How many beholders does it take to declare something objectively beautiful? Or not?
That is a stumper. The riddle becomes easier to solve if you lower the register and ask how many are needed to declare a thing significant. The answer comes immediately: Not many, just so long as they are equipped to finance the project and generate tactical promotion. In short, those with the assets and affiliations to create both an image and the yardstick by which it is measured.
Who might be those blessed few? One way to find out is to look behind the funding curtain of Kara Walker’s colossal installation, “A Subtlety:The Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World,” currently on view in Williamsburg’s doomed Domino Sugar Refinery.
First, though, let us stay with the project itself. That is the thing that is making the news. The backstage stuff can wait until later.
In keeping with Walker’s signature allusions to race and slavery, her sententious subtitle promises a critique—that is the chichi term —of the sugar trade. The sculpted piece itself conjures up old, postbellum caricatures of black women. Part Sphinx, part black mammy, “Subtlety” is a 35-foot high minstrel effigy, constructed of styrofoam, and coated in 160,000 pounds of sugar. There are reports of people flying into New York for a day trip to gaze at a trumpeted exposé of America’s squalid past, its ill gotten addiction to sugar, and its historic objectification of the black female body. And, truth to tell, for the fun of being mooned by Aunt Jemima.
“A Subtlety” is a clever, brassy, soft-core diversion. Before anything else, it is an out-sized tchotchke too big for its pretensions, most of them resident in the sphinx’s bare rump. Frédéric Bartholdi, commenting on the height of his monumental Liberty Enlightening the World, insisted that the size of an artwork should be scaled to the size of the idea behind it. Critics are out in force inflating the idea behind Walker’s installation, ready to shake a finger at anyone who snickers.
Roberta Smith is a reliable guide to the preferred interpretation of whatever removes itself from criticism by referencing race or sex. Her New York Times review strikes the desired note of sanctimony. She looks the sphinx straight in its proffered genitalia and sees the origins of the world:
A powerful personification of the most beleaguered demographic in this country — the black woman — shows us where we all come from, innocent and unrefined.
Awakened by the sight, she rises to jeremiad in loathing of the stigma still on us:
Which brings us to our own self-destructing present, where sugar is something of a scourge, its excessive consumption linked to diseases like obesity and diabetes that disproportionately affect the poor. The circle of exploitation and degradation is in many ways unbroken. No longer a luxury, sugar has become a birthright and the opiate of the masses. We look on it like money, with greed. Heavily promoted, it keeps millions of Americans of all races from fulfilling their potential — an inestimable loss in terms of talent, health and happiness.
If the pundits had come down sooner from their sugar high, they might have recognized in Walker’s mammy a 3-D variant of an old literary trope: the loathly lady motif that gives us the Wife of Bath. Echoes of Dame Alys and the beastly bride are as resident in Walker’s installation as Al Jolson’s Mammy. If there is any surprise in the righteous reviews of the installation, it is the absence of all reference to the art history Walker draws on without mention. The sphinx is an ancient—in company with the gorgons, harpies, and griffins of Iron Age Greece—emblem of the tease. And teasing is Walker’s metier. Her mammy sphinx is the latest version, suitably vulgarized for its time, of a rich device: the elusive man-eater Hegel recommended as a symbol of symbolism itself.
Busty female sphinxes made cameo appearances among the Romantics; they were popular with the Symbolists as well. Sphinxes are famous for their tricks. No reason, then, Walker—who invokes African charms and whatnots as inspiration—should not play a few herself. Personally engaging, Kara Walker is a canny inheritor of both the accusations of the feminist art movement and the fashion for victim art. Her mock heroic public stance of never “kowtowing to the dominant culture” is as much a put-on as this mammy sphinx.
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Blatant bias for art that presents itself as a socially conscious statement about the condition of the world is the keynote of the dominant culture of arts bureaucracies. Add a bit of shock value—here, mammy’s upturned hindquarters—and you have a complete repertory of cutting edge conventions.
In the end, Walker’s installation is as orthodox as it is dishonest. It relies on the reigning politics of identity to provide meanings that are not there. The content of the piece hovers somewhere between vague sympathies and the eye, settling nowhere. Devoid of information, this is entertainment packaged as labor history and cultural commentary. In place of historical knowledge, the installation substitutes a knowing stance, an image of content where very little exists. Posture without substance dissolves the capacity to understand the past on its own terms. Therein lies the obscenity of “A Subtlety.” One more bare backside in our face won’t harm us. The descent of history, including recent history, into image will.