Sunday, March 18, 2012

Race and Hip Hop

The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race

The readings for this week cover a lot of ground and ideas in regards to race, identity, and culture.  In his article The Theoretical Status of the Concept of Race, Howard Winant points out two opposing, and problematic/reductive, views about race construction and formation and then offers an alternative to them. 

Beginning by writing about the history of race, Winant writes "before (roughly) World War II... race was still largely seen in Europe and North America (and elsewhere as well) as an essence, a natural phenomenon, whose meaning was fixed, as constant as a southern star."  (Winant, 51)

He introduces the concept of "race as an ideological construct," a position taken by "the prominent historian Barbara Fields."  In my own experience, this idea also circulates within a certain (primarily white) academic discussion of race.  Fields argues that the concept of race was created in response to certain social needs- namely, as a way to support and justify freedom and slavery.  However, Winant argues that "Fields effectively demonstrates the absurdity of many commonly held ideas about race.  But her position is so extreme that at best it can only account for the origins of race thinking, and then only in one social context."  (Winant, 53)  According to Winant, Fields ignores the ways in which race thinking changed in response to sociocultural differences and refuses to engage a more complicated understanding of race that is perhaps both based on ideological construction and on real social forces.  Fields suggests that we have full control over our current thinking about race, insinuating that a change in our ideological understanding of race would change the way race relations actually unfold.

She writes, "If race lives on today, it can do so only because we continue to create and recreate it in our social life, continue to verify it, and thus continue to need a social vocabulary that will allow us to make sense, not of what our ancestors did then, but of what we choose to do now."  (Winant, 54)

What would she make of our current state of institutionalized racism in America, and around the world?  Can it be changed simply by refusing to perpetuate the idea of race?  Where is the intersection between this kind of ideological thinking and the very real effects of race thinking, and racism, like the recent murder of Trayvon Martin?  (more info about Martin can be found in this video)  Or the inequality of the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex?

According to this article from AlterNet, "while people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The prison population grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005, a rate that is outpacing crime and population rates. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men." 

In response to the above assertion by Fields, Winant writes "one can only marvel at the ease with which she distinguishes the bad old slavery days of the past from the present, when 'we' anachronistically cling, as if for no reason, to the illusion that race retains any meaning.  We foolishly throw up our hands and acquiesce in race thinking, rather than...  doing what?  Denying the racially demarcated divisions in society?  Training ourselves to be 'color blind'?"  (Winant, 54)

He points out two failures of the "race as ideological construct argument":

"First, it fails to recognize the salience a social construct can develop over a half a millenium or more of diffusion, or should I say enforcement, as a fundamental principle of social organization and identity formation.  Second, and related, this approach fails to recognize that at the level of experience, of everyday life, race is a relatively impermeable part of our identities.  U.S. society is so thoroughly racialized that to be without racial identity is to be in danger of having no identity.  To be raceless is akin to being genderless."  (Winant, 55)

Clearly, whether or not you conceive of race (or gender, for that matter) as an ideological construct, it clearly has very real and very problematic effects in peoples' everyday experience.  Winant then continues to address race as an objective condition, pointing out the problems with the other extreme.  He states that "race in practice is often treated as an object fact: one simply is one's race; in the contemporary United States, we have five color-based racial categories: black, white, brown, yellow, and red.  This is problematic, indeed ridiculous, in numerous ways.  Nobody really belongs in these boxes; they are patently absurd reductions of human variation."  (Winant, 56).

Winant suggests a new critical theory of the concept of race with three conditions:

-It must apply to contemporary political relationships
-It must apply in an increasingly global context
-It must apply across historical time

He concludes by writing, "to our dismay, we may have to give up our familiar ways of thinking about race once more.  If so, there also may be some occasion for delight.  For it may be possible to glimpse yet another view of race in which the concept operates neither as a signifier of comprehensive identity nor of fundamental difference, both of which are patently absurd, but rather as a marker of the infinity of variations we humans hold as a common heritage and hope for the future."  (Winant, 61)

The proposition of a new critical theory of race, and the tension between ideology and lived experience, made me think of this poem by Letta Neely called "Crazy things white people say."



