Aruna D’Souza is the author of Whitewalling: Art, Race, & Protest in 3 Acts, a new book from Badlands Unlimited, the publishing house helmed by the artist Paul Chan. The book begins with protests at the 2017 Whitney Biennial against Open Casket, a painting by the white artist Dana Schutz of the murdered black teenager Emmett Till, whose mutilated body figured in a 1955 photograph that helped galvanize the civil rights movement. The history then moves backward in time to survey similar episodes in relation to two exhibitions in New York: in 1979, “The Nigger Drawings,” a show of abstract works at Artists Space by the white artist Donald Newman that many deemed racist in its presentation, and, in 1969, “Harlem on My Mind,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was taken to task for including no black artists in a show associated with the most prominent African-American neighborhood in America. D’Souza, who lives in Williamstown in western Massachusetts, is also the author of Cézanne’s Bathers: Biography and the Erotics of Paint and a contributor to numerous publications including 4Columns and ARTnews.
Laura Raicovich is a politically engaged arts administrator and author who, until late January, served as director of the Queens Museum in New York. (Her departure was announced two days after the following conversation transpired.) After three years at its helm, she resigned in the wake of differences of opinion with the institution’s board. Prior to her tenure there, Raicovich worked as director of global initiatives for the public arts organization Creative Time and as deputy director for the Dia Art Foundation. She is the author of At the Lightning Field (Coffee House Press, 2017), a book of ruminations inspired by Walter De Maria’s Land Art work in New Mexico. She is also a co-editor of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, and Cultural Production (OR Books, 2017).
ARTnews convened with D’Souza and Raicovich at Dumpling Galaxy, an esteemed Chinese restaurant in the Arcadia Mall in the ethnically diverse neighborhood of Flushing, Queens. The table was arranged with assorted dumplings—filled with pork, crab, scallops, chives, and other sundries—for all to share. —Andy Battaglia
ARTnews: You two have corresponded some in the past . . .
Aruna D’Souza: We became Facebook friends and have some unexpected mutual acquaintances. One of them is one of the handful of South Asians in Williamstown.
Laura Raicovich: She is from a sprawling Pakistani-American family who are like an extended family to me. We also have some mutual friends from the art world . . .
D’Souza: But part of it was realizing we both love food—we’re both cooks. Also, both of us have a sense of what writing can do. Laura’s book At the Lightning Field is very much in line with what I think writing can and should do around art, and that is more expansive than [what] art criticism or art history normally does.
Raicovich: Reading your writing, I also identified a desire to go beyond what is traditionally thought of as art-historical or critical writing in a way that brings in elements of a personal experience, a relationship to something I call “the realm of the real.” The Lightning Field can seem hermetic for people because it’s this minimal installation in a faraway place, but Walter’s desire was profound in his wanting people to have their own experience with it and bring their own experiences of the world to it.
ARTnews: How much can museums truly engage with the realm of the real?
D’Souza: I’m fascinated by the idea of how “public” museums see themselves to be. One of the things that became clear to me over the course of writing this book was that museums have always struggled with understanding their public and how they relate to it—and how to be honest about who they see their public to be. What fascinated me around each of these moments of controversy is that a lot of times, controversy started because museums were saying “our public is everyone!” when it was clear by their actions that their public was a much smaller swath of people.
ARTnews: Is that more or less the case now in contrast to prior points in history?
Raicovich: To talk about that, we need to go back to why museums exist, particularly in the United States. Most museums have started because wealthy patrons thought to make their personal collection public. And curators, the source of the word in Latin is curare, “to care for”—so what are we caring for and who are we protecting it from? The stance of the museum was often to make precious works of art public but, at the same time, to protect them from the public. In that dual existence, I think the balance remains heavier on the protection side—or the education side. I see the function of museums as needing to be committed to an exchange of ideas and information rather than a broadcast.
D’Souza: There are conflicts at the heart of the museum, which often have different notions of audience or how to conceive of the people who come into the museum as a public. At one point while I was writing the book I was also consulting, and I happened to be involved in an eight-month project with the education department at the Whitney Museum, which was doing a monthly reading seminar around questions of structural and institutional bias, critical race theory, and how they could expand notions of audiences. When everything blew up around the Dana Schutz Open Casket painting, one of the really interesting things was that it was clear that different parts of the museum were reacting in different ways, based on how they related to an imagined audience. The guards and the front-of-house staff have their own understanding of who the audience is, how they’re reacting, and what they need, and that is very different from how the education department imagines it. And then that is different from how curatorial imagines it, and the director, the board of trustees. All these institutions are operating with people who have entirely different understandings of what their public is.
