into its bag for a social interaction tool, out comes "marking territory."

I think maybe we can see something similar at work here.
posted by notyou at 10:57 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


As a white dude I don't really know how to respond appropriately so I'm just going to sit here, listen, and hope I learn something.
posted by Tevin at 10:58 AM on July 2 [5 favorites]


notyou, you do realize that Black and white people are the same species?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:58 AM on July 2 [6 favorites]


I think the problem boils down to one simple fact: people are shit.
posted by nerdler at 11:01 AM on July 2


I do, yeah.
posted by notyou at 11:01 AM on July 2


I could be wrong, and I definitely was wrong presenting it as a "people in general" thing, because any good art generates lots of different reactions, and not just one. It just reminds me a lot of the times I've seen people be inappropriately silly and awful because they were anxious and defensive.
posted by Jeanne at 11:12 AM on July 2


> I thought "subtlety" in this sense was more a Medieval thing. I mean, I think you're right that she's referencing the meaning of "subtlety" as "sculpture made with food" but I don't think it's an historically specific reference to the C18th or C19th. But I could well be wrong; do you have any specific instances in mind?

If it helps, here's the relevant section of the OED entry (updated June 2012):
b. Cookery. An ornamental figure, scene, or other design, typically made of sugar, used as a table decoration or eaten between the courses of a meal. hist. after 16th cent.

a1425 (▸1399) Forme of Cury Pref. in C. B. Hieatt & S. Butler Curye on Inglysch (1985) 20 It techiþ for to make curious potages & meetes and sotiltees.
?c1425 Recipe in Coll. Ordinances Royal Househ. (1790) 450 A soteltee: Seint-Jorge on horsebak and sleynge the dragun.
1452 in T. Wright & J. O. Halliwell Reliquiæ Antiquæ (1845) I. 88 A sutteltee, the bore hed..Brawne and mustarde..Frutour lumbert, A suteltee.
1517 R. Torkington Oldest Diarie Eng. Trav. (1884) 7 They mad vs goodly Chere wt Diverse Sotylties as Comfytes and Marche Panys.
1768 H. Walpole Let. 6 June (1840) V. 203, I am no culinary antiquary: the Bishop of Carlisle, who is, I have often heard talk of a sotelte [printed sotelle], as an ancient dish.
1783 Gentleman's Mag. Aug. 673/2 The dishes..were brought up fourteen in number, besides the subtleties.
1866 C. M. Yonge Cameos lxxviii, in Monthly Packet July 10 The feast was entirely of fish; but they were of many kinds, and were adorned in the quaintest fashions, with sotilties, or subtleties.
1991 S. K. Penman Reckoning (1992) xxiii. 330 Another trumpet flourish called attention to the subtlety that ended the course.
I'd say the "hist. after 16th cent." means that it was indeed medieval and early modern (as opposed to C18th or C19th).
posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


Thanks languagehat. Yes, the Walpole quotation pretty much clinches it as no longer a current term by the late C18th.
posted by yoink at 11:17 AM on July 2


I take silly pictures with sculptures all the time. I'll tell you which sculpture I wouldn't go near with a camera and a bad idea:

This one.

Everything about it, from its use of caricature to its genitalia, says that the subject here is fraught. It's race and it's gender, and, as a white guy, this is exactly where me being an idiot is going to make me an idiot. The trouble isn't with the sculpture. The trouble is with people who should be able to read the clues and choose not to.
posted by maxsparber at 11:21 AM on July 2 [18 favorites]


I think the problem boils down to one simple fact: people are shit.

yes, especially white people who look at a 75 foot long Mammy-Sphinx sculpture made entirely of sugar, specifically designed to provoke at least a nanosecond of thought about the dehumanization of black people & black women, and think, "you know, I should lick this thing's ass. that would be hilarious"
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:22 AM on July 2 [11 favorites]


Not being an ass doesn't require "historical understanding" in this instance. Racist caricatures are still a thing. Racism is still a thing. Violence against women, especially black women, is still a thing. It merely requires listening to all the people talking about it. And there are a lot of people talking about it.

Showing up and waiting in a line indicates that you have heard about this piece of art. It is basically inconceivable that you have not had the opportunity to hear about what this piece of art is about if you are showing up to see it. None of that is having a deep knowledge of history. It is merely having the willingness to listen to people talk about things happening in the present.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:35 AM on July 2 [4 favorites]


Walker uses subtlety in both ways in the Art:21 piece. Anyway, this sculpture partially about power and I'm pretty sure that ass licking is on the sub side of things...so this sculpture is still the boss even if people want to pose with it like dummies (and then post the pictures online - gotta admit I don't understand that). It doesn't lose any of it's power by people posing like idiots with it. The sculpture doesn't really need a defense because it's unassailable.
posted by mike_bling at 11:36 AM on July 2


This is a pretty great post — I'd already seen about five of the links, but I'm enjoying going deeper.

I do think that there's a point about Walker playing the provocateur and her own position in relation to other blacks, just as I think it's probably pretty accurate to think that she was fully aware that there was going to be racist-ass behavior from white folks over this. I am curious if any black folks have done the offensive selfie thing there.

I haven't seen this show (not likely to either, what with living in LA), but I have seen other big retrospectives from Walker, and they're really complicated pieces for me to engage with. They're technically amazing, but what my experience was with the large-scale caricature silhouettes was that with room after room of them, the power of any one of them (or any five, or ten…) gets numbed by the repetition of atrocity. It's similar to how Holocaust art can get numbing too, or even the related problem of numbness from photojournalism around atrocities — during the major part of the most recent Iraq War, seeing yet another family ripped apart by a truck bomb or airstrike became part of the banality of evil.

I don't get the sense that the same thing is happening with the white viewers at this piece, though they may be desensitized to racist iconography in general. There's also the weird historization of racism that I think is complicated in this piece — it can be easy to dismiss racism, especially when represented through archaic caricatures, as something of the past. To that extent, the selfies that are then intended parts of the piece would help ground the racism in the present, but that's complicated by how hard it is to imagine that these selfies are taken with any self awareness. Which is another way that I think the Nicholas Powers essay had a legitimate critique of Walker, in sort of an inversion of the regular mantra that ironic racism is still racism — a lot of people seem to have interpreted Walker's ironic appropriation as confirmation of their own behavior as OK and not deeply fucked up.
posted by klangklangston at 11:36 AM on July 2 [3 favorites]


Not to deracialize this conversation, because that's importantly the whole crux of the matter here, but I feel like there's also this thing now where people rarely grant each other the courtesy or psychic space of being able to have an observant, maybe emotional moment in public. And yeah, I think mobile technologies contribute a lot to this. Of course, bringing it back around to race, in this case it's also ultimately derived from willful ignorance of the fact that this piece of art might carry real, extra-aesthetic meaning to real people and that they might want some emotional privacy or respect in which to observe their feelings.
posted by threeants at 11:42 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


The first photo on the ArtNet article is a black dude with his tongue out, so yeah this isn't just white people being racist or something.

I should also admit I went to a park full of soviet-era sculptures near Budapest and did stupid poses with pretty much all of them. This was pre-instagram so I had to wait for the photos to be developed, luckily. Now I can see that if there had been people who like lived under soviet rule being very offended by that. But honestly, I don't know what else you're supposed to do if you're posing with a sculpture other than act like an idiot. It's an inherently stupid activity.
posted by mike_bling at 11:43 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I am curious if any black folks have done the offensive selfie thing there.

I think the very first example on the Artnet link in the FPP is a black guy doing the "licking" thing.

I'm actually interested to know just how much of a "thing" the "offensive selfie" is, in fact. I went off to an Instagram viewer and went through the first 100-150 shots labeled with the tag #karawalkerdomino. I didn't see a single selfie (in the strict sense of a photo you take holding the camera yourself). I saw a few shots of people posing in front of the sphinx: those all seemed perfectly "respectful" here-I-am-at-this-show type shots (and, interestingly, a slight majority of the subjects of those shots were black). The vast majority of the shots were just photos of the statue or of other pieces in the show--not in any way obviously mocking or what have you. Maybe it was an unrepresentative sample, maybe it was the effect of the "We Are Here" people--or maybe it's kinda inevitable that a show that attracts thousands upon thousands of viewers will attract a few insensitive assholes along with the rest?
posted by yoink at 11:43 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I'm actually interested to know just how much of a "thing" the "offensive selfie" is, in fact. I went off to an Instagram viewer and went through the first 100-150 shots labeled with the tag #karawalkerdomino. I didn't see a single selfie (in the strict sense of a photo you take holding the camera yourself). I saw a few shots of people posing in front of the sphinx: those all seemed perfectly "respectful" here-I-am-at-this-show type shots (and, interestingly, a slight majority of the subjects of those shots were black). The vast majority of the shots were just photos of the statue or of other pieces in the show--not in any way obviously mocking or what have you. Maybe it was an unrepresentative sample, maybe it was the effect of the "We Are Here" people--or maybe it's kinda inevitable that a show that attracts thousands upon thousands of viewers will attract a few insensitive assholes along with the rest?

