This Week in Photography: Racism and Art

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

I have a question.

 

Do you think everyone is racist?

 

Personally, I don’t. And I wrote as much a few weeks ago, when I claimed I’m not racist.

Given all the supposedly controversial things I write here, I’ve expected someone to come after me, at some point, and pull something out of context.

And it may yet happen.

But I also believe that some people, (frankly a lot of people,) don’t hate and disrespect others based solely on the color of their skin, or their ethnicity.

(And I’ve written about the evils of structural racism many times.)

If you’ve been reading all along, you know I’m happy to admit my failings, and have chronicled my own privileged youth, so I try to keep it real for you each week.

Hell, I even called out the NYT for building a super-diverse room, at their annual portfolio review, but encouraging conditions where each racial/ethnic group stuck to its own.

What’s the point of that?

Maybe it’s because I’m a “bohemian artsy type,” but for me, few things are more pleasurable than hanging out with people from different parts of the world, or different cultures.

As I wrote last week, when we come together, it creates an energy that is as addictive as it is infectious. Of course, the one thing that can get in the way is one’s political philosophy, because while I try to treat each person with respect, that falls apart when we’re talking about people who don’t respect others.

(Like all the Texans and Arizonans who won’t value other people’s health by wearing masks or social distancing in their home states, and then come to New Mexico and disregard our public health ordinances. Fuck those guys!)

I’m on this rant for two reasons, which will hopefully become obvious before this column is done.

First off, I came across a story on Twitter yesterday, where the actress Jenny Slate left a Netflix show, “Big Mouth” because she had been hired and paid to be the voice actress for a character who was half Black, and half Jewish-American.

Truth: I’d never seen the show, and typically find Jenny Slate to be annoying every time I’ve seen her on screen.

I’m literally not a fan.

But her mea culpa letter on Instagram felt like something from a Maoist re-education camp, in which she wrote:

“I reasoned with myself that it was permissible for me to play “Missy” because her mom is Jewish and White- as am I. But “Missy” is also Black, and Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people. I acknowledge how my original reasoning was flawed, that it existed as an example of white privilege and unjust allowances made within a system of societal white supremacy, and that in me playing “Missy,” I was engaging in an act of erasure of Black people.”

Cultural Revolution propaganda poster

 

Have we gotten to the point where an actress accepting a job a few years ago, in which the character is 50% her ethnicity, means she was complicit in “the erasure of Black people”?

I’m having a hard time with that one, even though it’s obvious now that such jobs need to go to Black people.

Couldn’t she have stepped down gracefully, doing the right thing in letting Black actors voice Black characters, without the massive and awkward public apology?

Especially because I watched an egregious act of racism on Top Chef All Stars this week, yet I found no mention of it anywhere in the media.

My wife and I were bingeing the series, right before the finale, and came upon an episode where the chefs were pitching concepts for a restaurant, with the top 2 chosen for the traditional “Restaurant Wars” episode.

One chef, Eric Adjepong, a Ghanian-American, pitched a restaurant called “Middle Passage,” which was in honor of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Food from Eric Adjepong’s website

 

The judges passed.

Another chef, white-guy Kevin Gillespie, from Georgia, pitched a concept called “Country Captain,” which promised “Plantation” food, and he WAS chosen.

Primarily because his main dish, the eponymous Country Captain, was the first American version of chicken curry, as the necessary spices were brought over in the 19th Century.

If you can believe it, no mention was made that the spice trade was interconnected with the slave trade, which brought SLAVES to those plantations.

WTF!

And it gets worse…

Eric Adjepong was actually the chef who was eliminated that week, and one reason, (beyond his food not being good enough,) was that the judges called his concept confused, because he wanted his restaurant to have both fine dining quality food and causal service.

They could not comprehend such an idea.

One judge, former Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, from Chicago, actually said to him that it sounded like he didn’t want his service to be “uppity.”

UPPITY!

