Monthly Archives: February, 2017

“It’s Black History Month. Look in the Mirror.” By George Yancy

Matt Black/Magnum Photos

“It’s Black History Month. Look in the Mirror.”


To many Americans, February, first officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976 as Black History Month, is a time to celebrate African-American achievements, ones that were gained against nearly impossible economic, social and political odds. But there is one achievement that is rarely on the list. As a people, African-Americans forced the United States of America to look deep into its own soul and to see the moral bankruptcy that lay there.

That bankruptcy was exposed as African-Americans struggled to live under white supremacy, a system that rendered them “sub-persons.” And even as we fought to make America “our home” — a home that was already brutally taken from Native Americans by white colonial settlers — our black bodies were subject to unconscionable white enslavement, violence and oppression; we lived through forms of carnage, mutilation, rape, castration and injustice that will forever mark the profound ethical failure of this country. By surviving, and demonstrating that the American experiment had failed black people and minorities, we became far more American than those who withheld America’s promise.

On paper, America stood for freedom. Yet that freedom was denied to black people. White America, white people, lived in a profound form of what Sartre called “bad faith” — a state of inauthenticity and self-deception. The white social critic Lillian Smith (1896-1966), who grew up in the Deep South and later wrote “Killers of the Dream,” observed, “I had learned that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that we might have segregated churches.” She also noted, “I learned it is possible to be a Christian and a white Southerner simultaneously” and “to pray at night and ride Jim Crow car the next morning and to feel comfortable in doing both.” It is this bad faith, this ethical perversity, that haunts the history of white America.

And as Frederick Douglass noted, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” And in his speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” (1852), Douglass said to white America: “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

As I listened to President Trump’s Black History Month remarks on Feb. 1, it was painfully clear that he didn’t bear witness to that Douglass. It is convenient for him not to know that Douglass. In this nightmare of Trumpism, we mustn’t forget Douglass’s words, just as we mustn’t forget the dejection felt by those who suffered under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or in the anti-Japanese internment camps during World War II. Those actions contradicted America’s alleged identity as a nation whose arms are open to the stranger, the outcast; a nation that, in theory, does not discriminate based upon race or national origin.

It is this brutal and contradictory history from which America cannot, and should not, turn away. Just as Jews refuse to forget Hitler’s Germany, we black Americans refuse to forget the often unspeakable atrocities we endured. It is this resistance to forgetting that must be nurtured as we find ourselves in the midst of a dangerous form of antiglobalism, white nativism and xenophobia under Trump’s vision for making America “great again,” a vision closer to D. W. Griffith’s 1915 “The Birth of a Nation” — a film predicated upon white fear and denigration of the black other — than that of an actual nation.

In our current morally perilous moment, it is important to critically consider Trump’s signing of an executive order that temporarily blocks both immigrants and nonimmigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. This action has implications beyond questions of constitutional legitimacy. This ban, along with the plan to build a wall along the United States border with Mexico, is indicative of deeper issues regarding American white nativism and the fact that millions of Americans have become so gripped by hopelessness and fear that they are willing to overlook constitutional violations and ignore their own moral conscience.

Trump’s divisiveness is not only xenophobic, but also anti-theological, according to his own professed Christianity. At this time, we are symbolically walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he is telling us it is “better,” “safer,” not to attend to the wounds and sorrows of the “stranger.” This is America’s crucible. The Judaic concept of Tikkun Olam (“repairing the world”) is bastardized under Trump’s executive order. We are instead in the midst of a dangerous form of idolatry that praises unmitigated power, valorizes American nativism and borders on neo-fascism. In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Without love, there is no reason to know anyone, for love will in the end connect us to our neighbors, our children and our hearts.”

And just who are our neighbors? They are undocumented immigrants who seek to be with their families in the United States; they are refugees and “strangers” with whom we share a common humanity and who flee war-torn countries. As we fight against draconian orders that would make us turn our backs on those in need, we must also collectively fight against an Orwellian nightmare that would have us believe that two plus two equals five.