Are you hypothesizing that the authors of the articles are fabricating the behavior they claim to have seen? Or that somehow all of the few people who witnessed upsetting behavior coincidentally happened to write high-profile journalistic pieces about it?
posted by threeants at 11:46 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I just realized what this reminds me of. I can't remember the artist, but there was a piece at the Brooklyn Museum a few years ago, with a piano, and a broken bench with a tree coming through it, and it was autoplaying "Strange Fruit" in this incredibly haunting way. And you'd have some people on the outside of the circle being kind of afraid to approach it, and then you had people barging down the center like it was just regular music.
posted by corb at 11:47 AM on July 2


Sanford Biggers’ Blossom.
posted by qi at 11:51 AM on July 2 [2 favorites]


In case someone doesn't get the pun of the work's title: a subtlety (historically) is the name of a dish presented that appears to be something other than what it is. Sculptural cakes are the easiest example, but a hard-boiled egg hot-formed and dyed into the shape of an apple is another.

So, in addition to the obvious sarcasm of calling this artwork "subtle", the artist is also riffing on "this is food that pretends to be a human" - just as the sugar subtly is made of human lives.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:52 AM on July 2 [4 favorites]


The first photo on the ArtNet article is a black dude with his tongue out, so yeah this isn't just white people being racist or something.

Yes. Black men certainly aren't immune to internalizing racism and then enacting it in conjunction with sexism to perpetuate misogynoiristic tropes. I'm not sure how this even poses a distraction to the separate but related issue of white people acting racist, especially since white people bring separate power dynamics to the table as well.
posted by Conspire at 11:53 AM on July 2 [4 favorites]


I feel like there's also this thing now where people rarely grant each other the courtesy or psychic space of being able to have an observant, maybe emotional moment in public. And yeah, I think mobile technologies contribute a lot to this.

Oh, man, I literally just last night saw in an exhibit, a piece by a photographer whose "thing" is to take pictures of other people taking pictures of historic monuments on their cameraphones. In the one I saw, all you see is the person's held-out arms (the photographer was standing behind them), kind of in the way of the building so you couldn't see what it was...until you looked at the screen on the cameraphone and saw that it was the entrance gate to Auschwitz.

There just was something so unsettling about that on a few levels; part of it, though, was that it was a cameraphone - not because it was a selfie, it was a respectful picture, but something about cameraphones just feels so "semi-disposable", you know? It's like, cameraphones are for pictures of your butt and the cute thing your dog did, not for this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:55 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


Are you hypothesizing that the authors of the articles are fabricating the behavior they claim to have seen?

No, I'm wondering how prevalent that behavior was; i.e., what percentage of the thousands upon thousands of viewers who attended the show engaged in this kind of behavior. I don't think any of these articles are written by people who set up surveys to ensure they got a statistically representative sampling. You can kind of see the problem with inferring prevalence from the cases of people who did, in fact, witness bad behavior and then wrote about it. People who went to the show and did not witness such behavior are obviously not going to write essays about "Why I Remained Perfectly Calm in the Face of the Reasonable Behavior I Witnessed at Kara Walker's Show."
posted by yoink at 11:57 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


"Are you hypothesizing that the authors of the articles are fabricating the behavior they claim to have seen? Or that somehow all of the few people who witnessed upsetting behavior coincidentally happened to write high-profile journalistic pieces about it?"

More like, wondering about the fallacy of misleading vividness. They don't have to be fabricating it, and any of it happening at all is pretty appalling, but there's a difference between one person out of 100 doing it and 50.
posted by klangklangston at 11:58 AM on July 2 [1 favorite]


what percentage of the thousands upon thousands of viewers who attended the show engaged in this kind of behavior.

I was there - the answer is VERY HIGH
posted by Riton at 11:59 AM on July 2 [4 favorites]


I guess it kind of chips away at any sense of solidarity. Before everyone was fiddling around with handheld devices, you would all stand at the Auschwitz gate (or A Subtlety, or whatever) and, well, just do that together for a time. Maybe the woman next to you was thinking about what to eat for dinner, or maybe the guy on the other side was mentally locating the nearest bathroom, but facially speaking, as a temporary community the people in that space could observe together.
posted by threeants at 12:00 PM on July 2 [3 favorites]


In lieu of a widely-accepted quantitative scale for measuring upsettingness, I'll stick to believing that intelligent people's claims to be upset about something that is rightfully disturbing constitutes, itself, a problem ipso facto.
posted by threeants at 12:04 PM on July 2


No, I'm wondering how prevalent that behavior was; i.e., what percentage of the thousands upon thousands of viewers who attended the show engaged in this kind of behavior.

I get your larger point, yoink, but just to correct a mild misconception: a Brooklyn art exhibition which manages to attract "thousands upon thousands of viewers" would in and of itself be major news.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:07 PM on July 2


No, I'm wondering how prevalent that behavior was;

More like, wondering about the fallacy of misleading vividness.

I'm curious as to this response, as, in the first story, the author witnesses multiple examples of this behavior all three times he visits the sculpture, and then every other story has eyewitnesses describing seeing it.

I'd say this is a circumstance where questioning the prevalence feels like minimizing the subject, and isn't based on any actual evidence that this is rare, but instead a desire to question whether or not it happens as much as the eyewitnesses say it happens. And I don't understand that urge.
posted by maxsparber at 12:10 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I get your larger point, yoink, but just to correct a mild misconception: a Brooklyn art exhibition which manages to attract "thousands upon thousands of viewers" would in and of itself be major news.

All the reports I'm seeing of attendance place it in the thousands--and Creative Time have extended the opening hours because of its popularity. In every photo I've seen of the show that vast space is packed with people. I think "thousands upon thousands of viewers" is accurate.
posted by yoink at 12:13 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I'd say this is a circumstance where questioning the prevalence feels like minimizing the subject, and isn't based on any actual evidence that this is rare, but instead a desire to question whether or not it happens as much as the eyewitnesses say it happens. And I don't understand that urge.

The "actual evidence" I cited was the random sample of Instagram images I looked through. I also, though, recognize (and explicitly stated) that there could have been reasons for "selfies" (whether offensive or not) not featuring in the images I looked at.

And I'm not trying to "minimize" anything: I'm trying to get a handle on the actual prevalence of the offensive behavior described. It seems to me a significant question. It matters whether neo-Nazis, say, are 1% of the population of the US or 40%. Asking which is closer to the truth is not the same thing as saying that being a Nazi is cool.

What percentage of visitors to the show take selfies? What percentage of those selfies are "offensive" or "disrespectful"? Is there some sort of mass psychology that takes over in the space and turns everyone into a giggling jackass or are there a small bunch of assholes about whom the vast majority of visitors are embarrassed and offended? Do you have any idea? Does anyone? Did anyone here visit this show and not see people clowning it up in front of the sphinx? Or was behavior like that everyone's experience?
posted by yoink at 12:19 PM on July 2 [2 favorites]


What percentage of visitors to the show take selfies? What percentage of those selfies are "offensive" or "disrespectful"?

How would you go about finding this out, and, honestly, what different does it make? Why is "often enough that every single author of the linked FPP saw it and reported on it every single time they went" not enough of an answer to this question?
posted by maxsparber at 12:22 PM on July 2 [4 favorites]


It is a fair point that it matters whether neo-Nazis are 1% or 50% of a population, but that may be a bit of apples-and-oranges comparison - because neo-Nazis are intentional dumbshits, and this is activity which may be perpetuated by people who are unconscious that they're being dumbshits. You know? There's a difference between "I know DAMN well what history is like and it has led me to [foo] conclusion and fuck you" and "tra la la I kinda don't know about history ha ha look at this funny picture I'm taking wait what's that about history now and why is this insulting?"

And I think a lot of the pushback you're getting is because a lot of times, the whole "but it's only [baz] percent" argument is a defense tactic, a way of deflecting the issue as being something that "oh it's only a couple of dumbshits who do this, it can't be that big a problem". It sounds sort of like the "not all men" thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:24 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


Are you just interested out of, like, a general thirst for knowledge? Because we're not drafting public policy. We're not debating a proposed law. And in that light, demanding to pin down the percentage of people who engage in offensive behavior at A Subtlety-- which, given available data, is not particularly possible to know-- basically looks like an overture to a referendum on whether the authors were justified in feeling upset at what they experienced. And I mean, hey, if that's what we're doing, we can do that. But.
posted by threeants at 12:25 PM on July 2 [2 favorites]


"I'm curious as to this response, as, in the first story, the author witnesses multiple examples of this behavior all three times he visits the sculpture, and then every other story has eyewitnesses describing seeing it.

