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2:47 pm
Mon November 25, 2013

What Do We Mean When We Talk About 'Latino Art'?

Originally published on Mon November 25, 2013 4:42 pm

When the Whitney Museum of American Art announced the artists for its 2014 biennial, people took to the Internet to chime in about who's been included and who's been left out; the last biennial had been blasted for ignoring Latino artists. But when a new show opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum featuring only Latino artists — "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art" — it was blasted for other reasons.

"Meaningless," wrote critic Philip Kennicott in The Washington Post. In a review of the Smithsonian show, Kennicott was referring to the label "Latino art." (Yes, his word choice ticked off a lot of people, but more on that shortly.) Kennicott's point was that by grouping art by ethnicity, throwing together works by artists of different styles, periods and backgrounds, "you get a big mess."

Speaking to NPR, Kennicott defended his critique of the Smithsonian show:

"If we look at the art included in this exhibition, it includes everything from a Cuban exile who spent a lot of time in Paris and worked in a very cool, lovely, abstract style to Mexican-American artists who were doing a very political kind of art in Los Angeles. And one begins to wonder if there is, in fact, a lot in common between what they're doing."

So is there such a thing as "Latino art" or "Asian art" or "African-American art"? Are they "racial hang-ups," as African-American artist Raymond Saunders put it in his 1967 essay "Black is a color"? Or are they necessary categories that force white-run museums, publishers and concert halls to recognize artists of color?

These questions are at the heart of the debate ignited by Kennicott's word "meaningless."

"I was pretty stunned," says New York-based artist and filmmaker Alex Rivera. So he posted some angry comments about Kennicott's review on his Facebook page. Rivera told NPR that he and other artists have seen these reviews before. "Every so often there's a show, kind of like the one at the Smithsonian, that gathers our work together and gives it a venue," Rivera says. "And every time that happens, there's a review that says putting our work together is a bad way to organize art." Yet, Rivera says, critics rarely review the work itself. Rivera also notes that critics do not question such equally broad categories as "American" or "European" art.

It was a lively Facebook thread with several people in the Latino arts community chiming in. Artist Judithe Hernández wrote, for example: "When was the last time the Guggenheim, Whitney or MOMA, exhibited contemporary Latino American artists?"

Even Kennicott chimed in. "I was kind of the skunk at the party in those discussions," he says. "But I was interested because it was a good conversation." Kennicott was so interested, he invited Rivera to square off with him in The Washington Post.

Someone who didn't weigh in on the volatile discussion was Smithsonian curator Carmen Ramos. It took her three years to put together "Our America." With 92 artworks by 72 artists who have roots throughout Latin America, it's an extensive survey that covers the period from the mid-20th century to the present.

Ramos fully agrees the term "Latino art" is extremely broad. It's also extremely rich, she says, yet many of the artists in the Smithsonian show — regardless of style — have been ignored by mainstream museums. "We use the term 'Latino art' as a construct, as a handle, really, to talk about an absence in the way that we think about American art and culture. That's why the word 'presence' is in the subtitle. Presence is the opposite of absence," Ramos says.

But that brings up a larger issue: Are museums doing an artist a favor or a disservice when they group shows together around ethnicity or gender rather than aesthetics? Adrian Piper believes it's a disservice. She's a conceptual artist whose work is in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She recently demanded that a film of hers be removed from a show of black performance art. Piper preferred not to be interviewed, but she sent NPR the email she sent to the show's curator. In it she wrote that "as a matter of principle," she does not allow her work to be exhibited in "all-black shows," because she believes these shows "perpetuate the segregation of African-American artists from the mainstream contemporary art world."

Sculptor and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud is equally troubled by race-based groupings. She currently has an exhibition of work inspired by Malcolm X at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She's also the author of Sally Hemings: A Novel. From her home in Paris, Chase-Riboud says these categorizations happen not just in the visual arts, but in music and literature, too.

"I don't think people really understand the almost humiliation of being a creative person who thinks and believes he is doing something original and doing something universal, to suddenly be lumped in with anybody or everybody who has the same skin color. There's no logic to it," Chase-Riboud says.

She believes it also lets institutions off the hook. "So if they had one black show per year, they could go on doing business as usual for the rest of the year, which is why certain black writers have stopped publishing in February," she says. Black History Month might have been created "for good reasons," but Chase-Riboud says it now feels like "tokenism."

Nonetheless, some in the Latino arts community say that the show at the Smithsonian is a major milestone. New York University professor Arlene Davila says "the whiteness" in the art world exists "at all levels." So identity-based shows like "Our America" are the only ways Latino artists can stand on such a big stage.

