The Physical Impossibility of Being Black in the Mind of Someone White

envelopeBlack artists have to deal with the phrase “black art.” Black artists can go through their undergraduate studies, and especially graduate school, without encountering many (or, sometimes, any) professors or fellow students who look like them or share their cultural upbringing. A professional black artist has to deal with the same fact in relation to most gallery owners, professional curators, professional critics, collectors, and museum staff. In the contemporary art world, whenever black artists aren’t being ignored, they stand out.

This is especially true for artists who happen to be both black and male. Recently in Dallas, Fahamu Pecou’s How To Eat Your Watermelon at Conduit Gallery, Riley Holloway’s Shook! at The Fairmont Hotel, and The Nigger Bankzy’s performance piece The Black Letter all dealt, with varying degrees of success, with what it means to be a black artist in a mostly white art world.

Bankzy’s Black Letter is an anonymous letter that was deliberately taped on the doors of galleries in the Design District. The letter came in a black envelope, with a stamp commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation, and a custom address from one Maurice Clemmons tnb-PEDIGREE, with a red pig in the corner and a Tacoma, Washington address.

Inside the black envelope was a business card using the red pig as a logo, a two page letter printed on matching red pig letterhead, and a custom  bumper sticker all held together by a single red paperclip. As an object, the Black Letter was designed and delivered with care. There was nothing accidental about any of it and, for some, that made its contents even more disturbing.

letter w card copyThe Black Letter starts off “Dear Culture.” It contains a loose mission statement on page one, and a list of ten concepts for art projects on page two. The tone is aggressive, confrontational, and contains 47 words that could get you fired from your job. It is also funny, bitingly satirical, serious, misguided, and at times brilliantly clever.  If the letter is racist, then at least it doesn’t hide behind soft bigotry. I am 98% sure that the artist behind The Black Letter is young, black, and male. Whether there were ghost writers who were not black is more uncertain, but definitely possible.

The response to The Black Letter has ranged from anger, concern, fear, bewilderment, and intrigue. For a week the letter produced chatter amongst the gallery elite in a manner few pieces have. Many wanted to figure out where this letter came from, what it meant, and who was behind it. Yet, ultimately The Black Letter was dismissed, even by those gallerists who recognized its merits. Who wants to risk stepping into the ant pile of race?

I don’t think The Black Letter is perfect. First of all, in terms of the letter as a serious proposal, fictitious emails don’t get real shows.  I’m not a fan of the n-word and derogatory slurs against women, and sometimes the letter crosses the fine line between intentionally shocking and overkill. Yet, the language is no worse than an uncensored rap song, and a few of the proposals would certainly be interesting.

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Although shocking, the reason why works like The Black Letter do not receive critical attention is because it is easier to simply not talk about them. To whisper in hushed tones. To move on. For two years, I’ve heard very smart people in Dallas say we need more transgressive art in this city. Like it or hate it, this is what transgression looks like. The Black Letter pushes the bounds of propriety, is aggressively personal, political, racially charged, and confrontational. For me the burning question isn’t whether or not the letter is racist, but why a young black artist would feel that this letter was the best way to get the attention of the contemporary art world he clearly, desperately wants to be a part of?

The burden of being young, black, and male can be deadly. In the wake of the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial, black families wrestle with what to tell their black sons about how to carry this burden. The value of a piece like The Black Letter is that it challenges the viewer to consider a perspective that is often overlooked in contemporary art discourse. Whether or not one agrees with the message, the emotion in The Black Letter—the anger, the self-aggrandizement, and the fear—is representative of what many young, black men and boys in America constantly process through. The greatest success of The Black Letter is channeling this emotional reality into a physical object and confronting a gallery world, which in terms of race, prefers the polite over the provocative.

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also by Darryl Ratcliff

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48 responses to “The Physical Impossibility of Being Black in the Mind of Someone White”

  1. Artists that explore the Black Experience, the Indian Experience, the Latino Experience, the Female Experience, the Gay Experience, the Lesbian Experience, the…

    Three things:

    1) Perfectly valid topics to be explored and worthy of being important subjects in Art… and for those artists that have a sincere interest in the subjects – more power to you.

