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The Art World’s Race Problem: Black Aesthetics Detached from Black Humanity

By Lauren Michele Jackson

Performer Jennifer Kidwell and producer Joe Scanlan answering questions following their performance of Donelle Woolford: Dick's Last Stand, at MOCAD, Detroit, 14 February 2014. Photo credit: Colmandavid
Performer Jennifer Kidwell and producer Joe Scanlan answering questions following their performance of Donelle Woolford: Dick's Last Stand, at MOCAD, Detroit, 14 February 2014. Photo credit: Colmandavid

Editor’s note: To answer your question, yes, the book is real. The book Issa Rae’s character, Sintara Golden, is holding in American Fiction, Cord Jefferson’s film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel, Erasure, is Lauren Michele Jackson’s White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue . . . and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation. The scene in question is when Jeffrey Wright’s character, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, argues with her about authenticity in Black representation in literature and giving the market what it wants, stereotypes be damned. A very à propos choice. This excerpt from Jackson’s book is emblematic of not just the art world but of other creative industries, including—ahem!—publishing.


The art world, according to itself, does not have a race problem. The art world does not allow itself to have a race problem. Were any one entity within the network of museums, galleries, shows, curators, schools, artists, press, and millions upon hundreds of millions of dollars that make up capital A Art to allow for race as a topic of debate, the whole enterprise might collapse into so much dust. For the art world to admit it has a race problem, it would have to account for its centuries-long history in which peoples of color have been regularly pushed from the frame of what constitutes artistic enterprise; meanwhile, their creations have long inspired European and white American artists who deviate from the norm. For the art world to admit it has a race problem, it would have to consider how that history stretches into the present, where black aesthetics prove innovative, so long as they are not attached to black artists. For the art world to admit it has a race problem, it will have to admit the art world has an art problem.

Since 1932, the exalted Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan has hosted exhibitions boasting whom it considers the most cutting-edge artists on offer. The Whitney Biennial, as it’s now called, at the apex of everything the art world loves about itself, makes a reliable “crib sheet for the market trends of contemporary art in the United States,” as the professor and poet Eunsong Kim and the artist Maya Isabella Mackrandilal put it in the New Inquiry. The Biennial is a shortcut to the heart of the art world and therefore to the art world’s race problem. Made especially accessible to those from the outside, the Biennial is one of the few occasions to make broad, sweeping, but fairly accurate observations about art, period. After all, if the exhibition claims to be the best and most contemporary of contemporary American work on offer, it begins to look pretty suspect if that yield suffers the same fallacies in 1955 as in 2019. (That is, unless one were to suggest that America is the same America in 2019 as in 1955—which might not be so untrue.)

And every two years, with each passing Biennial, the event looks more suspicious as critics notice the way the Whitney speaks out of both sides of its mouth. For example, 2014 promised a show that would “suggest the profoundly diverse and hybrid cultural identity of America today.” What its curators, Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner— all white—failed to mention was the scarcity of artists of color with work on display, a trait shared with almost all other Biennials prior (exception: the panned 1992 show, in which white male artists were the minority). The statement sounds nice but signifies little. “The 2014 Whitney Biennial is the whitest Biennial since 1993,” Kim and Mackrandilal helpfully translate. “Taking a cue from the corporate whitewashing of network television, high art embraces white supremacy under the rhetoric of multicultural necessity and diversity.”

The 2014 exhibition showed its ass in an array of glitches that went beyond clumsy copy. There’s the portrait of Barack Obama by photographer Dawoud Bey, displayed conspicuously on the fourth floor next to a lengthy note by Grabner. A painter and professor, in her statement Grabner identifies herself as a pedagogue in her curatorial practice as well, who aims “to create a democratic survey” and “curriculum” for artists and viewers. Adjacent to the statement, awkwardly situated above a fire alarm, the Obama portrait takes on an instructive quality. I dare you, provokes the juxtaposition, I double dog dare you to find issue here. Under his eye. If it seems unfair to delegate the work of post-racial sentiment to this image, this president, this Biennial was only working with some permissible mythology engendered by the administration from within. If America, a country enslavement founded, can elect a black man to its highest seat of power, surely no racial wound is too great to be healed.

Such faith is required to justify the inclusion of Donelle Woolford, whose paintings were located on that same fourth floor. Donelle Woolford is not the name of an artist, nor even of a real person, but the comic avatar of artist Joe Scanlan. Scanlan, also a professor of visual arts at Princeton, is a white man. Donelle Woolford is a black woman—sort of. She is a deceit. Her black womanhood relies on how much credence one lends to a name that denotes a concept, though I imagine sometimes she appears quite autonomous.

About twenty years ago, Donelle Woolford appeared to Scanlan in his studio amid his collages. “I liked them but they seemed like they would be more interesting if someone else made them, someone who could better exploit their historical and cultural references,” Scanlan said in an interview with BOMB magazine. “So I studied the collages for a while and let them tell me who their author should be.” The collages, like the muses, sent Scanlan Woolford. Her name was “appropriated,” in his own words, “from a professional football player I admired” (a former Chicago Bears cornerback, Donnelle—two n’s—Woolford).