I'd say this is a circumstance where questioning the prevalence feels like minimizing the subject, and isn't based on any actual evidence that this is rare, but instead a desire to question whether or not it happens as much as the eyewitnesses say it happens. And I don't understand that urge.
"

Due respect, but if you don't understand "that urge," there's a fair chance you're not characterizing it correctly.

And the reason why it's salient for me is because Powers is criticizing Walker for the reactions to her piece, specifically as one black to another.

This is especially true if you note the context for the comment of mine you quoted: Threeants responded to Yoink by asking him if he was accusing the authors of fabrication. That's really loaded and not at all a fair characterization. With your response framing this as minimizing, you're also engaging with a loaded formulation over thinking about the question.

Would it make a difference if it was 1 person out of 1000? What if it was 999 people out of 1000? That matters to me in terms of how justified it is to criticize Walker for provoking.
posted by klangklangston at 12:25 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]




(Sorry if this seems nitpicky, but I feel like it sort of matters-- I don't see Powers as criticizing Walker. In the piece by Jamilah King that mentions him, King makes what could be construed as a potentially snarky comment about the artist, but Powers himself seems to be speaking specifically about the audience response. Though there are a lot of articles here and if it's in a different one that I'm missing, duly noted.)
posted by threeants at 12:31 PM on July 2


From Powers:
It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors. But why did we have to? Why did the organizers of We Are Here even have to do that work? Wasn’t the job of Walker or at least of Creative Time’s staff to curate a racially charged artwork? Yes, Walker has the freedom to express herself. Yes, Creative Time has the freedom to organize it. But what do you expect will happen if you put a giant sculpture of a nude black woman, as a Mammy no less, in a public space?

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!
I think that's fair to read as criticizing Walker over audience reactions to the piece.
posted by klangklangston at 12:41 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


That matters to me in terms of how justified it is to criticize Walker for provoking.

Well, perhaps you can understand my context, klang, which is that when people express their own experiences of oppression, they are often challenged on it, and one of those challenges is that it is not as severe as they claim.

Ultimately, I don't know if there is any way to know how often this happens. It happens enough to be a recognizable phenomenon, and we know this because it has been documented from a number of different sources. It happens often enough that we have a number of first person accounts of witnessing it and being distressed by it.

As to the question of Walker provoking these sorts of reactions -- from what I have read of her, she's witnessed the way some white people react to her work and been very upset by it, but I don't get any indication that she is deliberately provoking those sorts of reactions as an additional element to her work. I understand the author's sense that both Walker and the exhibit space should have been aware of the possibility of this reaction and by not addressing it they essentially created a safe space for it, which I think is a fair criticism, but even that author allows that this might have been an accident of poor planning than purposeful.

It is worth thinking about. They way we experience art is heavily mediated. There are already so many expectations about how to respond, what sort of behavior is appropriate. Mocking behavior that comes off as racially or sexually insensitive seems far outside the standards of behavior that are usually allowable when viewing art, and if it is happening often enough to be repeatedly witnessed, and the space has not taken formal steps to address it, it's easy to presume that they somehow think that sort of response is appropriate or acceptable.
posted by maxsparber at 12:41 PM on July 2 [2 favorites]


I don't see Powers as criticizing Walker.

In the first link, Powers says,

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!

posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:41 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure that Walker was absolutely aware of the kind of ignorance that would be on display amongst the viewers of the sculpture; I'm also fairly sure that she is using, in a sense, these reactions as a kind of voluntary performance piece which underlines, in the most brutal way, what the work is critiquing.

The link between sugar and slavery was referenced throughout 19th century writing-- sugar as spattered with the blood of slaves is a trope in poetry; the boycott of sugar which began in 1791 and continued through the early part of the 19th century bears witness to how common this knowledge was. Anyone who bought sugar knew that it was produced by slavery; just as we all know (or should know) that most of our clothes are produced by exploited children.

The point being: what Walker is addressing is not arcane knowledge or a historical relic of conditions long past. It's a living, breathing present, and the obscene selfies are a probably intended commentary on the piece. I have to believe that, otherwise I would despair. But despair is part of this artwork too. I think it's a brilliant piece and the emotions is confronts so powerfully, eliciting this sexist, raping mockery, bring it shining into consciousness.
posted by jokeefe at 12:45 PM on July 2 [4 favorites]


Thanks, apologies for missing that and thus mischaracterizing.
posted by threeants at 12:49 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


Not particularly related to this recent conversation, I just realized how ridiculously apropos it is that the venue of this work, around which black viewers feel white people's experience is squeezing theirs out, is in Brooklyn. And I have little doubt in my mind that this fact was not lost on the artist.
posted by threeants at 1:02 PM on July 2


(Not to be all LOLbrooklyn, but the gentrification issue there is real and in particular has a lot of symbolic currency.)
posted by threeants at 1:12 PM on July 2


> To that extent, the selfies that are then intended parts of the piece would help ground the racism in the present, but that's complicated by how hard it is to imagine that these selfies are taken with any self awareness.

This spurred off a brief chain of thoughts in which the first thought was: "Man, wouldn't it be great if there were some way of capturing the images people were taking as they were taking them and showing them on a huge screen in real time! That would make people..."

And the second thought, or continuation, was:

"...look up and see their selfies and grin and wave and take selfies of themselves against the background of their widescreen selfies. Sigh."
posted by languagehat at 1:49 PM on July 2 [4 favorites]


I don't really have a horse in first world racial politics, but can I just point out the blatant stupidity of the selfies in TFA? Jesus people, get some taste. This just moves me that much closer to supporting the banning of selfies altogether.
posted by signal at 1:53 PM on July 2


As mentioned upthread, I assume that in order to see this sculpture, you had to be coming to the factory specifically to see it; it's not like "hey I'm in the museum/on the street lalala OMG GIANT BOOBS let's take a picture." So how can you come specifically to see this without knowing that it deals with the history of slavery, and therefore, not comedy fodder? Ugh.
posted by emjaybee at 2:32 PM on July 2 [2 favorites]


Looking at the shameful Instagrams, all I can think is why do you think this is in any way acceptable? and who raised you to believe that behavior is at all appropriate? I can't even.

The first time I saw Kara Walker's art, I had just registered it as silhouette illustrations and gravitated towards it. Once I saw what it actually depicted, I felt nauseated and angry at the racism she depicted, and on some level complicit. My ancestors may have been this brutal towards blacks. How can you knowingly go into an exhibition like this and not be ready to engage on any level apart from LOLBUTTS? If you know enough to actively seek this out and pay the admission fee, why do you not know enough to behave in a respectful manner?
posted by pxe2000 at 2:46 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


Also, Alyx Vessey of the fascinating Feminist Music Geek blog has written about Walker here (her collaboration with Dan Bejar of Destroyer) and here (Walker's presence in the film I Am Love).
posted by pxe2000 at 2:49 PM on July 2


I'm going this weekend. I'm excited about it, because it's been a while since I've seen art that is so confrontational. I have been studying up in preparation, so I had seen a few of these articles, but not others. Many thanks to flex for providing them.

When discussing this with my (arts administration Master's Degree-having) wife the other night, I told her that I thought of two things: the Wall Street bull ("Charging Bull") and the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.

For the Bull, it's hysterical that all the shots are from the front (even the webcam is looking at the front), because almost everyone spends an equal amount of time around back, with the Bull's enormous balls. Balls that are polished bright by thousands or even millions of hands cupping them. When we visited with my mother-in-law, a fairly prim-n-proper lady, I was prepared for her to cluck over this silliness. But no, she went and grabbed them both, in a way that made me concerned for my father-in-law, frankly. And of course, we took a picture, and of course she wanted me to send it to her friends. But the Bull is not A Subtlety.

A few years ago, I was in Berlin. Walking through the government/historical center, I headed for the Holocaust Memorial. It is powerful. And there are signs which admonish visitors that, despite their size and accessibility, the stones and the memorial are not a jungle gym. And these signs are in several languages. But it was a bright, warm July day, and sure enough, there were kids and parents(!) hopping from stone to stone, climbing up and down. There are guards, and they did the best they could, but there are a lot of people, and the memorial is in the open air.

I don't know what to do with people and their interactions with art. You could stretch and say that in some ways, the Bull is a stand-in for a brutal, bloody, awful machine that grinds people up until their constituent parts are fertilizer. I bet that, during the selection process, there was at least one person who said "Maybe we shouldn't make the Memorial so low and easily accessible. People might...." We can't predict how people will interact with art. In our more-meta modern world, the reaction is intended as a part of the art, as is clearly the case with A Subtlety.

