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Kill Your Darlings: The End of the White Male Ally

Man Ray, Kiki with African Mask, 1926, silver gelatin print, 21.1 x 27.6 cm, National Gallery of Melbourne purchased through The Art Foundation of  Victoria. Copyright the MAN RAY TRUST ADAGP, Paris.

By KURT MCVEY, JULY 2019 

"News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising." - Quote attributed to George Orwell and other old white men.

After reading the recently published New York Times opinion piece, “The Dominance of the White Male Critic: Conversations About Our Monuments, Museums, Screens and Stages Have the Same Blind Spots As Our Political Discourse,” by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang, I decided to interrupt the latest piece I was working on, a highly positive, well-researched review of T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America at the National Museum of the American Indian, and go for a walk through Williamsburg’s McCarren Park, which isn’t far from my shared work space in Greenpoint where I toil away daily and rather foolishly as a 35-year-old, cisgender, white American male and still very able bodied freelancer wrapped up in New York’s increasingly predictable art beat, and closing in on a solid decade now.  

As I walked through the park the day after the Fourth of July, a tweet, sent out this past May by art critic (Is he ever really objectively critical of art made by artists of color, which he writes about rather exclusively, or just the white male patriarchy?) Antwaun Sargent, referenced at the top of the aforementioned article, banged around my big white male head:

“ ‘It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a renaissance in black artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored black artists for decades?’ the art critic Antwaun Sargent tweeted in May.” 

It’s true; for something like the Whitney Biennial (Sargent’s tweet was in reference to the Biennial primarily), which is ultimately a baseline, lowest common denominator survey filled with mostly ok art (there are a few exceptional exceptions) that has to appeal to tourists (the masses) and not just deeply entrenched, oversaturated New York art critics like myself-already familiar with most of the work and artists on display-maybe having someone a bit younger, blacker, considerably less straight, perhaps even less informed, and certainly not so white review the show could be interesting. In fact, it would be refreshing. 

So I happily searched for Sargent’s NYT rebuttal to Holland Cotter’s (Who else is he talking about?) somewhat (admittedly) out of touch, overly (see: exclusively) complimentary (To be fair, how could Cotter, in 2019, be critical of anything in light of the exact criticism levied against older, white male critics?), but well researched and highly thorough review of the Biennial. Antwaun’s review doesn’t exist.

Sargent has till the end of September, I suppose. The “activist” and art critic most assuredly has an open door at the Times. As of this writing, Antwaun’s biting and by no means entirely unfounded tweet was all the criticism as of yet offered up by the writer regarding this year’s Biennial offering, or more specifically, the shameful dearth of non-white criticism regarding the subject and presumably other shows by black artists.

Maybe Antwaun is just too busy. Sargent’s particular and clearly self-articulated niche or position in art criticism couldn’t possibly be in greater demand at this moment. (Can this be denied?) But perhaps, this is simply Sargent’s brand; for now is the age where the tweet is clearly more powerful than a thousand-plus carefully constructed, well-researched words. 

And who reads anymore anyway? 

I continued through McCarren. I let that tweet and Antwaun, who like myself (Who else will advocate for me?) deserves a great deal of credit, especially as a young writer, now ascending, for making space for and championing young marginalized artists-especially young black artists-cool down and dissipate in my mental sphere.  

Where this is a clearly defined and lucrative brand for Antwaun-the vague, aggrieved tweet, the call for critical reparations, for greater representation-this is just one intersectional area of the art world that interests me. I don’t exclusively treat “black artists” and their work as a monolith, even if black artists and critics do and even if they treat the white male and the white male critic as a monolith. This is not an issue of “not seeing race.” Don’t get it twisted. I see race. I’ve been here to see, hear and feel the experience. I’ve done the work to back that up.

But this is a cultural blood clot on the way to full on aneurism.

No, you won’t see me or other white male critic allies getting a pat on the back from the black literati. You will see me get a seat at the table, because, let’s be honest, as long as my attention, efforts and access is geared towards black artists and further propelling this moment to a place of supreme saturation, I’m welcome to the party. Not the actual IRL party, mind you. I have to be Batman about this subject; a self-denying, self-effacing Bruce Wayne in the flesh, with the looks, brains, balls and swag but with no trust fund in sight. A healthy sprinkle of white-guilt and operating almost exclusively on raw enthusiasm, which is more often than not genuine, and shared, earnestly, especially when I started this game, when young artists of color, LGBTQ voices and women were considerably less represented but doing urgent, passionate work; the most exciting work.

You know this work when you see it-white, black, male, female, young, old, whatever. I’m not asking for a thank you, or a seat on the panel discussion (I am almost always asked to be in the audience however; the white male avatar fulcrum point totem for all the anger, the frustration) and like Batman you’ll never have to offer that up to me. You’ll never have to say thank you.

But “step aside?” Really?

How convenient.

