“What’s the art that comes when what happened is out in the open? When what’s been buried is laid out for all to see? What would the country’s [creative works] look like if they said what was happening?”
That quote from a pre-Black Lives Matter novel jumped out at me after a conversation I’d had with an editor of an art magazine. He’d hoped to feature a portrait of a Black man but his publisher vetoed the idea because the artist was white, even though it was a beautiful and timely work of art that might have opened dialogue around race relations as well as the social function of art.
His decision was based on a firm belief that it was time for white people to stop depicting Black people who needed to tell their own stories and make their own art. The white artist’s responsibility, the publisher argued, was to open doors for Black creativity, to mentor Black writers, artists, and thinkers, to help them secure funding, visibility, and legitimacy, all of which required providing a venue for their work.
A friend agreed. White artists need to move over and create space for Black artists to make their own art, she argued. They should attempt to assist Black people in accessing grants and exhibitions so Black artists can share their artistic identity free from idealized versions of Black people that ultimately reflect white bias.
I fundamentally agree with the intent of this position, grounded in a strong sense of reparation and social justice. But something about it doesn’t seem quite right. As Princeton professor Eddie Gaude said recently on MSNBC, “it’s not about doing something for African Americans, it’s about doing things with us,” which begs the question, why identify an artist’s skin color? Artists produce art, good art moves and enlightens. Establishing boundaries can preclude necessary dialogue, learnable moments, and heightened awareness, which occurs when any creative artist offers portraits of lives lived, whether with words or a pallet.
Imagine a conversation between two people seeing a portrait of a Black man, and a picture of a white artist who created it. Perhaps one of them has never considered the publisher’s point of view. Maybe the other resents the notion that only artists from the same milieu as their subject can portray people in art or literature. How sad to miss that dialogue, that heightened awareness and new way of thinking.
There are larger questions to consider. What is the connection between art and social justice? What is the role and responsibility of artists to educate or advocate? Do they have a responsibility in this moment to do that?
I once met a South African artist who thought social justice should be the sole purpose of art. He was driven to paint and sculpt anti-apartheid works because he saw it as his responsibility as a white South African who deplored the injustices in his country. His powerful work was viewed internationally. It was moving and instructive. It led to all kinds of dialogue when communicating was vital and affirming. Should only Black artists in South Africa have done that work?
The existential question may be this: Can disparate communities — ethnic, cultural, religious, racial, geographic — converge as one human family, arms linked in hope, moving together toward a fragile future where there is room for all to co-exist peacefully?
I am reminded of a Black woman in a book group I attended once who called me out for a piece I’d written about my grandmother’s suicide. My story included aspects of her life that had driven her to despair. Suddenly, the woman grew enraged. “Your grandma wasn’t cleaning white women’s toilets like mine. She went to the beach once in a while! She wasn’t dirt poor!” Stunned by her need to trump my grandmother’s hopelessness with her grandmother’s pain, I thought, they were both women who suffered. Wasn’t it our mutual task to tell each other’s stories of women’s oppression?
Surely it’s more productive to have people of all skin tones and backgrounds speaking together about their lives and their Other-imposed limitations; more instructive to represent each other artistically and politically in compassionate ways, more hopeful to act in solidarity, free from politically correct positions, clasping hands in mutual protest, respect and understanding.
In the same way, if one is moved by a work of art, and takes action for the greater good because that piece of art has enlightened them, does it matter who made it?
Buddhism teaches that to be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake involves risk. Sometimes that means letting someone speak for you in their own way, telling stories even though they aren’t your own, or painting faces that are different from yours. Without that might we be shutting down various ways to create new landscapes of possibility?
The poet John Keats said being able to embrace uncertainty, things we don’t know, doubts — and sharing those uncertainties and doubts — could be a gift.
I think the portrait of a Black man by a white artist could be such a gift. That the artist’s skin color denied us that is, in my view, a sadly unnecessary lost opportunity.