Exploring the unconscious power of whiteness


Over the last 20 years, artworks that explore issues of racial and gender identity have emerged as a significant genre in contemporary art, as women, gays and people of color all have sought to redefine their relationship to America's democratic ideal.

Curiously, however, one group remains largely invisible in the art that takes ethnic and racial identity as its subject: white people.

Why this should be so is something of a paradox: While people of color traditionally have been defined in terms of their not being white, the definition of whiteness itself has no meaning outside its relationship to nonwhiteness.

Another way of saying this is that in a world in which everyone were white, whiteness would cease to exist. The definition -- and visibility -- of whiteness depends wholly on the existence of nonwhite others.

Modern social theorists take this to imply that racial classifications are inherently artificial, and that racial identities are actually "constructed, performed and malleable" definitions of the self and others that reflect the distribution of power and privilege in society rather than any meaningful biological difference among people.

The notion of white identity as a social construction that can be visualized in artworks lies at the heart of an immensely intriguing exhibit at the Center for Art and Visual Culture in the Fine Arts Building at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County through Jan. 10.

Titled White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art, the show brings together a dozen contemporary artists -- including William Kentridge, Wendy Ewald, Nikki S. Lee and Cindy Sherman -- whose work explores how whiteness is constructed in American society. The participants include white, black, Asian and biracial artists.

Acting white

Sherman's famous Untitled Film Stills of the 1970s, in which she photographed herself in the guise of stereotypical 1950s-era B-movie heroines, established her as a master of constructed identities.

The "film stills" were not self-portraits at all in the ordinary sense but rather documents of performances in which the artist systematically deconstructed the era's restrictive conception of femininity and female identity.

The UMBC show presents an earlier Sherman series, Bus Riders (1976-2000), in which the artist impersonates a range of racial and class types characteristic of mass-transit passengers.

A wall text notes that the pictures in this series represent "one of the earliest attempts by a [white] visual artist to see whiteness as both a racial category and a stereotype."

By casting herself in a variety of stereotypical personas, Sherman's deadpan masquerades of bored or fidgety bus passengers make explicit the idea that "whiteness," like "femininity," is a performative construction sanctioned by conventions that are largely arbitrary.

(Presumably one could learn to "act white" even if, unlike Sherman, one were not, although it must be said that the artist's impersonations of black passengers do seem less convincing than her white masquerades.)

Nikki S. Lee, an Asian-American artist who also uses photography as a means to deconstruct ethnic identity, imagines the ideal of "whiteness" as being young, male and a participant in the financial wheelings and dealings of the Wall Street stock market.

In The Yuppie Series (1998), Lee infiltrates and documents the realm inhabited by young, upwardly mobile white males who work on Wall Street -- at a lower Manhattan fast-food restaurant, a downtown bookstore, a SoHo gallery opening -- in short, a world in which she, as a nonwhite woman (and, indeed, as the only woman of any race), seems to stick out conspicuously.

It is the tension between Lee's assumed identity, and the sociological reality that women and Asians remain largely excluded from the system that recruits Wall Street's financial elite, that endow her images with their dry wit and biting social commentary.

Reacting white

White South African artist William Kentridge, by contrast, attacks the issue of white privilege and entitlement in his native land through his animated films recounting the fictional careers of the rapacious industrialist Soho Eckstein; his neglected wife, Mrs. Eckstein; and Felix Teitlebaum, the naked, poetic dreamer who may or may not be the artist's alter ego.

Kentridge's four short films -- Johannesburg: 2nd Greatest City after Paris, Monument, Mine and Sobriety, on view in a small theater at the exhibit -- explore the complex realities of white power and black subservience in apartheid-era South Africa in stark terms that are devoid of ideological cant or posturing.

Similarly, Wendy Ewald's White Girl's Alphabet -- Andover, Massachusetts (2002) purports to document the spontaneous psychological responses of white, upper-middle-class teen-agers in an affluent New England suburb.

Through a series of free associations with the letters of the alphabet, Ewald's subjects, who collaborated with the artist on this project, symbolically re-enact the poignant insecurities, ambivalence and vulnerability that are part of the cultural baggage associated with both whiteness and femininity in American society.

However, Ewald's project also embodies its own (probably) unintended irony: the fact that, were she and her subjects not themselves white, these technically competent but visually bland pictures -- they have the look of illustrations in a teen magazine -- might not be considered art at all.

Ewald, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, earned her reputation largely as a result of her collaborative projects with marginalized or disenfranchised young people -- many of them nonwhite -- whom she taught to use photography as an expressive tool.

Yet nowhere does Ewald acknowledge that her role as cultural enabler is itself largely a consequence of the privileged position she enjoys as a white person in America.

She seems unaware of the fact that she herself is able to do what she does mostly because of the privilege that her white skin affords her, and that the institutional settings of museums and galleries in which she exhibits her collaborative works have already been primed to consider whatever a white person does as of potential artistic significance. (There's small chance, for example, that any museum would exhibit the works of her black and Latino subjects on their own merits, without her legitimating oversight.)

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition that, for the most part, succeeds brilliantly in pointing up the constructed and performative character of racial identities.

Even when it lapses, as in Ewald's case, it also manages to suggest that these constructions are so embedded in the fabric of social relationships that most white people, at least, are free to remain oblivious to the psychological and political weight of their own color -- perhaps the ultimate privilege in a society as obsessed with race as ours.

The UMBC campus is at 1000 Hilltop Circle in Catonsville. Hours of the Center for Art and Visual Culture are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. Call 410-455-3188 or visit the center's Web site at www.umbc.edu / cavc.

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