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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? Thoughts about the Donelle Woolford Debate

The recent decision by the Black artists group Yams Collective to withdraw from the Whitney Biennial in protest of the show's inclusion of Joe Scanlan's alter ego Donelle Woolford has forced a long-standing private conversation among artists of color into public view. What remains troubling for many in a purportedly post-racial age are the politics of this artist's so-called conceptual performance, one in which he, a white middle-aged male art professor, outsources a black female character of his own invention to a series of younger, lesser-known black woman artists. Since Scanlan has only sought black women to play his black female character, this venture can hardly be described as non-traditional casting, but is it 21st-century minstrelsy, as some would have it? Is it an exploitative form of cultural appropriation? Can the young women who have been enlisted to incarnate his character over the years truly be considered collaborators as Scanlan claims if he chooses them, provides a predetermined character and script and uses his social capital to secure the gigs? If, as Scanlan asserts, these women are partners, why aren’t his “collaborators” speaking publicly about the controversy? And finally, what does it mean for a major cultural institution with a history of underrepresenting women artists and artists of color to be validating an aesthetic gesture that presents a black female as a white man’s invention?

Donelle Woolford performance of “Dick’s Last Stand” at The Kitchen. Photo: Al Foote III.

Media coverage has contrasted Yams Collective’s emotionally charged protest with biennial co-curator Michelle Grabner’s cool-headed treatment of her decision to include Donelle Woolford as a shrewd way to court controversy. Scanlan has persisted with his defense of himself as above suspicion of racist intent based on his professional trajectory and what he characterizes as the collaborative nature of the work. The museum has issued a statement in support of Scanlan’s inclusion and Yams Collective’s withdrawal—essentially defending everyone’s right to do what they want without addressing the cause of the controversy. To many of those who are participating in the discussions about the work that abound in social media and the blogosphere, however, this is a whitewash that does not hide the extent to which the art world remains divided on matters of race and power. The defense of Scanlan’s artistic freedom reads as a thinly veiled act of white racial solidarity.

Up to now, the Donelle Woolford debates have revolved around the work, its discomforting effects, and speculation about the artist’s intent. Scanlan’s detractors cast that discomfort as a sign of the work’s uncritical revival of racist forms of ventriloquism and appropriation, while his supporters treat the discomfort as a sign of the work’s being avant-garde—suggesting that smart, forward thinking people should want to be made uncomfortable, and that they are self-aware enough to be able to objectify race without engaging in racist behavior. The detractors’ arguments are steeped in the language of ethics while the supporters rely on the notion that aesthetic endeavor can only truly be appreciated by disassociating the appraisal of its value from social function and context. While I would argue that it is virtually impossible to disentangle artwork involving the use of persons from questions of ethics, I find it unfortunate that Scanlan’s critics rely so heavily on moral condemnation of his motives. The reduction of the Donelle Woolford problem to whether Scanlan as a white male artist should “have the right” to create a black female character and hire someone to embody her is not the most effective way to open up a discussion about questions of institutional power and racial privilege, particularly in a neoliberal era that champions the brash acquisitiveness of (white) elites and the erosion of social engineering carried out by states. In short, the appropriation of land, resources and culture by means of economic force and legal subterfuge is the standard practice of the strong against the weak. Technically speaking, Scanlan does “have the right” to hire whomever he wants. But culturally speaking, no one makes such choices in a vacuum and not all gestures of this kind are interpreted in the same way or defended with the same intensity. Unfortunately, artists are often at a disadvantage when it comes to debating the cultural politics and historical legacies that inform the gestures they make—because they’ve been educated in the formalist hothouse of the art school crit.

