The difficulties of naming white things: A consideration of Kobena Mercer's Annotating Art's Histories Series (Cosmopolitan Modernism, Discrepant Abstraction, Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, and Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers) published by MIT Press and inIVA between 2005 and 2008.
Recently, the Kingston-based curator, Petrine Archer-Straw and I had a brief email exchange that centered on the difficulties of naming white things. What, Petrine wanted to know, might be an appropriate name for the white equivalent of Black memorabilia, Black Americana, African Americana and so on? Such material, utilizing the image of the Black person in no end of guises – many of them decidedly problematic - existed in many places, from flea markets and antique malls through to Internet auction sites. But what name might we assign to the white equivalent of such material? Lamely perhaps, I suggested memorabilia, though even as I sent the email I knew the term was inadequate. Petrine eventually settled on a term which she felt might do the trick, but our exchange stayed with me as being a particularly instructive one. It seemed to me that there were things, and there were Black things; there was history, and then there was Black history; there was art, and there was Black art. Simply put, white people didn't need to prefix their stuff as White Art, White History, White Memorabilia, because history, art, memorabilia and a host of other things carried with them, in the single unracialized or deracialized word, abundant references to, and presumptions of, whiteness and white people. In order for something to exist in contrast to these unnamed white things, it had to be labeled as Black or some other such term signifying difference. In considering Kobena Mercer's recent series of books, I am reminded of the frustration of not being able to call what generally passes as art history, White Art History, even though, with its consistent omissions and its partial accounts, that is what the universities of the country are by and large serving up within their Art History departments. As a concession to diversity, a number of art history departments now have racially named Africanists, African Americanists and/or African diasporaists – oftentimes thinly veiled references to Black faculty.
There is perhaps something of a circular argument at play here. University art history departments are oftentimes the embodiment of whiteness, albeit in an unnamed form. But to what extent is that complacency of unnamed whiteness troubled by the presence of one or several Black faculty, whose specialist areas are invariably Black art history? Black faculty and Black art history exists, in part, to counter the dominance of whiteness and all that it invisibalizes. But Black faculty and Black art history invariably leaves real (i.e. white) art history intact, untroubled and in many instances, happy to be decorated or adorned by a sprinkling of color or diversity. The key question is of course, what might the alternative be? How can white art history be damned, troubled, questioned, interfered with, if not through the production of alternative narratives and the proffering of counter positions? The bookshelves of this country's university libraries are groaning under the weight of sloppy, partial, racially biased white scholarship that masquerades as objective and canonical knowledge. How to disturb or affect that partiality, if not through the production of volumes such as these?
The hegemony within university art history departments is one in which what purports to be real art history takes priority. That is to say, the classic fields of art history such as Baroque, Roman, Renaissance, Byzantine, Medieval, and so on. These are the supposedly core disciplines or fields of enquiry around which the country's major art history departments are built. In many universities, it's a struggle for even early modern art to have a foothold, much less art which is firmly located in the early, middle and late 20th centuries, and on into the new millennium. Invariably though, those professors whose areas of interest and teaching are African, African-American and African Diaspora will inevitably be drawing from and looking at art practice of these 20th (and indeed, 21st) century periods. This clash of the modern and the contemporary, versus real art history from way back when, points to what in some instances amounts to an uncomfortable and frequently unacknowledged racialized schism within art history and academia. These four volumes underline and draw attention to that schism, consisting as they do of investigations into art practices that are decidedly 20th century in their existences, thereby arguably rendering them peripheral, but tolerable as far as real art history is concerned.
…There is a wearying and hugely dangerous pathology in which that which is created by Black people and Black artists is deemed to be of less value or worth than that which is created by others. As mentioned earlier, the bookshelves of this country's university libraries are groaning under the weight of sloppy, partial, racially biased white scholarship that masquerades as objective and canonical knowledge. In large part, this largely spurious sense of gravitas and canonical knowledge comes about through the implication that these books carry within their pages precious, valuable, worthwhile knowledge. By implication, that which does not exist, that which is not referenced within these books, has no value. Or, value is only assigned when that which does not exist is brought into existence. This, in large measure, is the challenge facing historians of visual culture, whose areas of interest lie with and amongst Black artists.
…Returning to considerations of the tasks facing academics and researchers of Black artists' practices, ultimately, the challenge must be to create art history that does more than compliment that from which it is excluded. Time and again, I find myself returning to the knotty question of the difficulties of naming white things (and by extension, the pitfalls of naming Black things.) If that (art history) which is white and unnamed is central, then it follows that that (art history) which is Black and named must, by definition exist in some sort of peripheral or secondary space. How to get around this? Possibly, the answer might lie in how Black things are named. Instead of Cosmopolitan Modernism, Discrepant Abstraction, Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, and Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, perhaps the books' titles should have been along the lines of Modernism, Abstraction, Pop Art, and so on. In laying claim to the center, and not the margins, the Africanists, African Diasporaists and African-Americanists amongst us ought to learn from our (white) colleagues and follow their example of not naming themselves into a corner.
The full version of the above text written by Eddie Chambers appeared in Small Axe #38, Summer 2012: 186 - 197