Criticizing Artists of Color and Their Work

in Culture by

Finally, someone feels my pain. His name is Wesley Morris, the celebrated film critic, and he begins an essay titled “The Morality Wars,” published in The New York Times Magazine earlier this month, with the story of a recent dinner party he attended:

The civilized dinner party is probably over — even when you’re dining with friends. Everything means too much now. Everything. Our politics, obviously. But our genders, our food, our television. Our television. Last month, I was in a six-way conversation about HBO that narrowed into two people hung up on ‘Insecure,’ a sitcom co-created by and starring Issa Rae about two best friends — Issa and Molly — in Los Angeles. It just ended its third season on HBO, and I’d describe my ongoing viewership as ‘exasperated fealty.’ …

My questioning Rae’s believability appalled one of my tablemates enough to rise in angry defense of the show. ‘This is about her life,’ he said of Rae. ‘She worked hard to get this show made, and it’s her story. So you can’t just say you don’t believe it.’ Here we were, two black men having it out about how to critique a black woman’s art. On one hand, he was right. Rae had labored to get a serious company to whisk her comedy — and her black face and body — from the internet to television. She succeeded, and people rejoiced. I was eating corn soup next to one of those people.

Implicit in his rebuttal was pride in the righting of a wrong. Even in this so-called golden age of TV, with its proliferations of nonwhite people, queer folks and women, some of whom are running productions, a comedy by and built around black women remains anomalous. So ‘Insecure’ might be too rare to dislike.

On the other hand, where does that leave someone who dislikes it? My tablemate insisted that who and what the show represents are more important than whether the show works for me. We couldn’t have that argument because that argument was a luxury. My wish for entertainment was an affront to the show’s right to exist; its being morally good superseded any imperative for it to be creatively better. …

The real-world and social-media combat we’ve been in for the past two years over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and bemoan (or endorse!) how it’s being run — have now shown up in our beefs over culture, not so much over the actual works themselves but over the laws governing that culture and the discussion around it, which artists can make what art, who can speak. We’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.

These days you’re either a cheerleader or a critic, and if the subject of your judgment is a fellow historically-oppressed person, then you better damn make sure your cheers are loud and unequivocal. As a Latino, and a writer, I’m under constant social pressure to praise the work of other Latinos, be it in politics, entertainment or art. You may know the name of a Latina author who is being showered with adoration for, it seems to me, publishing a book with a slogan for a title and a memeable cover, though I haven’t met one Latino who owns a copy or has flipped through its pages. And still, because the author is a young Latina, and because her book is so unabashed in its advocacy for Latina empowerment, the rest of us, Latino and not, are supposed to simply assume the book to be good — “good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.”

That’s not to say her book isn’t good; I’ve only read the first 20 pages or so, which doesn’t leave me in any position to judge the book on its merits. All I’m saying is that I, like Morris, resent the fact that I’m supposed to automatically sing the book’s praises merely because the author and I happened to be part of the same, oppressed “community.”

We all know that the worlds of art, politics and entertainment are plagued by a lack of racial, ethnic and gender diversity, so I’m as happy as anyone to see a Latina publish a book, or a sister have her own show, or an all-Asian cast star in a blockbuster movie; such diversity is truly good for us, and the culture, and the world, expanding our shared perception of human life and value. But handling minority creations with kid gloves seems dangerously close to what President George W.’s head speechwriter famously termed “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” holding minorities to a lesser standard just because they’re minorities. True multiculturalism means treating everyone, regardless of their background, as equals — which also means being as critical of a Latina’s book or a black woman’s show as you would were the creator your typical white, middle-class man.

What does it do to art when people start judging artists based, not on their craft and creativity, but on their biographies? It diminishes the art, that’s what — and it diminishes the artists. Because, as with anything, the quality of art is affected by the standards set across the board. Holding white artists to a higher standard than that of artists of color only works to make white artists that much better than the rest. It’s like that scene in Remember the Titans, when the white assistant coach, Bill Yoast (played by Will Patton), approaches Herman Boone, the black head coach (played by Denzel), and tries to get Boone to not be so severe with the black players on the team. “I may be a mean cuss,” Boone fires back, “but I’m the same mean cuss with everybody out there on that football field. The world don’t give a damn about how sensitive these kids are, especially the young black kids. You ain’t doin’ these kids a favor by patronizing them. You’re crippling them. You’re crippling them for life.”

If “there’s no crying in baseball,” or football, then there shouldn’t be any tears in art either, because creating good art demands nerves of steel. And if artists of color are to create the best works they possibly can, then we need the freedom to treat them as we do their white male counterparts. Only by criticizing their work do we grant artists of color the respect they deserve and need.

Featured image: ‘Fernando Pessoa’ (1954) by Almada Negreiros (Pedro Ribeiro Simões/Flickr)

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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