Letters

Earlier in Java, this same critic referred to the show as "adrenaline pumping" and "hard hitting." In her article in New Times, however, she takes a diametrically opposite position, claiming that the same exhibition has been, as she grotesquely puts it, "sanitized for your protection." She is not sure whether the "fault" for this is mine or the museum's. "Who knows?" she writes. "Maybe, SMOCA got jumpy after that Brooklyn Museum of Art brouhaha in November during which Mayor Rudy Giuliani caused a public stink over a show of British contemporary work being shown there." Why is Vanesian asking the reader this question? Isn't it the journalist's job to ascertain the facts? A censored art exhibition is newsworthy -- something we hope a good journalist would investigate. But Vanesian isn't investigating, she just asks a number of rhetorical questions that enable her to hedge while making unsubstantiated accusations. She can imply that I and the staff at SMOCA are involved in censoring art without actually saying so directly. Censorship is a real threat to our basic freedoms, artistic or otherwise, and it is important to speak out when it occurs, but it is irresponsible and damaging to artists, curators and art institutions to make these accusations frivolously. As I read over this article, I sense that Vanesian doesn't really believe her speculations, either. And that makes them worse. If she had believed what she was saying, she would have followed up on her own speculations. Then she would have found out that all of the examples she gives to support her accusations are wrong. These errors could have been corrected by a quick phone call to me, or the curatorial staff at SMOCA, or to any of the other museums that have previously hosted this exhibition. But why bother with the facts? The truth could only interfere with all these speculations. Vanesian writes as if accusations of censorship were no more consequential than seasonings thrown in to spice things up a little; they give her article "hype."

Your readers are ill-served by Vanesian's errors and carelessness. I hope you will take the opportunity to correct them. I intend here just to deal with a few inaccuracies in the review.

Fiction: Vanesian writes that Lyle Ashton Harris' work Brotherhood, which appears in the catalogue, was "swapped out for a less inflammatory Harris work" because it was "apparently too hot for the desert." Fact: Brotherhood has never appeared at any of this exhibition's venues. It was sold while on exhibit in Europe before "Looking Forward, Looking Black" opened last year, and Harris lent us another wonderful work.

Fiction: Vanesian complains: "Instead of something from Carrie Mae Weems' scathing Ain't Jokin' series," there are instead the "staid, plainly historical daguerreotypes of black slaves photographed in 1850." Fact: I included works from Weems' Ain't Jokin' series in "Laughter Ten Years After," the last show I organized. As "Looking Forward" was going to two of the same venues, naturally other work by Weems was selected. The photographs in the exhibition are powerful and searing indictments of slavery.

The work of Ren'e Cox is selected for praise, but it would have been a service to the reader to point out that the information Vanesian gives on the Hottentot Venus was from Marilyn Jimenez's excellent essay "Naked Scene/Seen Naked: Performing the Hott-En-Tot," which is in the catalogue.

Fiction Vanesian: "With the exception of one large mural by Leon Golub featuring old, haggard black women on a street, work by white artists is conspicuously absent." Fact: Wrong. Vanesian obviously missed a number of works in the exhibition.

Vanesian ends by pitting SMOCA against Arizona State University, which is currently showing "Face Off" works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Michael Ray Charles. Fiction Vanesian: "Perhaps being a black junkie artist exploited by the white New York art world ultimately disqualified Jean-Michel Basquiat, the Wild Child Art Star from the 80s, from being in SMOCA's 'Looking Forward' show." Fact: SMOCA has already shown the work of Basquiat. Ironically, it was only the accident of scheduling that brought "Looking Forward, Looking Black" to SMOCA instead of ASU. Both institutions requested this exhibition; SMOCA just happened to ask for it first. These two institutions are like-minded, and have been working together cooperatively on both exhibitions. Your community is lucky to have them both, and I think New Times could serve the community better with accurate information about their activities.

Jo Anna Isaak, Professor
Department of Art History
Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Kathleen Vanesian responds: The three-sentence mention of the show in Java was written before SMOCA's "Looking Forward" exhibition actually opened. Because of deadline constraints, I had access only to a press kit from SMOCA itself. The press release touted the show as "a fascinating exhibition of works by artists that examines the manner in which the Black body has been represented in American art." It listed artists such as Ren'e Cox, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles. In the past, these well-known African-American artists have produced controversial, transgressive work using highly offensive imagery and exploring racially sensitive subject matter.

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