As Americans of all races reflect on our history this month, it is important that we acknowledge the systemic forms of marginalization, pain and suffering that black people had to endure, and that others may now face. In this way, we confront white America’s sins unequivocally. We undertake a collective mourning for black people who were never meant to be included within the ideal norms of American democracy, yet forced themselves to dream as they faced nightmares, to continue breathing as they were suffocating from the stench of black bodies lynched and burned alive, and who forced themselves to stay alive when suicide would have been easier.

Black History Month must not be just about black people, but about white people, too. It requires more than just having white students read a poem by a black poet. So, if you are white, take this month and grieve. Find a private and sacred place to weep for those whose dark skin marked them for sub-personhood. Consider the racist historical conditions that allowed you freedom of mobility, freedom of being and a sense of personhood. Acknowledge that whiteness saved those who looked like you from the vicious barbarity visited upon black people. And in that moment, I want you to lament a country that continues to grant privilege to whiteness, that continues to fall far short of what is written on parchment.

White people ought to use this month to engage in a shared form of vulnerability and mourning, a collective recognition, with a fearless countenance, of how white racist complicity and black suffering were historically linked and are currently intertwined. Such a courageous act of vulnerability is not about white guilt, but white responsibility. There is a specific injury that is necessary for white people; it is a kind of injury that will unsuture forms of trapped and concealed lies. King likened racism to “a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness.”

Part of the narrative of this election is that it was a repudiation of those voters who ignored the plight of poor and working-class whites in this country. To those whites I would say, I empathize with your economic pain and suffering. I understand your lack of economic growth, but are you then prepared to understand that, being black, we suffer economically, but also physically and spiritually under the institution of white racism? I agree with my fellow philosopher Judith Butler, who said: “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” If I am to be undone by your economic pain and plight, then you must be willing to be undone by the economic and white systemic and prejudicial racist pain that we feel.

Now, if you’re white and you think that I’m playing the race card, I ask you to perform this small task. Look at your face in the mirror. Allow your economic plight to anger you. And as you do, imagine your face encased in dark skin. And as you look in the mirror and begin to see a dark face look back, be honest with yourself. Isn’t it better to be white and economically forgotten than to be economically forgotten and to be black under the same circumstances? My guess is that you would rather the former.

Butler also warns us that “we make a mistake when we take ‘self-preservation’ to be the essence of the human.” There is something indeed inhuman about insulating ourselves from the touch of the other, willfully ignoring the pain and suffering of the other. We are headed into an ethical abyss beyond which there may be no return. Before he was murdered on April 4, 1968, King had planned to deliver a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell.” Though King did not give that sermon, we should heed his prophetic warning.

By George Yancy, Reprint from The New York Times / The Stone, 9 February 2017, © 2017 The New York Times Company.

“What 2017 Needs From the Art World: A Commitment to New Art,” By Jerry Saltz

Adam McEwen’s Harvest. Photo: Courtesy of Petzel Gallery

“What 2017 Needs From the Art World: A Commitment to New Art”


Whether, with the dramatic change in our politics, a paradigm shift is in the offing or the opposite is happening (and things are just becoming more of what they already are), we need to ask where this leaves the art world? Not artists. I trust they’ll do whatever they have to do to adapt. And thrive. And make us see things we didn’t know we needed to see until we see them. Instead, I address the playing field where we encounter art and artists; close to home in time and space: the galleries and museums.

A change in curatorial tactics is in order; one that might fit the present better than the one that’s been in effect for a while. For the last decade or so we’ve been engaged in an intensive art-history rebalancing act. The post-crash years have been a period of a great looking-backwards to what was missed, passed over, undervalued, geographically shunted aside, or shunned altogether in generations before. Everyone was sifting through histories; rediscovery was the new discovery; course correction was the new staying the course.

