Open Letter to The New York Times:
The recent writing of art critic Ken Johnson troubles us. His October 25th review of “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980” and his November 8th preview of “The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World,” present ill-informed arguments. Using irresponsible generalities, Johnson compares women and African-American artists to white male artists, only to find them lacking.
In his review of “Now Dig This!” Mr. Johnson starts with the claim that “Black artists didn’t invent assemblage.” Instead, he states that black artists appropriated the form from white artists who developed it. Both these statements attack a straw man; no historian, artist or curator has ever made a claim that anyone, black or white, “invented” assemblage. In fact, assemblage has roots in many cultures and it is well documented that European and American Modernist artists borrowed heavily from African art in their use of the form.
Mr. Johnson organizes his review around an oversimplified opposition between the apolitical, “deracinated” work of white artists and the political, “parochial” work of black artists. He claims that white European artists, such as those of Cubism, Surrealism and Dada, who “were as free as anyone could be,” were only playfully messing around with aesthetic conventions. The aesthetic play of assemblage “took on a different complexion,” to use Mr. Johnson’s unfortunate turn of phrase, when black artists politicized the form. But he ignores both the extreme political unrest in Europe at the time and the ideological motivations of these artistic movements. What was DaDa if not a response to the social psychosis and industrialized mass murder of WWI?