Writing Art History in the Age of Black Lives Matter


... One of the extraordinary aspects of the Taylor/Floyd-related protests was their spread or their reach. It’s a given that the protests occurred throughout the United States, but the protests also assumed a decidedly transatlantic character (more than that, of course, as people of many different ethnicities took to streets in protests that took place, from Kenya to Australia). Protests took place across swathes of Europe, including countries such as France and Scotland. It was in this highly charged and febrile context that an extraordinary event occurred in Bristol, a city in the West of England that witnessed, on 7 June 2020, its own Black Lives Matter rally. In the aftermath of the rally, a particularly animated and visionary element of the multitude took it upon themselves to tear down, with the aid of ropes, a widely despised statue of eighteenth-century Bristol slave trader, Edward Colston. Not only was the statue summarily de-plinthed, for good measure it was rolled and dragged a short distance through the center of the city, and dumped over the quay, to take its place among other detritus such as shopping trolleys and broken bicycles that city center docks, rivers and canals are frequently home to.

A week later (and with Colston’s statue having been hastily retrieved from its watery grave by the city council), a text appeared on the iconoclastic art criticism website, the White Pube. The title of the piece was somewhat expletive laden – FUCK THE POLICE, FUCK THE STATE, FUCK THE TATE: RIOTS AND REFORM. Whoever the writer was, they wasted no time in voicing their protest at what they saw as formulaic and ultimately shallow institutional responses to the urgency of the moment, even making room for a reference to the cataclysmic events that had taken place in Bristol, a week earlier.

But I need to say this, and some of you need to hear it. Fuck these institutions, fuck these institutional players. No more gestures, no more empty words. We outnumber them, and we can just rip it out, topple it all and throw it into the nearest river.

Clearly, what had aroused the writer’s ire was a pent-up level of frustration not only at the seemingly opportunistic and self-serving “empty words,” but equally as importantly, that institutions were enacting a well-rehearsed strategy of self-preservation, wherein supposedly progressive, empathetic statements protesting racism and other social ills were dutifully put out, particularly at moments of tension such as these.

In a coordinated gesture of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, many art galleries and other cultural institutions participated in what became known as “Blackout Tuesday,” wherein, on 2 June, 2020, the Twitter feeds of these institutions suspended their regular or usual postings and posted instead, a simple rectangle, black in color. This supposedly somber, minimalist gesture was intended to underscore the sobriety of the moment, and the extent to which business as usual, in that particular point in time, was not an option. The writer of the White Pube piece was far from impressed, referring to the gesture as “bullshit hypocrisy.” The writer’s point was, in so many ways, an unarguable one. Gestures or declarations, no matter how earnest, when expressed by institutions can carry the weight of their own expendability. If gestures are not consistently, urgently, followed up by revolutionary change on the part of institutions, they rapidly assume the appearance of opportunism, self-promotion, and self-preservation.

Can there ever be a credible institution-wide response to the teaching and the writing of art history that reflects the weight and urgency of the current times? Or is decolonizing the curriculum something that is pretty much being left to individual professors? This is a fundamentally important question, the answer to which by and large determines what we look for as signifiers of progress. Make no mistake, the grievances that the writer of FUCK THE POLICE, FUCK THE STATE, FUCK THE TATE: RIOTS AND REFORM pushed back against were legitimate and well founded. As much as academia might be a less white supremacist and less Eurocentric entity than it was a decade ago (or however many decades ago one cares to go back), we must accept that the consequences (if not the explicit intentions) of institutional strategizing is that visible evidence of dramatic change for the better is fiendishly difficult to ascertain. Take for example, the matter of equal opportunities policies in academic employment. Such policies have been adopted by institutions, including of course universities, since at least as far back as the 1970s. Certainly, since the 1980s, equal opportunities policies have, year on year, been more rigorously applied/enforced, to the point that such policies are now legally mandated. And yet, in the UK, for example, if published figures are to be believed, only 155 out of 23,000 university professors are Black.

The above extracts are from Eddie Chambers, "Writing Art History in the Age of Black Lives Matter", a chapter in The Routledge Companion to Decolonizing Art History edited by Tatiana Flores, Florencia San Martín, and Charlene Villaseñor Black, Published November 27, 2023. "Writing Art History in the Age of Black Lives Matter", pages 49 - 60.