This shouldn’t stop entirely. But by now this practice has tilted toward habit and obsession. (I’ve dished my share of it; harping on self-taught outsiders, calling for their integration into permanent collections.) Regardless, we’re now treated to endless numbers of articles in art magazines on the art and artists of the 1960s and 1970s (often written by the same authors who wrote them the first time around). Whole seminars, lectures, exhibitions, and sections of biennials are devoted to it. Museum shows abound. Ever crenulated iterations of the 1960s are explored; the tiniest axiomatic structures of the 1970s; every hypersecretion of performance is examined, documented, restaged. The 1980s are now getting similar treatment. It’s wonderful living in a privileged culture with the luxury of exhibiting what was missed or rejected the first time around; this Borgesian dream of making it all right some day. Yet, recent seizures in events suggest the atlas of the present is changing; chemical signals are different: chains of cognition altered. We no longer have the same surfeit of time for historicizing right now. Certainly not around the same period of the past.

I walk blocks of bigger New York galleries — smaller ones too — sometimes rarely seeing shows of the art of the now. People seem to feel safer thinking in the past tense. That is not what we need. As a critic, I need to make a commitment to the art of this moment; now. I want the art world as a whole to do the same. It is the only way to discern what so-called Art in this Age of Trump is. Part of the reason the 1960s, 1970s, and later the 1990s were such outstanding creative periods was that artists and galleries placed a premium on identifying ideas and art of the present. Identifying one’s own time so one could help change it was paramount. Of course there are downsides to leaving behind the archival, revival, and revisionist work, so much of which has been devoted to correcting the prejudices and oversights of the past. But we need to see what’s possible in the present from the present — not just the past. Supporting the present is a form of supporting one another, a way of paying respect to each other and our time. Thermal winds are shifting; convection currents are in motion. Any evasion of these movements in this actual moment strikes me as indulgent, self-abdicating, unwilling to engage ambiguity, uncertainty, or relinquish a sense of intellectual control.

Space is so limited in New York; every square foot, every month counts. And if small and medium-size galleries take regular chances on lower-priced, lesser-known artists, these spaces are placed in extreme economic peril, especially when things that don’t look like other things come with more risk than ever. If a gallery goes even three or four months with light sales or less-expensive art the gallery could go belly up quickly. If this happens en masse it will be a catastrophic loss of infrastructure having far-reaching repercussions, even placing all but the very top and bottom of the market in jeopardy. But lately I’ve wondered about a simple Darwinian value of just surviving. Just staying open or keeping-going doesn’t feel like much of a goal at all anymore.

By Jerry Saltz, Reprint from Vulture, 6 January 2017, © 2017, New York Media LLC.

Adrift in a dreamworld – the genius of Michael Andrews… By JONATHAN JONES

‘Melting in the heat’ … Permanent Water Mutidjula, by the Kunia Massif, 1985, by Michael Andrews. Photograph: © The Estate of Michael Andrews. Courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London and Gagosian.

“Adrift in a dreamworld – the genius of Michael Andrews makes us doubt our own eyes”

‘He left behind 1950s Soho to spraypaint wondrous landscapes full of rocks, shadows and mystery. This show finally captures the brilliance of Michael Andrews’


In his painting The Colony Room I, Michael Andrews pays homage to two giants of British art. You can’t miss them. One is a short, orange-haired figure in a bomber jacket turned away from us with his paunch spilling out of his trousers. This is unmistakably Francis Bacon. “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends!” the gutter genius is no doubt declaiming, as was his wont. From the group around him, a keen angular face stares out of the painting – and you sense with discomfort that you are being sized up by the all-seeing eyes of Lucian Freud.

It might seem dangerous to open a Michael Andrews exhibition in this way, given the artist often gets dismissed as one of the so-called School of London painters who worked in the shadow of Freud and Bacon. And this work isn’t just a reminder of their fierce glamour – other Soho bohemians mill around in this louche history painting, too. So is Andrews just part of that crowd, an interesting bit player in the story of modern British art?

Perhaps, at the end of the 1950s, he was, having just turned 30 (he was born in 1928). Yet this beguiling exhibition at the Gagosian in London takes us on a hot-air balloon ride far from the madding Colony Room crowd, into realms of quietness and vastness where he truly found himself as an artist. It is the rare kind of show that changes a reputation for ever. By hunting down a dazzling array of his very best paintings and displaying them in perfect light with plenty of space, the Gagosian is doing what a public gallery should have done by now: proving that Andrews, who died in 1995, is the poetic equal of Bacon and Freud.