And this piece by Kit Yan, a poet whose writing and spoken word often focuses on issues of race and gender:



The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop



Hank Willis Thomas, Black Power, 2008, from the series "Branded"

Krista Thompson's article The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip Hop was wonderful to read and covered a lot of ground.  She begins with a description of a spectacular high school prom entrance, in which a young African American woman hired six thousand dollars worth of photographers, not to actually document the event, but to act like paparazzi and make her feel like a star as she was entering her prom, highlighting an importance placed on being seen, and more specifically, on being seen being seen, within young African American culture.  Thompson argues that this case may shed light on the visual culture of hip-hop and the importance it places on visibility and being seen.  This specific prom example, she says, "demonstrates that black youth go further than just emulating what they see in the image worlds of hip-hop, they also articulate hip-hop's language of visibility- especially the fascination in hip-hop with generating the optical effect of being seen, particularly through the display of light.  The young woman who organized the elaborate entrance, hiring professional photographers to line the red carpet, did so not to have pictures taken but to create the effect of being photographed."  (Thompson, 481)  This also demonstrated the importance hip-hop places on "the moment of being made into a representation and its optical effects."  (Thompson, 481)

Thompson also writes of how art historians, curators, and critics have attempted to link the visual effects of hip-hop with its music, using techniques such as "sampling, mixing, and remixing" or "cutting and scratching," implying a sampling from art history (among other things) in the creation of new works.   

Thompson writes extensively about the work of Kehinde Wiley and Luis Gispert.  She starts by writing about Wiley's canvas paintings of "young black men dressed in the street stylings of hip-hop- bubble jackets, hoodies, and baggy jeans- assuming poses derived from existing works of European art.  Wiley would find his subjects on the street, with a small video crew in tow, adding to the element of being seen being seen, and ask them to pose for him in his studio.  He sought out "young black men who command 'a certain type of power' as they stride through urban space."  (Thompson, 482)  Once in his studio, they would look through art books and find a pose from art history that they would like to emulate.  Wiley then floods them in light, photographs them, and paints from the resulting photographs.

Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte II, 2006

Kehinde Wiley, St. John the Baptist II, 2006

Kehinde Wiley, St. Sebastian II, 2006

Linking the rise of mainstream hip-hop to capitalism and materialism, Thompson writes, "in the 1980s, as hip-hop gained visibility and commercial success nationally and globally, rappers increasingly turned their attention from politics to pleasure, a focus on earthly and bodily gratification, hedonism, and even nihilism."  (Thompson, 483)  Thompson attributes much of the focus on material culture to hip-hop coming out of the Southern United States, such as the Hot Boys, Ludacris, Lil Jon, and Soulja Boy, whose music was known as bounce or bass music, identified by its throbbing baseline.  Thompson writes, "visual manifestations of the genre- in videos, album covers, and print media- depicted an equally loud style and lifestyle, one that can be summed up in one word- 'bling!'"  (Thompson, 483)

The concept of bling, and the associations of wealth and power through the surface quality of light, is integral to this article.  The Oxford Dictionary Online defines bling as follows:  expensive, ostentatious clothing and jewelry, or the wearing of them.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "the expression appears to 'represent the visual effects of light being reflected on precious stones and metals.'" (Thompson, 483).  More simply, it refers to the imaginary sound of light hitting a shiny surface such as a diamond.  


Thompson writes, "bling calls attention to the moment when the commodity displays its opulence in the visual field, when it reflects a shimmering light from its luminous surface.  It captures the moment, so central in contemporary hip-hop, when consumption becomes conspicuous."  (Thompson, 483)


Interestingly, she writes about the state between hyper visibility and invisibility created by this phenomenon, another idea integral to the article, which she will eventually tie to black identity and black subjectivity. 


