Re-Examining the Quality Issues
by Jo Ortel
This essay is in response to a symposium and exhibition, Message Carriers at Houston Center for Photography September 10-October 24, 1993 organized by the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University.
In 1990, Howardena Pindell, an African American woman published the first in a two-part series of articles inThe New Art Examiner in which she accused the art world of racism.1 She included first-hand accounts of racist treatment sheand other artists of color had experienced at the hands of gallery owners, dealers, museum curators, critics and an historians. She further based her charge on statistics she had gathered for an earlier larger research document on the subject.2Her data clearly showed that artists of color are severely under-exhibited compared to their white colleagues.ForPindell, the appalling paucity of anises of color in the venues of the art world could only be attributed to racial discrimination.
Not surprisingly, Pindell’s article provoked controversy. In this post-Civil Rights era of simultaneous high radical tension and sensitivity to "political correctness,” her charge is serious and stinging—all the more so when directed at a sector of society that generally prides itself on its liberalism. But it was Pindell’s suggestion that the art world invokes the issue of quality as a veil to cover overt racism that perhaps rankles most. Pindell wrote, ‘Double speak,’ and 'double-think’codes are used in the art world to imply the ability of one group of artists (people of European descent) to produce 'quality work, and the inability of another group of artists (people who are not of European descent) to produce quality' work. The word “quality” is therefore used as if it were synonymous with skin pigmentation and ancestry, but is stated publicly as signifying an unsullied and courageous color-blind standard.3
Despite Pindell's solid artistic reputation, one can almost hear her opponents suggesting in retaliation that hers were the charges of an artist who refused to accept the possibility that maybe bet art was not good enough to be exhibited; bitter, she played her only trump card and made the accusation of racism. It is a familiar counterattack, similar to the one with which feminist artists are regaled when they accuse the art world of sexist practices.
I could not help but think of Pindell's article when the question of artistic quality was raised in one local review of "Message Carriers,” the recent exhibition of photographic work by eight contemporary Native American artists held at the Houston Center for Photography. Included in the show were Patricia Deadman, Zig Jackson, Carm Little Turtle, James Luna, Larry McNeil, Jolene Rickard, Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie and Richard Ray Whitman. The exhibition, which traveled to HCP from the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, was curated by Theresa Harlan (also a Native American of Laguna, Santo Domingo, and Jemez Pueblo descent). The response was overwhelmingly positive. Some reviews, however, suggested that the organizers had suspended their critical judgment in an effort to present a show that would conform to current standards of political correctness. Once again, we circle back in the ubiquitous issue of quality.
What is this notion of quality? On what do we base quality judgments? What are our priorities concerning "good" art? More importantly, where do these criteria come from? Who or what is determining—of has predetermined—them?
In an article entitled "Critical Reflections,'' I Thomas McEvilley wrote that "the mainstream tradition in Westerm philosophy... has argued for universal and unchanging criteria of quality that are supposedly valid for all times and places."4 McEvilley continued, "There are differences in expression…but it is a shared idea that correct judgments are based on a correct perception of universal, and incorrect ones on a misperception of them. Absolute values, in this view, are inborn to all humans identically in all limes and places…Some people can apprehend these inborn ideas clearly, and some, because of a variety of obscuring factors, can not.”5
This belief in absolute quality and in the ability of some to discern it where others are unable has informed much an critical writing in the past century, if not longer. A substantial coterie of "cultural arbiters” continues to cling to these beliefs. In a recent documentary film about the feminist group, the Guerilla Girls, one art consultant was asked how he identifies quality in art. "That is a mysterious process," he exclaimed, "Like describing how one falls in love."6 Apparently, quality inheres in the work of an, the ability to recognize it is a god-given gift, and the process by which one discerns it is inexplicable, intangible, but nonetheless real.
Yet, others have pointed out the dubious base upon which such a belief in the universality of quality rests. As McEvilley notes, the evidence would suggest that it is subjective and relative. "First, there is the historical evidence: the simple tact that taste changes over time. Countless examples could be invoked to illustrate this: we're all familiar with them. Artists seen as great by their own generation may seem mediocre to a later one, and vice versa. The very notions of what makes a work good have been observed to charge from age to age.”7
Eunice Lipton, too, demystified the process in her essay for the catalogue accompanying the 1990 exhibition, "The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s." “As scientific as twentieth-century art critics, have tried to be," she wrote, "or insisted they have been, any evaluation of style is obviously a personal matter, a question of taste."8 Assertions to the contrary notwithstanding quality does not inhere in certain works of art; rather, the notion of quality is a cultural construct. Judgments about good and bad art are fluid, shifting historically and culturally specific.