In fact, Davila supports the ongoing campaign for a Smithsonian museum dedicated to Latino culture. "I would love to be in a universe where we don't need to have culturally specific museums because we do have a diverse museum world that represents all of us," Davila says. "But I don't live in that society right now. I don't know if we're going to be living in that society a hundred years from now, the way we are."

The Smithsonian exhibition "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art" is on view in Washington until early March. Then it begins a national tour.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

How much should art and the creative process be seen through the lens of race and ethnicity? Do these categories aid our understanding and appreciation or do they detract? Well, some in the art world are upset that a new exhibition at the Smithsonian lumps artists of Latino heritage together. The show is called "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art." NPR's Elizabeth Blair speaks to artists about race and labels.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Filmmaker Alex Rivera came across a review of an exhibition that had many of his friends agitated.

ALEX RIVERA: Well, just another night on the Internet. I was home alone. It was late at night. I was pretty stunned by what I read. In the first few paragraphs, the reviewer dismissed the notion of Latino art as a useless or meaningless category.

BLAIR: Meaningless, wrote Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott, because by throwing together works by artists of different styles, periods and backgrounds, you get, quote, "a big mess."

PHILIP KENNICOTT: If we look at the art included in this exhibition, it includes everything from a Cuban exile who spent a lot of time in Paris and worked in a very kind of cool, lovely, abstract style, to Mexican-American artists who were doing a very political kind of art in Los Angeles. And one begins to wonder if there is, in fact, a lot in common between what they're doing.

BLAIR: Other than their ethnicity. It was a lively Facebook thread with several people in the Latino arts community chiming in. Artist Judithe Hernandez wrote, for example: When was the last time the Guggenheim, Whitney or MOMA, exhibited contemporary Latino American artists? Even Philip Kennicott chimed in.

KENNICOTT: I was kind of the skunk at the party in those discussions, but I was interested because it was a good conversation.

BLAIR: Kennicott and Rivera continued the debate in The Washington Post. Someone who did not weigh in was the curator. It took Carmen Ramos three years to put together the Smithsonian exhibition which includes 92 artworks by 72 different artists who have roots throughout Latin America.

Ramos agrees the term Latino art is extremely broad. But she says, so often many of these artists, regardless of style, have been ignored by mainstream museums.

CARMEN RAMOS: We use the term Latino art as a construct, as a handle, really, to talk about an absence in the way that we think about American art and culture. That's why the word presence is in the subtitle. Presence is the opposite of absence.

BLAIR: But that brings up a larger issue: Are museums doing any artist a favor or a disservice when they group shows around ethnicity or gender rather than aesthetics? Adrian Piper believes it's a disservice. She's a conceptual artist whose work is in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She recently demanded that a film of hers be removed from a show of black performance art.

Piper preferred not to be interviewed, but she sent NPR the email she sent to the show's curator. In it, she wrote that as a matter of principle, she does not allow her work to be exhibited in all-black shows, because she believes they, quote, "perpetuate the segregation of African-American artists from the mainstream."

Sculptor and writer Barbara Chase-Riboud feels the same way. She currently has a solo show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She's also the author of "Sally Hemings: A Novel." From her home in Paris, Chase-Riboud says it's time to get rid of these race-based groupings not just in the visual arts, but in music and literature.

BARBARA CHASE-RIBOUD: I don't think people really understand the almost humiliation of a creative person who thinks and believes he is doing something original and doing something universal, to suddenly be lumped in with anybody or everybody who happens to have the same skin color. There's no logic to it. There's no intellectual logic to it and there's not aesthetic logic to it.

BLAIR: Chase-Riboud also thinks it also lets institutions off the hook.

CHASE-RIBOUD: So if they had one black show per year, that meant that they could go on doing business as usual for the rest of the year, which is why certain black writers have stopped publishing in February.

BLAIR: Black History Month, says Chase-Riboud, might have been created for good reasons, but now it feels like tokenism. But some in the Latino arts community insist that the show at the Smithsonian is a major milestone. New York University professor Arlene Davila says given the reality of how the predominantly white art world is set up, this is the only way Latino artists can stand on such a big stage.

In fact, Davila supports the ongoing campaign for a Smithsonian museum dedicated to Latino culture.

ARLENE DAVILA: I would love to be in a universe where we don't need to have culturally specific museums because we do have a diverse museum world that represents all of us. But I don't live in that society right now. I don't know if we're going to be living in that society even a hundred years from now, the way we are.

BLAIR: The Smithsonian exhibition, "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art" is on view in Washington D.C. through February. Then, it travels to six more cities. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.