Nonetheless, I think there is room to be clearly and distinctly horrified and/or disgusted by some people's reactions, and to do so without sympathy for them at all. Occasionally, it occurs to me that social media is the great exposer of casual racism and ignorance. What jackasses might have previously only said/posted/shown to their friends is now exposed to the world. On the one hand, the sewage outflow pipe has a vastly greater diameter. On the other, well, we get to see just how many people have nothing but shit to offer.
posted by aureliobuendia at 3:36 PM on July 2 [3 favorites]


As evidenced by the vast numbers of Selfies In Serious Places, this problem is hardly confined to art by/about people of color. Which is why a lot of the talk of racism seems like it's diagnosing something other than the actual subject. What we see here is the way public displays of seriousness get chewed up by audiences that just want to have fun. Whether you're at a Kara Walker piece, or a Holocaust Memorial, or even one's sister's funeral, there will always be people allergic to solemnity. I think that's a terrible loss, but ymmv.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:56 PM on July 2 [2 favorites]


Not particularly related to this recent conversation, I just realized how ridiculously apropos it is that the venue of this work, around which black viewers feel white people's experience is squeezing theirs out, is in Brooklyn. And I have little doubt in my mind that this fact was not lost on the artist.

I believe that Creative Time was asked to commission the piece by the developer who is tearing down the Domino Sugar Factory to build a new luxury high-rise, so yes, gentrification had to have been on the mind of the artist.

Sugarcoating the Art of Real Estate
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:53 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


If the issue is that "white people" (or some white people) don't have the historical understanding to treat the piece with the gravity it deserves, whose fault is that?

The white people?

I've made my way through a couple of the articles and it seems to me like the totally inappropriate reactions are indeed part of the work. As said above, it seems like Walker made something in a very deliberate way to show that just because slavery is over, it doesn't mean racism is.

But I say that as someone who isn't going to get to see the piece in context, and I'm white, so maybe I'm seeing the wrong thing here.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:12 PM on July 2 [3 favorites]



If the issue is that "white people" (or some white people) don't have the historical understanding to treat the piece with the gravity it deserves, whose fault is that?

The white people?


Yeah I don't know what else the answer would be here.
posted by sweetkid at 7:26 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah I don't know what else the answer would be here.

I wrote the original comment and I'll admit to writing quickly and not doing a good job of explaining what I meant. I meant that if people (of any skin color) are confused by the meaning of the piece, then possibly an opportunity was missed for the artist to teach. And it was formulated as a question: I'm not sure I agree that Kara Walker actually missed that opportunity -- I was literally looking for discussion because I *don't know* what to make of all of this, but the "white people" phrasing I keep seeing makes me uncomfortable.

I hold to my last line of that comment: "Really tough to write about something so racially fraught"

It is.

And I feel, now, like I need to apologize for even trying.
posted by chasing at 8:27 PM on July 2


If it helps, I'm an Indian American woman and feel like I don't understand a lot of what's going on with this piece and can't really speak well to the reaction or what it should be. I personally feel like my place is to sit back a bit because of my own privilege and a lack of connective history to this experience.

I think it's ok not to know what to make of it but I don't think it's Kara Walker's fault that people don't know what to make of it (this is not blaming you chasing, just an attempt to give you the discussion you were looking for).
posted by sweetkid at 9:19 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


It's about as subtle as a brick to the face.

That was my first thought, too, and then I saw that one dictionary definition of subtle is “arranged in an ingenious and elaborate way.” (Which I guess also refers to the foods mentioned above by EmpressCallipygos, cjelli, IAmBroom, and languagehat.)
posted by LeLiLo at 11:50 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


The first I heard of The Sugarbaby and Kara Walker was in the article I linked above, and I couldn't understand how it could be effective as a piece evoking the memory of slavery when it was also part of a celebration, in effect, of gentrification.

Seeing pictures of it on Facebook and Instagram (however respectful the ones in my particular feed were) did nothing to make me want to see it, but this post has now got me really curious, because it seems it really is about the interaction of people. There will probably be a lot less vulgar instagramming now that this discussion is out there, but it will be interesting to see.

(I can't go until Sunday, the last day!!! I hope I can even get in)
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:05 AM on July 3


I was literally looking for discussion because I *don't know* what to make of all of this, but the "white people" phrasing I keep seeing makes me uncomfortable. I hold to my last line of that comment: "Really tough to write about something so racially fraught" It is. And I feel, now, like I need to apologize for even trying.

Actually, what you probably should apologize for is trying to make this discussion All About You.

I'm white too - and I'm still not familiar with what to make of all this either. And the way I deal with that is by listening to what other people say, rather than getting caught up in the "white people" phrasing. I just figure that maybe there's a reason that phrasing is being used, and since I'm not a person of color I don't understand that perspective firsthand, and so maybe if I stay quiet they'll expound upon what it's like and I'll also learn what to make of all of this in the process, and I'll learn something. It may be a tiny bit uncomfortable, yeah, but maybe it's more like "first time trying to ride a bike" uncomfortable - where you're just getting the hang of something new - rather than "guy's armpit in your face on the subway" uncomfortable.

If the conversation is about someone else's reality, sometimes the best thing to do is just sit back and listen more. That goes for race, gender, sexuality, political views, ice cream preference, anything.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:22 AM on July 3 [3 favorites]


That multiple ethnicities (black, Asian, Hispanic, middle eastern) have all taken the EXACT same selfie at this exhibit kinda blows the "white racist privilege" accusation out of the water.

This conversation may be about someone else's reality, but mostly it's about the author holding white people to a different standard of behavior at racially themed art installations.....and seething with so much anger that they had to yell, accuse and admonish white visitors for being nothing more than clueless and inappropriate.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 6:52 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


I somehow doubt that if it were a pair of Asian folk who happened to be taking a selfie at the moment the author showed up, that she would have just shrugged and said "oh well".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:56 AM on July 3 [3 favorites]


Ummm, it was an Asian-American posing that finally caused the author to yell. It's in the article.

What Asian Americans have to do with "black pain/white laughter", the author never explains.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 7:07 AM on July 3 [3 favorites]


wow! callous indifference to historical and present black suffering is common to all races! why is this black writer mad
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:19 AM on July 3 [9 favorites]


Well, that's my point. I don't understand what the writer is actually mad about.

All races have been guilty of callous indifference at the exhibit, including blacks, yet he pats himself on the back for calling out "white gaze".
posted by BlerpityBloop at 7:38 AM on July 3


[looks at a country where white people are systemically treated better than those of all other races and black people are systemically treated worst] my, what a coincidence. I don't see what Mr Powers is fussing about. this is clearly an issue of individual persons.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:52 AM on July 3 [6 favorites]


I think there's a difference between "All humans are shitty, of all races" and "Only a few people are awful."

That sad, he may be more upset at white dismissal of the exhibit because he feels whites have, or should have, the most blame or shame to bear, and the fact that they are not only holding that, but going beyond into mockery or clowning, is a slap in the face, insult in addition to injury.
posted by corb at 7:58 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


Mr Powers seems to be fussing about tourists posing inappropriately in front of a naked sugar woman, confusing it with white privilege.

He then goes on to congratulate himself: "It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors" completely oblivious that black people also have taken the exact same photo.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 7:59 AM on July 3 [2 favorites]


Oh for fuck's sake. Yes, I'm sure this African-American professor, who spends his career teaching and writing about race and American culture, is "confused" about white privilege. Glad you could clear that up that for him, Internet expert! After all, it's not like he has both a Ph.D. and a lifetime of personal experience about this subject while you're drive-by bullshitting.

holding white people to a different standard of behavior at racially themed art installations

What's wrong with that?

and seething with so much anger that they had to yell

What's wrong with that?

All races have been guilty of callous indifference at the exhibit, including blacks, yet he pats himself on the back for calling out "white gaze".

Yeah, gee, I wonder why he might do that? It's almost as if he thinks this is a culturally complicated work of art, imbricated with centuries of ugly history and tapping into a still-ugly vein in contemporary American life, and so a moronic "colorblind" parity test doesn't do justice to the very different implications when similar-seeming reactions to it come from very different people!
posted by RogerB at 8:45 AM on July 3 [8 favorites]


"But black people do it too" has never been a very effective point to make in discussing this sort of thing.

Years ago, Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote an essay about domestic violence, and she used a phrase that I may be paraphrasing slightly, but it was, in essence, "with what weight does this fist fall." Her point was that domestic abuse was not simply an individual act of violence, but had significantly more meaning, because it represented a violent defense of a sexist system. A man abusing a female spouse is not just committing an act of violence, he is reenforcing a cultural message about the place of women in the home, and the place of women in relation to men, and reaffirming that this place will be enforced with violence, if need be.

When white people mock a racially charged image, or engage with it in a disrespectful way, it falls with greater weight than when black people do it, because we live in a society built on a racist system that advantaged white people and disadvantaged black people.

