Julia Pelta Feldman on the limits of accessibility
IN AN INTERVIEW with the Sundance Institute’s Adam Piron this past November, filmmaker and video artist Sky Hopinka discussed the freedom he has found in making work for Indigenous viewers: “It’s empowering to realize that you don’t have to make films for a white audience and consider whether or not they understand the cultural references.” Hopinka’s experimental narratives are nonlinear collages of Native imagery, language, and experiences that are, he knows, not legible to all—even most—of his viewers. It is not surprising that the artist, a member of the Ho-Chunk nation, might choose to center nonwhite subjectivity. But it is notable that this choice has not prevented Hopinka, who last year received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, from achieving mainstream success. Of course, non-Native viewers—a category that surely includes the majority of the Guggenheim Foundation’s board—are not excluded from finding meaning and beauty in Hopinka’s work. But if they truly value what Hopinka does, then they must understand that they are excluded from some part of it.
It is encouraging that an artist like Hopinka can take the risk of addressing an audience outside the majority and find major institutional support. But there is also the danger of erasing that specific audience by aiming the work at a “general” (i.e., white) audience, as major institutions still tend to do. Arthur Jafa, who, like Hopinka, has moved between the worlds of art and cinema, told the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins this past December that though he welcomes white viewers, “I’m talking to Black people, not to everybody. . . . I don’t think it serves white people to be spoken to. It makes them feel like they’re the center of the universe.” This is an argument for, not against, making work like Jafa’s and Hopinka’s accessible to a wide audience. But it requires recognizing the limits of that accessibility.
Jafa has been surprised by, and even slightly suspicious of, the overwhelmingly positive response to his 2016 video Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, which has won numerous awards, topped many “best of” lists, and was widely screened online in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. “Even when people said, ‘Oh I cried,’ the very cynical part of my brain suspected some kind of arrested empathy with regard to the experience of Black folk,” he told Artnet in January 2019. There is indeed something disconcerting about the situation. Effusive praise is too often a substitute for serious engagement. This work is destabilizing to white viewers—or it should be—because it exposes how shockingly comfortable they are in the center of it all. If white viewers, a group to which I belong, feel that Jafa’s work is speaking to them, then they have failed to understand something fundamental about it.
Yet it is possible not only to concede but even to embrace the limits of understanding. Glimmers of this possibility emerged in a panel discussion that marked the opening of “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” at New York’s New Museum in February. The show—conceived by Okwui Enwezor and, after Enwezor’s death in March 2019, brought to fruition by an advisory board including artist Glenn Ligon, curators Naomi Beckwith and Mark Nash, and New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni—features works by thirty-seven contributors who, per the exhibition materials, “have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America.”
During the discussion, artist Theaster Gates recounted how Enwezor encouraged him to perform with his musical collaborators the Black Monks of Mississippi in a video to be shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale, which Enwezor curated. Gates had initially been “uncomfortable bringing religious music” to the biennial but, he recalled, Enwezor told him: “This is your music, this is our music.”
Beckwith remarked, “It’s really about legibility. What cultural signs and symbols become legible to certain people?” To Gates she said, “As you rightly pointed out, you do what you do, and whoever can read them can read them, and other folks can get acclimated.” Gates added, “I told Okwui that the Monks might start speaking in tongues. . . . And his response was, ‘Theaster, some things are not meant to be understood.’”
Getting it as not getting it—this is a paradox for the art world, within which it is practically taboo to concede that one doesn’t comprehend a work of art. But perhaps deeply connecting with certain works might necessitate recognizing how the shapes and colors of our own subjectivities constrain those connections. This recognition, far from precluding a relationship with such works, actually demands a real engagement with the histories, cultures, and references from which they emerge.
In short, the process Beckwith called “getting acclimated” requires more than the shedding of tears, more than the celebration of great art accomplished against great odds. A nonuniversalizing understanding must involve acknowledging the limits of what we can get. An art world that would respect and honor those limits must give up the seductive lie of universalism—and the myth that so-called mainstream art was ever intended for everyone.
Julia Pelta Feldman is an art historian, critic, and curator based in Basel.