    2) For those artists exploring said subjects because of Market expectations… re-investigate your motivations.

    3) For the Market – Curators & Gallerists & Collectors – to Package a show as Any of the categories mentioned above is fine – it makes it bite size portions for the public to swallow…

    But, to expect a person to exclusively do that which is easily packaged and ignore them if they don’t… well, in essence you are saying, Blacks must do Black Art to be heard; Latinos must do the same; Indians must do the same…

    and by default, all other Art must and can only be explored by White Men…

    is that right?
    no, no… that can’t be true…
    hmm… let’s take a look at your past exhibition schedule to see…

    sorry have experienced this before in my professional life too… so this struck a nerve…

  2. I ABSOLUTELY, 100 PERCENT BACK YOUR COMMENT PRINCE. THANKS FOR PUTTING IT OUT THERE.

  3. Wow, a real piece of art! good timing. read and re-read.

  4. If it is art it is bad art.

  5. “Your complaints, your drama, your victim mentality, your whining, your blaming, and all of your excuses have NEVER gotten you even a single step closer to your goals or dreams. Let go of your nonsense. Let go of the delusion that you DESERVE better and go EARN it! Today is a new day!”
    ― Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

  6. Like Rodney said: “Can’t we all just get along?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1sONfxPCTU0

  7. Important context everyone else seems to have missed about this “art”:

    http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2010386501_clemmons30m.html

    Suspect let out of Pierce County jail one week ago

    November 29, 2009

    Maurice Clemmons, the 37-year-old man wanted for questioning in the killing of four Lakewood police officers Sunday morning, has a long criminal record punctuated by violence, erratic behavior and concerns about his mental health.

    His criminal history includes at least five felony convictions in Arkansas and at least eight felony charges in Washington. That record also stands out for the number of times Clemmons has been released from custody despite questions about the danger he posed.

    In Pierce County, Clemmons had been in jail for the past several months on a child-rape charge that carries a possible life sentence. He was released from custody one week ago, even though he was staring at eight felony charges in all.

    Clemmons posted $15,000 with a Chehalis company called Jail Sucks Bail Bonds. The bondsman, in turn, put up $150,000, securing Clemmons’ release on the child-rape charge.

    Clemmons moved to Washington from Arkansas in 2004. He was placed under the supervision of the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) for an Arkansas conviction, according to a department spokesman. The DOC classified him as “high risk to reoffend.” His supervision was to continue until October 2015, the spokesman said.

    ———–

    http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2010393433_webarrest01m.html

    Lakewood police shooting suspect killed by officer in South Seattle early today

    December 1, 2009

    Maurice Clemmons, the suspect wanted in the slaying of four Lakewood police officers, was shot and killed in South Seattle early this morning by a Seattle police officer making a routine check of a stolen car.

    The shooting occurred about the same time as Pierce County sheriff’s detectives took into custody a man believed to have acted as a getaway driver in Sunday’s slayings of the Lakewood officers.

    Police also booked three people into jail on suspicion of providing assistance to Clemmons, said sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer.

    Several other people also will be taken into custody for helping Clemmons, Troyer said.

  8. Maurice Clemmons was a black child-rapist who murdered 4 white cops in cold blood as they were sitting at a coffee shop in Washington state.

  9. The Maurice Clemmons of your cited articles, though, was obviously not the author of the letter, since Clemmons was killed more than 3 years ago. The fact that someone would use his name (and quite possibly his Tacoma address) makes the letter that much more complex and disturbing. As baffling and offensive as it may be, Ratcliff is still right when he declares: “this is what transgression looks like.”

  10. “This is what transgression looks like”

    Not really. Taking a leftist “progressive” hate-whitey stance is one of the safest and most acceptable things an “artist”, especially a black one, can do these days.

    1. Transgressive: Glasstire was unable to post some images of the piece on Facebook, lest we be banned.

      1. Ooooh, banned from Facebook, the horror’

        By that “standard”, then photos of nursing mothers breast feeding their babies also qualify as “transgressive”.

        This whole “transgressive” thing is stupid, why does something being supposedly “transgressive” interest anyone?

        If something’s supposed “transgressivensss” is the point of your interest, then why not publish child pornography too? That’s pretty much the most “transgressive” thing that exists.

