David Joselit: Painting Alterity

David Joselit: Painting Alterity

September 8, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


– The field of art history has long been a conservative one, as academic disciplines go, old-fashioned and resistant to change, imbued, one might say, with the values of entrenched elites, in fact. This is rather odd, considering that it’s a
relatively young field, having been founded in Germany
in the mid-18th Century. Child of the enlightenment. In the post-war period
in Europe and England, as well as the United States, the field of art history shifted away from a model of connoisseurship and what Rosalind Krauss called the art history of the proper name, through various revisions influenced by Marxist political economy, poststructuralism, feminism,
postcolonial theory, and other critical discourses. When I was in college,
not so terribly long ago, the Department of Art and Art History split in two, in fact. The artists complained,
with I think good reason, that the historians didn’t respect them and the art historians felt, again probably with good reason, that the artists didn’t
like them very much. (audience chuckling) So, one department became two. Until recently, art history professors refused to allow their doctoral students to write dissertations on art that was less than 50 years old. Contemporary art, they reasoned, didn’t count as art history. Today, that has changed. Rumor has it, and this is unsubstantiated
but widely repeated, that approximately 80% of
art history dissertations are written on contemporary art or what in the field is
simply called contemporary. Oh, she does contemporary. Why is that? I would hypothesize that this trend has the same root causes as the rise of the contemporary art market as compared to the market for older art. The same root causes the rise
of contemporary art museums. There’s so many more today than there were a half century ago. And also the popularity of
contemporary art exhibitions at encyclopedic museums
like The Met, for example. What might this common root cause be? As tonight’s speaker argues
in a recent book, quote: “Art links social elites,
sophisticated philosophy, “a spectrum of practical
skills in representation, “a mass public, “a discourse of attributed
meaning to images, “financial speculation, “and assertions of national
and ethnic identity. “This is to say,” he writes, “that art has a unique form of power.” Sounds pretty good to me. To me, tonight’s speaker, David Joselit, represents a transformation
of the field of art history from one that was hostile to
contemporary art and culture to one that engages the contemporary with both intellectual rigor and a deep well of informed perspective. He’s well loved by artists and curators, speaks and writes to and
about contemporary artists, and even does studio visits. David approaches art history as a history of image circulation. We often understand images to circulate in a kind of economy and David applies a framework,
an intellectual framework, of political economic analysis to this circulation. David has written about
Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymades” in which commodities are
reframed as artworks, about the ecology of television
in the mid-20th century, about video art, about media activism, and about the current
conditions of contemporary art in relation to globalization
and digitization. He started out as a curator
at the ICA in Boston, I think when David Ross
was the director there. He taught in the art history
and visual studies programs at UC Irvine which, at the
time, was a real hotbed of critical theory and
poststructural thought, and also in the Art
History Department at Yale where he served as chair
until I think 2009. He’s now a distinguished
professor of art history at the CUNY Graduate Center, so we’re very happy to have
him full-time here in New York. David’s art criticism has
spanned all the visual media and recently has engaged with contemporary painting, in particular, and that’s what he’s
gonna talk about tonight. He is the author of a few books, including “Infinite
Regress” on Marcel Duchamp, “American Art Since 1945,” which is in Thames &
Hudson’s World of Art series, and also “Feedback:
Television Against Democracy,” and last but not least, “After Art,” published by Princeton
University and that was the book from which I took that quotation earlier. He’s an editor of the journal October for which we will forgive
him and a frequent… a frequent contributor to Artforum. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to David Joselit.
(audience applauding) – [David] Thank you, Mark,
for that really nice, award-winning introduction. That was really very touching. I will just say that October
is one of those things, it completely escapes
political correctness because everyone has
license to hate October so it’s kind of one of those
(audience chuckling) last remaining groups
that can be demonized. I want today to consider
how this comparison raises questions regarding
alterity in painting, between a work by Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and Robert Colescott’s
repetition, let’s say, or interpretation, “Les
Demoiselles d’Alabama” of 1985. As we’ll see, there’s
another version as well. Let me define alterity
according to the dictionary so we’re all on the same
page in terms of what I’m, how I’m defining this. Alterity is the fact or state
of being other or different, diversity, difference,
otherness, and instance of this. Now, there are obvious similarities and differences between these works, not least that one is made
by a European white male and the other by an African American man. But before we can get to the point of making an adequate comparison, which I hope will open out
to a broader understanding of modern painting in general rather than just a reading
of these two works, we need to consider how
each of them stages alterity in its own terms. I’m going to start by thinking about Picasso and then Colescott. And so, I’ll move from territory that is absolutely canonical to territory that is less canonical. For some of you, this may be a
little Art History 101 review but I want to build upon
well-known interpretations in order to slightly
amend their significance and to put them into
conversation with practices that they’re not generally
in dialogue with. Art historians have long recognized Picasso’s search for inspiration into at least two forms of
art that are remote for him, that are indicated on the
slide in front of you. The first is an alterity
between Europe and Africa as marked by the famous
presence of the African mask, the Grebo mask, which
constitutes one of the early and important instances of
what would later be called and roundly criticized as primitivism, the Grebo mask coming from
the Ivory Coast or Liberia. My former dissertation
advisor, Yve-Alain Bois, has made a strong reading of this mask as a model of a kind of differential or purely abstract composition where, for instance, the
eyes can be cylinders but we still recognize them as eyes and therefore there’s an
inspiration to Picasso not only through the kind
of foreignness of the work but also its symbiotic abstraction. Again, this is well-known
primitivizing territory that’s been criticized for years. But there’s a second kind
of well-known alterity in this painting, a temporal
