by Pamela Fraser
There are so many separate issues involved in the still-unfolding story of public reaction to Kelley Walker’s exhibition Direct Drive at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, one barely knows where to start. At issue is not only the specific art works that have proven offensive to many people, but their celebration in a system in which value is created by a small group of people—gallerists, critics, collectors, and curators—without any indication of work’s worth within public culture. After all, Walker’s artwork has been widely circulated in the most elite sector of the international art world for years, and one of the works in the center of the controversy, Black Star Press, went to auction in 2010 estimated at £500,000-700,000. Yet like most contemporary art, the work is largely unknown outside of the art world. The institution then, in both general and specific senses, is to be blamed for a situation in which a museum has decided that their self-determined expertise trumps consideration of the public sector. The faults of the specific museum—its lack of transparency in handling concerns, an overall bungled response to protest—are part and parcel of larger issues that keep contemporary art from even coming close to being the liberatory tool it pretends, or (more generously) strives to be.
This story should serve to make a lie of the art world apparent, that many contemporary practices appear to be culturally savvy because they co-opt the language of critical engagement, but do not really foster wide and meaningful cultural engagement. Ideas of participation and democracy are rhetorically popular, but often not at all evident. In the case of Walker’s work, the museum and others have basically asserted that protesters are wrong to interpret the work as a demeaning representation of African-Americans because a cultural critique they believe the work enacts is not being understood or appreciated. But even if there is cultural critique in evidence, it is one that many see as glossing over or denying subjectivity to the subjects portrayed. The museum’s action’s in the wake of protest has made it clear that this is something they either do not understand or appreciate.
Let’s start with a basic overview. A successful white artist makes work that appropriates a variety of media images of African-Americans. These include a painful picture of a 1960s civil rights protestor being attacked by a police dog. (Similar imagery was utilized in Warhol’s 1964 incorrectly titled “Race Riot” series. Warhol’s images were appropriated without permission from Life photographer Charles Moore’s shots of a peaceful protest that was broken up violently by police. The term ‘race riot’ is a troubling and unsympathetic phrase. Moore sued Warhol and the issue was settled out of court). It should be said that images of police violence toward African-Americans are especially fraught in the wake of countless recent videos that have captured the unnecessary deaths of unarmed citizens at the hands of police who see them as “criminal” simply because of their race, and this includes the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. In Kelley Walker’s works utilizing the image of protester being attacked, repetitions of the image are oriented various ways and interspersed with photographic imagery of smeared chocolate. The exhibition also includes the work Schema, a large scale appropriation of a King magazine cover in which rapper Trina is pictured in conventional magazine cover fashion, staring directly out at the viewer. Her image is covered with scanned streaks of squirted toothpaste. It’s hard not to equate the chocolate and toothpaste to bodily fluids, but they lose their messy, viscous nature through Walker’s manipulations, by scanning and repetition. The press release on the museum website tells us that Walker’s repurposing of these images ‘subverts signifiers,’ and is done “in order to destabilize issues of identity, race, class, sexuality, and politics,” a sentence I have read over and over, and am still not sure what it means. Since it mentions things that already have destabilized status, it doesn’t make sense to destabilize them. I imagine then, that it is meant is that he seeks to demonstrate actual destabilization through pictorial destabilization. Whether this is a valuable artistic strategy has been put to a test by many viewers’ interpretation of the work itself as offensive, painful, and careless, and therefore in fact “destabilizing”.
For those paying attention, it has seemed that Walker’s work is part of a long-running dialogue concerned with the emptying of meaning in mass-circulating imagery. This thesis—that imagery becomes completely meaningless through repetition—has certainly been disproven in this case, demonstrating what Fred Moton asserts in his book In the Break: the Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, that “(t)he history of Blackness is testament to the fact objects can and do resist”. Citizens in St. Louis have found these images—mass-circulated or not—can and do have meanings. This necessitates continued thinking about the value of, and ethics of appropriation. In its early days, artists like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince created work using appropriation to challenge the artistic canon and/or consumer culture. Earlier, Andy Warhol’s appropriated newspaper images captured the emotional numbness that the mass-circulation of images can cause. But a couple of years ago, Richard Prince’s use of photojournalist Patrick Cariou’s work became a well-publicized legal case that raised questions about the value of appropriation as a tool of critique when appropriated imagery does not represent power. After all, it means something different to appropriate corporate imagery than it does to appropriate an individual photographer’s work. In the Prince/Cariou case, Prince became a popular cause, with many prominent critics championing his side and arguing that the case represented the absolute freedom artists must have in choosing imagery. Many didn’t appreciate Cariou’s position of wanting credit or compensation, or appreciate any challenges to a definition of artistic freedom based on power imbalance (see the essay “The Freedom to Oppress” by Eunsong Kim and Maya Mackrandilal for an excellent discussion of the symbiotic relation between art, power, and oppression that this kind of artistic freedom is dependent on). Perhaps the CAM Walker exhibition will better expose limits to artistic freedom, when it encroaches on a collective desire for dignity that anyone concerned with civil rights, justice and equality should be able to at least understand.