        Ever wonder why so many non-art-world people think that “artists” and “art critics” and the “art world” are completely worthless and unworthy of attention?

        Oh but maybe they will pay attention to you if you are more “transgressive”. What a transparent plea for attention.

        “LOOK AT ME EVERYBODY! Over here! Look! Look at me! Pay attention to me and to how “transgressive” and artsy I am! Look everybody loooook!!!!!!”

  11. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ratcliff penned the letter himself. He strikes me as an opportunist.

  12. @Who was Maurice Clemmons

    Please tell us what you feel is an unsafe and transgressive route for black artists? Obviously not the use of Shock Art ( as that is precisely what this is) that is dealing the myth of a post-racial society/art world. As I assumed it would, this discussion quickly digressed into an inarticulate argument about blacks being victims and opportunists. There should be room for artistic expression whether rage-filled or deemed politically incorrect. But I guess with that being said we also have to be open enough to accept your nonsensical retorts.

  13. I’m not surprised that some folks overlooked the irony in this letter. I ask them to note the next time they go gallery hopping, to see if they can get past three fingers when counting the black artists represented.

    Blacks are always victims when stating the obvious. That’s a big umbrella that all blacks fit under.

    I hope this doesn’t turn into a black vs white thing, clearly glasstire represents all groups equally? Could they? Would they? Won’t they be my neighbor?

  14. I am appalled by the graphics this publication chose to attach to this article. As an African American, male poet and visual artist who has presented work globally, I can only assume that the editors wanted to sensationalize the racist conditions the writer wants to address by mocking the entire collective of persons of African decent. The story could have been presented with NXXXXR throughout and the message would have been the same, but the editorial staff choosing an ignorant eye, has in fact assumed the racist, degrading posture noted by the author. If the focus had been another cultural group there would be an instant uproar, but perhaps the purveyors of Django Unchained want to perpetrate how to chain “Django” and roll back the hands of time to a place many of us thought we had inched away from.
    Seeing the article makes me sad for the author, sad for the editor, sad for the publisher and sad that I live in a town where a media outlet finds cuteness in this disgusting presentation….and to think that public dollars support this publication makes me want to incite a tea party ala Boston.

    1. The decision to reproduce the offensive portions of the Black Letter was not taken lightly. The N word does not appear in Ratcliff’s text, but in the art itself. Just as we would not place fig leaves over the genitalia in a Mapplethorpe photo, we decided that our readers needed to be able to see the piece in its entirety, and decide for themselves. I don’t think an expurgated version of the Black Letter would allow that. If we had censored the offensive wording, you would not have commented, and we would not be talking now.

      1. Censorship was not the intent of my comments, but more a matter of taste in presentation. I am glad that the editorial team removed the license plate image as the lead image for the entire issue, as it was presented this way at first. On the matter of content, I do think the author had valid points about the “classification” of “Black Art” vs. “Art,” in the field, however references to women as female dogs (bxxxx) and other references to female body parts in a degrading manner raise my ire and I find them unecessary for the points to be made (in my opinion).

        As a former owner of graphic design and photography studios, which produced over 60 album packages (some on the permanent collection at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), I found myself frustrated that my firm was seemingly relegated, by major record labels, to produce packages exclusively for “R&B” acts (which also had a lower budget than rock acts).

        Yes, we do need to break down the walls and classifications (sic) of culturally specific work and have a series of mountains to move in order to accomplish this. I do think we can do this in a less offensive manner.

        1. Can we move those mountains in a less offensive manner? Probably. But only part of the Black Letter is activism, and not the major part. It’s also art, it’s expression, and the bitter anger that here finds its expression in offensive, taboo language is real. It’s even familiar from other Black art. Sometimes it’s deeply veiled, other times it comes close to the surface (Kara Walker comes to mind), where, as in the Black Letter, it can be very uncomfortable.

    2. Diem Jones is Director of Grants for the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA), which distributes public dollars to arts organizations in Houston and which supported Glasstire with a grant of $18,200 in the past fiscal year.

  15. Is this “art” supposed to make me feel “white guilt”? Because it doesn’t.

    Is this “art” supposed to make me want to be friends with the artist? Because it doesn’t. It makes me think the artist is a boring robot of a person whose entire identity is wrapped up in a combination of boasting and whining about their supposed “blackness”..