as opposed to spatial alterity, which was introduced by Picasso’s interest in ancient Iberian sculptures. I’m showing you an example on the left. He, of course, comes from Spain and so one could say that
the ancient Iberian heritage which he would’ve seen
examples of at the Louvre was an interest which is less
celebrated in art history but one equally important to Picasso, as you can see in the
inscription of these faces here, the Grebo mask being related
to the Africanized faces of the demoiselle on the
right of the painting. On the one hand, then, we have an alterity
that is intra-European, that is within Europe,
but temporally distant, the ancient heritage of Iberian art versus contemporary modernism launched by a Spanish citizen in Paris, and the other is spatial and cultural in that it creates a difference
between an imperial center or an imperial capital, Paris, and a colonial territory in Africa. Now… There is another set of comparisons that are well-known that we can make between the “Demoiselles” and
a long tradition of the bather or the odalisque, the nude female, which, in a classical
context, introduced mythical or allegorical content into a
carnal form of embodiedness. Here, Ingres’ “Turkish Bath,” already a kind of orientalizing
version of this from 1862, might be an example of the type of bather, series of nude figures, which are, again, here, in this case, positioned both in spatial distance from Europe but also in a kind of
gender differentiation. The modernity of Ingres’
version lies in its exaggeration and multiplication of the nude. There are almost kind of mechanical dolls that are replicated. You can see this in the
sort of strange recession where they almost seem to go on infinitely into the distance. And its transposition from a mythological or allegorical context where the nude would’ve
represented something like history or other forms
of allegorical figuration to one rooted in the
alterity of Orientalism closely linked to European
colonial ambitions in the East. And, of course, there is one
of the greatest chestnuts of art history (chuckling) here, so I am performing the conservativeness of the discipline on some level, but hopefully to make
it swerve on some level, the distance between
Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” and Manet’s “Olympia” and how these two, this is the kind of locus
classicus of the shift from an early modern use of
Classicism in the Renaissance to its modern revision. It’s well summarized
by the feminist critic Eunice Lipton’s 1975 account of how stereotype is deployed
in the work of Manet. She wrote, “The dynamic of
Manet’s special brand of realism “was to start with a time-honored
theme or convention.” In this case, the convention
is the reclining nude. Some people think that the Titian was a kind of bride portrait, because of the young child
peeking into the chest in the background, for
instance, and the attendant. So, there is a kind of European
type of the reclining nude that Manet takes, this is Lipton’s point. “But what he does,” she continues, “is to emphatically withhold
its most characteristic traits. “On the one hand, he upheld
the element of tradition, “crucial to the dynamic of his realism. “On the other hand, he unmasked it “as the anachronism, disguise,
or delimiting social ritual “that he saw it to be.” In other words, he made an equation between reclining nude
and beckoning prostitute, which is how “Olympia”
is generally interpreted with her attendant holding
the bouquet of an admirer who has presumably entered the room and caused Olympia to look out toward him. Now, the interesting thing here is that in this history, a type is adopted and transformed in a variety of ways. First, it’s transformed from goddess, Venus, to prostitute in one step of, let’s say, modernization or de-allegorization. And in the other step, the idea, and perhaps some of
you know that, in fact, the “Demoiselles d’Avignon”
were actually based on five women who were in a brothel, in a whorehouse, and the original compositions
included two clients, a student and a sailor, coming in. That’s partly how we know
the derivation of the scene. So, in a way, what we have
here is a transposition not only to a kind of commercial reality from Goddess of Love to
purveyor of love for a price, here, the whole idea of a body or an attraction to a body is broken down. So, there’s a progressive
breaking down of these traditions in the way that Lipton talks about, taking a stereotype
and somehow undoing it, perversely reversing it. Now, all of these comparisons I’m making are almost painfully well-known. My point is that in standard accounts, one or the other of them is emphasized rather than understanding them as a dynamic economy of difference. In other words, there are readings, there are feminist readings at this point and there are readings that have to do with the social surrounding
of prostitution, et cetera. What I would like to argue is that, to go back to Mark’s generous
remarks at the beginning, I would like to argue that, in fact, we see here an economy of alterity, of different kinds of
alterity or otherness, that are crystallized or juxtaposed, perhaps even, within the painting. There’s alterity in time
which is intra-European. Again, it’s a kind of European heritage that is remote in time but
within the European tradition. There’s alterity in culture,
which is remote in space and in ethnicity and cultural… norms. And there’s alterity in type, the taking of a stereotype or a motif that is as old as European painting and reinventing it. I wish to propose that modern art has not to do with flatness or abstraction or modernization of the urban center or any of these things in isolation but with the convergence of
these three types of alterity. It’s my goal to understand
what particular forms develop from this formation. In other words, what is modern is, in fact, the introduction of a variety of different
types of otherness within Western painting. Western painting is creating
an economy of difference that is actually quite
complex in its negotiation of differences of different sorts. In order for this reading to work, though, I think my comparison needs to work. The reason for this is, I believe that Colescott’s work, made by an African American artist at the other end of the
20th century from Picasso, also generates a triple alterity, which I will outline for you next. And while the differences
in their articulation, which are plain to see in
the paintings themselves, are hugely important, there are structural similarities in the staging of a triple alterity, of an economy of difference, that has a temporal
access, a cultural access, and a spatial access, puts
these paintings in the same what Foucault would call episteme, in other words, the same worldview, the same domain of knowledge. I’m one of those people who
believe they’re not that, I don’t know if there
are that many of them but that modern art actually never died, that postmodern art is
a kind of continuation of these terms, and in order to make sense,
both of forms of figuration like Colescott’s that have been sidelined not only because of his being black but because of its being figurative after the moment of modernism, that one of the ways of kind of rethinking what modern art is that will allow us to understand the contemporary as part of the modern
tradition and genealogy is to think, rethink the modern in terms of this triple
