Chopping It Up with Ben Davis

Ben Davis
Ben Davis, National Art Critic for Artnet News.

Last month, Artnet News National Art Critic Ben Davis came to Atlanta to be a mentor in BURNAWAY’s Art Writers Mentorship Program [in which the interviewer is enrolled]. On March 23, he gave a well attended talk at Atlanta Contemporary [watch video here] that ended with a provocative Q&A session. We wanted to continue the conversation, hear about his Atlanta highlights (Lonnie Holley) and his thoughts on the Dana Schutz / Whitney Biennial controversy (it’s complicated).

[The transcription has been edited and condensed.]

Carl Rojas: It’s been about a month since you were here, so hopefully you’ve had a chance to reflect on your visit and develop some impressions.  

Ben Davis: The conversation [at Atlanta Contemporary] was really exciting and people were engaged. I think sometimes that people outside of New York are more interested in the ideas around art than the people in New York. Money skews everything, like there’s a whole other standard for who is up or who is down. Of course, BURNAWAY picked good artists for my studio visits, so I can’t judge about Atlanta in general.

CR: What was the highlight of your visit to Atlanta?

BD: Easy. Meeting Lonnie Holley. Getting a view of the entire world around his show was interesting because it’s wrapped in around his music. You step into a different world with that work.

CR: Shortly after your visit to Atlanta, you went to the press preview of the Whitney Biennial. Your piece in Artnet News was published before the public opening and the subsequent protests of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till. Artnet News did a great job of covering that story, and Brian Boucher did a nice job of interviewing Schutz. I think she sounded a little sheepish in her words and in her public posture in response to the controversy. You didn’t include the painting in your write-up, so I’m curious to know what your initial impression of that work was, and what are your thoughts about the controversy? Not to put you on the spot….

BD: You know, it’s funny. I did an interview with the BBC and at the end they were like, “There’s this little controversy in New York about the Whitney Biennial that’s splitting the art world in two. Would you like to spend the last 10 minutes on that?”

CR: Where do you land between the two camps on the issue, one that says she has complete license to make the work and that she said the right things, and the other that she has no right to speak to the atrocity of what happened to Emmett Till, much less produce a painting about it?

BD: I’ve been trying to figure out if there is anything productive to be said about it. There’s the whole dynamic of who gets to speak for whom, and does the great white male critic need to weigh in on this? It’s just natural that it would just rub some people the wrong way. It occurred to me that people are working with different assumptions of what it means to be in the Biennial. If you look at the Biennial as a statement about American art and what it means to be an artist at this moment, you’d want people grappling with the political material of the time. But if you look at the Biennial as an art industry event that makes careers and generates status, and if you presume the art market is very corrupt, then you’d probably see it as making a product that capitalizes on that very sensitive image and an opportunity to sell posters. I think that art tends to be both ― where professional and creative collide. How you look at this material depends on which of these lenses you’re looking through.

Protestors in front of Dana Schutz painting of Emmett Till
Photo by Lisa Larson-Walker for Slate.com of protestors (including former Atlanta artist Pastiche Lumumba) in front of Dana Schutz’s painting.

CR: I appreciate what you’re saying. In the interview Brian did with her, I don’t think she really addressed all of the concerns put forth by Hannah Black, and I think that’s why this hasn’t gone away.

BD: The thing is, I’m trying to figure out what I really think about the painting. Even the people I work with are divided. I believe that it was clearly intended as an anti-racist gesture. Honestly, I didn’t even notice the painting when I was there for the press preview.

CR: You didn’t notice it at all?

BD: No. Not at all. But we had another critic who was going to be addressing, specifically, all the painting in the show. So my piece was more about the overall Biennial. There’s a lot of people piling on and saying that the artist and curators should’ve known better, but I think that’s just a lot of ex post facto ― people wanting to place themselves on the right side of history. Henry Taylor’s painting of Philando Castile’s murder did stand out to me, maybe because I know his work less and it’s a recent news image, so it leapt out at me. But no, I didn’t notice Schutz’s painting. There’s a lot of sensitive material in that show.

Henry Taylor painting of Philando Castile
A painting by Henry Taylor in the current Whitney Biennial depicts the 2016 murder by police of Philando Castile.

CR: It’s great that you gave a shoutout to Shara Hughes, who’s from Atlanta, and the dreamy quality of her work. Her painting has improved so much since she left Atlanta.

BD: It is really beautiful work. The works that really registered with me were William Pope.L’s work that is about counting Jewish people in New York and taking their pictures on slices of bologna. A fair number of Jewish artists and people came out and said that was offensive. I also found the Jordan Wolfson piece a little unsettling and disturbing.

Whitney Museum Biennial visitors view Jordan Wolfsons VR artiwrk.
Whitney Museum Biennial  visitors have been lining up to view Jordan Wolfsons virtual reality artwork Real Violence. Photo from Andie Leah’s Instagram feed.

You know going back to Schutz piece, I think you have to separate whether it’s offensive from whether or not it deserves to be removed and destroyed. To the extent that it is offensive or bad, that’s an act of art criticism and perhaps an indication that there is some well-deserved suspicion about the art market expressing political solidarity. It’s as if just giving it a really bad review doesn’t seem like enough. You have to feel like there’s more.

Whether or not to take it down is a lot more complicated for me because, as a critic, I rely on free speech. I agree with Hannah Black that “free speech” is a little mythologized, so you don’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie house. There are instances when free speech comes into conflict with the immediate demand for justice. You depend on free speech as a way to deal with attacks from the right wing, and the right wing is in power right now, so it’s all very complex and hard to advocate for censorship. At this moment, I also feel like the right wing is feeding off this narrative of left-wing intolerance.

CR: I don’t think Dana was trying to intentionally create this controversy. I’d like to think that had she known that this controversy would be the result of using that photo, she might not have done so.

BD: It is tough to navigate through this one. You are going to become a lightning rod by putting your opinion out there. You know, I find a lot of what well-meaning white people are saying as very problematic ― like if one person of color is offended by it, it should be destroyed. Black people aren’t a monolith.

Kara Walker came out in support of Schutz. And she would because her work has also been the source of controversy. People thought she was being disrespectful with very sensitive material.

CR: I have an issue with some of Dana’s responses where she tries to substantiate her thought process and make everybody feel that she was coming from the right place.

BD: This will be the big art story of the year.

Carl Rojas is an art lover who’s married to BURNAWAY’s Executive Editor. 

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