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That Kehinde Wiley Review Is Neither Racist Nor Homophobic, It's Progressive

Post #1742 • March 18, 2015, 9:41 PM • 2 Comments

[Image: Kehinde Wiley, Shantavia Beale II, 2012, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, collection of Ana and Lenny Gravier, © Kehinde Wiley (Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York) ]

Kehinde Wiley, Shantavia Beale II, 2012, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, collection of Ana and Lenny Gravier, © Kehinde Wiley (Photo: Jason Wyche, courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York) source

Put aside the failures of reason that led to superstition-fueled executions in Massachusetts in the 1690s, and imagine how satisfying it must have been to accuse someone of witchcraft in that milieu. Your idea about the source of evil explains all evils, when you think about it. Your community and its intellectual leaders agree with you about the causal mechanisms. When that dicey trollop on the neighboring farm and her demon consorts cause your child to suffer a fit, the affirmation of your righteousness and her wickedness that followed from calling her out as a witch must have gratified your soul like nothing else. The sight of her body dangling from the gallows would have been the very essence of vindication.

Certain liberals must get a similar emotional payoff when accusing people of racism and homophobia.

For background here, you can read Jessica Dawson's What to Make of Kehinde Wiley's Pervy Brooklyn Museum Retrospective? followed by Jillian Steinhauer's What to Make of the Village Voice’s Offensive Kehinde Wiley Review? followed by Sarah Seltzer's What the Racist, Homophobic Kehinde Wiley Backlash Is Really About. Don't work too hard at it. None of them are what you would call masterpieces of persuasion. They take the form that most such pieces take: This (whatever it is) implies issues X, Y, and Z to me, and here's what I think about the implications. Whether they're well- or ill-argued is beside the point, as is the fact that I don't particularly agree with any of them, and that I think that Wiley's work has in common with a lot of contemporary photo-dependent realism a dismaying paint-by-numbers quality.

Dawson has made two complaints, mainly, and both of them are patently progressive in nature. The first is that the commentary upon race in Wiley's work is so pat that it may impugn both the work and its fans of succumbing to stereotypes.

Where once was a powerful white man, Wiley inserts a firm piece of African-American flesh. Where white power aggrandized itself in official state portraiture, now young blacks from the ghetto, the ones newspaper headlines insist are without future and en route to incarceration, straddle stallions. What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon? If it isn't dangling a fantasy and false hope, then at least it implies that young urban blacks are in desperate need of uplift. You call that empowerment?

Steinhauer responds,

It’s almost hard to know where to start unpacking a passage so brimming with barely veiled racism! First, we have the reduction of African Americans to their sexualized bodies (“a firm piece of African-American flesh”). Second, the assumption that all the subjects come “from the ghetto,” because, you know, they wear sneakers and Wiley found them on the street. Third, the connotation that all those “newspaper headlines” are being so dramatic by insisting that this country has a major problem with mass incarceration. And then there’s the kicker: the assertion that it is a “fantasy and false hope” to suggest that young black men should aspire to, let alone might ever achieve, positions of power. Wow.

The second is that Wiley's process of obtaining models by accosting them on the streets of New York—as described by the artist himself—has an element of sexual exploitation. Dawson quotes him from an interview with The Art Newspaper in which he says, When I'm approaching these guys, there's a presupposed engagement. I don't ask people what their sexualities are, but there's a sense in which male beauty is being negotiated. She comments:

What Wiley and his subjects do behind the scenes may be none of our business, but his paintings kiss and tell. Saint Andrew grinds his crotch against a wooden cross, and in case we don't quite get it, Wiley has painted free-floating spermatozoa across the canvas. The same goes for the bear of a fellow in Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps, which could be subtitled "(Through a Light Ejaculate Mist)." And if the painted tadpoles aren't sufficiently suggestive, several of the gilded frames contain sperm reliefs of their own. (Talk about painting outside the lines.)

Steinhauer asks:

Is he predatory because he paints his subjects in a sexualized manner? Because he’s also a man, painting them in a sexualized manner? Because they might even have sex? How is any of this not homophobic?