I want to stress the central role of art school for this work for several reasons. The Donelle Woolford project was conceived at Yale when Scanlan was on the sculpture faculty and originally featured one of his black female students—Namik Minter, who soon reversed her original consensus and removed herself. Scanlan’s relationship with his black female fantasy is haunted by his lived pedagogical relations with black students. Furthermore, the debate rolling around Facebook and numerous art blogs resembles an art school crit that begins as a formal discussion about whether the piece “works” and then devolves into an ad hominem attack on the maker. Little attention is paid to the background, only to the object (i.e. the black body) in the foreground. As a visiting professor at Yale during Scanlan’s tenure there, I witnessed more than a few studio crits that followed that arc of development. Sitting together in white rooms with a student’s art works on display, the discussants were not supposed to stray from what was in front of them. The dominant rhetoric was formalism mixed with heavy doses of bravado and personal opinion. As for references to the world outside, at most one might have introduced history by referring to relevant artists as references. Black students I met there at the time conveyed in private that they felt stifled by the terms of discussion, especially because white students would frequently claim that they were unable to relate to work by students of color because they did not understand their cultural references.

To embark on a discussion of cultural politics or institutional racism during a crit would have been viewed as impinging on the absolute liberty of the artist that the institutional structures of art school, the studio, and the gallery are supposed to protect. It might be acceptable to express subjective impressions as a person of color but an address to the context that informed race relations was viewed with suspicion. Thus, if you were an art student and you spoke up about institutional racism or cultural appropriation, it was quite likely that you would either be socially excluded by peers, reminded that identity politics are “over,” or admonished by mentors for not realizing that such concerns fall outside the boundaries of the aesthetic appreciation. The banishment of the political from the discursive space of the elite art school would be followed by unsolicited studio visits from peers who questioned your motives, and reinforced by private conversations with mentors who make their preferences for “identity-free” art discourse quite clear. Since I circulated at Yale as an outsider and an older artist of color brought in at the behest of black students, I spent many a studio visit listening to their stories about the private forms of intimidation. The message being driven home was that for artists of color to succeed they had to avoid talking about racial politics and concede that their presence at the school was sufficient evidence of a post-racial art world. That social context makes Yams Collective’s decision to transform their opinion into public action exceptionally bold.

Yams Collective’s rupture with the Whitney is symptomatic of the lack of other discursive means within studio art practice for addressing social issues that implicate the institutions that sustain the practice of art in broader practices of exploitation and oppression. At the same time, the dueling pressures of an art market that fetishizes youth, blackness as style and sex, and a harsh economic reality that locks most young cultural producers into debt is producing heightened political awareness among young artists. The result is the recent plethora of performative protests about institutional ethics. Not surprisingly, Yams Collective’s withdrawal from the biennial took place not long after the GULF activists staged their action at the Guggenheim to raise awareness of the mistreatment of the laborers constructing a satellite museum in Abu Dhabi, and the boycott by several artists from the Sydney Biennial in protest of the event’s ties to Transfield, an Australian company that manages offshore detention centers for asylum seekers. They were followed by a feminist performance protest inside the Whitney and another feminist performance invoking the memory of Ana Mendieta in front of the DIA Foundation’s Chelsea space (scheduled to coincide with a lecture about Carl Andre’s work taking place there). These are ruptures of decorum, in which artists are forcing the politically and racially antagonistic dimensions of relations between the museum, artists, labor, and the public into the open.

The Donelle Woolford affair is not the first time that the art world has been shaken up by controversy over a white male artist’s decision to “play with race.” When I read about the Yams Collective’s decision to withdraw from the Whitney Biennial, I was reminded of the 1979 protests about the N*gg*r Drawings exhibition at Artists Space, which, despite the incendiary title, was an assembly of abstract charcoal drawings by the white male artist Donald Newman. The black artists and curators leading the protests were offended by Newman’s invocation of the racist epithet in his title. They confronted a downtown milieu of white avant-garde artists and curators who perceived themselves as progressive (i.e. anti-racist) but who nonetheless tacitly condoned the use of racist discourse by advocating tolerance in the name of artistic freedom. The fracas eventually culminated in the creation of the ad-hoc organization Action Against Racism in the Arts (AARA) and ushered in an era of lively public debates about institutional racism in the art world.1 As a result of this sort of multicultural activism and affirmative action policies, elite art schools like Yale came under greater political pressure to accept students of color.

