The YAMS, a collective of artists who made a video on race and black identity for the current Whitney Biennial, have withdrawn the work to protest a project in the show that they contend is racially insensitive.
The project is by Joe Scanlan, a white New York-based artist who creates sculptures, paintings and books that feature a fictional persona who is black. Mr. Scanlan, who is on leave this spring from his post as director of the visual arts program in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, has for years showcased the life and art of “Donelle Woolford,” a black female Yale graduate and artist, even hiring black female collaborators to portray her.
“Its de facto endorsement by the Whitney Museum is both insulting and troubling,” the YAMS said of the Donelle Woolford material in a letter to the Whitney. The collective said it objected to “the notion of a black artist being ‘willed into existence’ by a white male artist,” and that in the context of an art exhibition, the work presented “a troubling model of the black body” and amounted to “conceptual rape.”
So, a white artist cannot create a black character without causing a racial incident? Creativity is “conceptual rape”? Notice that the character’s words and actions aren’t thought by YAMS (which describes itself as “mostly black and queer”) as demeaning per se; it’s that the character is the creation of a white man.
The most emotionally moving theatrical experience I ever had was in Austin, Texas, on October 11, 1996, when I saw a production of The Gospel At Colonus, an ingenious interpretation of Greek tragedy through the aesthetics of black Pentecostalism. I sat on my bench in the small theater and sobbed. Went out to find the soundtrack as soon as I could, and was genuinely shocked to find that the lyrics and music to that all-black gospel musical were written by a couple of Jewish guys, Bob Telson and Lee Breuer. Telson once spoke of how he got interested in the black gospel tradition:
“Speaking for myself, I grew up in a Jewish household that was against all religions, including Judaism, and atheistic,” Telson says. “When I started going to black churches in my 20s, I went to hear the source of music that I loved, from Stax-Volt to Motown and beyond.”
He accidentally found spiritual inspiration: “That forgiveness, understanding, acceptance, redemption and ultimately love were virtues,” Telson says. “And which were not as accessible in my regular American life.”
Black gospel music liberated this atheist Jew spiritually and aesthetically. Isn’t that a triumph for humanity? Telson’s collaborator Lee Breuer blamed then-NYT theater critic Frank Rich for badly damaging his career with his pan of The Gospel At Colonus when it made it to Broadway in 1988. From the Rich review:
However much of Sophocles can be shoehorned into a church service, the matching up of Christian theology with Greek mythology remains a marriage of glib intellectual convenience that distorts and dilutes both. Instead of liberating its singers, ”The Gospel at Colonus” seems to hem them in – gratuitously requiring that Afro-American artists worship at a shrine of Western culture before they can let loose with their own, equally valid art.
Frank gave it the only bad review in over 800 reviews that the piece had received worldwide. He came down on me personally. It was an elitist, racist review—God and Caesar stuff: to black people belongs Gospel music, to white people, Sophocles, and never the twain shall meet. He helped us go broke because he strongly influenced the Tony Awards.
I guess those Jewish artists were conceptually raping black gospel singers. But why didn’t Frank Rich object to Telson and Breuer conceptually raping Greeks? Lord save artists and their public from those who would segregate the artistic imagination.