economy of alterity. That’s my proposition that I’ll try to sketch out to you today. I’m gonna cheat a little and make life a little
bit easier for myself by thinking about the triple alterity in Colescott’s work by
using a different example and returning to the comparison
with which I started, and that is a comparison between his work, “George Washington Carver
Crossing the Delaware: “Page from an American
History Textbook” from 1975, the same year, non-coincidentally, as the Eunice Lipton text I read to you a moment
ago about the stereotype, and one of the best-loved
paintings of American history, Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington
Crossing the Delaware” from 1851. This is a reinterpretation,
as I mentioned, of one of the most famous
painterly renditions of American history, George Washington’s crossing of Delaware as part of a surprise
attack on Christmas of 1776. Colescott’s painting marks
several kinds of repetition. First, the adoption of the
painting, the Leutze painting, as a kind of a score. Here, I want to insist on the difference between appropriation as a kind of exact memetic
reproduction of something and the taking of an earlier work as a kind of score to interpret, as one would interpret a
piece of music, for instance, or interpret a performance event as Fluxus artists often did. From minimal scores, different artists would
reinterpret the same. So, I would argue that taking a painting from an earlier moment
does not necessarily mean that it is a kind of simple appropriation but that it can be a kind of score for a new performance of that painting. Second, the important repetition of the name George Washington and that of George Washington
Carver needs to be marked. Carver was an African American
agricultural scientist and inventor who was one of the very few African American icons of the
18th and early 20th century. As Colescott himself put it,
in describing both Carver and the other figures
in the painting, quote: “I was talking about the
way the U.S. history,” sorry, “the way U.S. history was taught “when I was growing up. “There were two blacks mentioned “as significant in U.S. history, “George Washington Carver
and Booker T. Washington. “Just two. “By contrast, the menial
workers, Stepin Fetchits, “Aunt Jemimas, bootblacks, et cetera “were too well-known
to us and to everyone, “their influence weighed heavily “when we were only allowed two heroes “in all U.S. history,” end quote. So, whether in jest or in seriousness, I think in both, actually, and one of my points in the
broader set of lectures, this is actually one of
four lectures I’m giving at the Maryland Institute
College of Art on painting, and part of my point, which will only come up
peripherally in this lecture, has to do with the introduction
of comedy into modern art as an alternative genealogy to modernism. Some of that will become clear. I just wanna point to it. Anyway, I think he’s being
both comic and tragic in saying that the great
African American heroes that he grew up with were
included more racist stereotypes such as bootblacks,
Aunt Jemimas, et cetera, than they did heroic figures, in this case, both
absorbing or appropriating, rescoring the name of George Washington, including George Washington Carver. Note that the title also marks the importance of historical difference, in “Page from an American
History Textbook” is the kind of subtitle. So, what you see in this painting then is Carver himself at the head of the ship and a series of racist stereotypes, including an Aunt Jemima
performing fellatio and a man… playing the banjo at
the stern of the ship. Let’s think about what kind of, the triple alterity that I proposed with regard to the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” in terms of the work here of Robert Colescott. First, there is an alterity in time which is obviously marked
through his reinvention, reperformance, his reiteration of the Leutze painting
some hundred years later. Secondly, there is an alterity in culture which is introduced through, around the pivot of the
name George Washington, which includes both the white first president of the
United States and general, and the African American intellectual and leader, George Washington Carver. Thirdly, there is the alterity in type where here, there is a difference between, instead of going along
an art historical axis as the “Demoiselles” had in taking the odalisque
or nude allegorical figure and comparing it to the
prostitute that has been sort of cubistically disseminated, we have instead the alterity
between a racist stereotype that circulated in popular culture and how that stereotype is reiterated within the, you know, usually the most celebrated
medium of fine art, painting. I would like to argue then, as
I proposed a few moments ago, that we think of a kind of long modernism that would include both
Picasso and Colescott rather than being defined formally as a teleological development
toward flatness or abstraction which, in fact, is contradicted
by the multiple persistences and returns of figuration in modern art from the very beginning. Modern art really wasn’t
ever preponderantly abstract. Or, second, through dichotomous opposition such as those between the West in Africa, classism and modernism, white and African American people. But rather, as I proposed earlier as, and here I’m gonna give my definition, a complex, formal, and
symbolic negotiation of the triple alterity of
history, culture, and stereotype. In other words, modern art is, in fact, a negotiation of this alterity. It’s a formal sort of negotiation or a formal recalibration of this triple relation of otherness. This is a definition based
on structural conditions, what might be called in
French theory a dispositif or a kind of model or framework. And thus, many different formal solutions may be considered modern. This is very important to the
argument I’m trying to make. The modern has nothing,
well, that’s too polemical. The modern is not rooted
definitionally in form, a certain kind of form, any kind of form, but rather in its articulation
of this triple alterity. So, modern works of art can
look extremely different but still conform to this model. To understand the multiplicity
that this model affords, let me go back over the points I’ve made about Picasso and Colescott and compare their different expressions of each category of alterity. In terms of alterity in time, Picasso engages with an ancient source that is linked to a Spanish
heritage but which he subsumes within the formal logic of the painting in a manner that has been understood as an inspiration for Cubism. So, it’s a kind of reference that is simplifying, one
could say primitivizing, but it does not signify on its own terms; it’s absorbed into a
disruption of the language of Western modernism, Western painting. For Colescott, this alterity
is more piquantly historical. It’s a parodic repetition
whose relation to history is directly cited in his
rather laborious title, “George Washington Carver
Crossing the Delaware: “Page from an American History Textbook.” There is a kind of introduction of the vagaries and cruelties of history in the very title of the work in the sense that the alterity in time is one that shows the
contradiction in justice in terms of the American model. George Washington, this is
an icon of American pride and its values of equality that has been turned,
