Race and Class: The Artists' Take

Click to Listen to the Show (24 MB MP3)

yinka pict 1

Mobility, by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. Image courtesy of James

Cohan Gallery, NY. [Yinka Shonibare / James Cohan Gallery]

The awful aftermath of Hurricane Katrina inspired us to do a series of shows exploring the problems and nuances of race and class in America. Our first show, with economist Marcellus Andrews and author Leon Wynter, was followed by shows with economist and public intellectual Glen Loury, Manhattan Institute Fellow John McWhorter, one show where we tried to sort out the difference in impact between race and class, and then most recently, a show parsing through racial disparities in health care.

Now that we’ve explored the black/white gap and the rich/poor gap with some economists, legal scholars, and even doctors, we’d like to try a different approach, based on this great suggestion from listener WhiteBeetle:

I would love to hear a program that is a response from the artistic community. We know from history that the arts/artists can not only be leaders but often provide foreshadowing/ forewarning of things to come. The arts [are] a wonderful place to see responses to our world – both positive and negative, as well as find ideas and inspirations and hope. (Think Harlem Renaissance.) And of course, the arts can provide very tangible access to history – something many of usby choice, accident or conspiracydo not have a very good handle on! (Think Harlem Renaissance.)


Couldn’t have said it better outselves. We’re assembling a group of contemporary artists whose work deals explicitly with race, to talk about their own work and about this country’s current state of affairs. WhiteBeetle has been kind enough to recommend some theater artists from the northwest, but please let us know if there are other contemporary artists you’d like to hear speak on the subject of race in America, and what you’d like to hear them talk about.

Update, 11/10/05, 3:22 pm

Hi guys. Thanks for the guest suggestions thus far. I just want to mention one or two things…

Not that I truly believe that there’s a difference between so-called “high culture” and “low culture,” but I just thought I’d let you know that most of the artists I’ve spoken with so far are working in the “high art” genres: painting, sculpture, photography, video, theater, performance, or literature. I’m trying to find artists who aren’t necessarily in the mainstream but who are making interesting and provocative statements through their work. In part this is because we’re talking about doing one show entirely about hip-hop and it’s place in American culture (and it’s relationship to the market, and to criminality, and to questions of authenticity in black culture) so I’ll probably use most of these suggestions in working on that show. Also, we’re talking about doing another show with at least one prominent black comedian. I can’t really say who because we haven’t booked him yet, but let’s just say there are few cultural critics dealing with race whose work is as sharp and provocative as his. Goodness knows it would be cool to do a show with Dave Chappelle. There will be posts up about both of these shows in the near future.

Update, 11/17/05, 5:46 pm

Scroll down and you’ll see that last week scottbenbow linked to an exhibition held last year at the International Center for Photography in New York, organized by The Center for Art and Visual Culture at UMBC in Baltimore, Maryland. The show, which examines whiteness as a cultural construct that is as complex, nuanced, and stereotype-able as blackness, is called White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art.

If you want to see and hear more, Newsweek Magazine created an online version of the exhibition, with narration by curator Maurice Berger. (Scroll down until you see the link “White in America”). Maurice Berger, as it turns out, is a fantastic talker and a truly interesting guy, with a very unique perspective on things and very real experience dealing with racism and with the art world (sometimes at the same time). We’re going to see if we can convince him to come on the show. Thanks for the lead, Scott.

Also, Mr. Berger mentioned that he recently moderated a digital discussion about multiculturalism sponsored by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum as part of their Online Symposium about the 1980s. If you’re interested, you can follow that conversation here.

Franklin Sirmans

Independent curator based in NYC

Visual arts lecturer at Princeton University.

damali ayo


Nayland Blake


Teaches at the International Center of Photography in NYC

Rob Pruitt


Runs art program at Project Row Houses in Houston, TX

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  • Franz Hartl

    contemporary artists whose work deals explicitly with race

    Here are two.

    1. Mr Mos Def : (actor/musician) TopDog-Underdog, Monster Ball, Black on Both Sides and member of the BlackStar Duo. Might be the coolest man alive.

    2. Dave Chappelle. (comedian) The heir to the throne of Richard Pryor.

    Either one of these fine people would make an INCREDIBLE show.

  • Franz Hartl

    The Mighty Mos also released a song/video called “Dollar Day in New Orleans (Katrina Clap)”

    Here’s a link to the video (requires flash 8)


    Here’s a link to the mp3


  • Franz Hartl

    flash 8 not flash smiley.