Thompson writes about how oil paint allowed painters to fully depict the surface shine of objects in a way they had not been able to prior.  In Hans Holbein the Younger's painting The Ambassadors uses shine in an interesting way, speaking both to power and prestige as well as to the inevitability of death and the fragility of things, as represented by the skull in the foreground.  Thompson states that the only surface in the painting not rendered with a shine is the white skin of the men, which sets up a contrast for her later discussions of the shine of black skin as a way to reduce people to objects or commodities.  


Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Of this painting, Thompson writes, "the painting may be seen as an early art historical precedent of the fashioning of power and prestige through  material possessions, among them the work of art.  Holbein's anamorphic depiction of a skull in the foreground of the painting, however, also draws attention to what the world of appearance hides from view: the inevitability of death, the fragility of things."  (Thompson, 485)

By depicting objects with shine, Dutch painters helped firmly cement objects as commodities "in the face of ethical debates about consumption." (Thompson, 486)  Similarly, this treatment of light also made their white, male patrons appear ultra human, often taking on a quality of representation typically used for saints or religious figures, rendering them as being in the body but not of it.  In this way, the use of light, and shine, had implications far beyond simple representation. 

Thompson writes about an ad published in the popular hip-hop magazine vibe in 2000 that shows a version of the painting Portrait of King Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, but the king's jewels have been replaced with a rapper's signature gold chains and diamond jewelry, "star-studded enlargements of the jewels he wears in the Holbein painting."  (Thompson, 487)  This ad suggests that "hip-hop is an extension of a much longer history of refashioning status and prestige through shiny jewels, tactile surfaces, and sumptuous goods."  (Thompson, 487)

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of King Henry VIII, 1536

The advertisement does not simply reproduce the painting, but instead reverses it.  Thompson writes, "the advertisement could literally be seen as a distorted mirror image, reflected through the logic of the visual in hip-hop.  In the spirit of Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, the embellished and reversed version of the painting draws attention to the king's bling, making the ruler's excesses more visible on the surface of the image."  (Thompson, 488)

Returning to the aesthetics of shine, specifically in relation to skin, Thompson expands upon the way in which shine denotes objecthood.  In regard to the painting The Ambassadors, she writes, "in marked contrast to the way the ambassadors' skins escaped representational inscription as 'object[s] in the midst of other objects,' as expressed by Frantz Fanon, the bodies of persons defined as black not only literally circulated within a global economy as commodities but also were visually defined as such through the visual logic of surfacism and the aesthetics of shine."  (Thompson, 488)

She continues to expand upon this idea, stating that the aesthetic treatment of black skin was integral to reducing African Americans to objects during slavery.  Slave traders would often grease the body of enslaved Africans to make them shine before they were put up to sell, and often, buyers would choose their slaves based on visuals alone.  The shine helped to reduce the slaves to objects, as opposed to humans, and was also in line with the connection between visual appearance and worth. 

Thompson writes, "bodily shine helped to increase slaves' worth, to heighten their assimilation and visual verisimilitude to the world of objects.  In this way, the reflective surface of the black body- what might be characterized as the visual production of the slave sublime- served to blind buyers, if you will, to the slave's humanity.  It sealed them, as Fanon so succinctly described it, 'in crushing objecthood.'"  (Thompson, 489)

Thompson engages the issue of visibility and the problem with gaining information from a visual surface examination.  She begins to suggest that high focus on being seen and on objects of value among hip-hop culture may actually be so blindingly visible that it furthers the objectification of black experience (she doesn't actually ask this question outright until the end of the article, but she starts hinting at the problems, or complications, of such overt visibility throughout her writing).  She writes, "inherent in hip-hop's surface visual economy is a critical reflection on how observing the surface appearance of things has been an obstacle to certain ways of seeing, a fact of visibility's limits that, historically, people of African descent have long experienced."  (Thompson, 489)

Thompson returns to Wiley and his portraits made of young African American men posing in poses taken from European painting.  "Wiley recognized that '[t]he history of painting has been the illusion of those [powerful] men trying to position themselves in fields of power that are very defined and codified as a type of vocabulary that's evolved over time...'  The painter scripted black urban youth into this history in order to ripple its codified visual field."  Wiley, she notes, "took care to represent his black male subjects in such a way that they appear both within yet outside these defined vocabularies."  (Thompson, 490)  Wiley paid close attention to the use of light in European paintings to give their sitters a larger than life, other worldly quality, which he also employed in his paintings of young black men.