Raicovich: And what that public wants from their interactions with a museum. In what language do people want to interact with the museum? Do they want to make stuff? What does museum interpretation mean, and how can we reimagine it? I’ve spent years trying to untangle these knots. You know, if you have a curatorial text, no matter how sensitive you are to not being jargon-y and inaccessible, you still have a problem in that it’s appealing in a certain register—and that register just isn’t interesting to a lot of people. How do we operationalize our values and decolonialize the structure of museums to actually operate along the value system that can be challenging when the structures themselves contain bias?
ARTnews: What were your reactions to the way the Whitney handled the controversy over the Dana Schutz painting in its biennial?
D’Souza: Most museums, including the Whitney, are imagining a universal audience and understand viewership as a neutral, passive experience. There are exceptions: I think the education department at the Whitney is doing extraordinary things to try to nuance that. But for the most part, almost every museum, when they think of audience, they’re thinking of a generic person. And any time you start thinking of generics, in my view, it always devolves to whiteness. That became clear at the Whitney when, to me, their response was really about, How do we get our audience to understand what these protests are about? That confused me, because I was like, Well, your audience knows what these protests are about because your audience is protesting! Your audience knows—but does the Whitney know?
Raicovich: Public space is under attack. You know, very little truly public space still exists in our urban space, especially in New York. Can the museum be a place that we hold in common, in the truest sense of the commons, where we go into a collective mode for the making of ideas and culture at large? A museum is a place for the production of culture, and I think all kinds of publics need to participate in that. But you can’t get all kinds of publics if they feel like the place is not for them.
D’Souza: For the controversies in my book, all three of the heads of those institutions wanted to imagine that their spaces could be a platform for debate. That is different than what Laura’s talking about when she talks about the commons, because the idea of true public space means that it can sustain conflict—that it doesn’t need to manage conflict but can allow conflict as a positive and public good. The people I know best at the Whitney are in the education department, which is the most diverse group in the museum, and I think they did the best they could do to contextualize the conversation. But the problem is that they needed to contextualize it in a way so that the institution came out unscathed, as one would expect from any institution.
Raicovich: They needed to contextualize it for a primary imagined audience, which was white and not native to issues being brought up by the protest. We need a way of conceiving of museum audiences as truly multiple. I love Jeff Chang’s book Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America (2014). He picks up the multicultural project and brings it into today. I’ve always felt there was a multiculturalism in the early to mid-’90s that was trampled on. There were a lot of babies thrown out with that bathwater. Aruna and I are about the same age and grew up, you know, reading Edward Said. That multiculturalism has to come out again, and there’s a generation of people that, hopefully, understands multiplicity in a way that is not “diversity.” That’s an important distinction.
ARTnews: Aruna, were there any surprises for you in the historical episodes you covered? Sentiments that you might not have expected? Has there been a trajectory toward progress?
D’Souza: I organized the book in reverse chronological order and there were reasons for that. We live in a very present-ist moment, so I wanted to start where people are and take them back in history rather than make them slog through chapters they might not understand or find immediately relevant to what they’re interested in now. What I didn’t want to do, and think that the narrative wouldn’t have sustained, is suggest the idea that we’ve gotten anywhere good in the past 50 years.
Raicovich: In fact we might have devolved!
D’Souza: When you go back in time, the stakes of protest were actually much higher. What protesters wanted in 1969 was bigger than what the protesters wanted in 2017. The protesters of “Harlem on My Mind”—black artists, critics, and writers who were associated with black nationalism and the Black Arts Movement—wanted a share of the resources. They didn’t just want to be let into the museum—they wanted the Met to decentralize. They wanted the Met to fund museums in the outer boroughs. They wanted the Met to put resources all over the city. They wanted museums to be cultural actors, to be actively fighting for racial justice. In a sense, the stakes have gotten smaller and smaller. I think Hannah Black’s letter [protesting the Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney and calling for its removal] was asking for something quite a bit larger, but that wasn’t recognized.
ARTnews: How does the nature of protest-minded thinking need to change?
D’Souza: The 1979 protests at Artists Space were about institutional critique, but, in 2017, Paul Chan and I started talking about “infrastructural critique,” which is different. We have to examine how, over the long duration of history, resources have been unequally distributed.
Raicovich: The idea that museums are neutral is an absurdity, because all “neutral” means is that the museum is reinforcing the values of the dominant culture. Connoisseurship is only neutral because of its position in a larger society. Neutrality is a myth. The museum has never been neutral. It was designed to convey a lot, like colonial prowess by nations. Collect enough stuff and you look really powerful. When you start thinking in those terms, you have to contend with that. You have to ask yourself: do we dump it or do we deal with it?
ARTnews: Going back to what we were talking about earlier, the need to find different kinds of language to engage different audiences, what types of register might be most effective?
