TFG is 5: Reflections on Racism & Art

Edited by Kathryn Cooperman & Catherine Harlow

My first post for this site was a re-imagining of a longer essay that I wrote for my senior year architecture seminar. I finally was able to dedicate a whole article to something that was only subtext in my original paper: the fact that Art Deco used the aesthetic of ancient Egypt, with religious symbols mish-mashed and out of context, and that was a problem. Looking back now, it alludes to exploitation and imperialism by the West (and specifically the British), but it is much more tentative and clinical than it would be if I tackled the same topic today, as though I was afraid to offend people that might not agree with my conclusion. When we first started writing, we did so with the mindset that we should use the skills we honed in our humanities classes in undergrad to help the world see why we love(d) the quirky academic topics that we do. For me at least, this is no longer the case. 

Over the years, though, I’ve felt compelled to talk about contemporary art and issues of race and representation. In school, I liked learning about American art and architecture from ~1900-1970.  I liked thinking and writing about art that I thought was aesthetically pleasing. At first, I think I didn’t want to inject myself into my work (for example, we were taught to never use personal pronouns in our writing) and honestly, I think I didn’t even know how to tackle the issue of race in a meaningful way. When I think back to my art history classes, wonderful though they were, the professors stated matter-of-factly that a work had racial undertones, and then moved on. For example, we were taught that Picasso’s work was inspired by/derivative of African masks that he saw on his travels. At the time, his work was dismissed as barbaric (yes, in separate sentences and really up to students to make sense of the subtext). But then we moved on! While I didn’t get to really direct the conversations in my classes, I’m grateful that we have the platform to do so now. At first, I was scared of the backlash we might face over writing about things that are too “controversial”. But over the course of the five years I’ve been writing pieces for TFG, I slowly started to write more pointed critiques and got comfortable tackling tough issues, knowing that it’s just the beginning of a lifelong process and conversation.  I’m incredibly proud of being able to uplift creators of color in our Profiles series and dissect Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) movies and television with my fellow writers. 

While I think that we’ve done a lot of work showcasing the East Asian perspective here on the site, the lack of Black, Hispanic, and other minority representation is glaringly obvious to me. I was recently re-grouping our blog posts under the category “Black Art Matters,” and was actually embarrassed by what little content we’d produced over the years that fit the bill. While this was not part of our original mission, I feel that we need to do better to uplift artists and writers from those communities. In the United States, we’re having a racial reckoning and I believe that we, the writers, need to meet the moment and movement. While Black Lives Matter received a lot of media attention earlier this summer, this movement is a marathon, not a sprint. So, our staff has been collaborating to produce relevant content even after topics surrounding race and representation are no longer “Trending”. 

I’m proud of what we’ve done so far, and I still love talking and thinking about the more academic/esoteric topics, but there’s still work to be done to consider the work of artists (specifically Kehinde Wiley, stay tuned!) and I’m excited to tackle it with the team.

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