Some paintings by Rembrandt:

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait as a young man, 1629-31

Just for fun, one of my favorite Rembrandts, and my photo of it, taken at the Harvard Art Museum in 2008:

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of an Old Man, 1632


Thompson writes, "in thinking about how to make paintings 'about the system of painting,' he recognized that the 'light [h]ad to be not only heightened but pointed to as a tool,'" which can be clearly seen in his paintings. 

Kehinde Wiley, Female Prophet Anne, 2003
The halo-like quality behind the young man in Female Prophet Anne, as well as the beautiful, dramatic light on his head, neck, and arms further the other-worldly like quality of his subjects.  Engaging with hip-hop music videos and the way they image "male prestige not only through material possessions but also through the shiny economy of black female skin, a projection of male power that, at its worst, was sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic."  (Thompson, 494)

His subjects sometimes chose to assume poses of women, and Wiley was also interested in how they were essentially cross-dressing for the painting, which added another layer to their finely tuned performance of masculinity.

Thompson writes, "his almost homoerotic encounters with his potential models on the streets are the artist's flirtation with these representations of black masculinity, his attempt to possess and depose hip-hop's visual construction of masculinity.  That his subjects often assume the poses of female figures or take female names- that they, in effect, cross-dress by taking on personas in art history- further destabilizes the cool pose of hip-hop's masculinity."  (Thompson, 494-95)


Kehinde Wiley, Portrait of Andries Stilte, 2005

Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Andries Stilte as a Standard Bearer, 1640

Installation view of Wiley's paintings
Wiley is also keenly aware of how framing and presentation affect the interpretation of a work, namely by giving it importance and designating it as something worthy of being looked at and beheld.  He uses elaborate frames, as can be seen above in the installation shot.  Thompson writes, "Wiley's paintings as such critique picturing practices, or what might be described in the art world as 'enframing,' the process by which certain subjects and practices are reified as powerful through art, forestalling other representational possibilities or forms of revealing."  (Thompson, 493)

Thompson asks several poignant questions towards the end of her writing about Wiley: "do conceptualizations of the sound of light, buolding on Moten, highlight alternative formulations of black subjectivity and redefinitions of value?   Might Wiley's portrait of light-reflecting diamonds and the visual world of bling point to what might be considered the material value of light in black urban practices?  By this I mean: Is it possible that black bodily shine, once the most explicit visual manifestation of the commodity, now has its own material value?"  (Thompson, 496)

Thompson writes of Luis Gispert's cheerleaders.  Gispert "creates artwork that speaks of and through the hypervisible language of hip-hop culture to reflect on the history of art and contemporary pop culture representations of blackness."  (Thompson, 497)  Gispert's cheerleader photographs depict cheerleaders of various ethnic backgrounds "sporting the accoutrements of bling."  Wiley's paintings depicted his subjects somewhat removed from gravity and floating in space, as he did not fully paint the legs of his subjects, but Gispert takes it even further and depicts his subjects against a green background like that used in video to place the subject into any context.  "Gispert, by placing figures against a monochrome bright green backdrop, literally pulls the ground from the representation, highlighting the organizing structure, the erasive illusion, of oil painting."  (Thompson, 497)

Luis Gispert, Untitled (Girls with Ball), 2000

Luis Gispert, Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), 2000

Of Untitled (Single Floating Cheerleader, a.k.a. Hoochy Goddess), Thompson writes, "the figure's pose is also reminiscent of other religious and pop cultural representations of levitating figures.  One could characterize the bejeweled female cheerleader as a sacred embodiment of hip-hop's secular culture, one who also brings the heavenly figures of Baroque religious paintings down to earth.  But Gispert's Baroque juxtapositions, like Wiley's, are not simply a contemporary restaging of an art historical representational script but rather a Brechtian unveiling of of the visual effect of canonized modes of artistic production."  (Thompson, 497)

Gispert is interested in the illusion of gravity.  In Untitled (Girls with Ball), two girls appear to be jumping to reach a bowling ball that has the word "bling" engraved on it, as well as the word "mirage."  The bowling ball is the focal point of the composition, and the image seems to be in defiance of gravity, calling attention to the means of producing a visual illusion. 