The following joint quote and suggestive mandate by Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang is all too familiar and short-hand cheesy: “Old-school white critics ought to step aside and make room for the emerging and the fully emerged writers of color who have been holding court in small publications and online for years, who are fluent in the Metropolitan Opera and the rapper Megan Thee Stallion.”

Megan Thee Stallion? That’s the go-to dad-shaming reference? Why not Billie Eilish? Lame. Also, I find it hilarious that the New York Times allows two opinion writers to proclaim that better or at least more important art criticism is happening at Hyperallergic, among other magazines for example. If this isn’t a self-defeating micro-expression (not only a micro-aggression) of the Far-left (as it’s often criticized), if not the Times cannibalizing, diminishing and discrediting itself, I don’t know what is.  

And what does “Old-school” even mean in this case? Seems appropriately vague. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to set an age-limit on art criticism either. Black may not crack, but we all get old. We all lose touch eventually.

More perplexing to me is the suggestion that people who have done great work (a claim somewhere between objective [closer to the former] and subjective) for decades should simply “step aside.” Like art critics of any race or nationality should be compelled to quit their jobs or resign because someone thinks they can do better but most likely cannot. Just cause these writers make it look easy doesn’t mean it is easy. It isn’t.

Is Sargent objectively a better art writer and critic than Holland Cotter? No. He most certainly is not. Not even close, but maybe in time. Is Antwaun as a voice and talent valuable in the public sphere, however, especially as it pertains to marginal artists? Yes. There is room for both. Holland doesn’t need to be dumped and trashed to free up space for artists who might share the same identifiers as Sargent.

Furthermore, what does “step aside” even mean? Who’s going to pay their rent? Put food on the table? Pay their health insurance, if they even have it? This is sophomoric (if not childish), myopic, culturally violent, if not (swerving sheepish, trivial semantics here) at least discriminatory, pitiable, entitled and predictably selfish. It’s a mandate operating on the same low vibration value system as their presumed oppressors.

The best art right now is high vibration art. The best art criticism moves in tandem.  

As a hard working, still hustling, pitching every day, sing for my supper freelancer, I also want a super-cool, consistent, fancy, salaried staff job with full benefits. I want to be an art critic or arts and culture journalist with his name emblazoned on a worthy masthead, but should a talented, currently staffed writer, one who’s done quality work for years, have to quit before they or their editors feel that’s appropriate, and starve for me to get it, just because they’re currently the race and or gender of a presumed patriarchal, macro-cultural antagonist worthy of Berry and Yang’s overt Marxist antagonism?  

No. It only serves to reify race and thus racism and other identity-based constructs to compel editors to assign stories racially. Isn’t empathy the game here? I’d rather pay my dues and illustrate my relevance through ongoing hard work, building a personal brand based on shared universal values, and not simply values that appeal to one increasingly loud, antagonistic, dogmatic echo chamber. My audience is the human audience.  

Imagine if I went right. Went full Candace Owens. Took the red pill. Bought a shiny red tie. I would get my fancy blue Verified check within a week. The perceived white male aggrieved, my waiting fanatics, would rally around me and my new light blue College Republican button down beneath a dark blue J. Crew blazer and perfectly starched khakis and propel me to talking head Fox News demigod pseudo stardom. I would move across second-tier college campuses, drawing the ire of the Antwauns in-training. I’d be a loud, loyal Trump hellhound. I’d be a white male cisgender rock star, chin up, Punk, head held high, gracefully levitating over emphatic chants of USA! USA!

But I want a real readership, not fanatics. Maybe I’m too young to be “old-school,” but I am a white male in his mid-thirties and this trickle down, “step aside” mandate affects me in the negative and forces me to ponder if all this time I wasn’t an “ally,” but a hapless “cuck” as the Alt-right so eloquently coined years ago. Perhaps I was just a sturdy art world Trojan Horse, a once-worthy vessel, left painfully empty, lifeless and abandoned, fit only to burn and be forgotten in the heart of the citadel.

Despite calling out a few cherry-picked instances where some white writers missed the mark on certain topics, which like this piece could set off quality debate, I’m not asking Berry and Yang to step aside and I never would. I would love to see Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang call Cotter or the Pulitzer-winning Saltz, or even A.O. Scott out by name and directly petition for their swift resignation. If not them, who?  

To be clear, making space and increasing resources to even the playing field, to increase representation and promote inclusion and diverse perspectives is valiant and good and the numbers do need to shift (but to what end?), but this calling for a pint of blood, this black market job (organ) harvesting, this call for professional crucifixion, this de-platforming, is a clear step back, not a step forward. It’s friendly fire at its most unconscionable and ill-informed. It’s something worse than passive-aggressive. In the lead-up to Trump 2.0, shouldn’t we be more careful about this harmful, degenerative, permissive overcorrection trope? WM 

  

Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.

photo by Monet Lucki

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