 

 

To recap: Top Chef supported a concept about Plantation food, with spices brought over along with the slave trade, and cut one of only two African-American contestants, while using the word “uppity” while chopping the Black guy, and rewarding a chef who has a restaurant literally called “Gunshow.”

(As in, the only places where Americans can buy guns without background checks.)

 

 

Say what you will about Jenny Slate, but I checked out “Big Mouth” this morning for a minute, to see if she had done the voice acting equivalent of “blackface,” but she had not.

(It was kind of a nerd voice.)

How does one group of actors self-excoriate, when the other act of racism isn’t even in the public consciousness?

Maybe because systemic racism is so systemic that most people don’t know or care that it’s there until mass protest movements form?

(And because legitimate, self-aware artists can sometimes get caught up in a wave of shame.)

Jenny Slate, and Nick Kroll, who created “Big Mouth,” are both Jewish-Americans, and “our” group has been the victim of hatred for Millennia. (Nick Kroll also issued a public apology.)

Frankly, I think it’s time all the rational, cool people unite against our common enemy, Donald J Trump, (and his maskless hordes,) and make sure to vote the asshole out, no matter what!

 

Part 2: The Good Stuff

 

I swear, today, my goal was to write about the amazing art I saw at the Rijksmuseum, back in Amsterdam in February.

I was lucky enough to get press access, in the only free hour I had, and was there for the brilliant, inspirational Caravaggio/Bernini exhibition.

As I’d learned about art in Rome, back in 1997, of course these two are among my favorite artists of all time.

Proper geniuses.

The best of the best.


 

Then, getting to roam through the Rembrandts and the Frans Hals paintings, and the Vermeers as well…

I saw so much great shit.

And I want to show it to you in a nice set of images.

 

But I also remember walking through Amsterdam, and overhearing a tour guide instructing his followers in a bit of the city’s history.

The reason all those great paintings exist is that the Dutch had the Western World’s first middle class, due to their Republic in the 17th Century, because of all their global raiding.

And they took part in the slave trade too!

They colonized like motherfuckers, from Indonesia to South America to my hometown of Holmdel, New Jersey.

The Dutch, these days, are the most progressive, cool, open-minded people out there.

But it’s mostly because their ancestors were a bunch of resource-and-people stealing assholes 400 years ago.

And most of the great art, through the Millenia, was made in service of money and power.

I’ve taught art history, and I’ll tell you, almost all the good old shit is basically religious and/or political propaganda.

The spoils of war are what we worship.

How do we reconcile that?

I’m not sure we can.

But if anyone starts trying the burn down the museums, and the paintings, I’ll pull out my martial arts and try to defend our collective history.

(Or at least, I tell myself I will.)

Because art is about creation, and it’s one of the few things we can hold up against centuries of destruction, and death, and feel good about.

Right?

Then again, if the biggest museums offered equal space, acclaim, and respect to non-Western traditions, maybe we’d have a less racist world?

Maybe if the museums, (at least in America,) which are supported by billionaires and oligarchs, were themselves less a part of the structural racism problem, we’d already be living in a better country?

Like I said, there are no easy answers.

But at least we can ask the right questions.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. Racism in the USA- where to start? The better question, of course, when will it end? The original sin, purposely furthered into perpetuity by the “one drop” rule of measure…

    I’ve studied it, written of it, and on occasion… been it’s victim, and triumphed over it. Curiously, to this day, we all remain it’s victim- even those who it’s meant to favor. And yet, so many who most profit from it, refuse to talk about or even acknowledge it.

    It’s curious we are now confronting this issue yet again, at the same time we confront another potential life or death issue head on. But buried things grow deep.

    This early 21st century is seeing the last dying gasps of the blatant racism of centuries past- Trump and his minions realize this all too well, if only in their genes. But its legacy remains, and it will take more than the mere toppling of statues…

    PS- Was just listening to a program on NPR about the racist, misogynist fire department in… Liberal Amsterdam!

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