The whole unwieldy apparatus we call the art world is engaged in the business of establishing taste, setting standards. Art critics, dealers, museum curators, art historians (myself included) are all implicated to one degree or another. Pronouncements from the cultural arbiters carry great weight, especially today. Large sums of money change hands, careers are made or broken on the pronouncements of the "art experts.” Through even the most guileless choices we make when we curate or review exhibitions, publish scholarly articles, or design academic courses, we implicitly help to determine which works will end up in the canon of Art (with a capital "A"), which works are great, mediocre, or just plain kitsch. Sorting through the vast array of cultural production, we determine what has quality or merit and what does riot.
The authority of these gatekeepers of culture derives from education and training. "They have learned the 'history' of past an and know what to look for in present art," Lipton has written.9 But what privileges have they enjoyed (or taken for granted) that enabled them the luxury of learning history, and whose history are they learning? Just what is the relationship between one's socio-economic background and one's conception of art? As McEvilley has mused, "It seems clear that we take as objective measures of value what we have been conditioned to take that way... One of [the conditioning factors] is the cultural tradition in which one lives. In the Western tradition in general, for example, any art that rises from the Greco-Roman lineage…looks recognizable as art and thus will correspond lo some degree to our tradition of connoisseurship."10
Conversely, we should not expect art produced by artists with experiences that differ from our own to fit neatly into our holes. But this ought to make us reflect upon and perhaps even reconsider our criteria—not the art we are trying to make conform and our motives in imperiously imposing our standards as if they were universal and absolute. McEvilley is justified in suggesting that, "when one community of taste attempts to enforce its idea of quality on another, an irrational and dangerous act is performed that can only arise from hidden, perhaps violent motives."11 Again, Lipton: "Finally, the most important question must be: Whose voices have access to distribution and power, and whose don’t? And why?"12
Though cultural and social events of the past thirty years, many of us have recognized the necessity and desirability of being pluralistic, "panoramic" in our definitions of art and in our evaluations of quality. Yet for even the most open-minded, certain parameters persist. For example, we may embrace the obligatory postmodern theories of the artist (I refer to Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author), but at the most fundamental, unacknowledged level, our expectations still encompass the person of the artist, and his or her motivations in producing art.13 I was reminded of some of these unquestioned boundaries and trenchant assumptions when, a few years ago, a friend suggested we browse a 'gallery" that catered to tourist trade and was filled with mass-produced paintings. "What?! That's not art," I exclaimed. "That's kitsch!" I may be liberal, but no self-respecting art historian would set foot in such a den of crass commercialization, just as none will likely be found at the "starving artist" sales regularly promoted in tiresome television commercials.
We cultural arbiters have a vested interest in maintaining hierarchies. Do away with these dubious distinctions and the need for the art expert vanishes. Mary Edwards Walker, nineteenth-century physician, feminist and reformer, once said, "You (men) are not our protectors...If you were, who would there be to protect us from?" Shift the focus and Walker's pithy comment would apply in this context.
Like McEvilley, I am not advocating that we dispense with value judgments altogether; that need not be the ultimate goal. Whenever we find ourselves making evaluative judgments about art, or dismissing work with an invocation of "quality," we might instead simply proceed cautiously, with greater self-consciousness. We ought to take a moment to acknowledge our assumptions and our conditioning to ourselves and to our audience. We would be well served, to think, to notice, how our experiences—economic, ethnic, social, political—are framing our picture of a work of art.
Let me suggest how this process can work. Over the course of my study of the sometimes thorny issues swirling around the multiculturalism debate in the arts, I have been troubled by the decision of some artists of color to be very protective of their art and extraordinarily selective about where and in what context their works are seen, reproduced, exhibited. The artists included in "Message Carriers" together with curator Theresa Harlan expressed this sentiment in the lively symposium that rook place at HCP on September 11, 1993.14This careful novo! would, they argued, help prevent the work of artists of color from being misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misjudged according to an inappropriate and ill-suited set of criteria.
The position seemed problematic to me. I was disturbed by the implication that the art could not stand on its own. If it did not convey its message effectively without words, speeches, and symposia attached, without a carefully controlled environment, how would the art possibly stand the test of time? What was to keep it from being misunderstood or misinterpreted later? I wondered, too, if these artists could really afford the luxury of being so selective, about where and how their works were seen. Did they not desire visibility and recognition within the mainstream and if so, wasn't such protectiveness counter-productivite? Finally, I was bothered by the implicit re-introduction of a hierarchical model, in which the artist’s interpretation of her work is given greater significance than the viewer's.
