July 2nd, 2014
Is Kara Walker ‘Bootyliscious’ Now?
I should disclose that I haven’t seen Kara Walker’s installation at the Domino Sugar Factory yet, nor am I against seeing it. I am mostly addressing here the matter of people taking asinine pictures of themselves in front of the statue’s sexual parts and how irksome this has become to many African-American writers and intellectuals.
I also don’t think Kara Walker is sitting on her studio thinking about how to enable white entitlement with her art, but there is something about this work that seems to be bringing the worst out in people, and I think the nature of the market she operates in is only bound to provide a space for this type of behavior (not unlike how for years and years the Puerto Rican parade sponsorship apparatus provided a space for aberrant behavior until the organizers saw how wrong they were and started requiring all floats to be strictly cultural, something I’ve been harping on about since before this infamous incident. But I digress). Her biggest failure as an artist of color surely has been that her work does not attract significant numbers of people of color. It just attracts average Art World numbers. To this, you have to add the tone deafness of Creative Time when curating public art. Although I have seen them put together some great work, they also make the same mistake that most art world people make these days when thinking about public art. They put in the public context work that is really fit for private consumption (i.e. the gallery).
Most people are not aware, and little writing is done on, the inherent difference between public and private work. They are completely different languages, but most curators will treat them the same and you end up with this. Public work is and should be propagandist, in the sense that it should have something to say and it should be unequivocal. To whatever degree you introduce ambivalence in it, it should not be an ambivalence of values or interpretation but of self introspection. In other words, the work shouldn’t provide a space for inane behavior, it should make you question whether you are part of the problem. A private work (her cutouts) doesn’t have to do any of that, because someone purchases it, hangs it at home, and does with it whatever they want, which usually means preserving it as an investment.
There are many other complexities in Kara’s work which I feel she held back here, like “self-inflicted violence.” In her cutouts she puts to task both white people for being opportunistic exploiters, and she also criticizes paternalistic and self-destructive behavior from the people being victimized—her own people. That kind of dialogue seemed to really work in her gallery work because it was mostly seen and studied by people who were interested in art. The type of crowd that comes to these new type of public spectacles, which are more like an adult theme park, is very different. They go to these things seeking entertainment because that’s the experience they expect. They want to jump down a chute, press a button and get something in return, or whatever else. The fact that you have to make a line to see it only reinforces this Disney World inanity. A smarter move would have been to blow out the walls and let traffic flow as it may, that would bring the “public” into it. People don’t make a line to look at Four Freedoms Park; they make a pilgrimage. And when they get there, surprisingly, they behave. But when you take a complex charged piece and present it like you would Carsten Höllers‘ chutes at the New Museum, and super charge it with public spectacle pomp, you’re only bound to end up with this foolishness.