“White” Art

Finding White Art

There is an interesting painting by the (white male) artist, Mark Tansey, White on White (1986), featuring an unexpected encounter between a Bedouin tribe and a band of Eskimos. At the edges of a sandstorm and a snowstorm is a white out, a reference to a famous 1913 painting by Kasimir Malevich. But the concept of a “white out” could equally apply to the whiteness of the art seen in art galleries and in museums and in auction houses. The whiteness of art is stressed (put under stress) when the occasional artist of color enters the purity of the white cubes, usually reserved for whitened art. The reason for the white out of art of color by the tiny brush loaded with “white out” is the survival of the atavistic belief that “white is right.”

So now there is the question—what is white art? This question only brings up another question, what is not white art? Art institutions, which were established in America in the nineteenth century, displayed only art by white people about white people. Some artists actually included people of color in their works but almost always in contrast to whites in a way to call attention to the differences of “white” and “color.” Of course, there were artists of color, but their art would never be seen in museums. If people of color appeared in museums, it would be as characters playing proscribed roles in white art, such as the paintings of boxing by George Bellows.

A famous example of a white photographer “constructing” Otherness was Edward Curtis, who photographed the West and its people. We can assume Curtis meant well had good intentions, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was a man of his own time intent on depicting the Other in terms of white assumptions. His extensive project, documenting Native-Americans, could be seen as part of a cultural effort to establish “difference” to justify white American dominance. The indigenous culture of Native Americans was being actively wiped out and suppressed by the whites, and, yet, those same white comforted themselves with a growing industry of images of the “Vanishing American” and the romance of the Wild West before it was “tamed.”

Curtis was later accused of tainting his supposedly “documentary” photographs by dressing up his subjects in clothes they no longer wore and by asking them to act out rituals they no longer conducted. The impact of the resulting images was to give a white audience the illusion that the Native Americans were frozen outside of historical time, untouched by the wars of extermination that had reduced their numbers and had incarcerated them on reservations. The ideology of whiteness had a very real purpose—that of alleviating collective guilt by making the misdeeds of the white invisible.

There seems to be a vacancy of reciprocity: when faced with the possibility of a choice, just as women artists rarely represent the male, people of color rarely represented white people. Robert Duncanson, an African-American artist, avoided the problem of the reversal of power by painting landscape paintings. One of the exceptions is a painting of Uncle Tom and Little Eva in which the young girl is standing, clad in white, her whiteness shining like a flame while the older man, dark and passive and seated, fixed his attention on her. Duncanson conformed to the expectations of his white audience and white patrons in this painting but a little white girl holds the hand of a black man in a careful act of subversion, smuggled in under the pious cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

On the other hand, white artists throughout the history of European and American art represented Africans, and the history of these depictions is laid out in the late Albert Boime’s The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century in 1990, the same year as a groundbreaking exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710-1940 with a catalogue by the late Guy McElroy and Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. which showed works of art by both races, black and white, representing African-Americans.

There is very little art historical research or analysis of what should be called “white art.” But it is possible to put forward a few thoughts. First, it could be said that any group of artists that is all white produces “white art.” An example of an all white group producing “white art” might be the Abstract Expressionists whose main artistic message that they were making “humanistic” art. On the surface such claims might seem noble and laudable, but, against a backdrop of racism, the term “human” has racist connotations in America. Only whites were designated as “human,” having the right to vote and the right to be artists.

(Male) artists in the Fifties, if they were white, probably never considered that they were enjoying the “unearned privileges” of whiteness. They probably never wondered why they were all white, much less why none of their group was black. They probably all took for granted their privileges as white males: only they could be artists and only they were entitled to speak as humans to humanity. Pop Art would be another example of “white art,” not just because all the artists were white, not just because the Black artists of the Sixties were ghettoized, but also because Pop Art and popular culture were about an affluent white culture of consumption.

Few art history texts take into account that the pop culture upon which the art was based was for, by, and about whites and was almost completely unavailable to African Americans. This society of abundance, swamped by commodities, was created by a federal government that deliberately shifted funding to white middle class groups and deliberately excluded through a maze of laws and regulations, communities of color from these benefits. Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of comic books are written about in terms of his use of “low art,” but the fact that the comic books he appropriated were all about white subjects.

Andy Warhol’s portraits were all of white pop icons, and no blacks appeared until Jean-Michel Basquiat and the painter’s mother. But on the other hand, Warhol was the only artist of his day who referred to the Civil Rights Movement in his series on Birmingham race riots. Pop Art was, like Abstract Expressionism, considered to be “American” and yet it ignored the multicultural reality that made up the United States. Art followed the ideology of the larger culture by defining “American” as “white.” Pop Art shared with Minimal Art a prevailing characteristic of American art during the Sixties: a determined refusal to face topical events and current politics.

“Fine Art” claimed transcendence from the real world and yet it actively excluded certain people as “artists.” Part of the desired “transcendence” was the lack of political content in high art, but the effect was one of a secondary exclusion of people of color. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and in the midst of the Viet Nam War, both major stories involving people of color, art was supposedly neutral and abstract. While one could state with correctness that Minimal Art was totally abstract and could not be expected to address political issues, it was convenient that in a time of social turmoil that art remained non-representational and non-confrontational and thus marketable.

Even when representation came back in with Photorealism, for example, figurative art was overwhelmingly white in content. When painting “returned” after being exiled by Conceptual Art, whites dominated the field of painting. Here and there, a few women crept in around the edges and pushed their way in, but most of the artists were as white and male as the Abstract Expressionists. The content and the characters of representational art were all white as the artists did what artists always do; they painted what they knew.

The only artist of color to be found in the eighties was Jean-Michel Basquiat and some of the graffiti artists, all of whom were destroyed, one way or the other, by a white system that used them, consumed their art and discarded them when the craze for street art had passed. White artists, in contrast, could count on careers that could be developed and nurtured over time. The art world might move on past white artists such as David Salle and Eric Fischl, but those same white artists became “blue chip” artists in the maturity of their careers. It would be inconceivable for the art world to “discard” or to “use up” white artists.

The imagery of both Salle and Fischl could be termed as “white art” because their content was white. Salle appropriated imagery from white culture, from pornography to fine arts, with no reference to any black imagery. Fischl, a white man from a Long Island suburb, painted scenes of middle class white suburban life, again excluding blacks, who, of course, lived elsewhere, in ghettos. But all artists are ego-centric, concentrating on their own visions which are often personal. Should anyone require any artist to make art about all races equally? Of course not, but the question of “white art” raises another question: that of representation.

While white painters, sculptors, and other fine artists usually paint what they know—their own culture—photographers, usually white, often depict people of color as part of a documentary project. And when a white photographer photographs a person of color, dynamics of power and racial construction come into play. Only certain groups of people have the power to represent and that group is usually white and male. From the very invention of photography, photographic imagery was used to document and catalogue the Other put under surveillance by the white lens.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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