    Is this “art” supposed to make me want to see more of this kind of thing in art galleries? Because it doesn’t.

    As to the question by “artist” above: “please tell us what you feel is an unsafe or transgressive route for black artists?” – You need to get a grip on what you really want. Do you want to make white art world people feel “unsafe”, or do you want them to like you and your art enough to display, sell, and buy?

    Why do you want to make whites feel “unsafe” while simultaneously whining about how whites don’t want to associate the selves with something that makes them feel unsafe?

    If whites are so awful and racist and oppressive, then why do you keep following us around? If we are really that bad then maybe you would be happier avoiding us and leaving us alone.

    1. These are all good questions- and your asking them is exactly the outcome the artist of the Black Letter hoped for. Even your anger is a totally reasonable, considering that the Black letter was designed specifically to make people angry. But it’s easy to make people angry- what makes the Black Letter more interesting are exactly the contradictions you are listing. Far from being flaws, they’re strengths- if it were a straightforward list of demands and ideologies, it would be easier to dismiss. It’s the direct way it reflects the complex, contradictory and very hot issues surrounding Black artists that makes it worth attention. As Ratcliff says, thinking about “why a young black artist would feel that this letter was the best way to get the attention of the contemporary art world he clearly, desperately wants to be a part of?” is the best part of the piece.

    2. Are these “scare quotes” supposed to be ironic? Or just “ridiculous”?

  16. I am wondering how the blogger and editors would react if an edgy “art piece” like this was sent to black-owned art businesses or galleries in the name of a white criminal who had slain four black police officers.
    As far as our asking questions being exactly the outcome the artist of the Black Letter hoped for. That may be true, but it doesn’t justify anything. I wonder if Davenport would have celebrated the fact that we would never have learned of the provocative and challenging Unabomber Manifesto text if Ted Kaczynski hadn’t blown up a few people.

    1. The comparison of the anonymous artist to the Unabomber is a dishonest, intellectually lazy, and racist comparison. One person created a manifesto of sorts clearly contextualized within the context of an art performance/installation. The other person killed and physically injured people.

      The tried and true but-what-if-reversal- argument is equally offensive. You create a fantasy world of black-owned art businesses and galleries targeted by a fantasy white artist – the fact that this scenario is a fantasy is precisely the point of the piece.

  17. I don’t think “artist” statement had anything to do with making people feel unsafe. Above you stated that “hating whitey” was a “safe” route for black artists. It seems “artist” is curious about your definition of “black” art that does not play it safe. No one said anything about creating art that makes one group feel unsafe. And I am curious about when “would I be friends with this artist” became a way in which we critique art. You seem to be dealing with your own complex set of race issues but please refrain from saying “us” because I am white and I don’t believe the answer to issues of race are that “they” should leave “us” alone.

  18. M. Bise,

    So… white artists aren’t running around hating on black people?

    I get it now.

  19. The point of the second half of the comment was that there is no substantial network of black-owned art businesses and galleries to be included in a project by an imaginary white artist. Because the economic system in America is structurally racist and because the college, and often post-graduate education necessary to become a part of the arts economy is expensive and inaccessible, there is racial inequality baked into the artworld cake – as it is in so many areas of American life.

  20. Wow it seems like my comments are perceived as being even more “transgressive” than this “art”!

    How’s this for “transgressive”: the “art world” itself, galleries and museums as you know them, the universities and college where “art degrees” are earned,, are the creation of white western European cultures.

    Not only that, but the United States of America is still a majority-white country, at least 70% white.

    What is wrong with the art world being “majority white”, then? You act as if something with a white majority is somehow evil-sinister-racist and something that must be eradicated.

    Since we are always being uged to “think globally”, consider the fact that European-descended Whites are actually a minority on Earth. What is so awful about some places and things being “majority white”?

  21. M. Bise,

    So… You need money to be an artist?

    *yanks out pockets*

    I get it now.