It may not be homophobic in that similar criticisms have been made about Terry Richardson, Woody Allen, and Balthus, to name a few, to the effect that power imbalances suspected to be in play in the lives of the artists constitute the main critical lens through which their work ought to be viewed. Dawson is keeping her head down on social media but she did tweet as much by way of clarification.

In a skillful bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu, Steinhauer did to Dawson what Dawson was trying to do to Wiley's exhibition, to contrast progressive intentions with their (perhaps) unintentionally retrogressive effects. With that accomplished, she just needed a tag-team partner to hit the staggering victim over the head with a folding chair. Enter Sarah Seltzer, concluding with a paragraph that even by art-world standards is bonkers.

Certain white critics don’t like the existence of minority-centric art with mainstream potential because it takes them, the critics, out of the mainstream. And that effect may be more challenging than anything produced by a hip, insider avant-garde.

Hang the witch.

Dawson's mistake was in thinking that her critique of power imbalances, which would have been uncontroversial if they had been made about straight white men, was transferable to a gay black man. It is not. Doing so violates the victim hierarchy as described by (the liberal!) James Kirchik in his Rock, Paper, Scissors of PC Victimology.

The discussion of vital issues today has been reduced to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, in which the validity of one’s argument is determined not by the strength of your reasoning but by the relative worth of the immutable qualities you bring to the table, be it skin color, sexual orientation, or genitalia (or, in the case of pre-operative transsexuals, wished-for genitalia). In the game of Race, Gender, Sexuality, black beats white, woman beats man, trans beats cisgender, and gay (or, preferably, “queer”) beats straight.

Dawson's sexuality being unrepresented in the context of her review, that's two-to-one in Wiley's favor. Kirchik's essay, which is worth your attention in its entirety, cites many examples in which progressives have been the victims in this hyper-competitive climate of liberal outrage. Make no mistake, it is a competition, as pointed out by Kristian Niemietz.

PC-brigadiers behave exactly like owners of a positional good who panic because wider availability of that good threatens their social status. The PC brigade has been highly successful in creating new social taboos, but their success is their very problem. Moral superiority is a prime example of a positional good, because we cannot all be morally superior to each other. Once you have successfully exorcised a word or an opinion, how do you differentiate yourself from others now? You need new things to be outraged about, new ways of asserting your imagined moral superiority.

You can do that by insisting that the no real progress has been made, that your issue is as real as ever, and just manifests itself in more subtle ways. Many people may imitate your rhetoric, but they do not really mean it, they are faking it, they are poseurs (here's a nice example). You can also hugely inflate the definition of an existing offense (plenty of nice examples here.) Or you can move on to discover new things to label offensive, new victim groups, new patterns of dominance and oppression.

If I am right, then Political Correctness is really just a special form of conspicuous consumption, leading to a zero-sum status race. The fact that PC fans are still constantly outraged, despite the fact that PC has never been so pervasive, would then just be a special form of the Easterlin Paradox.

This particular case amuses me in that three progressive white chicks are presuming to lecture the rest of the world about the critical framing of Kehinde Wiley's unthreatening oeuvre from the standpoint of their basically identical identity-criticism. If Steinhauer and Seltzer seem cross with Dawson, that's how you treat teammates who score own goals. But on a more serious note, this is what (the liberal!) Jed Perl was talking about when he wrote that Liberals Are Killing Art.

It seems that for the liberal-spirited critic it is never enough to point to the human failings of the artist; they must be linked to artistic failings, and the human must explain the artistic, the two becoming one.

It turns out that critics themselves aren't safe from that analysis either. For that matter progressive critics aren't safe from that analysis by fellow progressive critics. There may be nothing less safe than a community where reason has failed.

Comment

1.

Warren Craghead

March 19, 2015, 11:18 AM

Maybe I’m silly, but all of this means little to me since they are painted so poorly. He might have better assistants doing his work now, but a few years ago I saw a show and it was really sad. Visible pencil lines from the projector weren't erased.

This kerfluffle reminds me of being an undergrad and having vegan friends who were always striving to outdo one another with being more vegan.

2.

John Link

March 19, 2015, 1:28 PM

This is a superbly made bit of writing.

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