A Critique of the Viewer: Continued

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 10: Kara Walker's 'A Subtlety,' a seventy-five and a half feet long and thirty-five and a half feet tall sphinx made in part of bleached sugar, is displayed at the former Domino Sugar Refinery on May 10, 2014 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The show opened today, is free to the public and will run until July 6th. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images) | Andrew Burton via Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 10: Kara Walker’s ‘A Subtlety,’ a seventy-five and a half feet long and thirty-five and a half feet tall sphinx made in part of bleached sugar, is displayed at the former Domino Sugar Refinery on May 10, 2014 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images) | Andrew Burton via Getty Images

When a viewer enters a gallery or encounters an artist’s work does she abdicate all control over thought, emotion and responsibility for her *self* and actions? Does she lose all her own sensibilities to the artist’s intention or art historical analysis?

There are three exhibitions this summer by Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons and Kara Walker that demonstrate the divide between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s responsibility to the production of her own experience. The only kind of artistic practice that exists to definitively tell the viewer what to do, think and feel is illustrations for religious purposes such as in the history of Catholic teaching or advertising and product placement. Are there more? Please tell me.

When an artist allows the viewer to be fully present in the production of her own experience does that imply that anything goes?

How does an artist’s control or lack of control over the public’s perception and/ or ingestion of a work of art cause or not cause affect?

What was Kara Walker’s responsibility to pre-plan or account for the public’s inane response to “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” 2014 at the Domino Sugar Factory?

Should this exhibit that offers a critique of the dominant culture come with trigger warnings? If Walker had stated “Let me demonstrate how much the dominant culture is not post-racial or post-gender” would the installation caused less angst? While I cannot say that Walker specifically had these intentions with “A Subtlety” I believe that what the viewer brings to the perception of the work- even when it’s disgusting- can be as important if not more so.

The kinds of creepy and crappy instagram photos coming out of Walker’s exhibition at the Domino Sugar Factory exist already. These photos and videos have become evidence of our culture’s leisured complicity. Historically, it’s this manner of tacit collusion that allow atrocities to happen.

Most importantly- these kinds of photos produced by the viewers at Walker’s exhibition are not so different than the videos captured that document the police beatings of men and women like Rodney King and Marlene Pinnock. As demonstrated in Walker’s “A Subtlety” the use of a camera acts both as a shield and a mirror.

I would be disheartened if people hadn’t shouted at those looker’s who mocked and made light of the blood history of slavery and sugar manufacture. This reaction to Walker’s work is now itself part of the Walker’s artistic production.  “A Subtlety” has echoed out in real and visceral terms- shaking me to my core- making me stand witness to the doubling of racist historical representation into current time.

From COLORLINES,Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Evokes Call From Black Women: ‘We Are Here.'”

“In the absence of an official guide to the work some participants took matters into their own hands. At one point during the afternoon, Nick Powers, a professor who teaches black literature at SUNY Westbury, stood at the Sphinx’s backside to warn viewers about the significance of posing for comical photos in front of it. His words drew applause from some nearby spectators.”What a lot of people of color in this room are feeling but just haven’t said out loud is that they don’t like how folks pose in front of this statue dedicated to the violence of slavery,” Powers said. “It’s actually a collective feeling.”

Moments later, a young white woman working with Creative Time came over to ask that Powers make it clear that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the organization. Several women of color who overheard the encounter questioned why Creative Time had not instead confronted the numerous participants who had taken offensive photographs in front of the sculpture.

But such tense interactions are to be expected when dealing with work that deals with race so specifically. Still, Walker’s work remains deeply resonant, said Bill Gaskins, a Cornell University art professor.”One of the things that people forget is that art at its best is much more of a reflection of the viewer than it is of the maker. All of the sweetness and the bitterness of the response to this work is what makes it art.”

While Walker didn’t demand a huge amount of control over the viewer and crowd induced experience Marina Abramovic does the opposite in her latest “nothing” long-term, performance art work at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Abramovic said “she did not want people to take photographs of things “they don’t even experience.”

According to Hannah Furness with The Telegraph “The Belgrade-born artist, 67, will spend eight hours a day at London’s Serpentine Gallery for the duration of her exhibition, which features the artist leading the audience by the hand, whispering to them and giving instructions. Abramovic will even unlock and close the white-walled London gallery herself.”

Perhaps Abramovic is teaching the viewer how to be human, how to engage with art and self again. Should she have to do this? This is as telling as the fallout from Walker’s “A Subtlety.” Ah, then there is the ART WORLD’S public’s engagement with Jeff Koon’s retrospective at the Whitney. I’m leaving that conversation short. Read up here if you’d like.

I would not censor a single work of art- not from the most beautifully still work to the most aggressively cruel and ugly. It all exists for a reason even if you don’t get it right now. I’m pushing back heavily on the art viewer now- I don’t think you’re living up to your side of the bargain.

Read up on these three exhibitions-





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