‘Fierce glamour’ … Bacon and Freud glimpsed in The Colony Room I, 1962, by Michael Andrews. Photograph: © The Estate of Michael Andrews. Courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London.

‘Fierce glamour’ … Bacon and Freud glimpsed in The Colony Room I, 1962, by Michael Andrews. Photograph: © The Estate of Michael Andrews. Courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London.

I recently met the owner of his masterpiece Lights VII: A Shadow (1974) at a party. Lucky bastard, I said. This painting has haunted me ever since I was a teenager, when I knew it as the cover image of The Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry, published in 1982. The book’s designer made a brilliant choice – because this is painting as post-modern poetry. The shadow of a hot air balloon is moving gently across a beach. Painted in flickering yet precise detail, the dark image cast onto bright sand is beautifully real, but it’s not real at all. It is merely a shadow.

To paint an object just by its shadow recalls the ancient philosopher Plato’s claim that we are like prisoners in a cave where a fire burns, seeing not real things but only their shadows on the wall. Andrews seems to be saying that art too is just a shadow, a secondary glimpse of a life elsewhere. When you look at the painting in its opulent frame, you realise that reality is failing in other ways, too. For the great turquoise expanse of sea that laps the beach is not quite in perspective: what at first seems to be a literal depiction looks, on second glance, more like two expanses of abstract colour, blue over sandy yellow. It could be a Mark Rothko abstraction but for the shadow of the balloon. That shadow is all that makes this moment real.

Who is in the balloon? In other paintings in the Lights series, we see the actual balloon, but it is just as elusive, just as coolly distant. In one, a black balloon passes over the Thames by night in an echo of Whistler’s Nocturnes. In another, a yellow balloon glides above the soft green English countryside in summer.

Gradually you realise why these paintings are so eerily tentative and dreamlike. They are done with a spraygun. Today, sprayguns are often associated with in-your-face street art, yet in the 1970s Andrews began mixing acrylics and water in a spraygun to create landscapes of a Japanese delicacy. His visions of countryside passed over on a hot summer day, or seen from such a high viewpoint he might be in a balloon’s basket himself, have a frozen wonder that makes me hear pastoral psychedelia. Were some of these used as 1970s album covers? No, but they should have been.

‘Coolly distant’ … detail of Lights VII: A Shadow, 1974, by Michael Andrews. Photograph: © The Estate of Michael Andrews. Courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London.

‘Coolly distant’ … detail of Lights VII: A Shadow, 1974, by Michael Andrews. Photograph: © The Estate of Michael Andrews. Courtesy James Hyman Gallery, London.

Andrews’ art may ache with alienation but it glows with awe. In Australia, he found landscapes so strange and colossal that, to question the very foundations of reality, all he had to do was paint them. The vast rocks of the Olgas and Uluru rise up in spray-painted stains of redness, marked with black holes of caves and swirls of vegetation, above trees that look like they are melting in the heat.

These huge paintings do justice to nature at its wildest in a way that bears comparison with Turner – yet the geology they reveal, under an empty blue sky, is so bizarre it mocks the very act of representing. Andrews does what all the School of London artists in postwar Britain were trained to do: he just paints what he sees. And the result leads us to doubt our own eyes, as the ochre masses of Australia’s rocks turn into abstract shapes, coloured stains.

There is something rare and enigmatic happening in Andrews’ art. From 1970 onwards, he appears to withdraw from the crowd, to stand back from the world. The spraygun method he used perfectly mirrors his decision to abandon portraits for landscape, for it removes his direct physical touch from the painting surface. He is not pressing a brush down, not making his mark. The paintings appear to be made passively, in a reverie. They well up out of the light and shadow. Looking at the world from far away, with a mystical scepticism, he sees it as marvellous but not quite real. Just a shadow on the shore.


“Michael Andrews: Earth Air Water”
January 20 – March 25, 2017
Gagosian, London
20 Grosvenor Hill, London

By Jonathan Jones, Reprint from, 22 January 2017, © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.