Artforum International, 1998

“Poison Ivy,” Letter to the Editor, Artforum, vol. XXXVII, no. 1, p. 8, October 1998. Response to “Crimson Herring: Ronald Jones on ‘Black Like Who?’ [Harvard University symposium on stereotypes in art],” Artforum, vol. XXXVI, no. 10, Summer 1998.

© Lorraine O’Grady. 1998

To the Editor:

After the initial shock of seeing “our dirty linen” washed in public (by an outsider, no less), I found Ronald Jones’ “Crimson Herring” in the Summer issue (on “Black Like Who?” the Harvard symposium on stereotypes in contemporary art) quite brave. At the same time it was a bit confused—how could it not be?

Before going further, let me confess: I’m of the pox-on-both-your-houses school myself. The Kara Walker attackers and defenders have so occupied the floor that mere examiners of the work have no room.

One reason the audience was so “snow-packed,” as Jones put it, is that beyond the brutal demographics of the art world, many black arts professionals were not informed of the symposium, or if they were, they decided not to attend: they feared they might get angry (not at white people, but at the conference organizers) and lose their cool.

The warning signs were there, in the choice of panelists and the framing of issues—all crimson flags that this was one symposium that would not

have the intellectual weight one expects from Harvard.

When so many who have pondered long and hard on the issues as they affect the art world (bell hooks, Michele Wallace, and Judith Wilson, e.g.) are conspicuously absent, while so many with axes to grind are there, even the pretense of reasonable discussion seems abandoned. [And] the symposium’s sponsorship by two of Walker’s biggest collectors hinted at agendas unnamed. ( … )

( … ) it was disappointing to see someone so perceptive adopt the simplistic casting of the disagreement as a generational dispute: i.e., between younger and older black artists. This furnished one more example of what Jones himself rightly identifies as the ignorance that verifies “the real effect of multiculturalism in the academy as hovering a few degrees above zero.” Part of the problem, of course, is the lingering truth of the folk wisdom of the black art world, that there is only room for one or two blacks of either gender to be successful at a given time. Add to that the further restriction of age, and the odds become astronomical. But while there is a “market” reality to the ( … )

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