This particular institution has made several mistakes and continues to lose opportunities to right its own wrongs. They were slow and opaque with responses to public upset at a panel discussion, and to their own staff members’ letter of protest. The solution to build a wall around the show instead of taking it down demonstrates their lack of understanding of the nature of the situation, and their introduction of new spurious wall texts that profess the work addresses race and gender inequities. Public reaction erupted at a September 17 lecture, at which many audience members became upset by Walker and the show’s curator Jeffrey Uslip’s failure to adequately explain the intention of the work. This was surprising considering such concerns about the work have been raised before. In a 2010 issue of Parkett, artist Glenn Ligon examined Walker’s use of African-American imagery and while acknowledging the complexity of the politics of representation, proposed that Walker’s interest in African-Americans demonstrates African-Americans vital role in American culture, and suggested that Walker’s works embodies the “American Dilemma” that is our current racially unequal society.
But at the public discussion, Uslip apparently ended the public discussion abruptly (for which he later apologized), and for many, left the impression that Walker’s use of images of Black people was careless at best. The public continued to express the pain of having to see these images, and some expressed the sadness and confusion of having to try to explain the work to their children. On September 18th, three CAM staff members wrote an official letter of complaint about the racial insensitivity of the show, and artist Damon Davis organized an exhibition boycott shortly thereafter. Within a few days, the artist, museum and artist’s gallery issued statements addressing the controversy, and the artist issued an apology for the pain the images caused. Paula Cooper Gallery’s statement deflected criticism with the trope ‘artists ask questions, they don’t answer them,’ and asserted that the use of already-circulating images abdicated Walker of responsibility. The statement told readers that it was “the artist’s and the gallery’s wish that Direct Drive may provide the impetus for a renewed and much needed dialogue about race and representation, in St. Louis and elsewhere”, which seemed not to recognize that the very reason we are talking about this important issue, is because people have found the artwork in question to be troubling. Lastly, the gallery statement asserted that it would be would be “censorship” to remove the work. While it is true that defining censorship is not always clear-cut, it usually occurs in relation to the maintenance of power, not in cases where an offense perpetuates a history of maligned representation and reality.
A few days later, CAM Director Lisa Melandri issued a statement expressing sorrow for the museum’s appearance of racial insensitivity, and apologized for the unclear articulation of the value of the show. Addressing a call to remove the work, she announced that instead of cancelling the show, it would continue enclosed by a wall so that people could make a choice about seeing it or not. This decision and her characterization of it seemed to demonstrate that the museum did not fully understand the nature of the criticism. “CAM has a history of showing controversial artists,” she wrote, “we have shown works that have challenged common sensibilities and presented work that has critiqued, in a difficult way, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, and the military industrial complex, among other issues…Despite the debates and discomfort these exhibitions generated, we never removed them.” Similar to the Cooper statement, Melandri’s statement implies that she doesn’t know that it is entirely different to offend members of a historically disenfranchised group than to challenge the status quo. Institutional critique doesn’t challenge the powerless or the underrepresented, historically it has done just the opposite, challenging exploitation, injustice, and oppression.
In order to quell criticism, new wall texts were employed that describe the work with a silly literalism that seems to belie everything that has ever been said about the work before. In the text now describing Schema, Trina is said to be empowered because the piece is so large and because she is gazing at the viewer. The toothpaste squirted over her body is said to represent the artist’s desire to be seen in an artistic lineage with Jackson Pollock, and “to critique how mass media tends to diminish trauma, sanitize disaster and struggle, and ‘whitewash’ events or people that are not given appropriate attention, sensitivity, power, or empathy”. In the new didactics—Walker’s references become cringe-worthy metaphors—and he is a champion of the disenfranchised.
In a 2005 essay entitled “How Andy Warhol Did Not Murder Painting but Masterminded the Killing of Content,” Francesco Bonami discusses Warhol’s apparent emotional detachment to actual suffering subjects pictured in his works, asking “whether we can still accept Warhol’s genius without questioning his moral and political detachment from the dramatic events that were reshaping a society in which he, as an artist, was living and prospering”. While questioning the ethics of his use of tragedy, he suggests that Warhol was able to avoid a total ethical lapse by his specific aesthetic transformation of the images into “dreamlike visions rather than documents”. But Bonami ends the essay by stating that today’s world would never accept such superficial and apolitical positions from our art or our artists. I suppose the Walker case will tell us if this is true of today’s world, because (revised museum didactics notwithstanding) Warholian detachment is the main ingredient in Walker’s work and the same ethical questions apply. In fact, the protesters in St. Louis are basically asking the same questions Bonami posed about Warhol, and the institutional response thus far has been to pit an unexamined notion of artistic freedom against the right to basic dignity. I’ll take the dignity.
 Eunsong Kim and Maya Mackrandila, “The Freedom to Oppress”. contemptorary.org, April 19. 2016. Last accessed October 16, 2016. http://contemptorary.org/the-freedom-to-oppress/
 Glenn Ligon, Kelley Walker’s “Negro Problem”. Parkett 87, 2010, pp. 79-81. Last accessed October 16, 2016. http://www.thomasdanegallery.com/usr/documents/press/download_url/30/glennligon-on-kelley-walker.pdf
 Francesco Bonami, “How Andy Warhol Did Not Murder Painting but Masterminded the Killing of Content”. Originally appeared in the catalog for Andy Warhol /SuperNova: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters 1962-1964, Walker Art Center, 2005. Accesed online at walkerart.org. Last accessed October 16, 2016. http://www.walkerart.org/magazine/2012/francesco-bonami-andy-warhol-killed-content
Pamela Fraser is an artist and Assistant Professor at The University of Vermont. She is a co-editor and author of the forthcoming books: Beyond Critique: Contemporary Art in Practice, Theory and Instruction (co-edited with Roger Rothman), which will be released by Bloomsbury Press in April 2017, and How Color Works: Color Theory for the 21st Century (Oxford University Press).