THOSE OF US IN THE ART WORLD MUST BE LOUDLY AND UNAPOLOGETICALLY ANTI-RACIST
The CAN Journal’s cover for its summer issue, The Art of Surviving Pandemic, was created to show unity in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, what it did was emphasize the existence of institutional racism in our twenty-first century art world. Of the forty some artists featured on the cover, only one was a person of color. Is the staff of the CAN Journal racist? Clearly not. CAN has made many attempts to be inclusive. But the question itself is not a fair one. Even David Duke, the former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, claims he is not a racist. The cover of our summer issue was, nonetheless, an example of the blindness induced by institutional racism that Gina Washington and Ron Shelton highlight in their article Blackout.
Institutional racism pervades our society. It infects health care: Black women die three times more often while giving birth than their White counter parts.1 It permeates school systems where Black students are six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their White counterparts.2 It is embedded in the criminal justice system where Black men are multiple times more likely to be arrested and two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed during their encounters with police than Whites.3 It is ingrained in the workplace where White job applicants are consistently hired over equally qualified Black applicants.4 And in the area of finance, Black and Latino loan applicants are denied or charged a higher rate than Whites.5
The art world is not immune from this. For years, CPAC’s Creative Workforce Fellowship—a program that used moneys from Cuyahoga County’s cigarette and alcohol tax to give $20,000 grants to local artists—awarded their fellowships overwhelmingly to White artists.6 A “non-racist” White artist once lamented to a friend that there were no Black artists in Cleveland. That blindness unfortunately was reflected on our Summer 2020 cover. But creativity, skill, originality, and ingenuity know no race, and Northeast Ohio is saturated with eager, talented artists of color.
The problem is not the absence of artists of color. The problem is with us, the artists, collectors and purveyors of art who read this magazine. Likewise, the solutions to the problem lie with us. We, the CAN community, have the power, indeed the duty to foster change. We, the members of the CAN community, have readily recognized the value of the reproduction of a soup can, an upside-down urinal, and even a sculpture of a pile of shit as high art. Can we truly claim we have been as open minded when it comes to art made by people of color? We have the power to recognize and indeed promote the value of art made by people of color. Now is the time to use it. Words and feelings are not enough. We must act to make our art world more inclusive.
In 2020, it is not enough to say, “I am not a racist.” Those of us in the art world must be loudly and unapologetically anti-racist. The world is changing. Revered statues of men who took up arms against their country in the name of slavery are being removed. NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag from its events. Proctor & Gamble has spent millions of dollars to produce commercials urging White people to actively fight racism. Thousands of people, White and Black, have taken to the streets to peacefully protest the killing of unarmed Black people.
We, the CAN community, can be part of a long overdue change in the way artists of color are perceived, or we can blindly remain in the dark racist past that fails to recognize the diverse artistic contributions of artists of color.
The cover of our summer issue is an example of “business as usual” in Northeast Ohio’s art scene. As a board member, I believe that CAN Journal can and will do better. We encourage all of you to recognize how your actions—and inactions—affect the landscape of art in Cleveland.
Finally, as a postscript for those who are not yet convinced, take time out of your busy day to look at a 4:52 minute segment of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show on YouTube. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aE8OqAtbn0s
1 USA Today June 18, 2020
2 USA Today June 18, 2020
3 USA Today June 18, 2020
4 Harvard Business Review https://hbr.org/2017/10/hiring-discrimination-against-black-americans-hasnt-declined-in-25-years
5 Washington Post, May 23, 2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/realestate/large-numbers-of-loan-applications-get-denied-but-for-blacks-hispanics-and-asians-the-rejection-rate-is-even-higher/2018/05/22/dac19ffc-5d1b-11e8-9ee3-49d6d4814c4c_story.html
6 In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of less than a dozen Black artists who received the fellowship.
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