Nicholas Powers is an associate professor of English/Literature, not race and american culture.

Here is a sampling of the classes Dr. Powers teaches: Black Nonfiction, Black Women Writers, Literature of Class and Consciousness, Topics in Afro-American Literature, and Afro-American Poetry and Plays. I'm not really clear on why you're challenging him on his experiences as a black person, bit you might want to make sure you have your facts in place.
posted by maxsparber at 9:03 AM on July 3 [8 favorites]


"When white people mock a racially charged image, or engage with it in a disrespectful way, it falls with greater weight than when black people do it, because we live in a society built on a racist system that advantaged white people and disadvantaged black people"

But Powers flipped his lid when he saw an Asian posing for a picture. Not a white person.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 9:10 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


Oh, well. I guess non-black privilege isn't a thing, then, and the sculpture exists for no reason.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:13 AM on July 3 [2 favorites]


Sometimes it's not about us, blerp.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:15 AM on July 3 [2 favorites]


"Ummm, it was an Asian-American posing that finally caused the author to yell. It's in the article.

What Asian Americans have to do with "black pain/white laughter", the author never explains.
"

The quote: "I was late for a meeting and going to leave when a white man kneeled and aimed his camera at his Asian-American friend, who made a goofy face under the giant buttocks." (emph. mine)

Does that help you understand what it had to do with black pain/white laughter?

Well, that's my point. I don't understand what the writer is actually mad about.

All races have been guilty of callous indifference at the exhibit, including blacks, yet he pats himself on the back for calling out "white gaze".


It might be easier if you understood that there's systemic racism in America specifically directed at blacks.

"Mr Powers seems to be fussing about tourists posing inappropriately in front of a naked sugar woman, confusing it with white privilege. "

Honestly, I don't think you know enough about the terms that you're using to contribute productively to the conversation, especially since you've already demonstrated an inability to comprehend pretty basic things about the article.

He then goes on to congratulate himself: "It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors" completely oblivious that black people also have taken the exact same photo.

Yes, and?

Look, in pretty much every conversation about privilege, be it race, gender, class or sexuality, that you take part in, you stumble in trying to diminish, distract and deny. It's gotten to the point that it's what I recognize you from. Not any positive contributions, not any solid FPPs, but entitled whining whenever you see inequality discussed in a systemic setting. In each one of these conversations, you come across as either ignorant or incompetent (e.g. ignoring the white guy to focus on the Asian then wondering what it has to do with white people [which also flattens "people of color" to a homogenous mass]).

Is that how you want to be seen? Do you think you're making these conversations better? Do you think you're making this conversation better?
posted by klangklangston at 9:17 AM on July 3 [7 favorites]


But Powers flipped his lid when he saw an Asian posing for a picture. Not a white person.

"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."

That sure doesn't sound like he was responding to one thing.

" I was late for a meeting and going to leave when a white man kneeled and aimed his camera at his Asian-American friend, who made a goofy face under the giant buttocks."

The sounds like there was more than just "an Asian" involved.

You don't seem to be representing this story accurately. If you're doing so by accident, please reread it.
posted by maxsparber at 9:18 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


Why is the ethnicity of the photographer relevant when it's an Asian person making a goofy face? Who is engaging in "white gaze? Entitled buffoonery" in that scenario?

klang. This conversation was flawed from the beginning. An author attributing racial motivations to buffoonery that all races have engaged in.

Powers even laughed with Obama for taking a selfie at Mandela's funeral. How's that for entitled buffoonery?
posted by BlerpityBloop at 9:25 AM on July 3 [1 favorite]


[This needs to not become a one-against-the-world thread. BlerpityBloop, your confusion has been adequately expressed, and it's time to leave it even if you don't get it properly resolved. Thanks. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 9:32 AM on July 3 [3 favorites]


Wow, the level of apologist, derpity-derp, "some black people in this country are racists, so why are you calling out us middle-class, in-power, majority whites on it?" in this thread is staggering, just staggering; and I had thought myself fairly jaded on America's lack of self-awareness.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:51 AM on July 3 [3 favorites]


Sometimes it's not about us, blerp.

(Could you please stop dismissing people with this sort of comment?)
posted by chasing at 10:50 AM on July 3 [2 favorites]


There just was something so unsettling about that on a few levels; part of it, though, was that it was a cameraphone - not because it was a selfie, it was a respectful picture, but something about cameraphones just feels so "semi-disposable", you know? It's like, cameraphones are for pictures of your butt and the cute thing your dog did, not for this.

I've gotten this vibe from other bits of discussion about this. An important thing to note is that for a supermajority of 20somethings, and even moreso for the people younger than that, their phone is there camera. Very few people own a "serious" camera anymore. Smartphones have basically killed point and shoots now. The majority of the people i know who travel don't take a camera that isn't their phone. It would be easier to count the people i know who own a non-phone camera(especially one they acutally use) than to count the ones who don't, since it's such a small number.

Like, i get the vibe you're talking about, but it isn't really rooted in anything in 2014.
posted by emptythought at 3:35 PM on July 3


Wow, the level of apologist, derpity-derp, "some black people in this country are racists, so why are you calling out us middle-class, in-power, majority whites on it?" in this thread is staggering,

The point a number of people are making is that the disrespect visitors are showing for Walker's piece has less to do with race and more to do with a general disrespect for public memorials, or art. As evidence, people have noted that Walker's piece is not less respected than memorials about white people, and that people of color have been about as disrespectful to Walker's work as white people. If you have countering evidence, you can offer it. If you have an alternate explanation, you can awful it. If you belief the people of color taking disrespectful selfies are not refusing the solemnity the work asks, but are rather actively racist, and contemptuous of black pain, you can make that case. But misrepresenting what people said, together with some schoolyard blurbling, is crappy.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:40 PM on July 3 [2 favorites]


The point a number of people are making is that the disrespect visitors are showing for Walker's piece has less to do with race and more to do with a general disrespect for public memorials, or art.

Yes. Directly contradicting or ignoring huge swatches of testimonials by people who actually went to the exhibit. Is this something that really needs to be discussed, or can we take black people at their word that this is something they experienced?
posted by maxsparber at 6:59 PM on July 3 [2 favorites]


The point a number of people are making is that the disrespect visitors are showing for Walker's piece has less to do with race and more to do with a general disrespect for public memorials, or art.

And the point lots of other people are making in return is that context matters - this isn't arithmetic where 3+1 = 2+2 = 5-1 = the same number regardless of how you get there. White people reacting disrespectfully to the work exists in a different social, cultural, and historical context than non-African-American, non-"white" people acting disrespectfully, which in turn exists in an entirely different context from African-American reactions.

Insisting that the evidence of black people acting disrespectfully somehow cancels out the possibility that race plays a factor in how non-black people are interacting with the statue is heading deep into Not Even Wrong territory, because it's such a limited, myopic, and mechanistic view of how actual humans interact with each other and with works of art, singly or in groups.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:20 PM on July 3 [5 favorites]


"The point a number of people are making is that the disrespect visitors are showing for Walker's piece has less to do with race and more to do with a general disrespect for public memorials, or art."

And what I'd say to that is that it seems more likely that either a majority of the general disrespect is being coded through racist/white supremacist behavior, or that pure juvenile clowning seems like a minority of the overall disrespect. I was trying to suss out where the line was above, and from reading the essays and looking through the images it seems like the predominant portion is performed congruent with racist tropes.

"As evidence, people have noted that Walker's piece is not less respected than memorials about white people, and that people of color have been about as disrespectful to Walker's work as white people."

1) They've offered evidence that "memorials about white people" are disrespected; they have not, as far as I can tell, offered evidence that they are not more respected.

2) They've offered evidence that black people have been disrespectful to Walker's work; they have not offered evidence that people of color have been equally disrespectful to Walker's work either in gross numbers or percentage.

"If you have countering evidence, you can offer it. If you have an alternate explanation, you can awful it."

Given 1 and 2 above, that's begging the question.

So, I don't think that it's been demonstrated that the disrespect has less to do with race than general disrespect. And I think that framing the argument in the implicit terms that if one person of color clowns then there isn't a problem with racist reactions but rather with just general clowning is flawed for a couple of reasons.

It ignores that we have some evidence for racist modes of clowning, most explicitly the "gangsta pose." And I think this is worth thinking about more broadly too, because of the general context of both the specific work and the white supremacist culture of the US. The work is explicitly provoking a racially contextualized reaction by grounding so much in the explicitly racist history of slavery and sugar, and by doing things like presenting the mammy face in the bone white of sugar, she's asking for people to think about race and color as they look at the work. Almost literally, any clowning selfies are going to be seen with a backdrop of both white supremacism and sexism. That also means that any lazy clowning will by default be coded as having a racial context, which is something all visitors are responsible for being aware of, and because of the greater chance for causing harm, white visitors have a greater duty to be aware of.

