Applying Art Criticism to Unpack Social Issues

Can the perceptions of art connoisseurship be used in probing questions of social justice and gender?


Mary Engelbreit, In the USA, 2014. Mother and child with newspaper that says Hands Up Don't ShootCover art for digital album by Anti FlagRudy Shepherd  Michael Brown, shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO, 2014. Photo: Mixed Greens, NYCThe top two images shown here were created to raise funds for the Michael Brown Jr. Memorial fund. The proliferation of artwork produced in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting is reminder of one role that those of us in the art community can play in the pursuit of social justice.  

Another role is one uniquely suited to the painstaking analysis of art criticism. Art critics and art historians can apply the discriminating perception of artistic connoisseurship to analyzing complicated social issues.

When I hear “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger” on repeat blast in youth culture, I’m reminded of how Henry Louis Gates’ viewed the controversy surrounding Kara Walker’s work when it first attracted national attention in 1997. In an IRAAA interview, he said that Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles (another visual artist creating stereotypical imagery of blacks that some people found offensive) were seeking to liberate the traditional, racist stereotype and to “liberate our people from residual, debilitating effects that the proliferation of those images undoubtedly has had upon the collective unconscious of the African American people." He concluded that “the black object has become the black subject in a profound act of artist exorcism.” (“Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroes," IRAAA, vol. 14., no 3, 1997)

In this way, we may view nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger speech in youth culture as an exorcism of word’s negative connotations.  Not only does an odious epithet become a harmless banality, losing its traumatic power through exhaustion, its connotation is transformed into something good and powerful  — good and powerful according to new criteria in a supreme act of psychological survival and revenge.

But we also have to question whether this cathartic exorcism can have a boomerang effect in encouraging attitudes that are ultimately disempowering to the most vulnerable of young black people — those who have few opportunities for other empowering acts of exorcism? And as nigger, nigger, nigger expression colludes with other aspects of renegade youth culture to enrich big corporations? 

In the Michael Brown incident, people, who rightfully protested the shooting, seemed unwilling to allow for complicated factors in the case.  On one hand, the officer’s actions are egregious. He is a professional who is trained to keep his temper in check. But if the U.S. Justice Department-led investigation determines that Brown did tussle with the officer and initiate the tussle, as those close to the officer claim, we will have to allow for that factor too. 

Complicated. The "war against young black males" in this country must be acknowleged and its racist motives confronted. We also have to acknowledge that there is a "thug" element in hip hop-driven youth culture and seek to understand that too. Why is it occurring?  Does it have debilitating consequences? 

This is not to say that the person alleged to be Michael Brown in the video of the store theft is a thug. But the person is an immature, strong arm, petty thief and such behavior is thug-like. If that person is indeed Brown and if had a lived — given what we know about his caring family and his college plans — we can easily assume that he would have outgrown this behavior. A recognition of what appears to be rough, immature, impulsive behavior on the part of Brown does not mitigate the ultimate conclusion: this young man’s death is unwarranted and a tragedy.  In making such objective assessments in addressing some of the underlying factors in the “war” against young black men, arts professionals can be particularly balanced because we affirm risk-taking and routinely push past bounds of convention. For the sake of artistic and every other kind of excellence, we are down, renegade and unsparingly critical at the same time.  

Similar to nigger, nigger, nigger expression, we should examine sexualized portrayals of black women in hip hop culture and ask to what extent it is a joyful, artistically adventurous expression of feminine beauty and sexuality? Also, if and when does it becomes denigration? 

Watching Nicki Minaj’s controversial “Anaconda” video with an art journalist’s eye, I see artistic parody. According to criteria of the “fine arts” medium of “performance art,” Nicki Minaj's overall body of trangressive, kewpie-doll impersonations (like the creation of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry with their quirky personas and staging) can be viewed as imaginative performance art although they are not performance artists in the formal sense of artists such as Marina Abramovic and Holly Bass.

However, when arts professionals evaluate narrowly sexualized portrayals of black women in hip hop media, in general, and spin off phenomena such as twerking (“Anaconda” is the ultimate twerking video), and ask if these are consequences of racist and sexist exploitation, their analysis is informed by knowledge such as the legacy of Sara Baartman, “the Venus Hottentot," and other disturbing histories, as well as their affirmation for transgressive expression in leading edge art.  

In the IRAAA+ Seeing Difference in Beauty project, we examine the body as a form of personal, sculptural art — for example, the malleable, sculptural potential of hair and the aesthetically-pleasing contours of a woman's close-cropped or bald head. It's a way of countering the white feminine aesthetic that has been applied to the perception of black women's beauty. As with the head, black women's derrieres are a prominent part of the presentation of the body as a form of art.  A socially-informed, art critical "reading" of the twerking phenomena leads one to think that black women can celebrate this generously-endowed portion of their anatomy in a way that gives them a edge over white women who are generously endowed with long, straight hair. Insecurities about hair and, conversely, a lack of appreciation of the sculptural qualities of our own hair, facial features and head contours, have long undermined black women's confidence about their looks in the West. Twerking and hair weave-wearing are often paired.

Beyonce as a performance artist with intentionally (?) contradictory messages for women — "run the world (girls)"/"bitches bow down" — could be the subject of a doctoral thesis in critical theory as well as social psychology. Who, beside Beyonce, is empowered by these messages?

And, generally, how can arts professionals contribute their particular, balanced (rigorously discriminating yet creatively open-minded) vision to efforts to address social issues and remedy underlying problems in ways that all people can support? — Juliette Harris