A DEPARTURE OR A CONTINUUM

Read artist Kara Walker’s furious letter to America’s navel-gazing art world

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Kara Walker would probably hate this article about her cultural value and intellectual merit, to hear her tell it.

Famous for her black paper cut-outs depicting simultaneously whimsical and grotesque scenes of slavery and human depravity, Walker is one of the biggest stars in contemporary American art. But in the US’s current political turmoil, the African American artist is getting sick of her vaunted position.

“I know what you all expect from me and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice’ or worse ‘being a role model,'” she writes in a new artist statement hating on artist statements, for a show opening Sept. 7 at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., in Manhattan.

The exhibit’s title is 200 words long and written like a circus barker’s announcement, dripping with sarcasm. A marketing ploy written for the art world it mocks, the title takes to task the collectors who trip over themselves to buy Walker’s art; the curators who eye gallery crowds; the critics and academics who fill pages with nonsense “discourse”; the art students who slam big-name stars online. (Walker doesn’t mention, but should, the journalists who lap up every word she says, even if she clearly denounces them.) Here’s the exhibit name in full:

The description satirizes the way in which the art world treats every bowel movement of famous artists as a little event. With each new show, artists are put on pedestals and expected to answer questions that the work apparently can’t on its own, about whether the new work is a departure from or continuum of old work, what it says about the fall of an empire.

Walker’s most famous works are about slavery and the commodification of black bodies, and they’re particularly deft in the way they draw the viewer in with humor and playfulness, only to reveal gore and atrocity. That’s why, it seems, Walker is so fed up with the fawning art world and today’s cultural dialogue, in which Americans seem amazed and taken aback by explicit racist epithets and images. Writes Walker:

I roll my eyes, fold my arms and wait. How many ways can a person say racism is the real bread and butter of our American mythology, and in how many ways will the racists among our countrymen act out their Turner Diaries race war fantasy combination Nazi Germany and Antebellum South—states which, incidentally, lost the wars they started, and always will, precisely because there is no way those white racisms can survive the earth without the rest of us types upholding humanity’s best, keeping the motor running on civilization, being good, and preserving nature and all the stuff worth working and living for?

The statement concludes of the exhibit, dismissing viewers and seemingly the entire country at once, “It’s not exhaustive, activist or comprehensive in any way.”

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