Artists, along with everyone else, are culture makers. They are not, however, the makers of politics. The politics are there, imbued in everything that exists already -- now more so than ever, in our globalized world of geopolitics and hybrid identities. Politics is in our hair, it's in the light bulbs we use, it is in where we choose to vacation, it is in our food and what our hands say about the work we have done. It is not artists who make these politics, but it is artists who give politics a mode of expression, a voice. It is artists who make manifest the pain, desire, joy and confusion of these politics. Whether or not they say so, artists are political people.
So what does it mean for a preeminent art school, one that is in the business of educating almost 2,000 would-be artists and producing several hundred Masters of the Arts a year, to offer a requisite art history course in which, out of about 150 artists listed in the syllabus, far less than 1/3 are women and only 23 are people of color? When the majority of artists of color whose work students are to explore (that is, whose work will join a cannon that forms the basis for our understanding of the major movements and moments in Western art history of the past fifty years) appear in the "Identity Politics" and "Diasporas" sections, which only cover the 1990's and 1980's, respectively? In other words, what is a school suggesting by telling students that women are only occasionally artists and people of color actually only began artistic production within the last 30 years?
At this point, I've gotten over the fact that fine arts programs consider it a priority that emerging artists know Western / Global Northern art history inside and out -- over, say, West African art histories or East Asian art histories or Mexican, Caribbean and Central American art histories, all of which have been heavily mined by white male artists over the years. I can swallow that. Not easily, but I can do it. This, however, is some next level shit.
At my first complaint of this, someone said to me, "Do you think that this is what is being taught because this is just what's out there?" It's a good question, and I think the answer complex. It is what is out there. A google search for Carrie Mae Weems will turn up a fraction of what a search for, say, Julian Schnabel or Jeff Koons will retrieve. But part of why it is what is out there is because this is what the culture-making institutions put out there. I look around the lecture hall and am overwhelmed by the whiteness of this place. There are a helluva lot of reasons why grad/art school sees so few faces of color, and one of those reasons is because what is taught is: You Do Not Make Art. In fact, not only do people of color not make art (unless, apparently, it is related to "Identity" or the "Diaspora"), but they are relegated to other work. Indeed, they do not have a "practice," they have "jobs" -- they do security, they work in public maintenance, they are janitors.
And then some of them are criminals.
I am in day two of classes and have already heard two white students on separate occasions express fear over living in, or even being in Oakland (or anywhere deemed ungood or unsafe). And here is where we get to the real down-and-dirty of racism, where we find that what is good is what is safe for white people, and what is safe for white people is to be in the majority. A student fears her neighbors in the Excelsior a mostly nonwhite district of the City. Another student, in a different class, mentions that she has not yet gotten the reading packet for class because she would have to go to Oakland to get it.
"I don't know how to get there," she smiles sheepishly, and other students offer help with directions.
"Or," says one, "you could just take the BART down there and walk a few blocks."
She looks up and, laughing nervously, embarrassed at her own fear but feeling she is in a safe space, asks, "Will I get shot, though?"
"No," he reassures her. "The houses there are big and nice. Don't worry: it's an upscale neighborhood."
So we are being taught to call ourselves Artists. We are learning the language, and all the colloquialisms and dialects and accents and hand gestures that go with it. And part of that language is one of extreme normativity: whiteness and maleness and safety. It makes me wonder... as we move forward now, looking towards futures of making culture and revealing politics, do we do so from a context of ignorance? Who says that we must swallow this cannon in order to be masters of our art?