(Dayton, OH) – As part of the gallery’s #WhatIsArt2U platform, I ask the question today “WHO Can Make Your Art?”
The answer to the question is probably simple for some and much more complicated for others. The question becomes more complicated when the artist’s heritage doesn’t match that of their subject. This comes into play often when the artist is White and their subject is Black, but this can happen back forth across any race, religion or any other social construct a person may use to identify them self. This practice has of course been around for centuries, but is a topic I just wanted to give some thought to during this current political climate and during February as we observe Black History Month in the United States.
It was in 2017 when I first contemplated this subject after there was a large uproar and controversy over a painting shown at the Whitney Biennial, “Open Casket” (2016) by a white artist, Dana Schutz. The painting is based on the death of Emmett Till, a young black boy who was brutally killed by a white mob. The feeling by many was how can a white woman understand or convey the feelings Blacks felt over such a heinous, racially motivated act. There were calls to have the painting removed from the exhibition and even protests. The painting eventually was allowed to remain but the controversy followed Schutz to her subsequent show in Boston and the questions follow her still to this day.
Recently, I visited the Columbus Museum of Art to see their exhibition entitled I, Too, Sing America: The Harlem Renaissance at 100. As expected, the exhibition was filled with many talented African-American artists, but when I saw the name Winold Reiss on a few paintings I immediately grabbed my smartphone to see just who this person was. Winold was a German immigrant who gained fame by, among other things, painting portraits of “New Negroes” such as Langston Hughes, Paul Roebson and Alain Locke during the 1920s. I also learned he painted portraits of several members of the Blackfeet tribe and has a lengthy history with Native Americans. Nothing in his paintings stood out to me as stereotypical or disrespectful so I didn’t dwell on it and continued my tour, but it did further open my eyes to another aspect of Art history.
In my own gallery, I have more than one work of Art that may surprise the viewer as to the artist’s background. One work in particular that sits in my office is a piece that grab my attention at an estate sale. It wasn’t until I brought it home did I find out the print was a lithograph of a painting by American born artist, Wolfgang Mueller Otto. Once I discovered this, I instantly started to question if I still enjoy the painting as much. What made the artist decide on this subject? These were knee jerk reactions and in the end the print still sits in my office and I do enjoy it as much as when I first saw it. However, the question does remain of “Why with all the infinite choices of subject matter to paint, why did Wolfgang decide on this particular beautiful, dark-skinned woman?” I’ll have to commit to further research to learn that answer.
I always pose the question to people #WhatIsArt2U. I advocate for Art appreciation being a very personal experience and not to be overly influenced by others, even the leaders in the subject. So, I think this topic should follow that same premise and viewers of these artworks should decide for themselves if they feel the artist has crossed any lines, practiced in appropriation or simply created a work that was made through ignorance or arrogance. I personally judge each of these works on a case by case basis and make no generalization about who can make my Art. However, I am as always curious to hear from other art viewers as to their perspective on the topic and their views on any particular piece of Art. ▉