Along with that, the argument would imply that one is either just generally disrespectful or racially disrespectful. As I pointed out, those can have a pretty wide overlap, which is especially unsurprising when you remember that America is still a pretty racist society overall (and deeply in denial over that).

It's also worth pointing out that there's another axis here that has been eclipsed with this argument about race, that of sexism. The Subtlety is explicitly gendered, with monumentally large breasts and vulva. There again, the work itself provokes a response to its sexuality, and that we have photos of mostly men and some women being disrespectful there means that there's another option besides racist or neutrally disrespectful. Obviously, the three can (and do) overlap.

Futher, as I think is pretty uncontroversial, American culture is still meaningfully white supremacist — not in the neo-nazi sense, but the more literal idea of privileging whites over blacks generally. This is implicit now, but was explicit for many years. Because of that, some people of color will be disrespectful in a way that echoes the broader disrespect for people of color in America. The presence of black people clowning on the Subtlety therefore isn't inherently exculpatory.

So, it doesn't seem reasonable to argue that the disrespect visitors are showing for Walker's piece has less to do with race and more to do with a general disrespect. Separating the two is impossible, and with the explicit racial cues of the work people disrespecting have the burden for being disrespectful in a way that doesn't invoke racist tropes.
posted by klangklangston at 7:30 PM on July 3 [5 favorites]


I've seen Kara Walker's work for a long time. The first time I saw it my jaw maybe literally dropped because here were these silhouettes of wildly racist stereotypes engaged in extreme examples of the behaviors the stereotypes were exemplifying. If you image-search google for 'Kara Walker' you'll see some examples of this. When I realized she was a black woman who knew exactly what she was doing, (I read the bio. at the gallery desk) I realized I had better think about this again.
I bring my own predilections to art, the first being that the artist has thought long and hard about the images they are using and how they are using them and if I work at it, I can learn something.
And so whenever I see her work I think,
1. What the hell - what is this crazy shit? This is some crazy racist…
2. What's the difference between this being shown in a gallery and out on the street, as paste-up graffiti? Or as illustrations in some magazine? Because there's precedence of these kinds of images being out in the public, visual discourse. So, in some way, the gallery becomes a laboratory to look at these kinds of images (away from pop culture context) and consider what they are: The extremism of the images highlights the absurdity of them and comments further otherwise.
But it's a gallery, it's not entirely separate from the pop culture universe - is it enough? People coming in off the street, some knee-jerk racist asshat what are they going to think? That this is great? As it should be? And is that something 'we' want perpetrated?
3. What does K.W. want from this work? Anything? She's set up a series of expectations and answered them; but in the process she's also drawing on a part of American history that is absolutely not resolved. Is it resolved in the art-work? I don't think so. So she's reminding us that this shit is still out there, still a live wire. (Without condoning it).
And here's the thing, I think it's not the artist's job to tell us what to think - I think it's the artist's job to put the object out there and let the viewer make of it what they will. And if the work is strong, the viewer will - slowly or quickly - come around to a way of thinking that is in line with the artist's, and in that case it has to be one of almost hysterical condemnation.

The real hum-dinger for me is how calmly Ms. Walker talks about her work - now that is a feat. Instead of being outspokenly 'listen! for the love of all that is sacred!', she talks about all sorts of other things, leaving at the center a big hole, filled by the artwork, a 30 foot tall Sphinx of sugar. I mean, come on! That's the real piece of art in this whole thing!
posted by From Bklyn at 5:40 AM on July 4 [9 favorites]


Upon a little reflection, this reminds me of the many think-pieces in the 90s around people's inappropriate reactions to Schindler's List, that decade's Great Big Public Memorial. The disconnect between the gravity of events it evoked and the grubby reality of popular spectacle, was a subject of mockery by well-known anti-Semite Jerry Seinfeld. But the real shock came when a group of black teenagers laughed during the execution scene. This failure to pay a Hollywood movie the respect due to a historical tragedy came at a time when "black anti-Semitism" was much in the news, the Crown Heights riots only a few years back, and it was the subject of many earnest thumbsuckers, and even a visit from Spielberg himself, a man as scarred by the camps as Ronald Reagan. Lost in the discussion was any question of whether qualities of the artwork were responsible for failing to sink all viewers into three hours of unbroken solemnity (a particularly pertinent question given the unmistakably comic rhythm of the offending scene), nor whether it was right that people chuckled at Seinfeld's mockery but freaked out at the snickers of a bunch of high school kids on a mandatory field trip.

I've really liked Walker's work ever since I first saw the silhouette pieces---they were brutal and terrifying, but beautiful, with a formal certainty that made them impossible to deny. But "A Subtlety" struck me as doomed from the first press release. It's a one-joke piece, easily summarized and losing little by description, whose meaning was largely dependent on a context that wasn't communicated in the work itself. Worse still, it was marketed as a groovy free summer activity, which guaranteed a steady stream of selfie-takers looking f'r a larf. Nonetheless, no work of art gets to be treated as synonymous with the historical event it memorializes, however much artists might wish otherwise.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:09 PM on July 4 [3 favorites]


That description of the events surrounding Schindler's list strikes me as purposelessly shitty. Is there a way you can address people you disagree with without mockery and referring to them as "thumbsuckers," or do you only want to address disagreement in terms of your own nasty paraphrases of history?
posted by maxsparber at 10:34 AM on July 5


"Thumbsucker" is a technical term in journalism.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:32 PM on July 5


But yes, the term does convey the contempt most real journalists, who do research and synthesize information, feel for the writers of these hand-wringing think-pieces, which thrive on a lack of knowledge. Just as my summary above conveys, I hope, my contempt for those who treated a Hollywood movie as synonymous with the Holocaust, or treat a big, expensive, not necessarily all that good art industry product as synonymous with the historical crime of slavery.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:51 PM on July 5 [1 favorite]


For another perspective, meet Robert Shelton, who worked in that sugar factory for twenty years. In retirement, he volunteers as a docent for the exhibit. Shelton places the huge sugar statue in its context:
“It almost talks to you; it’s alive,” Mr. Shelton said on Tuesday. “Something just comes over you.”
posted by Jesse the K at 6:01 PM on July 5 [3 favorites]


I'm sick of the "if white people don't get it then WHOSE FAULT IS IT REALLY" derail that keeps coming up in these kinds of discussions. If you don't get it, it's because you're ignorant and don't want to do the work to educate yourself.

Whites already own and run the entire country. And, yet, you dare to claim that you are somehow not responsible for your own education, primarily when it comes to difficult truths presented by people of color. No, it's apparently not enough for you to be babied and coddled everywhere else: now it's all about you and your remedial failure to think, and we all have to lift you out of your ignorance or the art just doesn't work.

Enough. The rest of us carry you in every other goddamned area of society, and we're not going to carry you in thus. If you don't get it, I don't care. Educate yourself, and shut your mouth until you do, because the rest of us don't owe you shit, much less an explanation for what's immediately graspable by anyone who isn't white.

Bullshit it doesn't quite work. It works fine for anyone of color. It just doesn't work for you because you are so marinated in white privilege that you are literally incapable of understanding anything that doesn't cater to you.

And, you know, I'm fine with you not liking that. I'm fine with you bring aggrieved about being left out. I'm fine with it baffling you and confusing you and making you mad. Because you deserve every goddamned iota of those feelings. You are ignorant and proud of it, and you have the gall to ask everyone else to solve your laziness.

Solve it yourself.
posted by scrump at 8:25 AM on July 6 [6 favorites]


Scrump, I agree with you that most of these photos were probably taken due to ignorance, not racism. Education in this country has been gutted -- for students of all races -- and the fact of the matter is that the minority experience is not properly taught. Despite all of the attention paid the the selfie-ers, I suspect Kara Walker reached a lot of people with this piece and helped them understand -- or reminded them about -- this part of our shared history. If there's a piece of our history that you think is not properly told or understood, then you should tell it! Otherwise "white people" will continue telling only their stories and the situation will never change.
posted by chasing at 10:33 AM on July 6


"Scrump, I agree with you that most of these photos were probably taken due to ignorance, not racism."

I don't think that's what scrump was saying, and I don't think that attempting to separate the two (ignorance and racism) is possible, and I think trying to separate them as you are comes across as being a white guy dismissing racism.

That you understand more that "white people" need to tell their stories, while simultaneously ignoring the points of the story told at the very top by a black man, is a bit of an awkward contradiction.
posted by klangklangston at 12:05 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


As one white guy named Josh to another: What on earth are you talking about?
posted by chasing at 12:27 PM on July 6


Bullshit it doesn't quite work. It works fine for anyone of color.