through its alterity in time, to an icon of racism and white supremacy. In terms of the alterity of culture, Picasso appropriates an artifact from an African culture
which is, to him, exotic. His interest is formal
and he felt no obligation to gain knowledge of the origins
and meanings of that work. In other words, it was purely an exotic, strange object. It did not for him carry specific value as a form of cultural knowledge. Colescott’s rupture is intracultural, it’s within the American culture, it’s not outside of the United States, but it’s an ethnic rupture, which you could say is true
of the African case as well but it has to do with a spatial difference between a metropolitan
European center and colony. Here, it has to do with… with the institution of slavery and racism in the United States. So, here, what I wanna make clear is that the types of alterity are structurally analogous, but the specifics, their
singularity, are always different. So, we have to start thinking about how to think about these practices in terms of both a kind of structural set of shared issues and also the constant opportunity and expressiveness of a real singularity, of a specificity of every utterance. And then, finally, of
course, alterity in type. While it is certainly
debatable, we could say that Picasso’s work on
type is deconstructive while Colescott’s is satirical. So, there’s a different attitude here. The idea of the nude is broken down into its constituent
parts, into its rhetoric. How we draw a nude, how we make a nude is, the how of it is more… emphasized here than the what of it. Whereas here, there is a
kind of satirical device where a racist stereotype is exaggerated in order to create satire. So, again, there is a shared alterity but a very different rhetorical approach toward that alterity. Ultimately, the test of my
model of a triple alterity must be on the grounds of, as the grounds of modern
painting, pardon me, must be in the formal
reckoning of this alterity within individual artworks. In other words, if it doesn’t work with the archive we’re concerned with, if it doesn’t actually help
us to understand painting in the 19th and 20th and 21st
century, then it’s useless. I believe we can carry out this exercise with any number of painters of the 20th and the early 21st century, but I’m gonna stay with our two examples. I want, however, to polemicize
the notion of alterity and also the suppression
of African Americans within art history until recently by putting aesthetic pressure on a famous historical declaration by the African American
thinker W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1903, just four years before Picasso’s “Demoiselles
d’Avignon” was completed, Du Bois famously declared
in the first paragraph of his “Souls of Black Folk” that, quote, “the problem of the twentieth century “is the problem of the color-line.” Now, I tend to be drawn to formations that have both a chromatic
and a social dimension, and if you’re interested in
that kind of intersection, you might look into Darby
English’s sort of recent book from a couple of years ago
called “1971: A Year in Color,” where he talks about abstraction among African American artists as a play between the
meaning of color as a kind of abstract DNA within painting and also as a kind of social formation of ethnic diversity or racism. In a way, I want to do
something somewhat similar here by thinking what it
means to take seriously within the study of art Du Bois’s idea that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line. How might that allow
us to think differently about both art and politics
in the United States? Or in, yeah, okay, leave it at that. I want to propose that we take
this declaration seriously and even rather literally to see how we might be able to write a different history of modern painting which obviates the need, by the way, of taking Colescott as postmodern. Let’s first consider what would constitute the color-line in Picasso. To give away my conclusion at the start, I think that the
color-line might be linked to the cubist line. The famous impact of African
masks on this painting in fact introduces disruptions of both color and line in the work. They undertake an alterity
between the mark as signifier and that which it is meant to signify. In other words… abstraction and Africanness
are made to signify together. And, in fact, there is
(chuckling) literally, I mean, this is way too literal but sometimes I think
unpacking a kind of literal, almost dumb, obviousness
can lead to something a little more important and exciting, that in a way, the cubist line is this line of disruption, is this disruption introduced by the entry of the colony
into the metropolis. But I think that to say only that is not going to be
satisfying to most everyone, including myself, even
though there is truth in it. What I’d like us to think about rather is a kind of alterity that is imminent to the making of a painting in itself, a form of alterity that
inheres in the very way that the mark is organized on the canvas. What I mean by this is
that there is a distance within abstraction between
what is represented and what represents it. This is also, in a way,
like Abstraction 101, right? But it’s really important to
kind of think this through to its conclusion. Here, I’m showing you a nude in 1904, it has nothing to do with
Cubism yet, by Picasso, nothing to do with the kinds of… colonial alterity that I’m pointing out in the “Desmoiselles.” And yet, what you see here
are ways in which the body is made foreign to itself through the mark itself. Notice how the breast plate,
I think of it almost as, and the shoulder cap, which
are of course part of her body, are in a lighter tone of
yellow against the bronze torso and the hand as well is
picked out in those colors. There is a kind of alienation
of the body from itself that happens through, I would argue, the alterity of painting itself. Now, this requires not a
pure, non-objective painting but the encounter between a matrix of marks and something that is pointed to beyond it but that is never fully captured. In other words, it’s the alterity
of representation itself. Cezanne, you know, is
a great example of this in that he creates, and this is a work that’s more or less contemporaneous with the Picasso, “Seated Nude,” where the skein of marks here seems to suggest a landscape but is always a kind of textile lifted off a landscape. This is the alterity of Cubism
that is inherent to the line. And here, we have a kind of standard high analytic Cubist painting, the “Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler,” where, again, the body is
always being lost to itself. The rhetoric of painting
is being disseminated but the body floats behind
it through the mustache, the eyes, the hands, et cetera. So, we could think here of abstraction as a pure loss to itself. This alterity, finally… is rooted in a set of overlapping planes but there’s another difference here. We’ve gone from the nude to
the portrait to the harlequin, a figure of European
theater and popular culture, a figure of masquerade and disguise. There’s an intra-European
alterity here that is articulated with the extra-European
one of primitivism. Let’s look again at the “Desmoiselles.” What the detail in the figure, and I already kind of
indicated this below, what this detail in the