  22. It is so unfair and racist that art galleries in China mostly show art by Chinese artists! Waaaaah

  23. “Sorry I’m being so negative. I’m a bummer, I don’t know I shouldn’t be I’m a very lucky guy. I got a lot going from me. I’m a healthy, I’m relatively young. I’m white; which thank God for that sh** boy. That is a huge leg up, are you kidding me? I love being white I really do. Seriously, if you’re not white you’re missing out because this sh** is thoroughly good. Let me be clear by the way, I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better, who could even argue? If it was an option I would reup ever year. Oh yeah I’ll take white again absolutely, I’ve been enjoying that, I’ll stick with white thank you. Here’s how great it is to be white, I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be fuckin’ awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t fuck with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like hey anything before 1980 no thank you, I don’t want to go. But I can go to any time. The year 2, I don’t even know what was happening then but I know when I get there, welcome we have a table right here for you sir. … thank you, it’s lovely here in the year 2. I can go to any time in the past, I don’t want to go to the future and find out what happens to white people because we’re going to pay hard for this shit, you gotta know that … we’re not just gonna fall from number 1 to 2. They’re going to hold us down and fuck us in the ass forever and we totally deserve it but for now wheeeee. If you’re white and you don’t admit that it’s great, you’re an asshole. It is great and I’m a man. How many advantages can one person have? I’m a white man, you can’t even hurt my feelings. What can you really call a white man that really digs deep? Hey cracker … oh ruined my day. Boy shouldn’t have called me a cracker, bringing me back to owning land and people what a drag.”

    1. Louis C.K. makes his living selling white guilt to people who already agree with him. Pretty good and safe gig if you ask me. Not “transgressive” in any way.

      1. Your Ad Hominems and Straw Men reveal a little too much about your trolling ways…

        1. I’m not trolling any more than you are.

    2. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of whites were enslaved by the Roman Empire in the year 2. Louis C.K. Is a reality-ignoring propagandist who has gotten rich off of selling white guilt to naive white liberals who are already ridden with white guilt. Wow so “transgressive”.

  24. At least 94% of all blacks killed in America are killed by other blacks, but the “honorary white guy” George Zimmerman has black people all over the country whining about a so-called “open season” that “whites” like Zimmerman are supposedly waging against blacks.

    No Snitchin’ Yo!

  25. “The Physical Impossibility of Being Black in the Mind of Someone White”… what the hell does this even mean?

    “The Physical Impossibility of Being Asian in the Mind of Someone Black”… Am I deep now?

    1. It’s a reference to a sculpture by Damien Hirst titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”

      http://www.damienhirst.com/the-physical-impossibility-of

      1. So it is even dumber than I originally thought. Thank you for the explanation.

        1. how is that dumber?

          1. absolutely everything about this makes me think of this Onion article more than anything else

            http://www.theonion.com/articles/marilyn-manson-now-going-doortodoor-trying-to-shoc,459/

  26. Oohhhh boyee.. Here we go.. Zimmerman, blacks killing blacks, you don’t need money to be an artist (ridiculous if you’re speaking about going to art school-follow the context son-sheesh)….
    Did someone paint an S on your chest so you can come save liberal white folks from themselves and show how terribly “great” blacks, people of color and LBGT folks have it and how “tough” white folks (probably only male slaves from Rome) have it? “These Artist just ain’t ‘Merican enough”

    You should hold a Million Underprivileged Angry White Man March in Selma (presuming you’re white, male and angry)…..wait.. that’s not a bad performance piece….Conservative Art Blog that ‘a’ way >>>>>>>>>

    1. Apparently, disagreeing with liberal-”progressive” dogma is even more “transgressive” than this “artwork” is.

  27. This is a really good conversation. I wish I’d known about it and about the incident that sparked it sooner. The letter is much more than transgressive in terms of what the word has come to mean–usually something sexually outre. It takes all the blase liberal art world sophistication one can muster to absorb it and smile knowingly. In other words, I’d have calmed down a bit eventually and wanted to talk about it but, if I’d found a copy of this letter outside my door, it would have scared the shit out of me.

  28. My friend, Prince Thomas, still appending yourself to these noble ideals. Do you see what kind of mess you kicked off? Think you ALL missed the boat on this one. Props to Herr Editor for running it. Great read. Having a salon soon, would like to have a performance of this by NB. Put him in touch with me Bill.

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