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Black Like Who?

David Levinthal records racist kitsch at the Menil

I think this work fails because Levinthal doesn't have any reason to make work about African-American issues other than the collecting impulses that led him to acquire these objects. A panel discussion hosted by the Menil included painter David McGee and Charles H. Rowell, editor of Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters. McGee and Rowell, as African-Americans, talked about their own work and their relationship to racism. William Christenberry, a white artist, talked about growing up in Alabama and encountering the Klan. Levinthal said he didn't have any stories like that, having grown up in the affluent, liberal San Francisco Bay Area. There were no black kids in his school, and the only black teacher was a Rhodes Scholar from the Caribbean. Levinthal cited the existence of a Sambo's restaurant in his town as his brush with racism.

It's hard to understand why anyone would address this subject matter in this way -- especially a white guy.
The Menil Collection
It's hard to understand why anyone would address this subject matter in this way -- especially a white guy.

You don't have to grow up in Klan-infested Alabama in the '50s to be a white guy making work about race. Levinthal isn't an idiot; he knows this stuff is offensive, and that it grew out of racist impulses. But his understanding is an intellectual one, not one rooted in personal experience. The primary reason behind these photographs is his ongoing fascination with toys and vintage kitsch. Recording this stuff without comment doesn't work. People make mediocre photographs all the time, but mediocre photographs about incendiary material can come across as insensitive. The Menil is highly aware of the volatility of the subject matter, and organizers have talked with community leaders and held panel discussions. The show has acted as a catalyst for discussion about race and its depictions in popular culture. If only Levinthal's "Blackface" had something to say.

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