You did notice that there were a lot of anyones of color clowning on the Walker piece, right? Or do they not count?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:49 PM on July 6


How many is "a lot"? "Count" for what?

As I said, "Futher, as I think is pretty uncontroversial, American culture is still meaningfully white supremacist — not in the neo-nazi sense, but the more literal idea of privileging whites over blacks generally. This is implicit now, but was explicit for many years. Because of that, some people of color will be disrespectful in a way that echoes the broader disrespect for people of color in America. The presence of black people clowning on the Subtlety therefore isn't inherently exculpatory."
posted by klangklangston at 4:56 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


chasing: Scrump, I agree with you that most of these photos were probably taken due to ignorance, not racism....

Wow. You're actually whitesplaining.
posted by IAmBroom at 6:12 PM on July 6 [2 favorites]


Just a question, but isn't racism a form of ignorance?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:22 AM on July 7 [1 favorite]


> Just a question, but isn't racism a form of ignorance?

No, it's not. Ignorance is not knowing; racism is disliking/fearing. You can dislike/fear what you know or (as in the case of anti-Semites in my college classes in Taiwan who had never met a Jew) what you don't; the two conditions are not related.
posted by languagehat at 9:25 AM on July 7 [1 favorite]


How many is "a lot"?

Enough to make "It works fine for anyone of color" a silly (and offensively essentializing) statement.

Count" for what?

Enough to make it just mayyyybe possible that people of color clowning on the work are not internalizing white supremacy, but just disrespecting a piece of art that they think does a bad job of evoking that. That's the thing about Walker's play with stereotypes---when it works, it's really lacerating, but when it doesn't, it's just ugly bullshit.

But hey, if you want to tell people of color that their artistic judgements reflect their internalized racist self-hatred, give it a shot. Post pictures.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:53 AM on July 7 [1 favorite]


racism is disliking/fearing

Racism is a dislike/fear based on race, which would come from an imagined superiority/inferiority, not just a simple dislike. I dislike tomatoes, but it's not based on an ignorant sense of tomatoes being somehow inferior, however your Taiwanese anti-semites hated jews believe in some sort of difference that is not there.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 10:23 AM on July 7


"Enough to make "It works fine for anyone of color" a silly (and offensively essentializing) statement. "

So, your definition of "a lot" is "any." From looking through the links, I see one black guy, a mention of an Asian American and … maybe a racially ambiguous woman? Versus multiple reports of white people. Would you object to "it works fine for the vast majority of people of color"?

"Enough to make it just mayyyybe possible that people of color clowning on the work are not internalizing white supremacy, but just disrespecting a piece of art that they think does a bad job of evoking that. That's the thing about Walker's play with stereotypes---when it works, it's really lacerating, but when it doesn't, it's just ugly bullshit."

So, one black guy, one Asian guy and one racially-ambiguous woman are enough to make you think that the clowning hasn't been overwhelmingly racially coded? Really? Why?

Further, as I noted before: People of color clowning isn't exculpatory for the white audience; it suggests alternate explanations but doesn't demonstrate them as primary. You need a separate justification if you want to let them off the hook, and all you seem to have is that two to three people of color were also disrespectful.

"But hey, if you want to tell people of color that their artistic judgements reflect their internalized racist self-hatred, give it a shot. Post pictures."

Your argument was "The point a number of people are making is that the disrespect visitors are showing for Walker's piece has less to do with race and more to do with a general disrespect for public memorials, or art."

I pointed out that people of color being disrespectful wasn't exculpatory and gave a reason for that. Do you disagree with the reasoning? What parts?

Do you see how your comment is part of a pattern on your part to deny, diminish and dismiss allegations of racism or sexism? If not, what would help you understand how you're being read? This is a regular criticism of your comments. Do you think this is simply because everyone else is being unfair to you? Why would that be?

I don't think you've supported your contention very well at all, and I think that mayyyyyybe being sarcastic isn't the best way for you to support your contention. Do you feel like you're making an effective argument now?
posted by klangklangston at 2:04 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


"Enough to make "It works fine for anyone of color" a silly (and offensively essentializing) statement. "

So, your definition of "a lot" is "any." From looking through the links, I see one black guy, a mention of an Asian American and … maybe a racially ambiguous woman? Versus multiple reports of white people. Would you object to "it works fine for the vast majority of people of color"?

Well, "any" is enough to make clear that "anyone" isn't accurate. If you're going to say "It works fine for the vast majority of people of color", then I'm gonna ask you for a cite. Because seeing anyone, especially a white dude, pronouncing on what "the vast majority of people of color" think is obnoxious. Treating "people of color" as a monolith is problematic even when your intentions are virtuous.

I pointed out that people of color being disrespectful wasn't exculpatory and gave a reason for that. Do you disagree with the reasoning? What parts?

As far as I can see (and please elaborate if I'm misunderstanding), your point was "Racism exists, therefore the white people clowning on this sculpture are motivated by racism, white supremacy, and/or a desire to diminish the crime of slavery." That's not reasoning, it's just an assertion, so there's nothing to disagree with. You simply haven't shown anything that suggests they clown because they don't care about the things the sculpture wishes to evoke, rather than the equally plausible possibility that they don't find the sculpture evokes it.

Do you see how your comment is part of a pattern on your part to deny, diminish and dismiss allegations of racism or sexism? If not, what would help you understand how you're being read? This is a regular criticism of your comments. Do you think this is simply because everyone else is being unfair to you? Why would that be?

I think there's a pattern on your part, and others, to assume that anything that can possibly be attributed to racism must be. I understand that on Metafilter, that can seem like a pattern of diminishment, because many Mefites, yourself included, love styling themselves the racism hunters, and are uninterested in anything that might suggest other motives.

What's especially problematic about this is the despair it creates. You seek out things that could be racism, or could be something else entirely; then you confidently pronounce it to be racism; then everyone's upset because the world is so full of racism. It's the actions of someone who wants to be congratulated for their virtue, rather than helping anyone live.

Kara Walker's sculpture is not a slave. Kara Walker's sculpture is a piece of art. And high on the list of things I hate is the tendency to treat high-minded art as though its intentions must be considered its effects. Hence the comparison to Schindler's List in my above comment, a similar case where people insisted that a (pompous, bloated) piece of art be treated with the respect due to a survivor of trauma.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:27 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


> Racism is a dislike/fear based on race, which would come from an imagined superiority/inferiority, not just a simple dislike. I dislike tomatoes, but it's not based on an ignorant sense of tomatoes being somehow inferior, however your Taiwanese anti-semites hated jews believe in some sort of difference that is not there.

I have no idea whether you're disagreeing or agreeing with me, or what point you're trying to make. But that seems fitting for this thread.
posted by languagehat at 5:26 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]


"Well, "any" is enough to make clear that "anyone" isn't accurate. If you're going to say "It works fine for the vast majority of people of color", then I'm gonna ask you for a cite. Because seeing anyone, especially a white dude, pronouncing on what "the vast majority of people of color" think is obnoxious. Treating "people of color" as a monolith is problematic even when your intentions are virtuous."

Scrump was saying that educating oneself about the art, as far as I can tell replying to Chasing's comment here.

In that context, the "it" working is educating oneself about race, ("Educate yourself, and shut your mouth until you do, because the rest of us don't owe you shit, much less an explanation for what's immediately graspable by anyone who isn't white"), something I think both of us mistook when arguing. If not, and you were arguing with that contention, you should make that clear.

As far as the vast majority of people of color being able to grasp the racial connotations of the work, are you arguing that there's an undocumented majority of people of color who can't grasp the work? Because the majority of the evidence we have, in essays and the We Are Here documentation, shows people of color pretty respectfully interacting with the work.

Frankly, your continued pretense that the presence of a few clowning people of color negates the overall experience is much more in line with treating people of color as a monolithic mass — otherwise, there's no way to support your contention that this is more about disrespect than race. That would be an unsupported opinion if you weren't using people of color as a rhetorical tool.

"As far as I can see (and please elaborate if I'm misunderstanding), your point was "Racism exists, therefore the white people clowning on this sculpture are motivated by racism, white supremacy, and/or a desire to diminish the crime of slavery." That's not reasoning, it's just an assertion, so there's nothing to disagree with. You simply haven't shown anything that suggests they clown because they don't care about the things the sculpture wishes to evoke, rather than the equally plausible possibility that they don't find the sculpture evokes it."

You do misunderstand, at several points.

1) Racism exists in this country primarily as a legacy of white supremacy. Therefore, in front of a monument to the cruelty and power of that white supremacism, it is reasonable for people of color to experience disrespect aimed at that monument as disrespect also aimed at them and reinforcing white supremacy.

The assertion is that racism exists primarily in this country as a legacy of white supremacy. If you'd like to argue against that assertion being a valid one, you're welcome to. But basically, because of the context, white disrespect will read as echoing past white racism.

