An Alternative History of Art, Art Monthly, April 2018
As I write this, Radio 4 is running a series it describes as ‘An Alternative History of Art’. Across ten 15-minute episodes, the series looks to rescue from obscurity artists somewhat forgotten or overlooked by history, thereby creating an alternative history. The artists, Eileen Agar, Elizabeth Catlett, Karl-Heinz Ader, Marwan, Jim Nutt, Dorothy Iannone, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Helen Chadwick, Benjamin Patterson, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode, are each given encapsulated documentaries presented by either Whitechapel Gallery director Iwona Blazwick, Serpentine Galleries artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist or Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s curator Naomi Beckwith. When the series was trailed, I speculated to myself that the one of Beckwith’s ‘forgotten’ black artists would likely be a figure such as Jacob Lawrence or Charles White: monumental and canonical figures of African American/American Art of the 20th century, relatively well attended to in catalogues and monographs and (stateside at least) major exhibitions who would, when presented to Radio 4 audiences, be recast as practitioners momentarily rescued from obscurity by the good graces of the BBC, before being summarily returned to the art-historically marginal spaces from whence they came.
What transpired was as bad as I had feared, with the African-American artist showcased during the first week of broadcasts being no less a figure than Catlett. It is difficult to overstate just how canonical a figure Catlett is, in narratives of American Art of the 20th century. Her signature body of work – a set of linocuts executed in the 1940s, I am the Negro Woman (renamed I am the Black Woman in the late 1980s to reflect long-since changed nomenclature) - established her as one of the most eloquent artists whose work unfailing came down on the side of the oppressed and the excluded. Yet here she was being trailed as an artist who had “received little attention from the mainstream artistic canon and from international institutions.”
The major problems with reframing Catlett as an overlooked and forgotten figure of art history are these: firstly, she lived to be nearly 100, dying just recently in 2012 having dedicated her life to art and producing what was, by anyone’s standards, a monumental body of appreciated and valued work. Secondly, and perhaps more troublingly, the inclusion of Catlett in the Radio 4 series was fundamentally disingenuous because it conveniently overlooked the reasons why, within the UK and amongst certain people, Catlett is not well known. In short, it is the UK art world’s reluctance to take seriously African-American artists as individual practitioners of merit that has led to disfigured spaces being opened up into which supposedly alternative histories can be benevolently inserted, albeit fleetingly, squeezed between more substantial offerings in Radio 4’s weekday morning schedules.… Rather than creating liberal-minded alternative histories, the art establishment and its mouthpieces would be better off reflecting on why it is that certain artists are routinely sidelined, as if decreed by the forces of the universe, rather than the pathologised and prejudiced inclinations of people perhaps most politely described as cultural supremacists