These shifts coincided with the introduction of postcolonial theory into the academy and the emergence of cultural studies that encourage sociological interpretations of art and popular culture. Artists and cultural activists of that era were not only concerned with exclusionary practices of galleries and museums: they also sought to analyze the contours and dynamics of Eurocentric aesthetics. As public culture came under the sway of postcolonial thought and political pressure, cultural journalism began to address issues of cultural appropriation, past and present. In 1988 Black British artist Isaac Julien and Black British cultural critic Kobena Mercer published a landmark essay in Screen Magazine about Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book that explored their ambivalence toward the fetishization of black gay male bodies.2 Julien and Mercer received a great deal of “push-back” from gay community members who felt that it was not entirely fair to treat Mapplethorpe as a purveyor of a colonial gaze when he was operating within and for a sexual subculture, which eventually led Mercer to revise his position.3 In 1992, when white male artists Rob Pruitt and Jack Early decided to put posters of prominent black figures against paint-splattered walls at Leo Castelli Gallery, they were slammed in the mainstream press as politically incorrect and disappeared from the art world for a few years, but have since returned and reestablish themselves professionally. Nonetheless, the era of hard-hitting multicultural inquiry in the art press was short-lived. When the Culture Wars reached a climax in the early ’90s, identity politics was declared passé by conservative critics, which enabled the pent-up resentment of arts professionals who had felt stymied by multiculturalism to be expressed publicly without fear of reprisal. The subsequent art market boom in black art redefined what constituted empowerment for artists of color. The stress in the press since then has been on market visibility of black art rather than institutional practices of exclusion and containment. For those debating the Donelle Woolford project now, a key question might be whether the Whitney’s tacit endorsement of Scanlan’s project is symptomatic of a return to the institutional politics of the pre-N*gg*er Drawings era, or a containment strategy for an era in which black artists constitute serious market competition.

There was a big difference between the way that racial politics and colonial practices were taken up within cultural studies and how they have been dealt with in the art world, especially in elite art schools. Cultural studies interpretations of art emphasize the context of production and reception in the construction of meaning. Our motives, tastes, and desires as artists and audiences are understood to be informed or conditioned by our social environment. Art schools like Yale, where Scanlan taught for many years and where he developed the idea for Donelle Woolford, continue to treat art as a highly personal endeavor for the very talented, one in which creativity is an expression of intuition that is carefully honed by skill. To suggest that an artist’s decisions are informed by forces beyond his control in that educational environment is often treated as an assault on artistic subjectivity and subject to visceral refusal. Thus, there can be little questioning of whether the pedagogical practices or selection criteria for Yale’s art programs are culturally or racially biased—since everyone there is an exceptional being devoted to art above all else.

Scanlan’s time at Yale School of Art coincided with a marked change in the student demographic. From the late ’90s until the present, the number of black and Latino students increased considerably, and so did the presence of foreign students from the emergent elites of the global South. Not only did the composition of the student body change—in contrast to the Yale of the 1980s that produced the likes of Matthew Barney and Ann Hamilton, the Yale graduates of the 2000s who have garnered the most art world attention have been black or Latino: among them are Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu, Leslie Hewitt, and William Cordova. In contrast to earlier decades when art students relied on their professors to connect them with the New York gallery scene, the new crop of success stories made it without the old (white) boys’ network. I think it is safe to say that this phenomenon made an impression on the entire Yale faculty, not just Scanlan. The students of color could no longer be seen as the poor beneficiaries of institutional largesse—they were stealing the show.