2) That's not related to the quoted portion of what I said, which was much narrower and specifically about your repeated attempts to use people of color as get-out-of-racism-free cards.

So you've erred twice, both in being able to fairly summarize my broader arguments and choosing the wrong part to summarize.

"You simply haven't shown anything that suggests they clown because they don't care about the things the sculpture wishes to evoke, rather than the equally plausible possibility that they don't find the sculpture evokes it."

That's tendentious in the extreme, and mistakes the burden of the clowns. As they are in a context that explicitly evokes racist tropes, the burden is on them to not replicate racist tropes if they don't wish to be seen as racist. Therefore, it is not equally plausible that they have other motivations; they have given no demonstration thereof. This is special pleading on your behalf. Why do you think you're performing apologia for white people accused of racism?

"I think there's a pattern on your part, and others, to assume that anything that can possibly be attributed to racism must be. I understand that on Metafilter, that can seem like a pattern of diminishment, because many Mefites, yourself included, love styling themselves the racism hunters, and are uninterested in anything that might suggest other motives. "

So, the problem is that everyone else is simply seeing racism where it doesn't exist (and sexism too, I assume). What evidence, specifically, do you have that I enjoy "styling [my]self the racism hunter"? For someone given to skeptical epistemology in racism, where other motivations appear as halos around white heads accused of racism, what other motivations might my comments have? I notice you didn't imply that I might legitimately be offended by racism. Further, it seems pretty implausible to argue that someone who said, "More like, wondering about the fallacy of misleading vividness. They don't have to be fabricating it, and any of it happening at all is pretty appalling, but there's a difference between one person out of 100 doing it and 50," is uninterested in other motives — I specifically asked about them because I was curious, then read through more of the material, and in the end the sense that I got was that there were enough to prompt the Powers essay and the We Are Here action, meaning that there were a significant enough number of them that more than one group of black people felt moved to comment.

Again, we're left with you making not very well supported arguments and using them to imply that other people are dishonest in their critiques of your comments.

"What's especially problematic about this is the despair it creates. You seek out things that could be racism, or could be something else entirely; then you confidently pronounce it to be racism; then everyone's upset because the world is so full of racism. It's the actions of someone who wants to be congratulated for their virtue, rather than helping anyone live."

That's inane; it can just as easily and emptily be flipped to you holding a panglossian desire to affirm that you live in a world without racism thus denying racism when you see it. In any event, asserting that pointing out racism causes more harm than good through a vague consequence of generalized despair should require a citation under your rules.

"Kara Walker's sculpture is not a slave. Kara Walker's sculpture is a piece of art. And high on the list of things I hate is the tendency to treat high-minded art as though its intentions must be considered its effects. Hence the comparison to Schindler's List in my above comment, a similar case where people insisted that a (pompous, bloated) piece of art be treated with the respect due to a survivor of trauma.

Yet, the intentions of low-minded clowning must be treated as if they are the effects? I don't understand how you reconcile those two views.

As far as I can tell, neither of us have seen Walker's piece. As such, it seems a bit presumptuous for you to declare it ineffective.

Finally, Walker's piece is not a slave, that's right. But that's not a defense for people taking pictures of themselves clowning on it — Sambo's Restaurant wasn't named after a slave, but white people would look pretty racist taking selfies of licking the mascot. Would you eat there?
posted by klangklangston at 6:11 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]


Why do you think you're performing apologia for white people accused of racism?

KK: If I might ask for a clarification... You feel that if a white person took one of these dumb selfies, they are racist. It's 100% an act of racism. Always. Is that what I'm to take from this very long comment above (and the various preceding)?
posted by chasing at 7:08 PM on July 7


What I'm actually saying is that if a white person took one of these dumb selfies with Subtlety, then they will be reasonably read as racist (especially by people like Powers) if they don't take care to distinguish themselves from the massive history and current problem of racism. Basically, in this context, laziness, ignorance and intent aren't excuses for being seen as racist, and the responsibility isn't on the viewer to construct alternate possible causes that aren't racist but rather on the people taking the dumb selfies to make sure that they don't come across as racist.

I mean, I think at least a significant plurality here has been called out in real life for doing something that struck another person as racist. You can either say, "Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to come across that way," or "No, it wasn't really racist because…" In the first one, you're recognizing that you can do things that come across as racist even without a racist intent, and are acknowledging the other person as a credible observer of what looked racist to them. In the second, you're arguing that because of your (invisible) intent, they were wrong to be offended. That's what a lot of these claims that the primary issue is neutral clowning amount to — positing an invisible, exculpatory intent. That both gives undeserved power to the idea of racism (contrary to the idea above that it somehow depresses everyone) and avoids acknowledging that while intent matters, it's not usually the primary concern.

The other two things that are worth mentioning are that people are more likely to describe their own actions in terms of situational intent, whereas they're more likely to think that other people's actions represent their core personality. This combines with the "ultimate attribution error," where people are more likely to think that people like them are behaving in a reasonable manner that simply looks bad. With a lot of discussions, this means that there's a tendency to put yourself in the shoes of a similar (e.g. race) person being accused of bad behavior and to think, "Well, if I did it, I wouldn't be intending it as racist, so this person probably doesn't either." Then they'll dig in, because they see people arguing against that as saying, "In this situation, you would act like a racist." It can then be helpful to think through the other position — if you were black and saw someone white being disrespectful toward Subtlety, it would (and does) look pretty racist, even if that intent wasn't there.
posted by klangklangston at 9:12 PM on July 7 [4 favorites]


KK: Are they racist? Is the act racist? Not will the act be read as such. Because it sounds like you're saying that the act is problematic because it might be read as racist, even if it's actually not. Is that accurate?
posted by chasing at 10:14 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]


I think it's fascinating that this artwork means two completely different things depending on the cultural background that you bring to it.

For a lot of people, the general point of art is to be visually appreciated, particularly when it features women and especially when it features breasts. If I see a picture of a woman on a top shelf magazine everybody knows that the idea is to think of her as a sex object. There is an enormous tradition that makes it very clear that the appropriate response to art with naked ladies in is "Hurr Hurr Tits".

If you more familiar with the concept of art as communication, then it's a lot easier to notice that "Hurr Hurr Tits" is not the only possible response, and that there is a complex meta-message about racism and slavery, and that one's initial impulse to racist clowning is perhaps part of the message.

Having these two different messages in the one space at the same time is an interesting way to generate some very uncomfortable experiences.
posted by emilyw at 4:35 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]


I do realize that my comment could be read as saying that racism is over, and talking about it makes things worse. Which is emphatically not the case---I live in Bed-Stuy, and teach in Hollis, and am constantly surrounded by the horrible, life-crushing tragedy of everyday racism, both systemic and individual. But I don't think an artistically problematic sculpture and the people who aren't impressed by it are the best place to find destructive racism.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:42 AM on July 8


I don't think an artistically problematic sculpture and the people who aren't impressed by it are the best place to find destructive racism.

Would you say that it's a fair example of unconscious racism, though? You know, kind of like how "harmless jokes" about women contributes to rape culture, this would be the racism version?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:45 AM on July 8


EmpressCallipygos, I'm not disagreeing with you, but just as a thought experiment:

Is it possible for a "harmless joke" about women to be considered sexist by a woman but not actually be sexist? What if two women hear the joke and one considers it sexist and the other doesn't? Is it sexist?
posted by chasing at 7:16 AM on July 8


No, it is not possible for a "harmless joke" about women to be considered sexist by a woman, but not actually be sexist. If two women hear the joke, and one notices the sexism, and the other does not, it is still sexist. This thought experiment does not fly. Now, no one may have intended sexism, because that's not how sexism works. Mostly it is not perpetuated by people actively trying to be sexist. But that doesn't mean you get a free pass just because a lady said it was okay.

Extrapolate.
posted by corb at 7:39 AM on July 8 [6 favorites]


Is it possible for two random women to disagree about whether something is sexist? Sure.

Although, mind you, I've most often only found that to be the case when the woman who says "oh, goodness no, that's not sexist" hasn't had much exposure to feminist thought, and may not be conscious of the subtleties of gender equality (i.e., she was raised in a household where "women had their place" and never really considered that there was an alternative). I'm not claiming it's impossible for a feminist to give something that "might be/might not be" sexist a pass, mind you, only saying that it is unlikely.

And anyway, if someone tells me that they personally find something sexist/racist/offensive that I hadn't been offended by and still don't, I've found that the best response is to just say "hmm, sorry, I didn't know you felt that way, thanks for the tip" and then take them at their word, because that's just the nice thing to do.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:40 AM on July 8 [3 favorites]


[Couple comments deleted. This is not the place to discuss every hypothetical question about racism that you can think of. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 8:11 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]


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