  • mstearne

    Talib Kweli would be great. Mos Def’s partner but possibly more accessible.


  • scottbenbow

    The International Center for Photography in midtown Manhattan mounted a show earlier this year called “White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art.” You might want to interview the curator or one of the artists. Here’s a link– http://museum.icp.org/museum/exhibitions/white/intro2.html

  • nother

    During your last show on Paris Burning, the gentleman Chris was interviewing said something very telling. He said that you knew you were entering that part of the city when you began seeing graffiti. Graffiti art would be cool to explore. When I lived in New Orleans I saw some incredible graffiti in the 9th Ward. I wonder how it has changed since Katrina. I once took pictures of the graffiti in Roxbury and compared it to the graffiti in the burbs, it was quite different. A couple of artists you might want to check out in New Orleans, http://www.howlin-wolf.com/artists.htm Lionel started out as a graffiti artist in the 9th Ward, now he has a studio. You see Frenchy all over town, painting events as they happen – I wonder if he painted Katrina events. I’m sure these guys could give some artistic insight.

    Oh yea, don’t forget about DJ Spooky for the hip-hop show. I love Mos Def and Talib but it would be great if you could also speak to a hip hop artist from Cash Money Records. They are an empire in New Orleans and they rule the 9th Ward. If you want a raw perspective from the artists that are truly influencing the black youth in New Orleans, look no further.

  • Pete

    There’s a great soul/funk singer from New Orleans named Theryl “The Houseman” DeClouet; he has played for years with the group Galactic from NOLA. If you could track him down, I’m sure he’d have some interesting insights on the situation in New Orleans (and in many other similar cities aound the country).

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  • How about Zadie Smith? (For that matter, a whole show with her, on race in the US, her take on 7/7 and Paris would be interesting.)

  • Somerville

    The conversation tonight seems to concentrate mainly on visual art, and art that makes has overt political commentary. As a composer, I must ask what is the role of music—specifically music without words, so-called “absolute musicâ€?–in reacting to human tragedies such as Katrina or 9/11? Can abstract tones make as much of a statement and be as meaningful as visual art that can make direct references to issues of race or class? Is music in this way less useful or less important than visual art? I would argue not—take for instance the power of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,â€? which the American conductor Leonard Slatkin conducted at one of the “Promsâ€? concerts in London immediately after 9/11—he reported later that he was crying all throughout the piece while conducting it. So I ask how necessary is it to make a definite political reference in a piece of art, and where does music fit into this whole picture.

  • A little yellow bird

    A fly in the ointment: How about racist race music? The white separatist girl group composed of two sisters, known as “Prussian Blue” (and their repulsive mother, too, I imagine, since “A child is born with no state of mind, blind to the ways of mankind…” -Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, 1982) has been on Technorati’s top ten for awhile. Also, Sista Souljah, and bits and pieces of other white power and black power records over the years… I’ve read that white racist pop is selling alarmingly well to young people. I’ve heard some ugly expressions of racial discord, to put it gently, in several hiphop tunes in the last decade. It’s real, even if it’s not pleasant. Peace.

  • Somerville

    Still, the music you’re referring to, I take it, has words–that certainly has its place, but I’m talking about music without words: can that lead to any sort of understanding between different races or classes? Can it bond people in some way–is it, in fact, a universal language? I think you could also ask these questions of abstract art, that which isn’t representational in some way–can it too bring people together?

  • Totally fascinating show! I *love* the performance art piece about asking for reparation for slavery, that’s just beautiful. It makes me want to hear more about these sort of politically-motivated bits of public art, and reminds me of these flash mobs that have been taking over cities (people arranging to appear for a few seconds in one place, and then dispersing) and things that read as pranks. I’ve only seen bits and pieces about these things, but I can easily imagine how art, pranks and political protest can pretty easily blur together.

    And on the music side; I’ve been completely fascinated of late by the mash-ups that are so easy to get a hold of now that mp3 files are so easily downloadable (within the broadband revolution). I have a great Kanye West mash-up in response to Katrina. I see you’re thinking about hip-hop as its own show and I’m really looking forward to it, since the whole concept of the mash-up seems like a natural extension of rap music in its original form.

  • A little yellow bird

    Somerville: Certainly, music and the arts seem to have done much more to bring people together than describe or create their separation.

  • A little yellow bird

    Rochelle: Mashup rulez! Remix the universe! If ya don’t like ketchup, try mustard on it! Yeah! Heck, everything in our physical reality is a remix or mashup–the periodic table of chemical elements is cut and pasted into–well–ketchup and mustard!