upper right allows us to see is that the abstraction,
the colored lines, are suffused with the alterity
of the so-called primitive, This, we might say, is
the color-line in Picasso, the color-line that was present already in the loss of the figure
to its representation. It is very significant
that for Rosalind Krauss, one of the most prominent and intelligent commentators on Cubism, what I’m calling the
color-line of alterity constitutes a loss for Picasso,
as I’d been describing it. Precisely a loss, though Krauss
does not put it in this way, of the plenitude of the
Western tradition of painting. She writes: “It seems that the
sense of withdrawal of touch “from the field of the visual
was experienced by Picasso “as a passionate relation to loss. “That the carnal objecthood of the model “was withdrawing progressively “and that its loss was
felt not as a triumph “but as a poignant tragedy “is registered in Picasso’s
art of 1910 and 1911.” Here is his “Ma Jolie,” which… “My Beautiful One,” which was
a popular song at the time, which is often thought
to be a kind of portrait, if one can say that, of
Picasso’s lover at the time. Krauss finishes by saying, she’s saying that this loss of touch, this abstraction, is a “poignant tragedy “registered in Picasso’s
art of 1910 and ’11 “by the way that the work
clings to the human figure, “and not to just any set of figures “but those of his friends
and lovers,” unquote. It is quite apt that Krauss
speaks of Picasso’s abstraction as a form of loss, and even
a tragedy, as she puts it. Conclusions such as this
have long placed modernism in a tragic or heroic mode. But this has obscured a comic
mode, as I mentioned earlier, of modernism that is not
only exemplified by Colescott but by many of Picasso’s
colleagues as well such as Francis Picabia,
all of the Dadaists, Surrealists, et cetera. In other words, I would like to argue in a broader version of this work that what Krauss calls the
tragic withdrawal of Cubism is, in fact, only one side
of the coin of modernism which is a kind of comic
refiguration, proliferation, satirization of the forms of alterity that here are experienced as loss. The color-line… Let’s turn then to think
about comedy in Colescott and how the color-line
for Colescott might be one that introduces a comic form of modernism that we can hunt back already all the way to the moment to Picasso. In her important 1987 essay,
“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” the African American literary
theorist Hortense Spillers wrote, quote: “the names
by which I am called “in the public place render an example “of signifying property plus. “In order for me to speak a
truer word concerning myself, “I must strip down through
layers of attenuated meanings, “made an excess in time; “over time, assigned by a
particular historical order.” In other words, what Spillers is saying, that in order to enter a public space as a signifying agent as opposed to the kind
of object of stereotype, she must literally strip down through layers of attenuated meanings. In other words, take away, shear off the kind of
barnacles of stereotype. In describing how African Americans must excavate the stereotypes to which they’re subjected,
she declares, quote: “undressing these conflations of meaning “would restore figurative possibility.” I first want to think
of Colescott’s strategy as a kind of dressing and
undressing of painting. Here, I’ve kept a… quality of this work from
you until this moment, which is that there are two
versions from the same year, one that is dressed and
one that is undressed. So, this idea of Spillers’ that the way that stereotype
is lived as a projection, as a kind of condition of constraint, must be marked by a kind of process of dressing and undressing, here is somehow inscribed
in this pair of paintings somewhat literally. These paintings suggest
a double masquerade: Colescott masquerading as Picasso and women masquerading as images. But I think there’s also
a more literal color-line that is established in
how Colescott renders skin as a figure-ground relationship
of white and black, and also a kind of cosmetic
that rhymes with the costume of the polka-dotted red cheeks. Here, I just wanna point out that, in fact, the way the
color-line that he creates is extremely complex. First of all, the complexions
of each of the women in this painting and the
other are all different. So, there is no real black or white; there’s a spectrum of color. But, even more important, the figure-ground relationship
here in each of the figures is always at play between
what counts as white and what counts as black. Notice how this figure has a ground, her body is grounded in a brown tone, but has extremely present highlights of the yellowish white pigmentation, whereas the white figure has the opposite. It’s grounded in a kind of dark skin and the whiteness is
almost like a cosmetic, almost as though it’s
put on like one of those tanning creams that you can use, except in the opposite direction. And then here, in terms of
the dressing and undressing, there’s a way in which the blouse itself mirrors the cosmetic of the face, the red cheeks which both women of color and white women in these paintings have and also the lips. So, there’s a way in which
the body is an extension of the costume itself,
of the dress itself. In these ways, I believe that Colescott has denaturalized the color-line. The color-line is made
unknowable, on a certain level, in that white and black
cannot be distinguished from one another in much the
way, or in a way analogous, to how William Pope.L, for instance, has done so by creating ethnicities or colors of human skin that don’t exist, such as “Blue
People are a Drop of Water.” Whoops, (chuckling)
“are a Drop of Halter.” I’m falling for the joke
here or not getting the joke. Which is part of several,
part of many drawings like these where he talks about people of many different colors,
including colors that we use, but also colors like green and blue that don’t exist as far as I
know in actual human beings. If Krauss understood Picasso’s color-line as a form of loss, then, of tragedy, I believe that Colescott’s
practice of modernism is a form of comedy. On one side of the color-line is tragedy and on the other is comedy. This makes sense, too. By definition, tragedy
pertains to the downfall and death of a character. In this case, it has to do with the loss of the plenitude of the Western tradition. Comedy, on the other
hand, is characterized by repetition with indifference. It’s satirical, ironic, mechanical. In other words, comedy
is always about a kind of repeating, doubling, uncanny return of the same
but with a difference. Rather than a loss of
plenitude, comedy is an instance of what Spillers called
signifying property plus. In other words, too much,
too much image thrown at you, too much stereotype to carry. It confronts social loss, in this case, the dispossession
of African Americans from the official American
culture, with cruel satire. Tragedy is very familiar
to us in modern art. The loss it expresses is, in
fact, a tool for enormous gain, as we know from the great
popularity of this painting just up the street at MoMA. The creative destruction
that characterizes capitalism is homologous to the highly
successful tragedy of modernism which is always leading to its
own demise and reinvention. That is the idea of the avant-garde, that it’s always creatively destroying that which comes before,