D’Souza: As a writer, I come at engagement from a different point of view. A register I think is really effective and probably underused is storytelling. We don’t tell enough stories about art. We tell people about art, but that’s not the same as telling people stories about art. Every culture has a storytelling tradition, and storytelling is very much part of how we learn. Somehow in grad school we are talked out of the idea of storytelling being a kind of language that art is supposed to produce.
Raicovich: Storytelling makes connections between the unusual stuff of art—the weirdness in it—and more regular things in life make sense. I would love, when people put out their trash after seeing a Mierle Laderman Ukeles show, to say, “That’s actually a portrait of me.” At the end of the day, I would love for people to walk away saying, “Huh, I never would have thought of that,” or, “Huh, I wonder. . .”
D’Souza: My ideal is if people go to a museum and come away thinking, “OK, smash the patriarchy!”
Raicovich: That, too!
D’Souza: One of the things that’s interesting to me about historical moments of protest is that they’re actually producing exactly what you want art to do. If you say you want art to promote passion and engagement, this is that exactly. It’s mind-blowing to consider the sheer volume of opinions that were expressed around Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, and I’m not just talking about art-world opinions. I wrote a piece for CNN.com and there were hundreds of comments, mostly people who I’m sure have never bothered thinking about art for one moment in their lives. The fact that they thought even for a moment that art was worth thinking about—and that there were stakes to the conversation—was amazing. The protesters did that. This is what we hope that art does, but then sometimes it does so in a way that is challenging institutions and not wider society. Toppling the Trump administration also means toppling some of the assumptions that subtend a place like the Whitney. Those two things are connected, and people weren’t making that connection. I don’t think the Met was making the connection in 1969 between their position and what black power was trying to fight. But guess what: the Met is exactly what black power was trying to fight.
ARTnews: Whitewalling stemmed in part from conversations you were having with Paul Chan, whose Badlands Unlimited is publishing it. What was the tenor of those conversations?
D’Souza: I live in western Massachusetts, and when MASS MoCA’s Building 6 opened last summer, I was appalled that they had renovated 150,000 square feet of new space, doubling the size of the museum, and that the space was devoted to installations by white artists but, then, the opening was filled with black performers. That laid out for me, structurally, what’s wrong with how museums deal with race. I wrote a piece called “White Space, Black Spectacle” about the ways in which museums are happy to invest temporarily in artists of color but not when it comes down to their real resources, meaning space in the permanent collection, long-term installations, and things like that. Paul came across the article and invited me to come to his office for a chat.
ARTnews: Was it useful to get input from an artist?
D’Souza: We had never met and I got a little nervous. I asked a friend of mine why he would want to talk to me, and my friend said, “Maybe he wants you to write an erotic novel for his feminist erotica series.” [Laughs.] But he said he had come across my article and also my book Cézanne’s Bathers: Biography and the Erotics of Paint when he had been working on his “Air Dancers” series. When I had gone to see that show at Greene Naftali, I happened to go on a day when he was in the gallery talking with a group of high school students about the work and the issues around race that it was meant to invoke, along with references to dancers in Cézanne and Matisse.
Paul’s publishing operation is very much part of his larger practice as an artist, and I think it’s important for him to try to engage an audience who will themselves go on to change the world. It’s a question of how do you get to them? How do you put things in their heads that plant certain ideas? How do we use this as a lever to engage all sorts of people who should be having conversations that they have either been deferring or otherwise having only halfway?
Raicovich: It reminds me of this Mierle Laderman Ukeles work called Birthing Tikkun Olam: Your Idea to Repair the World, which refers to a concept in Judaism to leave the world a better place. I think there’s a common thread among artists particularly committed to and interested in how they address the world. Mierle hands out mirrors in order for people to look at themselves and pledge to repair the world. It’s the artist as instigator, as provocateur—not as a self-aggrandizing act of “look at me” but more like “we need to do this collectively.” A museum can offer those moments of collectivity.
ARTnews: How has the changing makeup of museum boards affected the ways in which museums can do that?
Raicovich: You can’t do this work without the board being a central part of it. It’s a very complex question, not easy to untangle. There are people whom you need to find as fellow travelers, and it’s not easy work.
D’Souza: The only act of protest that led to an immediate result in my book was around “Harlem on My Mind.” It was not acceding to any of the black protesters’ demands but to the pulling of the show’s catalogue on the basis of separate complaints by the Jewish Defense League and the Anti-Defamation League that it
contained anti-Semitic comments. The reason that happened was because Jewish protesters lobbied New York City Mayor John Lindsay, who then threatened to withdraw $3.5 million dollars of city funding when the museum was trying to get the means to expand to house the Temple of Dendur and create a wing for the Robert Lehman Collection.