Slowly, though, I am realizing that my concerns are saturated with Eurocentric, modernist expectations and assumptions—which may or may not overlap with those of the Native American artists included in "Message Carriers.” I have been unthinkingly imposing my priorities for art and how art should function where they may not pertain. In probing why place such importance on the autonomy of the art object, Ihave come to see that in a society so dominated by capitalism as ours is, the self-contained, self-referential work of art is valued because of its long-term market saleability. By extension, the modernist, universalist decree that art should transcend its cultural and historical moment has also been shaped by these pervasive market forces. Recognizing where these priorities come from, I am better able to critique or relativize them: is there really any reason why this definition of a work of art is better than one which conceives art wholly differently, as larger (and perhaps more abstract, less materially-based) than the object/artifact per se? A work which resonated with our grandparents’ generation but that today seems “dated” cannot, by our current criteria, be a great work of art. The definitions we take for granted suddenly seem arbitrary and altogether too rigid.
In fact, there is an analogous Native American belief (obviously generated from very different circumstances) that art can continue to communicate independently and beyond the life of its creator.15Significantly, though, the panel discussion at HCP only marginally touched upon the photographs as objects. Eunice Lipton was right when sh asserted that market forces—largely unacknowledged but ever present—are what drive our culture’s desire for “codified and confirmed notions of quality and originality” in art critical discourse.16Indeed, they drive our very conception of art and of how art should function.
I begin to understand why Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie and Jolene Rickard (to name only two) are protective of their work. I sit uncomfortably here before my computer as I reread the closing words of Theresa Harlan’s essay about native photographic messages: “So often, the task of interpretation is handed to non-native art historians or anthropologists who cannot properly evaluate the work because they do not have access to native experience or ownership…Art reviewers who are unable to understand messages tend to dismiss what is unfamiliar with avoidance, sentimental empathy, or trite comments. The challenge for non-native viewers is to become informed. The uninformed art historian and critic alike must step away from the podium or computer—tools of informational control— and acknowledge that they lack the references to understand native symbolism or dialogue. This issue of control is essential; the uninformed viewer must grapple with the humility of not knowing. While those with a formal an education who visit museums and galleries constitute a small, elite group, it is this same group that find themselves challenged as they cannot rely fully on the canons of European art history. The “universal” is no longer universal.”17
At least initially, we all try to understand the unfamiliar in relation lo the familiar and the known. If the unfamiliar work does not fit neatly and easily into our cultural framework, we may find it lacking in some way. Too often, we invoke the notion of quality and dismiss the work without another thought.
Lippard has written, "Such sheeplike fidelity to a single criterion for good art...remains firmly embedded in education and artistic circles, producing audiences who are afraid tothink for themselves."18 I agree. In our culture, it is usually a compliment to tell someone they are discriminating in their taste. I think it is time to reconsider.
Jo Ortel received a Ph.D. in art history from Stanford University and is currently teaching at the University of Houston.
I would like to thank photographer Laura Letinsky and toe students who participated in my seminar on "Cultural Representations of/by the Other” for helping me to clarify and refine my thoughts multicultural diversity in the arts.
1. Howardena Pindell, "Breaking the Silence." New Art Examiner. 18 no. 2 (October. 1990). pp. 18-2 3. The second article in the series appeared in New Art Examiner in November, 1990.
2. The results of Pindell’s research were originally presented as a lecture at the Agencies of Survival Conference held at Hunter College, New York, June 27, 1987. They were subsequently published in Pindell, "Art world racism: a documentation." New Art Examiner, 16 no. 7 (March 1989), pp. 32-36.
3. Pindell, "Breaking the Silence,” p. 19.
4. Thomas McEvilley, “Critical Reflections” Artforum, 30no. 3 (November, 1991), p. 114. (Reprinted as "Revaluing the Value Judgmen,” in McEvilley, Art and Otherness, Crisis in Cultural Identity. Kingston. NY: Documentext, McPherson & Co., 1992)
5. McEvilley, p. 114.
6. The film, entitled "Guerrillas in our Midst,” was made by Amy Harrison in 1992.
7. McEvilley, p. 114.
8. Eunice Upton, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? Some Plots for a Dismantling,” in the Decade Show, Frameworks of Identity in the l980s, New York: Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art., The New Museum of Contemporary Art, & the Studio Museum in Harlem, 1990. p. 29.
9. Lipton, p. 31.
10. McEvilley, pp. 114-115.
11. McEvilley, Art and Otherness, pp. 73-74.
12. Lipton, 31.
13. See Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author,” Images, Music, Text. Transl. Stephen Heath. NY; Hill and Wang, 1977. pp. 142-148. And see Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice; Selected Essays and Interviews. Ed. with intro. by Donald F. Bouchard. Transl. Bouchard and Sherry Simon Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977. pp. 113-118.
14. Margo Machida, Asian-American arist and independent curator has adopted a similar position in her efforts at investigating and documenting contemporary Asian-American cultural production.
15. Theresa Harlan, "Message Carriers: Native Photographic Messages,” Views,The Journal of Photography in New England, vol. 13-4/14-1 (Winter, I993) p. 3.
16. Lipton. p. 29.
17. Harlan, p. 7.
18. Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings, New Art in Muliticultural America. New York: Pantheon, 1990, p. 7.