and building something new. Comedy, however, has not been a concept associated with modernism
to such a great extent. For that reason, I wish to
explore its role further, not only in this lecture but, as I mentioned,
in a series of lectures that I’m giving as well where I try to think through
this model of the comic more fully than I can tonight. But in her book, “Laughter Fit to Kill,” literary theorist Glenda
Carpio theorizes black humor, including that of
Colescott and Kara Walker, whom she writes about explicitly, as a demand for freedom and justice. In other words, if tragedy is a loss, comedy can be a demand for something which one doesn’t even have. She writes, quote: “Black humor
began as a wrested freedom,” in other words, a freedom
wrested from slavery, “the freedom to laugh at that
which was unjust and cruel “in order to create a distance “from what would otherwise obliterate “a sense of self and community.” Again, this distance
that Spillers talks about through dressing and undressing. It’s a realm of stereotype
that can become political. Carpio quotes the important and pioneering African American curator,
Lowery Stokes Sims, as saying, as oppressive as they can be, stereotypes are a
quotidian form of exposure that, quote, “kept black
people at the center “of American consciousness. “We didn’t disappear into the fringes. “We were everywhere.” First, one could say that stereotype, as cruel and racist as it can be, is also a space of visibility
that can be repurposed through reiteration and resignification. Such comedy is a place of inversion where, as the African American art historian Huey Copeland has put it, Colescott’s paintings,
quote, “deploy nothing less “than the volatile genre of blackface, “imposing a negative inversion
of our cultural imaginary.” And I would say that, in a way, he is… Colescott not only is
playing with blackface but also with whiteface, on some level, in the sense that it’s as,
the point I was making before, that one could argue, and
you might find this argument a little far, a little,
going a little too far, but I think we can see it in the painting. These figures are painted in ways that don’t allow them a secure whiteness. We can imagine them as whiteface as well as the stereotypes
of blackface, I think. There’s a politics of what
I like to call travesty here to think about masquerade,
the dressing and undressing, the comic grotesquery of painting as opposed to its tragic avant-gardism. A travesty of painting
in which surface itself is a kind of masquerade
is a kind of color-line. But for now, I mean, this, again, is an argument, (chuckling) sorry, this
lecture is part of a series so there are little parts
that I didn’t cross out that allude to the next. I want to kind of think about this repressed form of travesty in a more sustained way,
as I’d mentioned to you. But for now, let me end
with Colescott’s own account of the humor in his work, when he says, “If you decide to laugh, “don’t forget the humor of the bait, “and once you’ve bitten, “you may have to do some serious chewing.” “The tears may come later.” In other words, from the artist’s mouth, comedy may end up as
tragedy by other means. Thank you very much. (audience applauding) – [Audience Member] The triple
alterity as a framework, I guess I was wondering
if you felt like it was… you had boiled it down
so that it was sufficient in addressing this wide net of modernism or if you felt tempted to include any other categories in that, making a quadruple alterity.
– Yeah. – [Audience Member] I’m
just wondering, yeah, how you came down to those three. They seem like they catch wide, but… – Well, actually, you sort
of seem like a plant maybe (chuckling) because, but you’re not. (audience chuckling) Actually, there is another that I realized in thinking through, again, a sort of avant-garde
and contemporary linkage. I’m thinking about it sort of
through the work of Picabia and also, but also Picasso, how the most canonical European painters of the early 20th century moved through several different styles in ways that were contradictory. And what I want to argue
is that this kind of… You know, style is often linked to the self as an integral quality, right? Your hand, your sense of
perspective on the world, whatever term you wanna use. Style, in a way, is a
kind of essential window into the truth of an individual, individual artist, let’s say. This is a very modernist thing to believe. But, in fact, many modernist artists, and I’ll just go… Sorry, close your eyes if you
don’t like flashing lights. This is within 10 years and we could have more extreme examples. So, in fact, style is
completely denaturalized as a link to a whole
holistic perspective or self. And so, my fourth alterity has to do with an alterity within the self, with a kind of form of
making that, in fact, is not linked to an essential
set of characteristics. So, when, if I write this project, that’ll be the fourth one. And I just wanna say, because
the term boiling down, I don’t take offense to it but it does have a certain kind of valence as though I’m doing a
certain violence to the work which I may, in fact, be doing,
but that’s what critics do. Models are, either they’re
helpful or they’re not. But it’s generated from
looking at the work. I mean, you can argue with my conclusions but it didn’t, I didn’t come with this, I arrived at it through
a process of thinking about what was going on in these works. The question I really wanted
to answer for myself was, because, as Mark mentioned,
I’ve been doing quite a bit of work on contemporary painting. It started as a sort of
sideline and then it just kept, there were more things
that I wanted to do. I feel like there’s a vast amount of modern painting in the West, let’s just stick to the West, that is somehow outside
of the kind of discourse of people like me because
of its figuration. And Colescott is one big example of that but I could name, you
know, a hundred others, as probably all of you could. Maybe some of you belong to
that category, as artists. I really wanted to kind of
think, how can we really, and that’s why, for me, this
sort of Picasso argument is really important which, you know, some of you may find that problematic but to me, I think I’m really interested in rethinking the modern from the absolutely canonical in order to open a space that will not be a peripheral space, that will be an absolutely central space. I think that that’s important. And so, that’s why the triple alterity isn’t just a kind of, you know, aren’t-I-clever kind of thing, though every model is
a way of showing off, but it’s also a way of thinking a set of practices that are inconceivable according to a certain model of modernism, that, even though it’s
been criticized like crazy, is still absolutely, in effect, in kind of rhetorical assumptions. I don’t know of any real
account of figuration in the 20th century aside from pop that has the kind of power and persuasion of the model of Cubism that has been elaborated by my teachers and colleagues
in the October circle. – [Audience Member] Do you
think that that has to do with the centrality of form as an idea that’s sort of kept a
lot of other practices, especially with regards
to returns to figuration, on the periphery? – Well, painting isn’t,
has a double bind, it’s, or maybe triple bind, sorry.