Thompson also talks about the work of Paul Pfeiffer, whose images also show black men in rapturous light, but ultimately, they seem "weighed to the ground, unable to escape their earthly and bodily confines."

Paul Pfeiffer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 2004

Thompson also references the work of Hank Willis Thomas, a "photo conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture."  (Thomas's website bio)

In his image Branded Head, Thomas depicts a black male head that has literally been branded with the Nike symbol.  "Glowing with the shine of sweat, depicted in the heat of harsh light, the photograph literally focuses on the shiny surface of the black body as the site of objecthood...  In Thomas's photograph, however, the sweating black body appears unable to transcend its status as object, much like Pfeiffer's and Gispert's figures, which, despite being based on poses and pictures of transfiguration, remain confined to the material world."  (Thompson, 499) 

Work by Hank Willis Thomas:






Thompson ends her article with several interesting, and poignant, questions, that tie together her investigation:


"What possibilities of black subjectivity lie att he interstices of hypervisibility and disappearance?  Might the hypervisibility of bling be another instance of the disappearance of the black subject, a new form of emblazoned invisibility?  Wiley, Gispert, and the new producers of popular images of hip-hop capture the complexities of this contemporary moment of hyperblackness and the new politics of representation and aesthetic practices that it brings to light."  (Thompson, 501-502)


Multiculturalism, token shows, and postblackness

These readings were timed perfectly with our visit from Lorraine O'Grady.  I found her discussions of being postblack to be really interesting, though hearing her struggles (and the struggles of other people of color) to be recognized within the art world was, while not news to anyone, depressing.  It was interesting to have a conversation with her about the 1980's show at the MCA and how it reclaims a certain part of the forgotten culture, but of course not all of it, and it favors a reclamation of queer artists rather than artists of color.  

The New York Times article "Beyond Multiculturalism, Freedom?" raised interesting questions about artists working with issues of racial, sexual, and ethnic identity.  Multiculturalism, it claimed, "carved out discrete areas of high visibility but kept those areas self-contained."  On the one hand, artists of any minority rally for inclusion, often only to find themselves in shows or spaces defined by their identity.  The article raised an interesting question:  "the real question may boil down to a personal one: what, after all, can identity politics really be expected to mean, in any gut-level, go-for-broke sense, to an art establishment that is overwhelmingly white and middle class?  For most of its members, race and class are a comfortable given, not a problem." 


For artists interested in working through and around constructs of identity, how to engage with the art world of course raises a tricky problem.  The article ends hopefully:  "one can envision- this is a hope, not a prediction- individual artists, many of them, pushing beyond multiculturalism's territorial constraints, moving freely among identities and affiliations, deciding to be both insiders and outsiders.  This isn't just a 'black' story or a 'white' story; it's a 'people' story, a story about freedom of choice.  Everyone has a tremendous stake in the outcome.  It could produce a new American art on a truly cosmopolitan model and render contingent, culture-war like labels like postblack and postethnic obsolete." 


While writing this blog post I came across an article about the exhibition 30 Americans, which is related to our readings and is worth a look. 


And another artist worth a look who I didn't manage to write about, but whose work came to mind throughout the readings:  Todd Pavlisko


And some work by Triiibe, who also came to mind throughout these readings, though they do not deal with race explicitly in most of their work.  The use of art history and elaborate performance and staging made me think of their work many times.







And a few more articles I came across: As Black as We Wish to Be (NY Times), A Painful (yet familiar) Ritual (Huff Post), Re-Nigging on the Promises, #JusticeforTrayvon (The Crunk Feminist Collective).



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