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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Lack of diversity in CL's 'Artists to Watch' warrants concern

Missed opportunity reveals the bigger problem of racial divisions in Atlanta's arts communities

Cinqué Hicks
  • Joeff Davis
  • Cinqué Hicks
On Sept. 2, readers picked up an issue of this newspaper that profiled eight artists in various disciplines we considered worth drawing readers' attention to. Also known as the fall arts preview, CL's profiles included Flux Projects maven Anne Dennington, painter Ann-Marie Manker, and my own contribution, musician Jason Freeman.

All eight perform at a high level given their relative youth. All deserved attention. But CL's super eight artists reflected an arts scene deeply at odds with the Atlanta in which most of us live and work: Our chosen artists all were white.

Not surprisingly, many readers were P.O.'ed. And rightly so. As commenter "L.Shaw" said, "We live in a multi-racial, multi-cultural city. Inclusion should be in our DNA."

But the Sept. 2 issue of Creative Loafing shows that it's not in our DNA, and that it's not safe yet to dismantle the watchtower of racial justice in the capital of the New South.

Unfortunately, some have already begun to view this matter in the hackneyed terms of the 1980s culture wars: Namely, that achieving diversity in the arts is a chore that the majority culture must guiltily undertake for the benefit of everyone else. That zero-sum view is false and distractingly out of date. It's a viewpoint that says the pie is only so big, and every advance by an artist of color displaces a deserving white artist who otherwise should have had the spotlight. How else to explain one commenter's distaste at the idea of "substituting" one artist for another in terms of race?

As Atlanta's omnibus cultural publication, Creative Loafing strives to cover the full spectrum of arts in the city, not as an add-on feature, but as part of the definition of good journalism. The zero-sum view overlooks that fact entirely. The reason for including a wide variety of artists is not just for the benefit of artists of color, it's for the benefit of everyone to better know the city. We failed to reflect the city we live in, and white people should feel as cheated by that as anyone else.

Ironically, CL's decent — if imperfect — track record for inclusiveness adds fuel to the current controversy. There are publications in Atlanta far closer to "lily-white," as one commenter phrased it, than CL. Those publications routinely portray Atlanta as nearly monoracial, yet they stir no controversy. That's because although they don't deliver diversity, they don't promise it, either. You know what to expect from them.

Our misstep provoked a reaction precisely because readers expect more from us. All the usual stopgaps that should have prevented such a problem broke down.

That we didn't better cover the breadth of Atlanta's art scene was a missed opportunity. But the problem will be compounded if we don't acknowledge how much the issue reveals the bigger problem of racial divisions in Atlanta's arts communities.

Like most cultural events, the fall arts preview represented a collection of people who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. Otherwise known as a clique. Given Atlanta's history of segregation, its history of separation enforced by law, custom and geography, it's no wonder that most of the city's cliques are profoundly race-based. The CL fall arts preview revealed just how easy it is to fall back to a default position within just one or two cliques and be convinced that they represent everyone. And because most of the city's most powerful publications and art institutions are majority white-controlled, the default positions often reflect that reality.

The Great Walls are visible everywhere in the Atlanta art world; art events that should draw a wide range of people are instead experiences in monoculture. Whether it's an artist's talk at the Contemporary or the Spelman Museum of Art, not enough patrons and artists wander outside of their enclosed racial gardens.

The solution is not to adopt a rote checklist mentality, making sure every group show includes at least one Chicana lesbian in a wheelchair and one Albanian potato farmer with a lazy eye. Those were the narrow, category-based identity politics that bled all the joy out of the cross-cultural dialogue in the '80s.

Instead, making genuine social connections across cultural divides will be the only way to break down those walls. That's a long-term project and not one that will be solved by one show, one partnership, or one organization.

Vehicles like CL's fall arts preview are a critical part of that project. By including other emerging artists that were left out — for example Kendrick Daye, Gyun Hur, or Lucha Rodriguez in the visual arts — we had the opportunity to provide a vision for a wider dialogue. We dropped the ball. But — with your help — we'll pick it up again, and all of us will keep running.

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