(audience chuckling) The three thing is very– (audience member speaking faintly) (chuckles) The threes are very seductive. First of all, it… You know, the Trinity, after all. First of all, you know, painting was rendered obsolete by the… inheritors of a certain
kind of avant-garde, so that’s one of painting’s problems. Secondly, painting, you know, is the darling of the market. Those two. So, on the one hand, it is critically problematic from a certain critical, from a certain artist’s
critical point of view. On the other hand, it’s
commercially problematic. So, I do think, I think that the discourse
has been suppressed on account of that kind of, maybe that’s a double bind. I forgot what the triple was. Maybe it doesn’t exist. (chuckles) Yeah. – [Audience Member] I have a question. In a way, it’s more related to painting as being an object of
creating visual culture. The question might be on your view of self like a story here and a little bit beyond
of the picture, as a way. But I was thinking about how can we see this conversation on alterity
in regards to context, the context in which a
piece of work is shown in modern art, in a way, and having the context in history as, having context in general,
like this has also been like the challenging of
this institution, in a way, and how this can also change
the meaning of a piece of work, of a work, or a painting in this case. – I actually don’t think, I don’t understand what
context explains, actually, because I feel like what exactly… I think context is as much a, what you call context is
as much a critical choice as what you call the rest of your archive. I mean, this is a
poststructuralist insight that has been made by
Terry, Don, and others. But I think that, in the social history
of art, for instance, takes criticism of the time, contemporaneous criticism,
as the social context. But why is that more valuable than whoever saw the paintings, whose work is lost, you know, whose responses are lost to us? So, actually, I think, this might be a completely
disgusting perspective but it is actually what I think, which is that I think that art
wants to have a long duration and that the context is actually not that explanatory or important. Or to me, it’s not that interesting. Because I think it doesn’t really… I think art wants to be
out of time, on some level, in a really profound way and that no artists that I know, maybe there are exceptions
here that wanna claim this, but I’ve never met an
artist who wanted their work to lose its relevance,
you know, next year. So, why would we interpret it that way? I think that what is interesting is how different times, different temporalities
circulate within single objects. To me, that’s really interesting. So, I guess that alterity for me is partly about how these
different time zones can mix together. I don’t know if that’s exactly
satisfying to you or not. – [Audience Member] No,
I think it’s interesting but I was referring more to context as in like the place in
which you showing a work or like the way that it’s displayed. Not as much as the social
context, like temporal context in which a show existed or was created, but more like… like to the public that it’s shown, like the institution that it’s shown, which kinda like may be
related to that as specific but yeah, I think that was it. – In this sense, you have to… Again, it’s really about a choice. You make your historical archive along with your visual archive. So, you know, Picasso
didn’t show this work until later in his life
and then it went to MoMA, and at which point, is
it his keeping it back or is it his showing it? And I haven’t done enough
research on Colescott’s paintings to know their history either but which particular context
would be the appropriate one? That’s why I do, I guess I just will
unapologetically say that I think, that what interests me is trying to think models from the works which is not to say to ignore history but to think how they’re using history as part of their own substance. That is more satisfying to me because I feel like, then,
I know what I’m working with and I can defend it because it’s there. – [Audience Member] Hi, I have a question, sort of continue about
this context, why it’s in, especially in contemporary paintings or what we say contemporary arts, the alterity seen in culture creates problems in some context ’cause we now know more
about different cultures but then the knowledge we
have right now at present kinda creates these weird
stereotypes we put into paintings, in contemporary art, and it cause a confusion
into visual languages. I was just wondering what’s your thoughts about contemporary art when we
have authenticity in culture and then we kind of mix them in into what stage will be a good visual rather than a confusion to, or a negative stereotype to read from cross cultures. – Yeah.
– Kinda. – I guess I would say that that… that I think when that works well is when the stereotype
is thought of as dynamic as opposed to static. In other words, where the
work of art is involved in… performing in some way
how the stereotype behaves as opposed to reiterating the stereotype in the way that it behaves. So, you know, sometimes
that’s through exaggeration, sometimes it’s through juxtaposition, sometimes it’s through
kind of denaturing it by changing its terms with visually. There are a lot of strategies, I think, for dealing with that. But, you know, it’s explosive but I think it’s important
because I think that painting, I mean, I actually think
that painting is a place where you can slow images down and that’s one of its virtues as a medium. You can sort of see an image in multiple temporalities. That doesn’t mean showing motion itself but in different sort of experiential, like this, I feel like, you know, just the idea that her body, I don’t know if all of
you see it the way I do but I find this, I mean,
it’s also just a slide, but the painting is
very powerful in how it, it’s almost as though she’s,
her body is lost to herself. I mean, it’s a very powerful
phenomenological feeling that often occurs in Picasso’s work. This self-loss, for instance, is one way of thinking stereotype outside of itself. – Thank you.