It is out of this pedagogical scenario that Scanlan’s decision to create a black female artist alter ego emerged and evolved. The first incarnation of Donelle Woolford was one of his former students. Other former black students of Scanlan’s from that time recall that he would pepper his studio visits with questions about black culture, as if he were attempting to draw cultural knowledge out of them. It is not insignificant that while Scanlan’s critics often depict him as an all powerful older white man taking advantage of younger black women, the context that gave rise to Donelle Woolford was one in which the racial balance of power in his workplace was shifting in favor of younger artists of color. That shift represented two intertwined threats: it challenged the presumed power relations between teacher and students, and also diminished the teacher’s claim to mastery insofar as his students possessed characteristics and cultural knowledge that he could not consider his own or the result of his tutelage. Hence, rather than seeing Scanlan’s work as a crude exercise in exploitation, we might conceive of it as a castration fantasy about white male erasure. The artist/teacher expresses his ambivalent attraction to blackness and femaleness while also achieving a kind of mastery over an insurgent otherness that he could not be guaranteed in the classroom. We might begin to think about the whiteness of Donelle Woolford that is masked by the blackness of the performer, and the maleness in her version of compliant, and non-confrontational femininity. Donelle Woolford belongs to Scanlan in a way that his actual black students would not agree to. He produces her professional success while his real black students achieved theirs without the backroom machinations of the Yale School of Art professoriate.

Scanlan’s critics have frequently invoked the legacy of minstrelsy in discussing Donelle Woolford, though I have seen nothing to date that relates Scanlan’s 2003 self-portrait with his face covered in dirt to the minstrels’ use of burnt cork to darken their faces. This distinctly American form of entertainment emerged in the 19th century and consisted of skits and variety acts that lampooned black people—and it was wildly popular with white audiences until the early 20th century.4 While the most grotesque caricatures of blackness were played by white performers in blackface, black performers from the time period were also called upon to play in blackface and imitate the demeaning enactments of blackness invented by whites: the makeup, the grimaces, the broken English, and the exaggerated dance steps. The market demand for incarnated black stereotypes was so strong that it limited the professional possibilities for black performers even if the popularity meant they had stage work. Cultural historians of blackface minstrelsy have argued that blackface served many different functions for a 19th-century white America that was contending politically and psychologically with new challenges to its hegemony: the end of slavery and the specter of black enfranchisement.5 It was a way for white performers to express the emotional side of themselves that the Protestant culture of the time repressed. Its grotesque renderings of blackness served as a means of hiding white attraction to black bodies by visualizing those bodies as abject. And the market success of the form yielded a means of controlling the symbolic representation of blackness in a burgeoning mass culture.

Does it make sense then to view Donelle Woolford as an extension of that minstrel tradition? Few would argue that her physicality is grotesque. Scanlan has been careful to bracket her caricatured performativity within the rubric of iconoclastic black comedy, such as her recent impersonations of Richard Pryor. That said, she is a fantastic projection that emerged from a scenario in which the fear of symbolic castration was palpable—even though it is about as unrealistic as the prospect of whites losing power to blacks with the end of slavery. How and why do these fantasies come to life when they are so patently untrue? What is the collective emotional investment in a white male artist’s fantasy of black female artistry in a milieu that is overwhelmingly dominated by white money, power, and tradition? Why does that milieu take great pains to mask the reality of white dominance with a fetishistic display of black bodies and style? Indeed, the purported success of black art that is trumpeted daily by the mainstream media is wildly exaggerated in relation to art auction sales by white male artists, the presence of white male artists in major museum collections, and the representation of white male artists in commercial galleries. Were Donelle Woolford to capitalize on her visibility in order to address these contradictions, I might find the disturbance she generates a welcome wake up call. Sadly, up to now, she has obeyed the unspoken rules of the art school she came from and stayed away from politics.

1. Ault, Julie, ed., Alternative Art, New York, 1965-1985, (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp. 56-57.

2. Julien, Isaac and Kobena Mercer, “De Margin and De Center,” Screen Magazine, 1988.

3. Mercer, Kobena, “Reading Racial Fetishism: The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe,” in Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, (London, Routledge, 1994).

4. Bean, Annemarie, Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth Century Blackface Minstrelsy, (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996).

5. Lott, Eric, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, (Cambridge, Oxford University Press, 1995).


Coco Fusco

COCO FUSCO is an artist and writer based in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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