There were different strains of protest happening all at once, and that’s in fact the only one that succeeded in the short term, when the museum conceded and pulled the catalogue from sale. There were other successes in the long-term, but in that immediate moment it was only because there was a public leverage on the institution. Now, there is very little public leverage, because institutions are privately funded and so much power is placed in the board of trustees. Museums are essentially privately funded at this point, but they imagine themselves as public institutions. There’s a contradiction and a conflict there that needs to be acknowledged
and made transparent.
ARTnews: Looking toward the future, are you hopeful about arts institutions’ abilities to engage publicly in meaningful ways?
Raicovich: I am always a glass-half-full kind of gal, but I think that the urgency of our times demands it. Culture’s role is enormous and necessary. For cultural producers and artists there is a major responsibility to step into the fray and contend with what’s before us. Artists and institutions are vehicles for that.
D’Souza: I’m a fan of agonism—the idea of conflict as a productive kind of energy. There’s a strong case to be made that how we conceive of art institutions now is in large part thanks to people like the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition and groups that were promoting a radical idea of what institutions should be and how they could be relevant to the communities they serve. But as much as that has happened and affected how museums understand their role, what hasn’t happened is museums understanding their communities in a sufficiently broad sense to include and deal with the kinds of larger cultural issues that people expect museums to engage in.
ARTnews: What could make for sufficient change in those terms?
D’Souza: Going back to what surprised me as I was writing my book, the “Harlem on My Mind” show was organized according to what could be called best practices in terms of diversity. They specifically put black staff on the planning committee, they had three separate advisory boards made up of black experts to advise on the exhibition—and it was still a disaster. The reason was [that] no one wanted to cede authority at the very top of the food chain. As long as all these strategies are enacted simply to provide cover for where the real power is in institutions, we’re going to continue having protests. But that’s lucky for us—it would be infinitely worse if we didn’t. It would be infinitely worse if we didn’t have the conversations we had around Open Casket and Sam Durant’s Scaffold at the Walker Art Center. The question is: will we ever hear what we should be hearing from those protests?
ARTnews: What should we hear?
D’Souza: I think what a lot of people heard was noise, and what a lot of people found hard to hear were some important potent truths about the ways in which what we understand as universal liberal values are really doled out unequally. Another thing I wanted to point out is that a lot of the Whitney controversy erupted because museums have glommed on to the idea of diversity as a way of achieving equity. But, in fact, the protests weren’t around diversity. The protests were around anti-blackness, and that is the other thing that the institutional world is going to have to grapple with: the difference between diversity and institutional anti-blackness. I say this especially as a South Asian. I am the kind of person often brought in to provide diversity, but asking a South Asian woman to come in to deal with the question of diversity doesn’t mean that I have any ability to grapple with the larger question of anti-blackness.
Raicovich: That brings us to self-awareness and the commitment to actually be willing to give up the power that has been given, to enact the white work that needs to be done—to contend with it within myself and the power I hold just because I was born in a certain body. A lot of this sounds like mushy rhetoric, but when you are in a position of power and you feel it, you know exactly what you need to give up in order to share it. When you begin to pay attention to the things that are done to shut down conversations and to shut down people who don’t have white skin or aren’t normatively gendered, you end up realizing how inequitable the construction of that power is. But you’ve got to tune in to it—it requires an effort, and the luxury that most white people have is that they’re never forced to contend with that. It’s not easy. It’s oftentimes very uncomfortable and we all mess up—but it’s a personal responsibility.
D’Souza: Writing my book was about coming to terms with my own past ways of thinking, or not thinking—and atoning for my past blindness by now paying attention. That is something we all have to do in this moment. Anyone who is not black, even if brown like I am, we’ve all benefited from systems and values associated with anti-blackness. We all have to do it, and institutions have to do it in a way that’s honest and public. It’s never a matter of a single institution messing up. I think everyone has acted with what they believed were the best possible intentions with the best possible goals in mind.
Raicovich: But that’s often what reveals the anti-black structures that are underlying. . . .
D’Souza: . . . in the case of the Dana Schutz painting, underlying the idea that things we think of as categorically good, like empathy, are enough to overcome historical inequalities. They aren’t, and we have to think about why.
Raicovich: People are trained to be right and to be leaders, and that’s hard to overcome on the institutional side. You don’t always have to be right. Failure is OK. If you’re not failing now and again, you’re not pushing hard enough. We’re not all-knowing monoliths. There’s a weird way in which the institution always speaks with one voice, but what would happen if people saw the arguments within institutions?
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of ARTnews on page 20 under the title “Aruna D’Souza & Laura Raicovich.”