– Mm-hmm. – [Audience Member] I don’t
know if it’s a question or more a reflection, mine. The painting that you
show at the beginning was the “Venus of Urbino” of Titian then you showed the “Olympia” of Manet and then the “Mademoiselles
d’Avignon” of Picasso. For me, what’s interesting to see, maybe it’s just the example that you take, but how the time is alterate this alterity in the work, no? So, we have a big jump of 400 year from the two first image and then just more than 50
years or little bit more. What is interesting in me now, in the contemporary time that we live, where all this information,
the culture are more mixed, which can be the… the place that take this, the role of alterity now like in the work, that everything is that mixed with the globalization and this. – Well, I actually think
that’s one of the things that art can do. I think that art can show that… difference and kind of… I wanna call it, I mean,
difference is such an anodyne term. I mean, a kind of… vertigo or loss… a kind of affect of both assault of images and
a withdrawal from them. I think that art can, you know… The quote that, well, it’s
not quite the quote Mark read but one of the things I try to argue in this little book “After Art” is that… It’s really that art
can make kind of visible forms of circulation
that are so instantaneous that we almost don’t notice them anymore. So, I think it’s… I mean, it goes back to
the question of time. I think that art dilates time and sort of uses time as a material, not just video and moving and film but painting, too. That’s why I feel like her breast and hand are in a totally different
experiential time zone than the rest of her body, and for me, that makes this painting interesting and compelling. So, I mean, I think that
art can visualize things that are beneath the… sort of level of perception in that kind of instantaneity
that you’re talking about. – [Audience Member] I
don’t really understand alterity in type, specifically. It seemed in the presentation at one point type was kind of a
stand-in for stereotype. And I believe, after that, type was instead a
stand-in for space, right? It was like what’s the substance, what is being deconstructed,
what is being worked with. And so, yeah, I just wanna understand what you specifically mean by type and also why you use the term type to denote that. – There are two questions there: why type and what is the type. (chuckles) What I would argue is that type is a kind of continuous, meaningful form that travels through time. It could be the nude. It could be a certain
kind of racist stereotype of African American men. But it’s one that persists but continuously is changed so there’s a kind of difference within it even as you recognize
it as a persistent form. And so, the alterity there is the difference within the sameness. That’s how I would kind of think that. This is a alterity that
is not about outsides. It’s about one’s own tradition. Well, it can be in the Western tradition; it can also be a vicious stereotype. So, the reason I said, didn’t
use the term stereotype as opposed to type is
that I wanted the model to be neutral in terms of its… valence with regard to the
violence that it may do to those that it depicts and
that who are looking at it. So, a type, a stereotype
isn’t always negative but almost always, I would think, considered as a negative thing. Whereas a type is, you know, more neutral and so it allows for
some types to continue as a kind of, let’s say… productive relationship to a heritage that has affirmative values, whereas a stereotype might be an effort to kill or resignify something that is doing violence. – [Audience Member] Thank you. I enjoyed your lecture a lot. I wanna try to take a half-step back and think about what you’re doing in terms of attempting
to reformulate modernism. I would imagine that you’re not alone in doing, in this project of rethinking and extending modernism to understand it as a more inclusive term. You talked about the long modernism, suggested that modernism isn’t over. We can subsume postmodernism
within the rubric of modernism and then also perhaps
include the contemporary. The literary theorist Fredric Jameson famously formulated postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism. We might then understand modernism as the cultural logic
of, fill in the blank, capitalism or extractive capitalism or empire or colonization or race power, et cetera, as a cultural formation
that’s symptomatic of or expressive of various different, say, distributions of power in the world. I guess I would maybe also suggest that, you’ve identified the
structural relationship between terms of alterity, along the lines of time, along the lines of type, culture, and then, although you
didn’t discuss this, style as expression of
self or identity, perhaps. Might it be that it’s the, it’s that relationship of alterity or maybe one could say displacement that is most inherent for your argument in that one could fill in the blank of… the vector of alterity in
all kinds of different ways. You’ve identified three or four main ones but, as someone else maybe suggested, there could be many,
many in different moments or applied to different
particular formations or works. – Mm-hmm. Yeah. With regard to late capital, I think that, you know, the most interesting historical accounts that I know of now are really trying to think about the rise of
capitalism in the 19th century as indistinguishable or as inextricably tied
to colonialism and slavery which was, you know,
a really efficient way of accumulating capital, so I don’t… And then there are artists
like Cameron Rowland who are now making a connection between the American
prison industrial complex and forced labor and the moment of forced, of indentured labor and slavery. That’s a strong reading but
I think that capitalism, you know, always had a racial
dimension and continues to. And I think late capitalism makes sense as opposed to creating a boundary between whatever would be
before late capitalism, early (chuckling) capitalism, and late capitalism because
I do think that, in fact, I just don’t see that there’s a real
epistemological difference that can really be thought of as a completely different
set of practices. I think they’re really
different singularities. Then can it be alterity anything? I actually don’t think so. I think that if you look at work, I mean, I feel like there isn’t
an infinite number of types but I do think that what happens is that painting goes from
establishing a presence to dealing with a kind of
absence or dispossession. And I think that comedy is often used by those who are
dispossessed in various ways and modernism has been focused around a kind of tragic avant-gardist
sense of perpetual loss. So, I think maybe in the long run, this project, the alterity dimension might be a kind of scaffolding
that will fall away to think about this mood of the comic as opposed to the mood of
the tragic within modernism. But I think, you know
how it is with projects that you sort of, I think
of it as scaffolding, like you need a lot of apparatus to figure out what you
actually really think and what’s important. And thanks for being my guinea pigs. (audience chuckling) And then, you know, you clean away what doesn’t seem necessary. So, this is very new for me and I’m not, maybe the alterity is too
baggy a term, actually. I don’t know. – [Audience Member] I like it. You used the metaphor
of boiling down before, or someone did. And in that regard, I think
it’s maybe interesting to think of art history
as a kind of cuisine. – (chuckles) It’s a sauce. A sauce that we throw on your arts. – [Audience Member] Is there
a remaining burning question? – [Audience Member] Just
kind of on the last bit, you were saying that this
is a new kind of idea that you’re kind of formulating. I’m curious about the
process of creating a model and what your research looks like and how these things exist
as essays or a lecture series or as an accumulation of a book and just what the process looks
like of coming up with this. – Uh-huh, thank you. I just finished a book on globalization. So, in a way, where I, I had a lot of rules for myself and one of them was to really
do everything possible, even though I’m trained in Western art and based in New York, to decenter that. I think I taught myself a
few things in this book. And this series of lectures is a kind of bringing those strategies from a kind of attempt to
understand globalization as a mechanism within the art world or within the practice of art,
not the art world, per se, to the Western canon. In a way, that’s the logic of it for me and I would like it to be a little short book but, you know, I’m not
sure yet if it will be. – [Audience Member] Do
you mind just adding on what your research looks
like, what it entails? Is it just a lot of, do you go see these paintings in person or (speaks faintly) or
what does that look like? – Yeah, I try never to talk about something I haven’t seen in person. If I can’t see something
that I really want to talk about in person then I, for instance, I went to, I didn’t see the Colescott, the one, the “Washington Carver
Crossing the Delaware,” but the one, there’s a great
painting at MoMA that’s up now and I spent a lot of time
thinking about that painting. It’s helpful because
you, when you see one, you can sort of think about strategies that might migrate to others. But in general, if I’m writing a book, I mean, there are few exceptions when in kind of urgent cases but I don’t like to write
about things I haven’t seen. I mean, I think it’s better not to ’cause you get, you
learn (chuckling) a lot by looking at the actual thing. I mean, anyway. (audience applauding)