The story of Donelle varies: She was born in 1954 Detroit, one of three children born to a housewife mother and union pipefitter father. She was born in 1977 Detroit to middle-class parents—a lawyer father, her mother working as a healer. She was born in 1980 Detroit to middle-class parents—a lawyer father, a healer mother. The 2014 Biennial program indicates Donelle was “born 1977 in Conyers, GA,” and she is listed like any other artist in the exhibition, sans mention of Scanlan. Included this way, Donelle was one of nine black artists out of 103 artists in total, or 11 percent of the black artists chosen for the Biennial. “Joe was the very first artist I asked to visit when I started on my studio-visit process for the W.B.,” Grabner told Observer in advance of the show. “I invited both Joe and Donelle. Joe turned my invitation down, but Donelle agreed to participate.”

Donelle showed two paintings at the Biennial, Joke Painting (detumescence) and Detumescence, both 2013. Both riff off a series of monochromatic joke paintings by the well-known American artist Richard Prince. With ink, paper glue, and gesso, Donelle places “her” jokes on a linen canvas. Joke Painting (detumescence) reads,

Richard is undressing in his apartment and spies a young woman doing the same across the way. He extends his cock over to her window sill and calls out, Hey babe wanna come over? She thinks for a moment and says, Sure, I’d love to. But how will I get back?

The joke is funny, crude, and phallocentric—a dick joke. The star of the scene, besides the proffered penis, extends the phallus further when we consider the common nickname for Richard. The foremost Dick is the very Prince whose work provides an additional underlying canvas for Donelle’s painting. But the Dick as in Richard must also be Pryor, whose comedy precedes Donelle in formative ways. And in collaboration with the Biennial, Scanlan took Donelle on tour to reenact Pryor in a forty-minute performance called Dick’s Last Stand. The performance doubles as a séance: Donelle reanimates the dead man in a routine imagined to have been excised from history in what would have been the final episode of NBC’s 1977 variety hour The Richard Pryor Show

Dick’s Last Stand combined the spiritual and embodied aspects of the Donelle project, concurrently if not in this case side by side. It wasn’t the first time. By then Scanlan had accumulated working relationships with Namik Minter, Abigail Ramsey, and Jennifer Kidwell, three actors—all black women—who’d performed the role of Donelle at art shows and in performance pieces. (Namik Minter, a former student of Scanlan’s at Yale and the first human Donelle, withdrew from the project.) Scanlan considers Donelle a “shared commitment” between himself and the actors, like an “ensemble,” an account Kidwell reaffirms. Kidwell said she was initially turned off by the project but that Donelle “then became a personal challenge,” she told the Los Angeles Times’ Carolina A. Miranda during the Biennial. A Columbia University graduate with degrees in English and comparative literature, Kidwell in her work is interested in ambivalence, an agenda she brings to bear in acting and direction. Her Donelle is meek and awkward and Kidwell is “not interested in her being a fool.” It was her idea to reenact Pryor through Donelle. The suggestion presumably could have been vetoed by Scanlan, but its actualization indicates an influence beyond the “merely” performative. “It originated with Joe, but this is now a collaboration.” Kidwell is no dummy.

True to Kidwell’s thesis, Donelle places everyone else in the hot seat. As a white man roaming the art world with the access of white manhood and theatrics of black womanhood, Scanlan cannot be permitted to escape censure. Yet, critiques of Scanlan that override the fact of Ramsey and Kidwell risk replicating his alleged erasure, supposing these women to be at the will of one white artist, rather than artists themselves. The assumption that these women know not or care not is too reductive (and reeks of misogynoir). Kidwell told Miranda, “People have said, ‘No, you are not a collaborator!’ And I’m like, ‘How are you telling me that I’m not doing what I’m saying I’m doing?’” That special blend of gendered racism rings familiar.

The problem is and isn’t Donelle. The very subject of Donelle swallows a conversation to be had between and about people. “Our participation could complicate what many consider a clear example of exploitation,” Kidwell wrote in an essay published post-Whitney. “But so far it hasn’t, because Abigail and I have largely been left out of the discussion, as if we, like Donelle, do not exist.” The problem is and isn’t Donelle because Donelle does not exist. Donelle cannot talk back except through the mind and mind and body of her keepers. The problem is not in presentation—even if she were a walking, talking relic of minstrels past, because the problem of minstrelsy isn’t the shoe polish. The problem of minstrelsy is desire.

I go back to the character’s genesis, a beginning that must be much less divine than Scanlan describes. It was just Scanlan then. Scanlan and his collages, which suddenly seemed less humdrum if not the product of his white imagination. His impulse brings him to black womanhood. He breathes black womanhood to life. He seeks black womanhood as a break from the usual; ironic, then, that his gesture replicates so many artistic gestures before and alongside his time. He’s defended his impulse in these terms, pointing to William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, as if those authors didn’t have their own white imaginations to contend with. Scanlan and Kidwell, so preoccupied with Donelle’s rightful existence as a fictional character, don’t contemplate the preexistent fictions needed for her to emerge in the first place. Out of all the identities in the world, Scanlan chose a black woman, a person who, if real, would be as discounted by the world as he himself is overvalued. Head, shoulders, knees, and toes above artists who happen to be black women, who struggle for a fraction of recognition from sentinels of the art world who look like him, Scanlan crouched down and plucked from them what he sees as their only worthwhile feature. Not their history, not their culture, not their community, but an identitarian claim. Scanlan played identity politics and won.


About the Author 

Lauren Michele Jackson teaches in the Departments of English and African American Studies at Northwestern University. Her writing about race and culture has appeared in The AtlanticThe New YorkerThe Paris ReviewEssence, the New RepublicTeen VogueRolling Stone, and New York magazine, among many other places. She lives in Chicago. Connect with her at and on Twitter (@proseb4bros).